By fire and other means, a festive, expressive destruction of the Book of Books was at the center of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass—when, on November 9, 1938, 1,400 synagogues were set on fire in Nazi Germany. In the small town of Fritzlar in Hessen, Torah scrolls were rolled along Nikolaus Street as Hitler Youth rode their bicycles over them. In Vienna, by that time part of the Reich, Jews dressed in the robe and decorations of the Ark were marched and chased in downtown streets with torn Torah scrolls tied to their backs; in Frankfurt, Jews were forced to tear the Torah themselves and then burn it. In Berlin, Germans carried the scrolls from the Fasanen Street synagogue to Wittenberg Square, and burned them there. As Torah scrolls burned in a synagogue’s yard in Düsseldorf, German men, some wearing the robes of the rabbis and cantors, danced around the fire.
Why did the Nazis burn the Hebrew Bible?
The scholarship on Kristallnacht and the Holocaust has all but ignored the burning. It is mentioned only sporadically as an illustration of Nazi brutality; it is not otherwise part of the story. This silence requires an explanation. Recent accounts of the Third Reich, however sophisticated, do not pose the question about the burning of the Hebrew Bible because they view Nazi racial ideology as the fundamental source of the motivations, beliefs, and values that led to the Holocaust. According to this view, Nazi motivations sprang from the aim of building a racial biological society. Now, there can be no doubt about the importance of racial ideology in understanding Nazism. But the anti-Jewish identity the Nazis created was more complex than that, for in burning the Bible the Nazis were directing their wrath against a religious, not a racial, symbol.
Other dominant strains in Holocaust research see the motivation of the German people embedded in the administrative state process of extermination, culminating in Auschwitz. The proponents of this view have explored in meticulous detail the bureaucratic machinery of the German state that made the Holocaust possible, from the trains used to deport the Jews to the workings of the labor and death camps. Another important approach emphasizes the brutality of the Second World War, which led the German soldiers to perpetrate mass murders. Scholarship on these topics certainly helps us capture and understand aspects of the Holocaust, but it cannot assist us in interpreting the burning of the Bible.
Finding an answer to the question “Why did the Nazis and other Germans burn the Hebrew Bible?” requires a historical imagination that captures Germans’ culture, sensibilities, and historical memories. When we change our perspective and view the burning of the Bible as part of the creation of a new German identity by the Nazis, when we acknowledge that this act involved a set of emotions that cannot be ignored or separated from the Holocaust, then new possibilities that challenge our perceptions emerge to help us understand this event.
Burning the Bible was an intentional act: It happened all over Germany, in public for all to see, and both those who perpetrated the act and those who watched it perceived it as a transgressive act, whether they supported or opposed the burning. The burning was part of a larger story Germans told themselves during the Third Reich about who they were, where they came from, how they had arrived there, and where they were headed. The burning of the Bible was about covenants: old, new, and newer still.
Burning the Bible, and by extension Kristallnacht, was part of the Nazi tale about the Jews as inheritors of a tradition that threatened the Third Reich. The historical origin of the Jews was a dagger aimed at the heart of the Nazi experiment. Kristallnacht was not simply a dramatic enactment of the idea that Jews were not welcome in Germany—this had been made quite clear since 1933—because burning the Bible was not an assault on Jews as individuals supposedly staining daily life in Nazi Germany, but on Judaism as a whole. It was not about fixing the present, but about fixing the past. It was not primarily about pushing the Jews to emigrate from Germany or a reflection of uncontrollable hatred, but about building a racial civilization by extinguishing the authority of the Jews over a moral past embedded in the Bible.
The Bible was destroyed because it was disturbingly important to the Nazis. Burning it was a way to visualize Judaism, to make tangible the enemy that was being destroyed. Some of the Germans who participated knew that the Torah scrolls comprised the five books of the Pentateuch, from Genesis to Deuteronomy. Others may have had only a vague idea of the scrolls’ contents, while still others may have had no sense of it at all but were simply joining their friends in the act of vandalism. The point was not whether they had precise knowledge of Jewish religious practices and rituals or of the exact biblical books included in the scrolls. Participants knew that the Torah scroll was the holiest and most sacred object in the synagogue. This was enough. The scroll was an image of Judaism, and the scroll on fire provided a symbolic destruction of its authors, its cantors, its interpreters, its readers.
The burning continued a practice familiar from May 1933, when the Nazis burned books all over Germany. The meaning of the burning of the books was not determined by the precise literary knowledge of the participants and the audience, who most often had not read the books or even heard about the authors. The burning was the meaning.
The scrolls were touched, carried, rolled out, trampled on, biked and walked over, tied to the backs of Jews, thrown into rivers, torn apart, set ablaze: Germans intimately engaged the physicality and materiality of the Torah. The destruction called forth the five senses at once. It was a tactile act of palpable contact, replete with the sensuality and excitement that comes with destroying dangerous objects. Dangerous—because by burning the Torah, Germans also acknowledged the power of the object, much as they acknowledged the power of Judaism in burning 1,400 synagogues. The scrolls had to be vanquished with bare hands and demonstratively, publicly, for all to see. Germans destroyed the Bible not sheepishly in secret, but in a stirring theatrical performance with actors and audience, be it applauding, bellowing, or in shocked silence. By burning the Bible in public, the Nazis made everyone complicit in a transgressive act.
In the burning, the Nazis expanded on the idea of the eternal, sinful racial origins of the Jews by adding the desire for a clean slate when it came to religious origins. Racial ideology might have provided modern scientific proof of the Jews’ eternal guilt for the Nazis; but in Kristallnacht, the Nazis created a German and Christian identity independent of Jewish roots. The idea of race offered “proof” of Jewish immemorial crimes to a national community that set out to liberate itself from the authority of Judaism as represented in the immemorial Book of Books. In this way, for the Nazis, Jewish modern and ancient vices linked and complemented each other. The Jews had to be excised from Germany because they epitomized both the rootlessness of modern times and the ultimate historical origins of European Christian civilization embedded in the Bible. Rootlessness and roots commingled in crafting the Nazi idea of origins. The Nazis persecuted the Jews because as rootless cosmopolitans they did not possess a German identity, and they also persecuted them because as the people of the Book they did possess a German,
Burning the Bible was an awesome display of superiority over the Jews. It was so massive, brutal, and violent that it was as if the Nazis were effectively saying to the Jews and other Europeans that they and not the Jews were now to be considered the Chosen People. In Regensburg, Jews heading the parade of humiliation were made to carry a banner that read “Exodus of the Jews.” In exorcizing any religious past that linked Judaism and German identity, the Nazis created a new past for the Third Reich and for German Christianity. The act of destruction was an act of appropriation of the authority of the Hebrew Bible and a sort of overcoming of an original sin of origins—namely, that the roots of Christianity (and therefore also of German Christianity) were Jewish.
By burning the ancient Bible, the Nazis made clear that ideas about the past—about historical origins, to be exact—underlay their concepts of time, building of empire, and extermination of the Jews. For the Nazis, the Jews symbolized time: Their persecution and extermination were driven by the desire to control memory and history. Precisely because it saw itself as a radical and novel historical departure, Nazism paid particular attention to the past, that protean and essential factor of life in all societies. This view fit within a broader pattern of all national and revolutionary movements in the modern world that sought to build a new life based on invented and constructed historical memories.
And since the Nazi biological worldview was based on the idea of origins that cannot be changed, memories of the past became fundamental to endow the movement with the particular legitimacy and authenticity that come with deep historical roots. The Jews symbolized origins that had to be extirpated for the new Germany to arise. The notion of the Jew as possessor of origins—of the present, past, and future, of modernity, the nation, and ultimately humanity—was the basis for the fantasy that made the persecution and extermination of the Jews possible.
The Jews represented three registers of time that were prominent in three different stages of the Third Reich and that together made up a Nazi narrative of history. We begin in 1933. Immediately after the seizure of power, the Jews epitomized a certain kind of modernity, whose un-German, alien elements had to be cleansed from German society. The adjective jüdisch, or Jewish, was attached to every phenomenon of the modern world objectionable to the Nazis, and then some. Jews were responsible for Bolshevism, Communism, Marxism, socialism, liberalism, conservatism, pacifism, cosmopolitanism, materialism, atheism, and democracy; for the defeat in the First World War, the 1918 November Revolution, and the Weimar Republic; for Weimar’s culture of entertainment in cabaret and the club scene, as well as for sexual freedom, psychoanalysis, feminism, homosexuality, and abortions; for modernist, atonal, and jazz music, for Bauhaus architecture, and for abstract painting represented in Impressionism, post-Impressionism, Cubism, Dadaism, and Expressionism.
The persecution of the Jews in the early years of the Third Reich was thus tied up with an anti-Marxist and anti-liberal vision of modernity shared by many Germans and Nazis. This vision was not anti-modern: Rather, it proposed a different modernity built on the ruins of Communism, liberal democracy, and Jewish influences. It was the Jews who represented the overall meaning of the Nazi revolution, the crushing of one modernity and the making of another, because the Jews simultaneously represented different and often opposing enemies to the Nazis. They could represent Marxism and liberalism, democracy and Bolshevism, Communism and Cubism (not quite the artistic style for social realists). They represented the whole that was bigger than the sum of its parts. The Nazis saw the Jew standing at the center of an evil modern history, and ultimately for an evil history overall.
The notion of race had a central place in the Nazi conception of origins. The biological worldview of the Nazis had it that the true history of humankind was a story of racial conflict, and that the characteristics of racial groups were predetermined and could not be fundamentally changed. This theory did leave some room for evolution and transformation, but in the end, the basic racial traits of groups could not be changed. Race, therefore, was the metaphor of origins in the Third Reich.
Even so, the Nazi conceptions of race and of the evil Jewish origins of modernity cannot in themselves explain the revolutionary idea of time that the Nazis came to develop—the idea that it would be necessary to destroy a key part of current German and European civilization to usher in the making of a new one. That is what was added on November 9, 1938, when the Nazis burned the Hebrew Bible. Not one copy, but thousands, not in one place but in hundreds of communities across the Reich, and not only in metropolises such as Berlin, Stettin, Vienna, Dresden, Stuttgart, and Cologne, but in small communities such as Sulzburg, a Protestant village in Baden with 1,070 inhabitants where the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments were thrown from the roof of the synagogue and the Nazis marched mockingly up and down the main street with Torah scrolls before destroying them.
Burning the Bible was a transgressive act against a key symbol of German culture, and as such was not only transgressive but liberating: The new national identity would henceforth owe nothing to the Jews and would owe nothing to previous moral and cultural constraints in treating other Christian Europeans. It was not an anti-Christian project, as some have said of Nazism; rather, it was a project to construct a new German Christianity that would owe nothing to the Jews and to other Christian Europeans. The enslavement of Europeans, which would soon follow to the amazement of the people of the Continent, depended on the destruction of the Jews first.
The Reich Press Office announced on February 3, 1944, that “the Jewish question is the key to world history.” By that time, the vast Nazi project of treating whole groups as people without rights, of labor and concentration camps, and of genocides did create a new humanity, which was perceived by contemporaries as a new history, radically different from what had been experienced until that point. The Jews were again at the center of the making of the Nazi empire: It was the unprecedented effort to ensure their extermination that gave it meaning. Heinrich Himmler expressed this sentiment in his notorious address to a group of SS officers in Posen in 1943: “In our history, this [the extermination of the Jews] is an unwritten and never-to-be written page of glory.” Oskar Rosenfeld, a Viennese Jew who was deported to the Lodz ghetto in November 1941 and who kept a remarkable diary, wrote: “There are no heroes in this tragedy. And why tragedy? Because the pain does not touch on something human, on a strange heart, but on something incomprehensible that touches on the cosmos, an event in nature like the creation of the world. In the beginning God created the ghetto.”
A fundamental problem in interpreting the Holocaust has been how to explain the daunting gap between the anti-Jewish persecution of the pre-war years and the almost unimaginable extermination during the war. If we look for Auschwitz in pre-war Nazi culture, we assume that Auschwitz was already clearly imaginable, which was not the case. If we emphasize racial ideology, we assume a causal relation that explains too little, because it is still not clear how the jump was made from hatred to extermination.
Nonetheless, there was an inner logic from the takeover of Germany in 1933 to the end of World War II.
The progressive removal of Jews meant the conquering of differing aspects of time. First came the
conquering of the present in 1933 through their exclusion from German society, and second, the conquering of a moral past in 1938 through the elimination of Judaism and the Bible. Finally, there was the conquering of history itself and the future of humanity from 1941 onward through the effort to remove the entirety of the Jewish people from the face of the earth.
Over those 12 years, I believe, Nazi anti-Semitism was a work in progress during the course of which the Nazis envisioned a world without Jews. This poses a challenge to the mainstream view in popular and scholarly understanding of the Holocaust, which holds that the mass murder of the Jews during the war had not been anticipated and that victims and perpetrators alike scarcely believed what was happening. It is true that on November 9, 1938, no one imagined the gas chamber of Auschwitz, not even Hitler himself. But on that day one could have imagined a German world in which Jews and Judaism would be terminated through violence.
In the small town of Rätzenburg, in Pomerania, the small, forcibly disbanded Jewish community sold the local synagogue before November 1938. It was made into an egg market. As Kristallnacht came, and hundreds of localities across Germany burned synagogues, some inhabitants in Rätzenburg protested. They also wanted a synagogue to burn, for what was a locality without a burned synagogue?
The Jewish community was forced to annul the sale and return the money. The eggs were removed. The synagogue was restored. And then the people of Rätzenburg set it on fire.