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Rory MacLean interviews Georg Salzmann on books that escaped Nazi bonfires

Rory MacLean

Filed under: Non-fiction

Over the last 30 years, Georg Salzmann has amassed an extraordinary collection of 'un-German' books which escaped the Nazi bonfires. Rory MacLean visits him in Munich.

Most days a book lands on my doormat.  It may be a review copy from a publisher.  It may be from a second-hand dealer, arriving carefully wrapped with a short note attached, hoping that I’ll enjoy the read.  Opening the envelope always gives me a thrill: holding in my hands an individual’s life work or years’ labour. Even more moving, especially now that I’m living in a city where history is ever present, is the awareness of my freedom to choose whether to read the book and how to review it.

Just along the road from my Berlin apartment is Opernplatz, the square where 20,000 books were burnt on 10 May 1933.  Hitler had recognised that ‘the power which has always started religious and political avalanches in history has been, from time immemorial, none but the magic power of the word’.  To him words were hammer blows ‘opening the gates to a people’s heart’.  Within months of seizing power, the Nazis – working through the German Student Association – organised a nationwide campaign to ‘cleanse’ the country of ‘un-German’ books.  That damp May night marked the symbolic end of Berlin’s literary prime.  Cosmopolitan German Modernism went up in smoke and the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth wrote, ‘It’s time to leave.  They will burn our books and mean us.’   Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Döblin, Thomas and Heinrich Mann and dozens of other authors fled the country. Goebbels had seized control of culture, determined to eliminate the arts and artists not celebrating Nazi goals.  Over the next twelve years – until the end of the Second World War – 100 million books (by some estimates) would be systematically destroyed in Germany and its occupied territories.

In 1933 Georg Salzmann was four years old and like any child would have enjoyed the sight of the flames curling and licking around the unfurling pages.  He was a lucky boy, growing up at the dawn of a new German age, his country stepping away from the dark indignation of defeat in the Great War.  His father was a leading member of the local National Socialist Party.  At their factory, which his family had founded in 1818, he proudly wore a gold swastika lapel pin.  The firm made fire-fighting equipment and their life nets especially would be vital for the coming war effort.  Like him, most Germans were surrendering themselves to herd emotions, investing moral authority in their leaders, displacing reality with ‘the fantasy world of the nursery’, to quote author and historian Michael Burleigh: ‘This was children’s politics for grown-ups, bored and frustrated with the prosaic tenor of post-war liberal democracy, and hence receptive to heroic gestures and politics as a form of theatrical stunt, even at the expense of their personal freedom’.  At the factory young Georg played his part by climbing up a small tower to test the life nets.  He held his nose tight and jumped.

‘When the War came, children had to work during the school holidays,’ Salzmann told me at his home in Munich.  ’I was sent to a farm between Erfurt and Weimar, at the foot of a hill called Buchenwald.’  He dragged on his cigarette and the smoke curled up towards the light.  ‘I knew it was a concentration camp.  Every morning on my way to feed the cattle I’d pass by the train station.  There were often prisoners there, working in their striped pyjamas.  I saw the guards hit them with rifle butts.  I found this behaviour correct.  We had been told that the prisoners were deserters, gangsters.  Our soldiers were risking their lives at the front, yet their ammunition often did not work because these saboteurs wanted Germany to lose the war.’

‘What child talks about politics at that age?’ Salzmann went on.  ‘When I was growing up my father told me the banned authors – men like Brecht and Walter Rathenau – were criminals and Communists, even though he hadn’t read them.  Then in 1945 he saw Germany in flames and felt personally guilty.  There was no blood on his hands.  He wasn’t a member of the SA.  But he saw the country suffering because of the beliefs of himself and others.  So he went down to the cellar – he was a passionate collector of good French wine – and destroyed every bottle.  Then he killed himself, with my mother and me in the house.

‘It was raving madness. It wasn’t a liberation. It was a very, very terrible time. We had lost the War. My world was broken down. A few weeks later an American jeep came and took me and my friends into Buchenwald camp itself. Only then did I begin to understand how we had been blinded, dazzled, by the propaganda. The revelation totally changed my thinking.’

Salzmann poured more coffee and lit another cigarette. On the tables and chairs, stacked against the walls, tumbling out of the kitchen cabinets and filling the bookcases around us was one of the most remarkable and chaotic book collections in Europe. Over the last 40 years – through small dealers and at countless weekend flea markets – he has amassed over 15,000 volumes.  The heart of the collection is the work of about 100 authors (with later commentaries on them) who were either banned or forbidden under the Third Reich.

Salzmann’s journey from defeated child-soldier to obsessive amateur bibliophile spans the resilient and resourceful Wirtschaftswunder years.  As the son of a Nazi factory owner, he was persona non grata in Soviet-occupied Thuringia.  In 1948 he was arrested on trumped-up charges of sabotage and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment.  After the authorities had stolen the firm’s machinery, he was released.  Defiant, Salzmann built a successful woodwork shop in the factory’s empty shell.  But four years later, during the brutal suppression of the 1953 anti-Soviet uprising, a schoolfriend in the police called him.  ‘Get out now,’ he warned.  ‘They’re coming for you.’  Within an hour Salzmann was on a train to Berlin, slipping by the border guards and into the divided city by audaciously commandeering a table in the dining car and wearing a Communist Party pin on his lapel.

‘I had no papers, no job, no schooling – only a wife,’ he told me.  While she found work to support them as a book-keeper in West Germany, Salzmann himself joined a succession of property-development companies, helping to rebuild some of the three million homes that had been destroyed in the War.  Then in Bremen he was invited to join an exclusive book club.  ‘I had always read but until then had no passion for books,’ he said.  ‘Suddenly I found myself talking about literature with politicians, academics and the director of Beck’s brewery, who brought five cases of beer to our Thursday meetings.  I happened to pick up a collection of essays and read about Ernst Weiss, an exiled Austrian writer who had committed suicide in his Paris hotel room as the Wehrmacht marched in to the city.  Weiss had been a top Expressionist, a Jew admired by Thomas Mann, yet because so many of his books had been burnt he had been all but forgotten.  I suddenly realised that something had to be done.  The Nazis couldn’t be allowed to win.  I couldn’t let this man’s voice be snuffed out.  I was hooked.’

Salzmann decided not to collect the well-known, banned authors, for example Kafka, the Manns and Heinrich Heine.  Their work was already preserved in dedicated archives.  Instead he focused on ‘neglected’ writers like Erich Kästner, Stefan Zweig and Lion Feuchtwanger.  ‘I tried to buy first editions, with a signature if possible.  As many Germans were still trying to forget those days, I often found perfect copies for as little as 50 pfennig.  Now they’re worth over €500 each.Over the years I’ve gathered together the complete works of 40 writers – Erich Maria Remarque, Hans Sahl, Franz Werfel – and I’m only a book short with 30 others.’  He dragged on his cigarette.  ‘To do this job one needs patience, knowledge and especially instinct.  Just last Sunday at another flea market I happened to glance at a box of shoddy paperbacks.  My fingers started to tingle.  I dug down and found a work by Leonhard Frank which I’d been searching for for 40 years.’

He considers internet searches to be ‘unsporting’.  In any case, as he has only his small pension, he can’t afford to buy from expensive dealers either on- or off-line.  ‘Stall owners hear me coming – I have a stick which I tap on the ground as I walk through the markets – and they never overcharge me.  Last year at a market in Vienna I found six rare Schnitzler volumes.  “Take them,” the stall holder said to me.  “They’ll be in good hands.” These people know where my heart lies.’

Salzmann is not the first collector of ‘un-German’ literature.  The Deutsche Freiheits Bibliothek – or Library of the Burned Books – was founded by German exiles in Paris in 1934, one year to the day after the first Berlin bonfires.  For six years the small studio on Boulevard Arago served as a research centre as well as a meeting place for anti-Nazis, including Ernst Weiss.  In the first weeks of the War it was closed by the French authorities.  During the Occupation, the Germans removed, and most probably burnt, the collection.

The floors of Salzmann’s modest suburban house bow under the weight of books.  Between them wind narrow passages from landing to kitchen and spare bedroom.  ‘I’m concerned about the weight,’ he admitted, as I turned and almost knocked a Käthe Kollwitz print off the wall.  ‘My daughter, who lives downstairs, worries every time the beams creak above her head.’  He gestured at bibliographic towers teetering on a narrow bed.  ‘That’s where a lady friend used to sleep, but there’s no room for her now.  Not that she wanted to live in my world.  I’m a prisoner of my books.’  He falls silent for a moment then laughs suddenly.  ‘But if I had to decide between a young woman in bed or a Stefan Zweig first edition, there’d be no contest.’

Originally focused and well organised, the collection has begun to run away with itself.  At least a prolific decade of acquisitions has yet to be catalogued.  The cellar consists of three, rather damp rooms packed with heaving shelves.  ‘My job is to save the books that are left,’ he explains.  ‘Later young people can list them.  I no longer have enough space to organise the collection.’

Salzmann has turned down offers from American institutions.  He wants the collection to remain in Germany. But Augsburg University and the NS Documentation Centre at the former Kongresshalle in Nürnberg, both of which have expressed interest, keep delaying the acquisition.  In Bavaria – unlike in Berlin – there seems to be political resistance to giving space to the memory of this period of German history.  For example, in Munich there are no stolpersteine.  An astonishing thirteen thousand of these engraved, brass ‘stumble’ stones have been planted among the cobbles of 280 other cities, recording the name, year of birth and the fate of individual victims of Nazism.  Likewise, the city council rejected out of hand a plan to house Salzmann’s collection in a dedicated space under Königsplatz, one of the epicentres of Nazi power and mythology.  As they say in Bavaria, the proposal was ‘not even ignored’.

‘I’ll be pushing up daisies by the time the books find a home,’ admits Salzmann.  With his long hair swept back, he looks a decade younger than his 80 years.  ‘I negotiate with potential buyers.  I give talks at schools.  I try to interest the Press in my work.  But often I feel that my words are just spoken into the wind.’

As we talk, I try to imagine my courage – and cowardice – if my own books were to be banned and burnt.  I think about the importance of learning from history, about a recent survey which found that 30 per of east German teenagers believe the Berlin Wall was built by the Western Allies, and that Hitler had been an East German leader.  I think about the world of books today: the bookshop ‘dump bins’, the two-for-three special offers, the marketing men for whom books are like so many cans of baked beans.  From infancy to the grave, our lives are shaped by words, written and spoken, and something fundamental about a society, or a group of people, can be learnt by how it values, or fears, books.

‘Every book has a story,’ Salzmann told me.  ‘This Stefan Zweig came from Basel.’  He passed me a numbered copy of the Schachnovelle, written shortly before the author’s death in Brazil.  He pointed out an unexpectedly empty shelf.  ‘I’ve just given 25 books to the Holocaust Museum in Washington.  It made me proud to realise they had heard about my work.’

As he turns a rare Vicki Baum in his hand, I ask if – as he searches for works that have survived the Nazi’s barbaric censorship – he ever thinks of his father, and the beliefs that condemned so much of Germany and its literature to the flames.

‘I have my own life.  I don’t have to make amends for my father’s actions,’ Georg Salzmann tells me, his voice strong and firm.  ‘But often I have it in the back of my mind that we sinned.’

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