History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
— attributed to Mark Twain
If you didn’t know what happened there, you’d probably walk past the square like most Berliners and tourists do. There’s no information panel like you’d see in a museum with a red arrow that reads, “Bebelplatz. You are here.” The plaques commemorating what occurred here on May 10, 1933, lie flush to the ground, off to the side of the square — out of immediate view. They are written in German, which I have translated:
“In the middle of this square on May 10, 1933, National Socialist students burned the works of hundreds of freelance writers, publicists, philosophers, and scientists.”
I stop on the phrase “National Socialist students.”
You might be curious about a small group standing near the center of the square. One of their group points to the ground, and everyone looks down at something. There’s an exchange of dialogue, and eventually, they move on. Another group takes its place, and the scene is repeated.
When the area is free, I observe what the groups have been looking at. A thick glass panel, maybe four feet by four feet, reveals a room below ground level. The room is white and empty except for floor-to-ceiling bookcases. The bookcases, too, are empty. It is a room of empty white bookcases. Sterile. I would later read that “The Empty Library” memorial, or the “Bibliothek” as it is called, would hold about 20,000 books, roughly the same number of books the Nazis burned here in the center of Berlin. The books had been deemed culturally unfit for students and the reading public — burned as an act “against the un-German spirit.” These were the works of Jewish, half-Jewish, communists, socialists, anarchists, liberals, pacifists, and sex researchers. I recognized many of the authors: Einstein, Freud, Kafka, Marx, Remarque, and Hesse.
I look around the square. A university borders one side, a church another, and the opera another. Behind me is one of Berlin’s main libraries. An outdoor bar with large colorful umbrellas to shield the patrons sits a-top one of the buildings. The juxtaposition of the memorial’s location and history is not lost on me.
Photos of that evening in May 1933 show a large crowd standing around a raging bonfire. I imagine the setting to be loud, with raised arm salutes of “Seig Heil!” from Brown-shirted Nazis and citizens alike. Many of those gathered are the college students who organized the event. Do the ideas within these books scream in agony as they are burned figuratively at the stake?
I am asked why I visit historical sites such as this one and what emotions I experience when I stand where history happened. Comparisons are often inexact, but I am a student of history, and I can’t help but compare the book burning to the book banning, curriculum censorship, and the outright attempts to rewrite history flourishing in the U.S. today. What strikes me is the language of those doing the banning and censoring. “Restrictions” have somehow come to be equated with “liberty” and “freedom.” The argument is that restrictions are necessary because certain content is considered culturally unfit for today’s youth.
Histories that tell our full story are replaced with stories that celebrate American exceptionalism. But sanitizing our present and past with patriotic histories is not just a slippery slope; it’s a mudslide. “Restrictions” carry the not-so-hidden message, “We will tell you what to think as opposed to how to think for yourself.” As a result, our nation will raise generations of youth who are shielded from controversies and don’t know the dark sides of our past, the likes of which we must work together to avoid in the future. Our youth won’t be asked to contribute to making us better because they’ve been told we’re already “great.”
Certain historical events and ideas that some find objectionable will be figuratively burned, as they were actually burned during that May evening in 1933. One of those writers whose works were tossed into the flames was the German Jewish poet and dramatist Heinrich Heine. His warning screams silently from one of the ground-level plaques:
Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.
I hear rhymes.