On This Day | 10 May 1933: The Nazi Book Burning on Opernplatz

Nazi book burning Berlin
Students gathered and burned 30,000 works | Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14597 / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0

10 May 1933: On this day in Berlin history, right-wing students organised the Nazi book burning that destroyed 30,000 works of literature, ideology and science. Some texts remain forever lost.

Four days after the raid upon Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science – as Hirschfeld himself would soon thereafter watch on a cinematic newsreel in his Parisian exile – the Nazis would take the contents of the building’s library to Opernplatz, a square in Berlin’s city centre which is today dedicated to the Socialist politician August Bebel.

Flanked by the State Opera House, a Roman Catholic church in a profoundly Protestant country, and two buildings of what is now the Humboldt University, this square embodies the 18th-century values of what was called the ‘Enlightenment.’

But the Nazis used that term, too.

Under the gaze of the newly-appointed ‘Reich Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment,’ Dr. Josef Goebbels, and not long after the mysterious Reichstag fire and its associated ‘Decree,’ the Nazis manifested one of their most strikingly-choreographed expressions of outrage on May 10th, 1933.

To mark Hitler’s hundredth day as Chancellor, right-wing students burned 30,000 books on a specially-constructed pyre: copies of novels we know today, by Thomas Mann and his brother Heinrich, by Kafka, Wilde and Hemingway, by Nabokov and Dostoyevsky; works of leftist ideology, by Marx and Luxemburg; or indeed the ‘Jewish science’ of Einstein and his peers.

Magnus Hirschfeld's archives were destroyed in the book burning
Magnus Hirschfeld’s archives were destroyed in the book burning | The Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0

What was gone forever was the library and archive of Dr. Hirschfeld, its thousands of case studies and photographs documenting LGBTIQ lives.

Near-catatonic with arousal, leaping flames reflected in their glassy eyes, the students cast a stolen bronze bust of Hirschfeld into the fire: his execution in absentia. Paper burns – you know! – at 451 degrees Fahrenheit; bronze begins to melt at temperatures four times as high.

Other book-burnings would follow, in Germany and beyond. But the bust of Dr. Hirschfeld, salvaged the next morning from the chars and hidden in the street-sweeper’s canvas bag, is on display at Berlin’s Gay Museum, dented yet intact.




This edition of On This Day in Berlin History as contributed by BBS Member, Dr Finn Ballard. It is one of four events he has chosen to remember in May. Keep an eye on our blog to see which other events he picks.