World War II was far more than a clashing of tanks, planes, and artillery guns. It was a war of ideas, of worldviews. Nothing better captures the differences between the Nazi worldview and that of America than the way books were treated. The Nazis burned books while the Americans found ways to publish books that could be supplied to their troops.
The Nazis burned books by the hundreds of thousands. They burned books authors they deemed unfit. The authors who were banned and burned ranged from Sigmund Freud to Hellen Keller. Other authors whose books were burned included Hemingway, Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine, H. G. Wells, C. G. Jung, Einstein, G. K. Chesterton, Jack London, Erich Maria Remarque (who wrote All Quiet on the Western Front), and Winston Churchill. Some were burned because of their political views; others because of Jewish heritage of the authors; and all that were burned contained something in the content that questioned what Hitler and the Nazis had determined was correct thinking.
I would grant that there are authors whose writings are wrongful, twisted, and perverse. But it is often the prophets of the darkness who create the best contrast with the light. Men are created in the image of God and that is inescapeable in what is written. Even the worst of books and the most crooked ideas contain fragments of truth or insights into the human condition. In some cases, books reflect ideas that are important because of the role they played at some time in the present or the past. Freud’s works should not have been burned because of his influence on the 20th century and various fields of thought. Nor should the writings of Marx. I would object strongly even to Hitler’s book Mein Kamf being burned.
It was bizarre that the country that was building huge bonfires with forbidden authors was also the country that had produced so many pivotal thinkers and influential universities. The world of Nazism was a world gone mad. Our current political correctness fads are child’s play compared to what the Nazis did to suppress ideas. It was a real example of what Orwell feared in 1984 and what Bradbury described in Farenheit 451.
In a really enjoyable book, When Books Went to War, Molly Guptill Manning describes the Nazi efforts to destroy ideas. But those wicked efforts spurred the American public and publishers to promote books. At first, the effort was toward collecting donations. This provided only minimal reading material, much of which was of little interest to soldiers. The solution–a combination of book publishers and the department of war cooperating–was a publishing venture that resulted in American Service Editions of books.
One has to remember that when the United States entered World War II, paperback books were not common. The need was for lots of books that were easily manageable by military men who could be anywhere from a ship to a barracks to a trench. Books were then printed in bulk, printed on cheap paper, and sent to the troops. Soldiers passed the books from around, and many books quickly fell apart after a combination of repeated readings and battlefield conditions.
One of the most popular books among the soldiers was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, which was published in 1943. That book, along with others, reminded soldiers of home. Soldiers often wrote to authors such as Betty Smith and told how the books had helped them. Other books, especially as the end of the war drew closer, were focused on career options and fields of study. An unexpected result of the ASE books was that they became a prepartory school for soldiers. Many soldiers had read very little before the war. The long periods of boredom and isolation created readers. The books fed the need and created readers and thinkers. When the GI Bill was passed soon after World War II, the men who read novels in the trenches flocked to the college classrooms and became a generation of professionals and innovators.
I was surprised at the amount of information that Ms. Manning uncovered for this book. The story is a rich one. There are many letters written by soldiers about the impact of the books. In some cases, there were debates and discussions about what books were deemed proper and politically neutral. Republicans were sometimes worried about any books that might promote President Roosevelt. Soldiers were, after all, a major voting bloc. There are two appendices in this book. One is a list of authors whose works were banned and burned by the Nazis. The other is a list of books that were published under the ASE program. By the end of the war, more books had been published and distributed to American troops than were burned by the Nazis.
World War II was a battle of good versus evil. The Allies were not pure and virtuous people. Along with our joining forces with Stalin’s Soviet Union, we–both Americans and British–commited atrocities and took actions that were wrongful. But the American internment of Japanese citizens, while being wrong by our standards, doesn’t compare to Nazi furnaces and wicked sciences that were devoted to genocide. The burning of books does not equal killing of humans. But the books symbolized the evil heart of what we were fighting against. The publishing of books and distributing of them to our troops symbolize what our country stood for.
There are lessons and ideas in this book for us today. Those lessons apply to the classroom and to our international policies.