Nazi Book Burning
Updated: May 24
How H.G. Wells Threatened Hitler
Hitler so despised the 'War of the Worlds' author he included Wells' name and home address in the Nazi's chilling ‘Black Book’ of Britain’s Most Wanted
by Caroline Byrne
Picture: Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, delivers a speech during the book burning on the Opernplatz in Berlin. / United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park
As dusk settled in Germany on May 10, 1933, university students across the nation threw their school books into bonfires and recited 'fire oaths' denouncing the un-German spirit of the literary works. H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History stoked the flames of indignation. The book-cleansing ritual was praised by Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, who presided over the incineration of 25,000 books in Berlin that evening. Goebbels, serenaded by music from the SS band, delivered an impassioned speech live on German radio: “No to decadence and moral corruption ... Yes to decency and morality in family and state.”
Goebbels aimed to sync German arts and culture with Nazi goals by purging Jewish officials and ‘degenerate’ art. The university students were his disciples. The German Student Union had circulated blacklists of “un-German” works ahead of bonfire night. Nationality was irrelevant. American Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Helen Keller’s How I Became a Socialist and Jack London’s Martin Eden were namechecked alongside H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History and Thomas Mann’s An Appeal to Reason.
Picture: Books being burnt by the Nazi regime / © Alamy The entire back catalogue of German writer Bertolt Brecht was listed along with books by Austria’s Stefan Zweig and American John Dos Passos. Jewish writers, regardless of the content, were targeted including beloved nineteenth-century German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine. Marxist literature, works supporting the Weimar Republic and books about sexuality were also torched.
The War of the Words
The fire oaths performed at 34 German universities that May continued into the June summer solstice and beyond. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was singled out because of its “literary betrayal of the soldiers of the world war”. Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud was pilloried for representing the “soul-shredding overvaluation of sexual activity”. English writer Virginia Woolf was accused of indicting fascism in her novel-essay Three Guineas.
But how could English author H.G. Wells have been considered a dangerous threat to the Nazi movement? Born Herbert George Wells in Kent, England in 1866, Wells had once gone so far as to describe his own youthful mind as Hitler-esque.
Picture: HG Wells recording his 9 January 1934 audio essay Whither Britain? an intentionally provocative rejection of patriotism and nationalism. Such commentary made the author and his literary works a target of the Nazi regime / www.bbc.co.uk “In those days I had ideas about Aryans extraordinarily like Mr. Hitler's,” Wells wrote in Experiment in Autobiography. “The more I hear of him the more I am convinced that his mind is almost the twin of my thirteen-year-old mind in 1879; but heard through a megaphone and – implemented.” To a generation of adventure-hungry boys with dreams of tanks, time travel and spaceships to the moon, Wells was a hero.
“Back in the nineteen-hundreds it was a wonderful experience for a boy to discover H.G. Wells,” George Orwell wrote in his essay Wells, Hitler and the World State. “Up to 1914 Wells was in the main a true prophet.” And yet, the next generation would fervently burn Wells' science fiction classics The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man alongside The Outline of History.
As it transpired, Wells was much more than a science fiction prophet with his head in the clouds. He was also a campaigner for social justice, a member of the socialist Fabian Society who joined Britain’s Labour Party in the 1920s, and his novels touched upon controversial themes.
Picture: The Shape of Things to Come is in good condition. A first edition copy complete with rare dust jacket. / rareandantiquebooks.com
In 1933, when Hitler became Germany’s Chancellor, H.G. Wells published The Shape of Things to Come predicting a world war that would lead to the collapse of civilization.
Wells’ criticism of German politics ensured that his books were banned from the nation’s libraries and bookstores but Wells continued undeterred. He was then president of PEN (Poets, Essayists, Novelists) International and oversaw the expulsion of the German PEN club in 1934 for refusing to admit non-Aryan members.
“The violent persecution of Jewish and leftish writers in Germany, and an attempt to seize and use the Berlin PEN Club for Nazi propaganda, raised new and grave issues for the organization,” Wells’ recalled in Experiment in Autobiography (1934).
Wells later tackled Adolf Hitler’s Nazi movement head-on in The Fate of Man (1939): “Its intellectual content is naive, and its sudden extreme importance the result of a convergence of accidents. A people almost stupidly warlike, led by a maniac, threatens the world and holds in its hands all the exaggerated powers of destruction modern science and invention have created.”
As for Hitler, Wells wrote: “It is plain that the Führer is insane ... since in his case his obsession endangers the lives of people about him, he should be certified and put under restraint.”
Hitler’s ‘Black Book’
Picture: The Black Book (Hardbook), The Britons on the Nazi Hitlist by Sybil Oldfield / profilebooks.com
Is it any wonder then, that Wells’ name appeared in Hitler’s so-called ‘Black Book’, an appendix to the Gestapo handbook?
The Sonderfahndungsliste GB (Britain’s Most Wanted) runs 144 pages and lists more than 2,800 British writers, politicians, intelligence agents, scientists and artists to be detained after a German invasion – an invasion in name only, foiled mainly as a result of the Battle of Britain and British naval supremacy.
Hitler’s Black Book, later translated into English by Forces War Records, disturbingly includes Wells’ home address at 13 Hanover Terrace, Regents Park London NW1. (Brave New World author Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf’s writer-husband Leonard Woolf are among the other writers listed.)
Forces’ managing director Tim Hayhoe has said that those named in Hitler's black book risked being killed, sent to concentration camps or forced to cooperate with their German captors.
Books and their spirit cannot be killed or contained, however.
Picture: US author Helen Keller on the Nazi Book Burnings “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas” / Portrait of Helen Keller, ca. 1910. Wide World Photo
On May 10, 1933, as German university students circled their bonfires, more than 100,000 took to the streets of New York in protest.
“History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas,” American author Helen Keller wrote in an open letter to the German students. “You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels and will continue to quicken other minds.”
Two public libraries were established to preserve copies of books lost in the fires: Paris’s Deutsche Freiheitsbibliothek (the German Freedom Library) and the American Library of Nazi-Banned Books at the Brooklyn Jewish Center in New York.
German Jewish refugee Albert Einstein, whose books were also burned by the Nazis, decried the declining human rights under the Third Reich in a speech at the Brooklyn Library: “These wounds, seared on the soul of the German folk, will block any road towards a sound community basis, even after the people will have freed themselves externally.”
As for H.G. Wells, the British author lived just long enough to see the German forces surrender in Italy on May 2, 1945, two days after the collapse of Berlin. Wells died in 1946 at the age of 79 in his home overlooking Regent's Park, London.
In his preface to The War in the Air, Wells decided that his epitaph should read: “I told you so. You damned fools.”
As dusk settled in Germany on May 10, 1933, university students across the nation threw their school books into bonfires and recited ‘fire oaths’ denouncing the un-German spirit of the literary works. H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History stoked the flames of indignation. But why did the Nazis so despise the British science fiction writer?
In this Smoking Gun podcast, journalist and independent books publisher, Caroline Byrne talks to The Hub on the story behind the burning of books by the Nazi regime and its targeting of foreign critics like H.G. Wells. You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the link below.