6 of Hearts: “Burning the Books” and the stories we tell

CW: This post discusses homophobic and transphobic attacks by the Nazi regime.

Among the books I’ve picked up recently is Richard Ovenden’s Burning The Books, about book burnings throughout history and the actions of those who have saved precious manuscripts and the knowledge they contain. On the first page of actual text, we get a description of the night of May 10th, 1933, when the texts of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft were burnt by Nazis. Looking in the index, this opening page is the only mention of the Institut in the book. It briefly mentions that among the books burnt, both in Berlin and in other locations, were from gay authors, but…it leaves me wondering. See, this event, the 1933 book burnings, are important, and they began with an attack on the Institut on May 6th, 1933. The Institut was also, notably, a pioneering location for trans studies, carrying out some of the world’s first reassignment surgeries. It was also an important centre for studying sex, and particularly gay and lesbian love. It’s library was unique around the world, and it was destroyed. 

Stories from LGBTQ’s people’s lives at the time, the detailed notes on sex reassignment surgery procedures, all the studies the Institut had carried out – they were all destroyed by the German Student Union. The book agrees that this was a super important event, and even discusses how a bust of the Institut’s founder, Magnus Hirschfield, was carried ceremonially to be thrown upon the flames by the nazi students carrying out the burning.

So, given all of this, it is weird that this is the only time the book, as far as I can find, chooses to examine these events, particularly in a time when so many are turning against trans rights in particular and across the world LGBT rights are under threat. This is not a callout for the author or his editors. I do not believe this was maliciously intended; this is the incident chosen to introduce the entire book, and other victims of the nazis are covered in later chapters. There is also a single superscript note, pointing towards a note in the section at the end of the book, which in turn mentions that if you want to learn about the Institut, see The Hischfield Archives by Heiker Bauer, a text I may try to track down myself. By itself, this omission is simply curious; a gun over the mantle piece is commented on at the very start of act one and then never goes off.

However, I think it is important to think about these gaps in what we tell, the narratives we create, and how these narratives flow into the larger currents of society and what we see. There’s only so much you can put in a book, true, but this is what he chooses to start the entire book with; the image of the head of the institut’s bust being set alight. This is event is important, and I must assume Ovenden agrees with me on this because, again, this is what he chooses to start the book with. So why are the details of this attack, what the Institut did, and why the Nazis chose to attack it, not explored even later on when the chronological chapters catch up to that era? Why is there this gap?

Information is lost not just through deliberate acts of book burning, but also simply through what we don’t tell, what gets left behind, sometimes deliberately. The choices we make in what we choose to tell matters. Burning the Books opens with the famous quote from Heinrich Heine: “Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings.” In the attack on the Institut, the Nazis left a number of books unburnt; specifically the membership records that held the addresses and details of those patients and researchers who used the institut.

The path to burning human beings was very short indeed.

Perhaps the actual content of the first big Nazi book burning is avoided in discussions about book burning because it means you need to handle the awkward fact that those targeted were still arrested under the allies in both West and East Germany. 1920’s and 30’s Berlin were far more open to queer identities, partially due to the work of the institute, and the Nazi’s targeted it for being “degenerate”, declaring that they were returning to an utterly imaginary, murderous “pure” past. Burning the Books does at least avoid one of the biggest issues with writing about what the Nazis did by actually listing specific groups the nazis where burning literature from, as opposed to just saying they were burning books with “threatening ideas” or that were “different” – everyone wants to think their ideas would be the kind that the Nazis would find threatening and want to stamp out, so these kind of bland descriptions tend to result in people assuming that of course the libraries being burnt would look a lot like their own.

Burning The Books discusses, among other things, how the burning of libraries is not just a symbolic act, but a brutally practical one for ripping out the knowledge base of those you declare others. When people ignore why the Nazis attacked the Institute, or, as some transphobes have, directly use the attack on the Institute and the other 1933 pyres as a metaphor to attack trans people with, that history continues to burn away. 

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