A man sets out to read and write about every writer on the original list of books burned by the Nazis on 10 May 1933. Volker Weidermann is that man, the critic with the most impressive hair in Germany. His quest takes him to obscure second-hand bookshops, archives and the home of a passionate collector – reading great works and perhaps rightly forgotten literature. And then he shares their stories with us in this unexpectedly entertaining book.
Das Buch der verbrannten Bücher (The Book of Burned Books) provides portraits of every writer on the original list compiled by the librarian Wolfgang Herrmann. Himself a Nazi but not always true to the party line, Herrmann had originally drawn up his list of books by 131 writers of “un-German spirit” for removal from public libraries. It was the student organisation Deutsche Studentenschaft that organised the book burnings around Germany, using the list to select the titles. The writers in question were communists, Jews, anti-militarists and feminists – in a few cases all of the above.
As Weidermann shows, these authors were very different, and the book burning had different consequences for many of them. There were those who went into exile, many of them dying far from home, those who resorted to “inner emigration” of varying degrees of hypocrisy – and some who adapted to the regime, openly writing propaganda for the Nazis. Many of them are still household names in a certain kind of household today, while others died in poverty and obscurity.
Plenty of names would be familiar to English readers, what with the English-speaking world’s unceasing passion for exiled writers: Klaus Mann, Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth. And Weidermann gives us some quirky details on these writers, such as the letters exchanged between Zweig and Roth and Heinrich Mann’s fading optimism in the USA.
But it’s the lesser-known writers that make the book a genuine jewel. Some are just plain odd – the fairytale collector Lisa Tetzner whose book about a flying hare showing little Hans the way to socialist happiness in Russia landed her on the list, and the anarchist Theodor Plievier whose night on the tiles with Gustav Kiepenheuer landed him a publishing contract. Some were no great writers, like Christa Anita Brück, whose poorly written novel about the awful lives of exploited secretaries fell foul of Nazi ideology. But then there are those who were forgotten for decades and rediscovered in the late 1970s when Stern magazine ran a feature on the survivors – Irmgard Keun, she of the still wonderful Artificial Silk Girl, being a case in point.
The risk inherent to this kind of book is formulaic writing. But that’s something Weidermann steers well clear off. All the tales he tells are different, ending in Nazi and Soviet camps, party functionary status or villas in Switzerland. And he goes to the trouble of telling them differently too – quoting from contemporary reviews and the books themselves, paying the writers their due respect but not shy of pointing out that certain books were very much of their time. There’s even the odd laugh-out-loud moment, for instance the cantankerous parodist Robert Neumann’s attack on the literary mover and shaker Walter Höllerer:
He is an everywhereman, chives on every literary soup, with nerves as fine as a dowser for divining subsidies.
I’m hereby redefining that chives remark as a compliment. My compliments, too, go to Volker Weidermann for this thoroughly researched and readable book. He set out, I believe, to rescue these writers from obscurity and show the barbarism of a regime that started off by burning books – and to my mind he has managed that. Now if only he hadn’t assumed his readers were perfectly familiar with the likes of Walter Höllerer throughout the text, it would be a great boon in translation as well.