When Books Went To War

 When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

Lots of interesting information here. It's the story of what happened to the world's books in the years leading up to, during, and after WWII, most of which I'd never heard before. 

Once Hitler took control of Germany he began burning books that didn't agree with his idea of the way things should be. As his armies invaded and occupied countries across Europe, he destroyed their books, too. Anything written by a Jewish person, and later by a British person, in fact anything considered "un-German" was burned. Authors considered heretical included Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser, and even German authors whose writings were thought "harmful to the German spirit". From what I've learned since reading this book, the Nazis burned more than 100 million books. Millions more, and hundreds of  libraries, were destroyed by bombs during the war. 

In response to what was happening in Europe, and to provide soldiers with reading material, American librarians started book drives to collect and ship books to camps and deployed soldiers in the U.S. and overseas. People responded and books were donated and sent, but most of them were hard-covered and were too heavy and bulky to be of practical use. At the request of the government, American printers and publishers began producing more paperbacks and eventually American Service Editions (ASEs), which were a small, standard size that could be easily stowed in a pocket or kit bag. Servicemen wrote saying how important, how necessary, the books had become to them: 

"One sailor remarked that a man was 'out of uniform if one isn't sticking out of the hip pocket!'"

"Whenever a soldier needed an escape, the antidote to anxiety, relief from boredom, a bit of laughter, inspiration, or hope, he cracked open a book and drank in the words that would transport him elsewhere." 

I was fascinated with most of this book, if perhaps a little bored with all the pages given to the political wrangling that goes on behind the story. Still, it was an education; I had no idea about any of this. It raised all kinds of emotions, from rage at Nazi tyranny, to despair at great books willfully and gleefully reduced to ashes, to excitement when the new ASEs found their way into the hands of reading-starved servicemen. It was disturbing and exhilarating at the same time. 

The book begins, and I'll end, with this quote from President Franklin Roosevelt:

"Books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man's eternal fight against tyranny. In this war, we know, books are weapons." 


Post a Comment