The steps of Wilson Library are a prime spot for UNC students to socialize, eat lunch, and catch up on reading. But on May 10, 1943, a small crowd gathered there with a far different purpose. At ten-thirty in the morning, a bugler opened a “special ceremony to mark [the] German ‘War on Culture’”—as described by the Daily Tar Heel. This event observed the tenth anniversary of the Nazi book burnings. On that date in 1933, the German Student Union had burned over 25,000 books they deemed “un-German” in demonstrations across Germany. Books considered “un-German” included works by Americans such as Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Other burned books were written by Jews or contained material deemed contrary to the German spirit. Americans were horrified by this censorship, and remained so a decade later.
By 1943, the UNC community was deeply involved in the war effort. Male students participated in military drills as part of the Carolina Volunteer Training Corps. In the lobby of Wilson Library, the “War Information Center” collected and disseminated information about the war. The College for War Training taught courses designed to prepare students “for maximum fulfillment of their war job potentialities.” Students even wore red, white, and blue clothing, as noted in a fashion column from the Daily Tar Heel.
Like students’ sartorial choices, the dramatization of the 1933 book burning was a symbolic gesture of patriotism. It was just one of many such ceremonies inspired by the Council on Books in Wartime, an organization that championed the use of books as “weapons in the war of ideas.” The Library of Congress and the New York Public Library also held events to recall the Nazi book burning.
At the UNC ceremony, Professor of English W.A. Olsen read selections from Stephen Vincent Benet’s radio play, “They Burned the Books.” Written in 1942, Benet’s play condemned Nazi censorship and celebrated American freedom. Wilson Library also presented an exhibit featuring books burned by the Nazis. John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and Storm Over the Land by Carl Sandburg were among the books on display. Underneath a highly stylized depiction of Hitler, the exhibit tagline explains that “THESE ARE THE BOOKS THAT HITLER HATES BECAUSE THEY ARE OUR WEAPONS.”