ONE MAY EVENING 44 years ago, in an open platz in Berlin near the university, the Nazi party organized a large fire.Into it went the books of German authors, as they were denounced by name over the loudspeakers. The Hamburg weekly Die Zeit marked that somber anniversary this year by asking dozen writers, some of them men whose names were read out that night, for their recollections.
Walter Mehring remembered that they got his name wrong. He had already fled to paris and shortly had to flee again, pursued by a French arrest warrant. The Nazis were trying to extradite him for unspecified crimes.
Erich Kaestner was in Berlin in the crowd watching the flames: "I have repeatedly asked myself, then and since, 'Why didn't you speak out, on May 10, 1933, in the Opernplatz in Berlin? Shouldn't you have shouted back, as the man bellowed the names (including yours) into the microphone? Never mind that I wouldn't be standing here today . . . " The question is whether one has a moral duty to be superhuman - and a martyr.
Hans Meyer wondered, reflectively, whether writers don't make too much of the book burning, in view of what came later. Auschwitz, Maidanek, Oradour - he recited the list. Books, after all, can be replaced. (But Die Zeit quoted the poet Heine, who had presciently observed a century earlier that people who burn books will also burn other people.) When the bonfire took place, Axel Eggebrecht had already been in a concentration camp for weeks and only learned of it later when he was released.
These recollections serve a powerful purpose. In an infinitely more fortunate time, they are a reminder of the darker side of our species. The demons are not much in evidence at the moment, but it would be very incautious to think that they have vanished - or that they live in only a few countries. There's no law of nature that upholds toleration, demorcracy and justice. They survive only where they are defended.