The repression of literature was one of the key strategies used to gain total control of social and cultural life within Nazi Germany. This sample historical dissertation intro delves into the core ideology of banned literature during Hitler’s Nazi German. Organized into four parts, graduate students can use this research to help with their own academic writing.
The first part will consider the ideology of Nazism itself, with a special focus on its aspect of anti-Semitism. The second part will discuss the practice of book-burning and the banning of books within Nazi Germany. The third part will then proceed to describe the psychological reasons why this occurred. Finally, the fourth part will reflect on the kind of redemption that many Jewish writers have found in actually creating new literature out of the experience of the Holocaust itself, thereby reversing the repression put into place by Nazi Germany.
The ideology of Nazism
Nazism (short for National Socialism) was an ideology that emerged within Germany in the aftermath of World War I. The ideology was primarily rooted in the thoughts of Adolf Hitler, as expressed in his book Mein Kampf and his myriad of speeches. One of the main concepts of Nazism is the Aryan race (not in terms of the people who originally emerged from areas surrounding Iran, but rather the Nordic race, characterized by blond hair and blue eyes Nazism characterizes this race as superior to other races, and the true Germans as those who belong to this race. As such, Nazism was deeply at odds with ideologies such as Marxism or Christianity, which sought to establish a non-racial basis for human solidarity. Nazism is a primitive ideology that is all about race, land, and blood.
A counterpart of this valorization of the Aryan race is the utter denigration of the Jewish race. Hitler had no end of bad things to say about the Jewish people; and of course, a very large part of those who were persecuting, as part of the mass extermination program known as the Holocaust, consisted of Jews. Psychologically speaking, this could be understood as a classic example of resentment and scapegoating (see Nietzsche).
Ideology came on the heels of WWI
Essentially, in the aftermath of their defeat in World War I, the Germans found themselves humiliated, with little explanation for what had happened to them; and the standard of living within the nation was on a downward spiral. In this context, the ideas that the German people themselves did not deserve their fate—and that their fate was the result of manipulation by a metaphysically inferior race of people—would have clearly held a great deal of immediate emotional and psychological appeal. Among other things, it would have provided a kind of support for the shaky self-esteem of the German people as a whole.
Book-Burning in Nazi Germany
Book burning became an important literary censorship practice in Nazi Germany as part of the broader project of imposing the ideology of Nazism in an entrenched way across Germany as a whole. As Henley has described:
On the night of 10 May 1933, a crowd of some 40,000 people gathered in the Opernplatz—now the Bebelplatz—in the Mitte district of Berlin. Amid much joyous singing, band-playing and chanting of oaths and incantations, they watched soldiers and police from the SS, brownshirted members of the paramilitary SS, and impassioned youths from the German Student Association burn, at the behest of the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, upwards of 25,000 books decreed to be “un-German.” (paragraph 1)
This was an event that was dramatic at both the pragmatic and the symbolic levels. Pragmatically, it made it more difficult for people to gain access to non-Nazi ideas; symbolically, it enabled the Nazis to define what is and is not truly “German” in a very rigid way that was fully congruent with their own racial and political ideology.
Jewish authors singled out
Naturally, Jewish authors were the main target of such repression of literature. This is for the obvious reason that according to the Nazis, the Jewish people were worthless scum—and this proposition would have naturally been undermined by the presence and availability of great literature and other cultural artifacts produced by Jewish men and women.
In a way, it can be suggested that this persecution of literature produced by Jews was a dangerous prefiguration of the actual mass murder of the Jews themselves that would follow soon enough. As James has pointed out, the Jewish people had a very rich cultural life, especially in cities such as Vienna; and the Nazis engaged in a conscious and directed effort to eradicate that life, since the continued existence of such a life would have been completely antithetical to the basic premises of the ideology of Nazism.
In other words, the Nazis did not just repress literature because of the ideas contained within that literature; they also repressed it due to the very fact that according to Nazism, it should be impossible for Jewish writers to produce such literature in the first place. However, it is also the case that the Nazis burned books for purely ideological reasons as well. In her book, The Diary of Anne Frank, Anne Frank described the oppression of the Jewish people by limiting their access to books, education, and other elements of knowledge. This tactic was used to control the Jewish population living in Germany.
As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has written, regarding the massive book burning event described above:
“Most of the books were by non-Jewish writers, including such famous Americans as Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and Sinclair Lewis, whose ideas the Nazis viewed as different from their own and therefore not to be read” (paragraph 2).
The Nazis, then, repressed literature because they wanted to create a homogeneous intellectual environment in which only thoughts and ideas that supported Nazi ideology could be readily and legally accessible to the German people.
Denying literature as means of psychological control
According to the pioneering psychologist Sigmund Freud, society needs to repress what he called the id—that is, the forces of instinct and the unconscious—if it is to preserve itself in an effective way. The main idea is that if people were to access the id, then they would uncover desires and impulses that could potentially threaten the entire order of society and civilization itself.
In this context, any society would have a basic self-preservational instinct to prevent people from accessing their ids; that is, any society would have an instinct to repress its own people. Moreover, insofar as literature could be understood as a way of accessing the id and channeling it into the conscious mind, a given society may have a strong interest in controlling the literature that is made available to the populace. It is clear that a dynamic such as this one was what was occurring in Nazi Germany.
Nazi Germany failed Freud’s interpretations
What is ironic, though, is that Nazism itself was an ideology that drew strongly on what Freud called the id: the ideology was based on strongly primitive and unconscious instincts, such as racial identity and the supremacy of land and blood. Nevertheless, qua ideology, Nazism must be understood as a system of ideas, and that system of ideas came to permeate all of the society of Nazi Germany.
In this context, works of literature that opposed or contradicted Nazi Germany could be understood as threats to the stability of Nazi society, insofar as they provide avenues into areas of the id that have nothing to do with Nazism itself. This would be why the Nazis repressed literature within their society; and in this sense, the Nazis did what any society does when it engages in the repression of literature.
Additional Reading: Learn more about Freud’s theories and how they apply to literary censorship.
Censoring literature as a means to reduce anti-government agendas
The United States, for example, would probably want to repress pro-Nazi literature, since such literature would be a threat to a democratic society; and the Nazis would want to repress pro-democratic literature, since this would be a threat to Nazi society. The fact that democracy is morally superior to Nazism is not relevant when considering the basic psychological dynamics at play here.
The idea that literature does in fact provide access routes to the id is supported by the basically unconscious nature of the creative process itself. As Iyer has pointed out, the creative artist is seldom aware of what he is actually doing while he is actually doing it; the entire process only makes sense in a retrospective way. This suggests that the creative process channels aspects of what Freud called the id, or the unconscious mind in general.
The unconscious mind is not controlled by ideology; rather, it contains the full flux of the human soul, with all of its messy desires. In any given society, some of these desires may be congruent with the dominant ideology, whereas others may present a serious threat to that ideology. A free society would develop mechanisms to channel incongruent desires and ideas in such a way that they can still be freely and safely expressed. Within a society such as Nazi Germany, however, repression would have been the only possible response toward literature that could provide the people with ideas that could have well led to the downfall of Nazi ideology itself.
Post-Nazi changes: Jews proved to be more than capable authors
In the post-Nazi era, one of the key values of literature written by Jewish writers is that it has provided them with a way to almost win a kind of redemption from their own difficult and even traumatic Holocaust experiences. Many Jews who survived the Holocaust have experienced survivor’s guilt—that is, guilt over the fact that they survived the experience, whereas many of their fellow people did not. But as Weisz has written:
“Many found the answer by retelling their stories, [being witnesses of what happened” (paragraph 1).
That is, by writing about the experience, these authors were able to undo the repression imposed by Nazi Germany and thereby bring some kind of healing to their own minds. This is one of the more general purposes of unrepressed literature: it enables the author to delve deeply into his mind and experiences and to develop a new kind of psychological coherence out of even the most difficult of experiences.
Not all Jews see success
On the other hand, it is also the case that many Jewish writers have felt that they failed in this endeavor, and experienced serious psychological problems as a result. To quote Weisz again:
“Despite successes in all aspects of their life, these writers developed a self-incriminating guilt due to their perceived inadequacy of communicating, particularly in light of the resurging anti-Semitism worldwide” (paragraph 1).
In other words, they felt that they had not successfully undone the repression perpetrated by Nazi society; they felt that they had not adequately accessed their own ids in such a way that they would be able to meaningfully challenge the ideology of that society. Within this context, such writers experienced elevated rates of depression and suicide—and it is easy to understand why.
The Nazis repressed literature; and conversely, the purpose of serious literature would have been to reverse that oppression and thereby bring about a kind of redemption to the entire experiences. The psychological well-being of Jewish writers in the aftermath of the Holocaust depended on whether they believed that they had personally succeeded in this endeavor.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Print.
Henley, Jon. “Book-Burning: Fanning the Flames of Hatred.” Guardian. 10 Sep. 2010. Web. 6 Apr. 2016. .
Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998. Print.
Iyer, Sethu A. Testament: An Invitation to Lucid Romance. Austin: CreateSpace, 2016. Print.
James, Clive. Cultural Amnesia. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality. Trans Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998. Print.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Nazi Propaganda and Censorship.” n.d. Web. 25 May 2016. .
Weisz, George M. “Secondary Guilt Syndrome May Have Led Nazi-Persecuted Jewish Writers to Suicide.” Rambam Maimonides Medical Journal 6.4 (2015). Web. 25 May 2016. .
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