Harmful and Undesirable: Book Censorship in Nazi Germany is a small text, with the body of the book clocking in at barely over 100 pages, but it is packed with information, which makes those 100 pages feel like many more. Guenter Lewy uses the historical narrative format to outline the ways that Nazis purged libraries, banned books, confiscated books from publishers, and restricted the flow of information through paper rationing.
The thing that really sets this book apart is the narrative format, and Lewy’s deep understanding of the personalities and drives of the individuals at the top of the Nazi hierarchy. Although the Nazi state is often portrayed as a unified monolith, Lewy argues that Hitler intentionally spread responsibility between individuals and departments to occupy his subordinates with territorial squabbles and infighting. This is a theme of the book, as we see this kind of territorial squabble in all aspects of book censorship. Books in libraries, for example, were banned on several different lists from different departments, some of which were made public and some not. However, there were also restrictions that libraries could place on books that might be used by researchers or academics, and access to these books might be determined by individual librarians. Even books banned at the highest level of government might be available to particular readers under special cases.
These parts of the book are well written and exhaustively researched, but the narrative format is not at its best here. Readers that do not speak German may find themselves easily lost in the names and acronyms for different agencies and government organizations.
In addition to the way the system worked, Lewy also examines several cases of “Inner Emigration” in detail. Inner Emigration was a term used after the war for authors that did not physically leave Germany, and in many cases continued to write and publish, but mentally resisted the regime. These cases are somewhat difficult to judge given hindsight, but Lewy shows how some writers successfully used this tactic to live with the regime, while others have less substantial cases. This documentation of Inner Emigration is one of the high points of the book, and is one area where the narrative format really helps the reader’s understanding of what was actually occurring.
Overall, the book is worth reading, particularly for readers with a profound interest in the Nazi period or book censorship, but it is most appropriate for a specialized audience. More mainstream audiences will likely find themselves overwhelmed with detail.
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