How (not) to exterminate a book.


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.