Prather’s Pick: ‘When Books Went to War’ is a fantastic read

Diane Prather
Diane Prather

This week’s nonfiction book for adults is enlightening, to say the least. “When Books Went To War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II” was written by Molly Guptill Manning.

The book begins with a depiction of an event that took place on May 10, 1933 in Bebelplatz, a plaza located between Friedrich Wilhelm University and the Opera House in Berlin. The event, organized by college students, is described by the author as one of “merriment.” Forty thousand spectators lined a parade route where thousands of students walked to the plaza. Automobiles made their way to the plaza, too. And waiting there were another 40,000 spectators.

In the center of the plaza a pyre, made of crossed logs, was ready. Using torches, students lit the logs. When the fire was blazing, students took books from the automobiles, and tossed each one into the fire.

One of the students gave a speech as to the purpose of the occasion. He said that it was necessary to burn all “un-German” books that “threatened the movement of Nazi Germany.” Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Public Enlightenment, who oversaw the Reich Chamber of Culture, spoke, too. The event was covered by live radio and was filmed.

Ninety-three more book burnings were held. The Nazis even published a list of books fit for burning. Such authors as Upton Sinclair, Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, Sigmund Freud, Jack London, Albert Einstein, Karl Marx and many, many others were on the list. According to the author, “Hitler sought to destroy not only armies, but also democracy and free thought.”

America was a Nazi target as well as other countries. There was even a radio propaganda campaign that proved unsuccessful for the Nazis. “One of the loudest voices” to address Germany’s propaganda was the American Library Association who decided to use the books themselves as weapons — to encourage Americans to read more. They set out on a campaign to collect books to send to servicemen. Publishing houses came together to “print tens of millions of books on all subject matter and professing all manner of viewpoints.”

Just how this was accomplished is included in the book’s chapters. There were a variety of challenges along the way. One of the most interesting endeavors was publishing periodicals to be sent to servicemen with the intention of having them passed from one person to the other. These magazines were printed on thinner-than-usual paper, with no advertisements, and small enough to be easily carried around. The smallest was “Post Yarns,” a “Saturday Evening Post” periodical that measured three by four and a half inches. The author has included other interesting information about publication of periodicals.

So then why not publish books that were lightweight and small enough to carry from place to place? In 1943, the War Department and publishing industry set out to produce lightweight paperback books, the Armed Services Editions (titles listed in an appendix at the back of the book) — 120 million of them.

Also included in an appendix is a list of authors whose books were banned by the Nazis. And there are notes, too, research references that the author used in writing the book.

Author Molly Guptill Manning is an attorney for the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, New York.

This book is history, information that I wasn’t aware of, but the author is so skilled in writing that it is an easy and interesting read. I just kept turning the pages! It’s an absolutely fantastic book — a must read!

“When Books Went to War” is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. It costs $25 in hardcover. The book can also be found at the Moffat County Library with new books.

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