The Politics of Literature in Nazi Germany: Books and the Media Dictatorship

By Krimmer, Elisabeth | Shofar, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Literature in Nazi Germany: Books and the Media Dictatorship


Krimmer, Elisabeth, Shofar


THE POLITICS OF LITERATURE IN NAZI GERMANY: BOOKS AND THE MEDIA DICTATORSHIP By Jan-Pieter Barbian. Trans. Kate Sturge. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. 448pp.

To many, the publicly staged book burnings in May of 1933, orchestrated by the German Student Union, have become synonymous with the National So- cialist attitude toward authors and their books. However, while the burning of books remains a powerful symbol, it tends at times to obscure the many facets of National Socialist cultural policy. It is the great accomplishment of Jan-Pieter Barbian's The Politics of Literature in Nazi Germany to highlight the many contradictions and inconsistencies of Nazi cultural engineering.

Like every arena of the Nazi state, the cultural domain was afflicted by internecine struggles between the numerous agencies and individuals involved in policing culture: the Reich Ministry of Popular Entertainment and Propaganda, which was flush with money after tapping the revenues of the Nazi broadcasting service and grew to an organization with 1,500 employees and 17 departments, including the Chambers of Culture and of Literature; the Gestapo, which was charged with seizing and sequestering indexed books and with closing Jewish publishers and book stores; the Par- teiamtliche Prüfungskommission zum Schutze nationalsozialistischen Schrifttums, which censored calendars, encyclopedias, and schoolbooks; the Börsenver- ein der deutschen Buchhändler, which quickly adopted the values of the Nazi regime and kept its mandatory members informed about the desirability of specific works; and the Wehrmacht, which exerted a great deal of influence in the book market because it commissioned publishers and controlled vast amounts of paper.

As is well known, the Nazi state suppressed and destroyed literature it considered harmful or undesirable. It did so directly-in 1939, the List of Harmful and Undesirable Literature included 4,175 individual works and 565 bans on complete works-and indirectly, particularly by using paper allocation as an instrument of preemptive censorship. Barbian draws atten- tion to the fact that these bans had drastic repercussions not only for the affected authors, such as Remarque, Brecht, or Heinrich Mann, to name just a few, but also involved enormous economic losses for publishers, such as Fischer, Kiepenheuer, Rowohlt, and Ullstein.

Even so, banned books were never completely unavailable. For exam- ple, many works made their way back into bookstores when private Jewish libraries were dissolved as their owners emigrated or were deported. More- over, the practice of banning books itself was characterized by numerous inconsistencies. To begin with, the task of monitoring the bans, which dur- ing the war extended to French, British, US, Polish, and Russian authors in addition to politically controversial and Jewish authors of German descent, was overwhelming. As Barbian explains, "every year just two section heads were examining up to 4,000 manuscripts for which an application for pa- per had been made or whose publication was to be prohibited on political grounds" (70). Sometimes bans were lifted because of personal interven- tions. In some cases, such as Erich Kästner, the ban initially concerned spe- cific texts while other works were still being printed and sold. …

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