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Hunegs: ‘Fighting the Fires of Hate’

Imperial and Weimar Germany were near the apex of scientific and cultural achievement in the first three decades of the 20th century.

From 1901-1932, Germany boasted some 40 Nobel Prize winners including such luminaries as Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein and Adolf Ritter Von Baeyer.

Yet, Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 aided, ultimately, by overwhelming German support sent the country down the road to World War II and perpetrating the Holocaust.

How could German civilization have spawned such evil and what could the nations of the world have done differently in the pre-World War II years?

Educational opportunity

These questions are a backdrop for a remarkable educational opportunity that has come to Bonanzaville/Cass County Historical Society from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The exhibit is: “Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings.” The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas is proud to support the exhibit with support of friends in Fargo and Grand Forks.

The “Final Solution” for the Jews, the Roma people and the disabled did not begin with extermination but with attacks on intellectual freedom. Indeed, within two months of the Nazis coming to power in April 1933, the puppet Reichstag government had passed laws removing “non-Aryans” (primarily Jews) from the civil service, and the practices of law and medicine.

The expunging of people from professional and civic life of Germany was followed by expunging of ideas.

As chronicled in the exhibit, on May 10, 1933, German university students carried out an “Action Against the Un-German Spirit” targeting authors ranging from Helen Keller and Ernest Hemingway to Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. These book burnings occurred in citadels of academic life at German universities hundreds of years old. These were among the first steps the Nazis took to suppress freedom of expression – ultimately confirming the somber clairvoyance of the 19th-century German poet and writer Heinrich Heine: “Where one burns books, one will soon burn people.”

Final descent

The internal German campaign against its Jewish citizens advanced by stages: marginalization, persecution and then the final descent into the abyss beginning with the Kristallnacht in November 1938.

The assault on the intellect through consigning books and ideas to the flames provoked strong reactions in the United States. The book burnings were widely denounced. In an eerie foretelling – similar to Heine’s prediction – Newsweek called it a “holocaust of books” and Time labeled it a “bibliocaust.” The Upper Midwest and Nobel Prize laureate Sinclair Lewis wrote an open letter condemning the book burning. Street demonstrations were organized in a dozen American cities.

The angry reaction in the United States, however, did little to stop the Nazis’ consolidation of power. History would repeat this pattern. The Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) provoked worldwide outrage against Germany’s November 1938 pogrom against Jews.

Stern’s role

This unfolding of history was recognized by North Dakota’s Herman Stern as told by Terry Shoptaugh in his book: “You Have Been Kind Enough to Assist Me: Herman Stern and the Jewish Refugee Crisis.” Honored as a “Roughrider” in March, Stern worked with Sen. Gerald Nye of North Dakota to save scores of Jewish refugees in the face of State Department obstruction.

This raises the question that if there had been hundreds if not thousands of determined Americans like Stern and Nye throughout the country working assiduously and unapologetically supported by the full Congress and executive branch, might there have been different outcomes?

Support appreciated

“Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings” opened last week and runs through Aug. 17. Bonanzaville and the JCRC thank the following individuals whose financial contributions help make the exhibition’s presence possible in Fargo:

The Hal and Kathleen Gershman Family Foundation, Fredrikson & Byron, P.A., Feder Properties, Straus Clothing, Dorothy Goodman, Linda and Ron Goodman, Judy and Martin Segal, William and Diane Hill, Steve and Susan Plambeck, Myron H. Bright.

This exhibition was underwritten in part by grants from The Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund and The Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation, with additional support from the Lester Robbins and Sheila Johnson Robbins Traveling and Special Exhibitions Fund established in 1990.

Hunegs is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.