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the Complete Review
the complete review - history / censorship


Harmful and Undesirable

Guenter Lewy

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To purchase Harmful and Undesirable

Title: Harmful and Undesirable
Author: Guenter Lewy
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2016
Length: 197 pages
Availability: Harmful and Undesirable - US
Harmful and Undesirable - UK
Harmful and Undesirable - Canada
  • Book Censorship in Nazi Germany

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Our Assessment:

B+ : concise but thorough overview

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The title of Guenter Lewy's book is taken from the 25 April 1935 German ordinance, the 'Anordnung über schädliches und unerwünschtes Schrifttum' that led to the compiling of lists of forbidden and banned written works and their removal from circulation in Nazi Germany. As Lewy's thorough history documents, however, censorship was and remained a complex issue in Nazi Germany -- no simple 'banned/burned book list' -- intentionally, in no small part. Instead of straightforward 'censorship', "this control was exerted by a number of competing state and party authorities and, for a long time, in a distinctly unsystematic manner. Indeed, Lewy notes:

     In few other areas of government was the resulting disarray more extensive than in regard to the censorship of books.
       Interestingly, "Hitler personally showed no special interest in the censorship of books" -- but there were certainly many ideologues in the party who wanted to have their say on the matter. Apparently, Hitler found it useful for there not to be too much clarity about who exactly had what say, pitting various underlings against each other in lower-level power-struggles.
       Lewy's account begins with a brief chapter on 'Book Control in the Weimar Era', as -- perhaps surprisingly -- many of the legal and other foundations for Nazi-era crackdowns had their roots here. So, for example, communist Johannes R. Becher -- who would go on to write the text for the East German national anthem a quarter of a century later -- saw a volume of his poetry ordered confiscated "on the grounds that the book encouraged the violent overthrown of the republic" in 1925, and two months later was indicted "for preparing to commit treason by using his novel Levisite as a 'literary instrument' to incite a revolutionary uprising". Such were also the foundations of the Nazi censorship-regime .....
       The relatively unsystematic book burnings of 1933 were an early flaring up of efforts to control what was available and acceptable in Germany, but the regime also recognized that this made for bad publicity and image-making; similarly, outright censorship made for bad (foreign) press, explaining much of the secrecy around later lists of prohibited books. Such banned-lists were often kept secret, and even where made public -- at least to the trade -- outright explicit censorship was avoided where possible (in word, at least, though not so much in deed ...). This went for domestic consumption as well, as for example:
Publishers were admonished not to tell customers that a certain book was "forbidden"; instead they were to say that the book "was no longer available".
       Protecting German interests meant a broad range of writing, domestic and foreign, became unacceptable -- though among the difficulties publishers and then especially libraries faced in purging books from their holdings was identifying offending titles. A blanket prohibition such as that issued already in 1933 by the Bavarian minister of culture was obviously difficult to implement:
All books and magazines in the Bavarian state and university libraries that show explicit Bolshevik, Marxist, international, pacifist or atheist tendencies as of this date may no longer be lent out.
       Once the country was at war, prohibitions became more stringent and broader: for example, in 1939, after the declaration of war: "the Ministry of Propaganda forbade all crime and adventure novels that 'propagandized English institutions and character'", and in early 1940 they simply forbade the translation of any foreign fiction. Once Germany was at war with the United States, in 1942, there was a clamp-down on American fiction -- though works by authors who had died before 1904 were exempt, with a few popular others who had died later (Mark Twain, Jack London) also allowed to slip by.
       Yet there also came a point where the regime realized that light, popular literature was a desirable outlet for Germans suffering in wartime:
While rigid ideologues like Rosenberg stuck to this negative assessment, the astute Goebbels realized that, due to the hardships of war and the resulting stress and strain, the regime had to soften its line. Literature that eased tension and distracted from the trying conditions of everyday life now had to be tolerated.
       Focusing first on the institutions of censorship, and then the practice, Lewy offers a detailed overview of a practice that was both haphazard and yet also far-reaching. Factors such as the number of workers whose jobs were threatened if crack-downs were too forceful had to be taken into account -- the fear of increased unemployment weighing against the potential dangers posed by undesirable writing slipping through the cracks. Noteworthy, too, was the German insistence on a legal basis for government action, as suggested also by some of the challenges to individual cases of censorship -- though there was also lots of fudging here, including a simple refusal to bother responding to complaints.
       The striving for national purity greatly limited what the regime wanted to see in circulation -- but, as Lewy points out, many were all too eager to go with the flow in the first place, and so, for example:
The politicization of scholarship during the Third Reich, it would appear, was a result less of coercion and censorship than of the embrace of Nazi ideas by large sections of the academic profession.
       Interesting, too, are the observations about the treatment (and behavior) of German authors of the time, in particular those who remained in Germany, in a sort of 'Inner Emigration'. While some were able -- often due to specific circumstances, including advanced age, or their international reputations -- to more or less stand their ground and could not be forced to appease the government, others made what must be considered, at the very least, dubious compromises.
       Lewy's is a fascinating and thorough and well-documented historical overview. Perhaps most disturbing is how many of the methods and approaches still enjoy widespread popularity -- the resemblance of Nazi-era policy and implementation and that found in contemporary China, for example, is terrifying, and other countries seem to have learned many similar lessons from the German example as well.
       An important and eye-opening study -- as Nazi-era censorship proves to have been a considerably more complex phenomenon than commonly realized --, and an often fascinating read.

       [Note: one learns to make allowances for occasional copy-editing slips slipping in, but sometimes one really has to wonder: this is a book that manages to spell Brecht's first name three different ways in the first fifteen pages: first correctly, as 'Bertolt' (4), then as 'Berthold' (10) and 'Bertold' (15). Okay, he was officially originally named 'Eugen Berthold Friedrich'; still: not good.]

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 June 2016

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Harmful and Undesirable: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Historian Guenter Lewy was born in 1923.

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© 2016 the complete review

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