How (not) to exterminate a book.

ausgewahltegedichte.jpg As a book freak (bibliophile is just too refined to describe my love for certain bound publications) I have been researching the case of a particular poetry volume for a few years now. Recently, Xeni posted on the U.S. government's purchase and destruction of upwards of 10,000 books that reminded me of the case I am researching and I found the parallels between the two instances eerie. I am going to request a suspension of Godwin's law for the time that you read this piece as the unintentional but unavoidable comparison to the Nazis cannot be hidden. Gottfried Benn: German poet, medical doctor, and Nazi sympathizer, published a collection of his poems in May 1936 entitled "Selected Poems - Ausgewählte Gedichte". Although authorized for publication under the Nazis, upon a closer reading of the poems the authorities quickly changed their minds. The Black Corps - Das Schwarze Korps, the official weekly propaganda newspaper of the SS, vilified the publication by calling Benn a Selbsterrreger (Self-agitator or Masturbator). Some of his early expressionist poems were deemed to be inappropriate for a Nazi audience and the newspaper advised him, "Give it up, poet Benn, the times for such disgusting things (Ferkeleien - literally 'acts of piglets') are permanently gone". This created such a furor over the poetry volume that the book was banned at the beginning of the summer of 1936. The copies in existence were systematically rounded up and destroyed by the government. Unlike previous instances of Nazi book burning that were largely symbolic but did not represent a complete extermination of a particular work, this instance of publication, review, recall, and destruction eliminated almost all of the original first editions printed. However, despite this swift and sharp reaction on behalf of the authorities, Benn's book was not simply erased from memory as one might expect, but replaced. As early as November, a new first edition with the same title appeared that subtracted five poems from the collection and added seven other poems. It was not Benn's poetry alone that was offensive, but merely a number of poems (Zipped PDF). They were: "D-Zug", "Mann und Frau gehen durch die Krebsbaracke", "O Nacht", "Synthese", and "Untergrundbahn". Gottfried Benn remained in Germany during WWII but was forbidden to publish on his own until after the war. For years, his Nazi sympathies have been juxtaposed with his poetic contributions. Despite that larger debate on the merits of his work, the case of his 'exterminated' book remains a truly interesting example of how Government control of publication is both horrifying and strange. Despite the desire of the Nazi government to exterminate the book and replace it with a revised version, a number of copies of the original 1st edition have of course survived. However, I would currently estimate the number to be under twenty. Army Reserve Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer stated recently, "Someone buying 10,000 books to suppress a story in this digital age is ludicrous." Even without the digital age, it has always been ludicrous to believe that one can to control the flow of information.


  1. Slight hijack: Does anyone have a link to the unredacted text of Operation Dark Heart, or can anyone point me to where I can find it?

  2. “Someone buying 10,000 books to suppress a story in this digital age is ludicrous.”

    Just exactly so. That statement is so true, it’s led many of us to wonder whether this was another bogus campaign to give credibility to some false information in the book. The government these days operates so much by political theatre, it’s very hard to guess the extent of their day-to-day lies.

    Such is life under government by comicbook villains…

  3. I don’t know about that “not guilty of a crime” either, depending on the point of view and who writes and enforces the laws in question. US government/institutions these days go as far as trying even to criminalize and load with repercussions the release of classified or sensitive data by non-US citizens outside the US. Case in point, I’d say it’s pretty clear that anyone involved with the Wikileaks project is in serious danger of getting detained (surely only for some friendly harmless questioning…) once they enter the US, even when they aren’t US citizens and did not strictly break US law within US borders. (I know this is debateable, but that is so because in the digital age, things work differently not only as far as virtual book burning goes, see above.)

  4. #1 Scratchee is engaging in a classic fallacy – making a general argument that ignores the actual facts of the situation: the book was actually cleared by the Army censors, and then the DoD stepped in after the fact and started redacting information that was not, in fact, classified:

    The National Security Agency, headquarters for the government’s eavesdroppers and code breakers, has been located at Fort Meade, Md., for half a century. Its nickname, the Fort, has been familiar for decades to neighbors and government workers alike. Yet that nickname is one of hundreds of supposed secrets Pentagon reviewers blacked out in the new, censored edition of an intelligence officer’s Afghan war memoir.

    RTFL, please.

  5. What the Nazis did was evil.
    What the US government did was stupid.

    Trying to equate the two is simply going WAY overboard to make your point, and it ends up damaging the credibility of anyone who has legitimate concerns about the criteria the US government is using to determine what should be classified and what shouldn’t be.

    1. What the Nazis did was stupid for an evil purpose.
      What the US did was stupid. Maybe in some cases you can compare the means without equating the motives?

  6. The way I see it, unless the published item is divulging sensitive information that would hurt government operations if made public, there shouldn’t be a problem.

  7. There is a very interesting and good book named “Das Buch der verbrannten Bücher” (The book of the burned books) with stories about the authors of many of the books burned by the Nazis in 1933 and later.

    The author argues that many of the texts actually almost didn’t survive and that many of the authors were subsequently forgotten. He acknowledges that sometimes this is due to the lack of quality in their writing, but also argues how frightening and how efficient the book burnings in Germany actually were.

    They might not have succeeded in burning every single copy but it did end many careers and silenced many authors for years or for the rest of their lives.

    So buying and destroying all 10 000 copies of a book is not just ridiculous. It is dangerous. It’s not about a single book surviving, but it’s about silencing the wider distribution of ideas. And that works quite well.

  8. So the way to effectively suppress a work is not to eliminate all copies of it but to flood the market with junk copies, making it impossible to find the real thing? Weren’t the RIAA doing this with MP3s of unreleased albums a while ago?

  9. So the way to effectively suppress a work is not to eliminate all copies of it but to flood the market with junk copies, making it impossible to find the real thing? Weren’t the RIAA doing this with MP3s of unreleased albums a while ago?

  10. My German sucks so had to read the translations…

    Perhaps it is more important to be seen to be flexing than to actually posses might.

    “While I do not agree with the edits in many ways,” Colonel Shaffer wrote, “the Defense Department redactions enhance the reader’s understanding by drawing attention to the flawed results created by a disorganized and heavy handed military intelligence bureaucracy.”

    I lol’d

  11. I am going to request a suspension of Godwin’s law for the time that you read this piece as the unintentional but unavoidable comparison to the Nazis cannot be hidden.

    Sorry to leave a comment with the sole purpose of pedantry, but Godwin’s law is not, “Mentioning Nazis or Hitler is sufficient to end the discussion.”
    I have no idea when or why this interpretation became so common. Even XKCD engaged in it:

    Godwin’s law is simply that as the length of a discussion on the internet increases, the probability of a comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches one.
    Obviously, if the discussion is on World War II, the probability starts much higher than if it were, say, about bunny raising methodology. The law also has nothing to say about what to do about such a comparison.

  12. why won’t someone that has a copy of the original book send the contents to WikiLeaks for all to enjoy?

  13. …people without lawful access, such as newspaper reporters or publishers, are not guilty of a crime for passing along the information

    I don’t know about that. The Fed could make the case that not only did the publishers know it was classified info (thereby making the publishers guilty of possessing and disseminating state secrets), but the printed books are a threat to national security and can thus be confiscated without compensation.

    Either way, I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that subpoena.

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