Reading Under Hitler

Lesen Unter Hitler (Reading Under Hitler) might be an odd choice to review here, since it is a somewhat specialized book and there is no English translation. But I found it to be a fascinating read about an aspect of the Nazi years that I have not seen discussed anywhere else. When we think about books during the Third Reich, most of us will probably automatically think of the book burnings and all of the authors who either fled Germany or were forced into silence. But the book industry flourished from 1933 to 1945, the lack of paper perhaps a greater problem than the lack of writers once World War II began. Here, Christian Adam takes a look at those books that were popular during this dark time period, not in the hopes of finding any overlooked treasures—the fact that anyone who wanted to write or publish had to be a member of the Nazi-version of a writers’ guild automatically makes this impossible—but in the attempt to see what those books that were popular might say about their readers.

The first thing I learned was that censorship was not uniform and not as all-encompassing as I had always thought. Shortly after Hitler came to power, there were numerous newly created offices, departments, and groups working to cleanse the book shelves of anything that was deemed offensive to Hitler’s vision of a pure and superior Germany. But as is the problem with many a bureaucracy, the more people work on a task, the less gets done. Contrary to what I believed, there was never just one list of approved authors and titles. Different people had different ideas of which books should be banned and how one should go about getting rid of unwanted books. This sometimes led to odd and arbitrary decisions. The German edition of Brave New World, for example, had been forbidden for several years before the English edition was banned as well. Further, overall access to books differed, depending on who you were and where you were; not every book seller rushed to destroy those books that were no longer allowed to be in circulation.

If your works were popular with the general public, which had a hankering for books that were not always purely educational and high brow, or if you had a distinguished military career, then you could get away with a little more than others. Examples here include Ernst Jünger, author of Auf den Marmorklippen (On the Marble Cliffs) and Paul Alfred Müller, who wrote weekly adventure stories about three young men who travel all around the world to solve mysteries with the help of German engineers who work in a secret city in Mexico. These booklets were quickly scrutinized by one of the departments looking to ban “filthy literature,” but the publisher had a number of experts, who read each story before it was published, fight against the ban. The series was able to survive until 1940, although the African American boxer who was part of the trio had to die earlier to avoid additional scrutiny by people looking to stop publication.

Another fact I didn’t know was that translations were popular in Germany during the Nazi years, especially until the beginning of the war. Gone With the Wind was one of the bestsellers, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, was widely read all through the Nazi years, even though he actively fought on the side of the Allies after 1940. Scandinavian literature was also widely read, and several authors, whose books were not available in Germany during the war, could quickly sell books again after the war had ended.

There are a myriad of other books and authors mentioned here, but many of them, especially those written by Germans for Germans during the Nazi years, have been forgotten—most deservedly so. The ideas and ideals of the Nazis don’t need to be perpetuated with books that appear to have little else to offer. But since reading this book in particular, I’m trying to decide how I feel about reading those books that the Nazis approved of that are still available. I am about to start reading Jünger’s On the Marble Cliffs, since it is said to be one of the books published during the Nazi years that did criticize national socialism. Should it bother me that the author was a German soldier stationed in Paris? There is another book by a Swiss author that sounds interesting to me—it’s about a murder of a father who terrorized his family and whether the murderer who was most likely one of his victims should be punished—but the author met several times with Goebbels for reasons that are not completely known. He could have been there as a spy or as a Nazi sympathizer.

I also remember reading and loving anything written by Karl May when I was around 10 years old. I loved all those stories about cowboys and Indians, and I remember how popular the movies based on the books were in Germany back then. Karl May was apparently influenced by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and one of his central themes is intolerance towards others. I had been thinking about rereading Karl May to see how well his books have aged, but now that I know that Hitler liked to read those books as well, the thought of reading them makes me cringe. But should it, if the message of the books is indeed positive?

Ultimately, I am not sure if Christian Adam succeeded in figuring out whether the books that were read in Germany from 1933 to 1945 say anything in particular about the German people, other than the fact that there wasn’t just one theme or one book that gripped them. Leaving out those books that were written as Nazi propaganda, it seems to me that Germans read for the same reason people read everywhere else in the world: to escape, to be entertained, and to admire.

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23 comments

  1. Noooo, not Karl May in Hitler’s hands! I thought that showed that friendship between different races is possible… Like you, I loved my Winnetou and Old Shatterhand in my childhood and it’s now spoiling my enjoyment of them.

  2. How interesting! I’m so glad you decided to write about it.
    I was just looking up Karl May (I’ve never heard of him)… The Treasure of Silver Lake looks good – have you read that one?

    • I’m sure I have, but I don’t remember it. My grandmother had pretty much all the Karl May books, and I always read at least one when we were at her house. But when I think of any of the books now, only single scenes stand out, not entire stories.

  3. Great post – loved learning a little about what Germans were reading. It’s always tricky with older books to know whether we should make allowances – over here, it’s reading novels about the glory days of the Empire that always leaves me in a quandary. Sometimes I love them, and other times they make me squirm – I think often one can tell by the tone whether the author is basically a good guy caught up in a certain period of history, or someone who had strongly held convictions that are distasteful or worse now. Truthfully, I try not to learn too much about authors because of the effect it can have on whether I can enjoy the books…

    • I usually don’t have a problem with remembering the historical context in which a book was written and giving the writer a pass, to a certain extend. I think not becoming too familiar with an author is a good strategy, because it does affect my reading as well.

    • This book speculates that there are three reasons Gone With the Wind was so popular: 1. It is a well-written book that tells an interesting story. 2. It was published by a house that was somewhat independent from Nazi thinking and apparently received financial backing from outside Germany. 3. The antebellum South divided people into two classes (white and black), which resonated to a certain degree with those readers who also believed that some people were worth more than others. That last point is rather discouraging…

  4. How fascinating! It sounds like decisions about what could be read and what couldn’t were relatively random. It also raises interesting questions about the nature of translation. Great post!

    • It does. It seems that at a time when German writers (those who has the support of the Nazi regime) produced stories that firmly underscored the Nazi thinking, it was the translations that offered the perhaps more stimulating reading material.

  5. It sounds like a fascinating insight into the cultural and political landscape of the time. Interesting to hear about the arbitrary nature of some of the rules too, especially in relation to German translations vs their original-language counterparts (Brave New World etc.).

    • This fact certainly struck me. One of the prominent literary critics in Germany after the war remembered that he was able to find scores of banned books in the deep-discount bins of booksellers. Since that picture of the burning books on May 10, 1933 is so engrained in me, I was surprised that after that date, getting rid of unwanted books was so much less organized.

  6. This is a fascinating post! It’s an aspect of World War II I hadn’t even given thought to. You ask some very good questions and I don’t know that there are easy answers. If you do read some of those titles I’ll be interested to see what you think.

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