On a warm night in Berlin in early September, my friend Kean Wong, a Malaysian writer, and I walked along a strangely quiet avenue, where the only sound you could hear was the tinkling bells of bicycles. We were headed towards Bebelplatz, an open square surrounded by imposing buildings: on one side the sturdy faculty of justice, on the other, an officious building wrapped by a tromp l’oeil exterior, advertising an organic lemonade. A bank and a hotel formed the third side of the square, and the fourth was the opening to Unter den Linden, beyond which lay a university.
The glow from the ground was visible, unmistakable. It cast a straight halo, pointing skywards, looking like the steady flame of an eternal candle. The closer you got, the more granular the image became and what seemed like a straight cone revealed its true self: The particles were not marching in a straight line, following orders; they continued their random Brownian motion.
While the light was not blinding in its intensity, it was sharp and bright. When you looked through the glass, the stark whiteness hit you square in the eyes. It was like being deafened by eloquent silence, if such a thing is possible. Or being blinded by the afterglow of luminosity that mortal flames could not extinguish. The glow was straight, as if trying to impose symmetry on an amorphous mass of particles.
Into the abyss: Empty shelves that once held books burnt by Nazis. Ulf Buschmann / ‘www.ipernity.com/home/ulf_buschmann’
There was a time when such symmetry was not an illusion but a fearsome manifestation of an imperial ambition. We were at the site where, a little more than 75 years ago in May, Adolf Hitler’s youth ransacked libraries, brought books—by one count, more than 20,000—and made a bonfire. Among the authors whose works they turned to ashes were Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Karl Marx and Heinrich Heine.
The choice of Heine was particularly poignant. In his 1821 play Almansor, Heine had written: “Das war ein Vorspiel nur. Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen (That was mere foreplay. Where they have burnt books, they will end in burning human beings).”
When you looked under the square glass—that source of light—you saw rows of empty bookshelves in white.
At first glance, they looked cheap and kitschy, the kind you can buy at Ikea and assemble within an hour. They acquired value only when filled. And the Nazi youth had destroyed the very books that gave meaning to those shelves.
The Nazi bonfire was not some insane Taliban escapade, where they burnt any book that was not the Quran. The Nazi youth burnt specific books by specific authors—if they were Jewish, socialist, or communist. And Heine was prescient about what would happen in his country a century later: Five years after the book burning, in November 1938, on a single night, Nazi youth destroyed hundreds of synagogues in Germany. World War II started 10 months later; the Holocaust and its horrors—where they burnt people—were revealed six years later.
You could disagree with a book, argue with it, challenge it, and defy it. But burn it? Germany was the culture of Mann and Schopenhauer, of Kant and Hegel, Nietzsche and Goethe. Ideas clashed with each other and wisdom flourished.
But the Nazi youth wanted to streamline ideas, and force them to march in one specific way. If you stepped out, if you looked different or thought differently, you were struck down. They wanted to tear down the past they did not like.
But we are an ingenuous lot. If forced to burn our words and thoughts, as the Nazis tried at Bebelplatz, we find other ways to remember them. The Soviet Union could not silence Solzhenitsyn; Suharto’s Indonesia could not keep Pramoedya Ananta Toer quiet. Samizdat literature was born from the principle that when you don’t trust the printed word, you believe in the spoken word.
Our desire to remember vanquishes their insistence that we forget. In Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which paper burns), after the dystopian society has burnt all possible books, we come across an island where men and women talk to themselves, reciting words from books that have been burnt, remembering them so they don’t disappear from our collective consciousness.
Later that night, Kean took me to another part of Berlin and showed me another commemoration—the plaques in the city’s sidewalks. The sculptor Gunter Demnig has been going around German cities, hammering in tiny plaques with names of former Jewish residents who lived on particular streets and in specific homes, fixing the date they were taken away and, if known, the date of their passing in a death camp.
They stand apart on the street, but only slightly; they look like stumbling blocks, only marginally; but that’s Demnig’s point. He calls them stolpersteine, German for stumbling block. It is an individual’s tribute against collective madness, a memorial against the folly, giving dignity to those who died in anonymity.
At Bebelplatz, many Germans burnt the thoughts of fine thinkers. Burning people was the next step. In the same city, one man has been going around placing plaques, remembering them. Those plaques give the city its permanence, its solidity, its continuity.
At Bebelplatz, the bookshelves are empty—the empty space reminding us of what Germany lost. By fixing those plaques, Demnig shows how Germany is becoming whole again.
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