Fahrenheit 451

In Ray Bradbury’s book “Fahrenheit 451”, books are illegal and the job of firemen is to burn them. Bradbury wrote this during a time when civil liberties were being eroded in the US. Much after I read the book I came across the history of the events which very directly influenced it. One memorial to those is in the open square on Unter Den Linden called Bebelplatz.

In plaques embedded into the flagstones, and in an artwork below the square, are memorials to the burning of books in this place on 10 May, 1933 by the Nazi Student’s Union. The square is bounded on two sides by university buildings, and by the state Opera on the third. It opens out to the Unter den Linden to the north, and across the street is the Humboldt university (the photo below was taken facing it). The building on the west (featured photo) was the university library.

We visited it again on a bright and cold day as the clock struck thirteen. Crowds of tourists cycled about, the middle of Berlin is cyclist’s area. Years ago we’d seen the moving installation by Micha Ullman which can be viewed through a glass panel set into the ground (the cluster of people in the photo above are standing around it). It shows empty shelves, symbolizing the books that were pulled out of the library by students, under the direction of the librarian and professors, to be burnt.

Erich Kaestner was one of the authors whose books were burnt. He stood in Bebelplatz, unrecognized, and later described the heavy rain as the fires kept going out and the firemen had to keep lighting the fire again and again. Bebelplatz is a place one can visit over and over again, because it reminds you that liberties we now take for granted can be eroded by elected leaders who create mobs behind whom they can hide their designs. One of the plaques embedded into the flagstones reminds us to watch out for early signs of such erosion by quoting from an 1820 work by Heinrich Heine: “That was but a prelude: when they burn books they will ultimately burn people too.”