Friday, July 18, 2008

1933: Paul Tillich

Not many contemporaries actually gave an account of what it was like to attend the 1933 bookfires in Germany. One person who did was the theologian Paul Tillich, who witnessed the fires in Frankfurt am Main. In May 1942, as book burning began to be adopted as one of the standards of Allied propaganda, Tillich took part in a broadcast for the ‘Voice of America’ program (at least, Tillich wrote the piece: the actual broadcast was read out by an actor). The piece, which was broadcast in Germany as well as the United States, is worth quoting at length:

“Many of you still have a picture in your minds of the events of that day. I myself experienced them from a particularly good vantage point and I would like to describe how the scene impressed me. It was in Frankfort on the Main. We stood at a window of the Römer, the ancient building where German emperors were crowned. On the square, which dates back to the Middle Ages, masses of people pushed forward, held back by black and brown shirts. A woodpile was set up. Then we saw a torchlight procession pouring out of the narrow streets, an ending file of students and party men in uniforms. The light of the torches flickered through the darkness and lit up the gables of the houses. I was reminded of paintings of the Spanish Inquisition. Finally, a wheelbarrow or cart drawn by two oxen jolted or stumbled over the cobblestones, laden with books which had been selected for the offering. Behind the wheelbarrow strode the student pastor. When he halted before the stake, he climbed up and stood on top of the wheelbarrow and delivered the damning speech. He threw the first book on the burning woodpile. Hundreds of other books followed. The flames darted upward and lit up the dream picture that was the present. Time had run backward for two hundred years.”

In 1945 Tillich was temporarily blacklisted by the US Army because of his membership in the Council for a Democratic Germany, one of many such coalitions of left-leaning intellectuals set up by German exiles during the war.

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