The Tale of Two Book Burnings: Heine’s Warning in Context

Heinrich Heine’s ominous sentence, "those who burn books will in the end burn people," is one of the most overquoted phrases in modern history. In his lecture on March 11, CEU Recurring Visiting Professor Sholomo Avineri helped put the sentence into context while outlining the 19th century history of German Jewry.

However shocking the Nazi book burning in Berlin in 1933 was, it wasn’t the first time that German students and scholars initiated such acts. Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels led students and scholars to burn books by authors deemed enemies of the German spirit, Avineri warned.

In the late 18th century Heine’s birthplace, Dusseldorf in particular and the Rhineland in general, was occupied by France. The Jews of the Rhineland were emancipated, with Karl Marx’s father and Heine among them, and were free to attend university and even to practice law or medicine. When the area was annexed to Prussia in 1815, thus far emancipated Jews were given the choice to convert to Christianity and hold on to their profession, or to keep their faith and lose their position. The backlash of this “choice” was that it radicalized the intellectuals, sowing the seeds of future revolutionaries and communists.

With German nationalism, anti-Semitism grew in the early 19th century. Mostly forgotten Kantian philosopher Jakob Friedrich Fries even called for legislation against Jews. He said their influence on Germany was overwhelming, and he even suggested that “they should wear a sign in public places.” However, “Jews were so marginalized at the time, they were basically invisible,” Avineri pointed out. The sentiment of physical exclusion of Jews had been present before the German unification of 1870, although it was the most "Jewish-friendly" country for a short while.

In 1817, two years after the German nationalists' victory over Napoleonic France and on the 300th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, the student fraternities (Burschenschaften) organized a pilgrimage to Wartburg, a center of German nationalism where Luther found sanctuary after his excommunication. At the Wartburg Festival, students declared their universities wouldn’t accept any foreign students - foreign meaning French or Jewish. The only exception was the University of Heidelberg, whose fraternity was labeled the “Juden” fraternity from then on. Nationalistic, pro-unity speeches were given by students and academics, and books whose authors antagonized German unification were burned. The first book to be thrown onto the bonfire was written by a Frenchman and carried the title “Civil.”

Was it this instance of book burning that prompted Heinrich Heine’s prophecy "those who burn books will in the end burn people?” Heine’s first ever play "Almansor" is a tragic love story between an Arab man and Donna Clara, a Moroccan woman who’s forced to convert from Islam to Christianity. Taking place in Granada in 1492, the tragedy depicts the burning of the Qua’ran, the act that prompts the sentence now engraved in the ground of Berlin's Opernplatz commemorating the horrifying book burning of 1933. Why Heine depicted Muslims as the victims of book burning and not the Jews is still an open question.
Heine’s lyrical poetry was well-loved in Germany, his most famous poem "Lorelei" even appeared in a collection of German folk songs, although the poet’s name was given as Anonymous. His books, together with the works of Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway, Erich Kastner, Karl Marx, Heinrich Mann and many other "un-German" authors, were also burned on May 10, 1933.

Avineri is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. He served as Director-General of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the first government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He received the Israel Prize, the country's highest civilian decoration in 1996.

The lecture was sponsored by CEU's Nationalism Studies Program and Jewish Studies Program.