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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Empty Library Memorial: Where Nazis burned books

Updated: Jan 11, 2022

The Memorial of the Empty Library commemorates Hitler's burning of the books in the square. The small, beautifully designed complex is discreetly placed in the public space.

The Empty Library Memorial deserves your attention.

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

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

On 10 May 1933, the largest book burning in the history of Hitler's Germany took place on the Opera Square, where more than 20,000 literary and scientific works were incinerated. In the late afternoon, students of the 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 realisation

The place is charming, yet monumental, and offers a view of the various buildings in the area, including the Catholic St. Hedwig's Cathedral. In the centre of the square, a plexiglass slab is hidden. An inaccessible room appears under 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 floor soberly inform the visitor of the event and repeat a quote from the German playwright Heinrich Heine; a quote that is almost premonitory and unfortunately only in German: "Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings". That's all and that's enough.

A memorial of extraordinary discretion

The Memorial does not aim to educate the visitor, it is here to be remembered. It exists, but in addition to that it gives those passing by, by its discretion and sobriety, the opportunity to continue their own journey. 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 will be set up in the square, making available to the curious some of the works that were incinerated at the time.

Reasons to go

  • A relevant conception that forces the interpretation

  • An appreciable and intelligent discretion

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

Reasons to avoid

  • Information limited to the strict description and only in German

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