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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Empty Library Memorial: Where Nazis Burned Books

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

The sunken library evokes the diversity that has disappeared.

The Memorial of the Empty Library commemorates Hitler's book burning in the square. The small, beautifully designed monument is subtly situated within the public space.

The Memorial Is Worth a Visit

As part of the process of aligning German society, the Hitler regime initiated a policy of censorship and prohibition from the outset. Physical regeneration was also accompanied by moral regeneration, that is, the promotion of Germanic identity and, conversely, the annihilation of writings deemed subversive, decadent, or at least contrary to German honor.

The targeted works included Marxist, homosexual, and Jewish literature, as well as those dedicated to psychoanalysis and arts labeled as degenerate, such as Cubism and Fauvism.

On May 10, 1933, the largest book burning in the history of Hitler's Germany occurred in the Opera Square, where over 20,000 literary and scientific works were incinerated. In the late afternoon, students from Humboldt University, accompanied by members of the SA and SS, emptied the adjacent university library, thus signaling the end of diversity in Berlin.

A Remarkable Concept and Realization

The location is charming yet monumental, offering views of the various buildings in the area, including the Catholic St. Hedwig's Cathedral. In the center of the square, a plexiglass slab is concealed. An inaccessible room appears beneath the visitor's feet. On the walls are shelves, the kind you would find in any library, except that they have been emptied of their books. Nothing more will ever be learned there.

On the surface, plaques on the ground soberly inform the visitor of the event and repeat a quote from German playwright Heinrich Heine; a quote that is almost prophetic and unfortunately only in German: "Where they burn books, they will in the end burn human beings." That's all, and that's enough.

A Memorial of Extraordinary Discretion

The Memorial doesn't aim to educate the visitor, it is here to be remembered. It exists, but moreover, it provides passersby with the opportunity to continue their own journey due to its discretion and sobriety. The square is no longer that of the 1933 book burning; it is now the intersection of hotels, places of faith, universities, and classical culture. Life goes on; no one needs to be constantly reminded, and no one is forced to do so here. It is a memorial of great intelligence.

Each year, as the commemorative dates of the event approach, an open-air library is set up in the square, making available to the curious some of the works that were incinerated at the time.

Reasons to Visit

  • A compelling design that demands interpretation

  • Appreciable and intelligent discretion

  • A glow of light from the ground in the early evening

Reasons to Skip

  • Information limited to the strict description and only in German

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