© 2021 KOSU
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Books Reclaimed from Nazi Fires

Georg Salzmann in his basement book archive.
Emily Harrs, NPR News /
/
Georg Salzmann in his basement book archive.

Seventy years ago this spring, university students all across Germany built bonfires of books. The torchings began just a few months after the Nazi party took power. Mobs eagerly destroyed scientific, political and literary manuscripts that threatened Hilter's view of the world -- an act that is remembered now as having presaged the burning of people.

NPR's Emily Harris reports on the efforts of Georg Salzmann, a German who has spent much of his life building a memorial to the book burnings, reclaiming the words for his nation's post-war heritage.

Salzmann grew up in central Germany, in a family of Nazi supporters, and he even served in the German army for the last eight months of World War II. The end of the war also signaled a tragic fate for his family:

"On the 7th of April, 1945, when the American army marched in, my father shot himself," Salzmann tells Harris. "I was still a soldier. I was on my way back from the hospital and when I came home my father was already dead.

"Then with the war over, I had to confront my past and the past of the family. So I started to read political books about the Third Reich and the Nazis."

He discovered that books on politics and science that clashed with Nazi ideology were among those burned in 1933. But Salzmann says it was the literature that was also torched that inspired him to build his book memorial.

"These books should be remembered because of what they say," he says. "All burned authors think in a humanistic way... You’ll find nothing from these authors that glorifies war. They promote international understanding, tolerance -- and, with some exceptions -- pacifism."

Salzmann haunted used book shops around Europe and pored over catalogs for years. His passion led to a collection of 10,000 books -- all kept in the basement of his house near Munich.

"Surrounded by overloaded shelves, Salzmann rattles off his darlings: The complete Thomas Mann, the complete Leon Feuchtwanger, all the works of Georg Hermann," Harris says.

Salzmann's collection came to the attention of Guy Stern, co-curator of a new exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum documenting the impact the book burnings had in America. About a dozen books from Salzmann's collection are on display at the museum in Washington, D.C.

Salzmann says he wants his books to become a commemorative library -- a place to reclaim Germany's intellectual heritage, as well as remember the mass hysteria that led to the works being destroyed.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.
Hey! Did you enjoy this story? We can’t do it without you. We are member-supported, so your donation is critical to KOSU's news reporting and music programming. Help support the reporters, DJs and staff of the station you love.

Here's how: