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Humboldt and Gaza: Berlin Bulletin No. 222, May 4, 2024

At the beginning of May, no books were burned this time. But there were ironic parallels, some of them all too alarming!

It was May 10e In the terrible year of 1933 in Germany, Hitler had been in power for less than three months when students and staff cleared the university libraries of banned books and threw them, an estimated twenty thousand books by more than a hundred authors, into the flames of a gigantic bonfire. Most of the authors were German: Jewish, atheist, liberal, left-wing, Bertolt Brecht, Anna Seghers, Sigmund Freud and Magnus Hirschfeld, but some foreign works were also thrown into the flames: Maxim Gorky, Hemingway, Jack London, Dos Passos.

Ninety-one years later, on May 3, across Berlin’s famous Unter den Linden boulevard and in the same university courtyard from which those books had once been dragged, sat a number of contemporary students – courageous, determined, the complete opposite of the Nazis of 1933 – were forcibly taken to waiting police vans. The students of 1933 advocated murder and prepared for the genocide that would follow. These students of 2024 are protesting against murder and genocide.

The mayor and authorities claimed that banned Hamas slogans were shouted, justifying their brutal handcuffs and arrests. It is possible that some Arab participants, emotionally affected by the news and photos from Gaza, generalized these feelings. Who knows? And does it matter? This group was not anti-Semitic; it also included Jewish students, including some Israeli exiles. The spirit of these first three hundred demonstrators, as in similar scenes at other colleges and universities in Germany and other countries – and therefore very courageously throughout the US – was against the destruction, worse than any since 1945, of homes, mosques, churches, libraries, schools and universities in Gaza and against the murder of more than 35,000 people, the majority of them women and children, and the physical and psychological mutilation of many more people.

But these demonstrations, now rapidly growing in number, were more than that. Many also expressed their protest against the whole scene now engulfing Germany, and not just Germany. There is hatred in the air, with age-old feelings of superiority over ‘inferior’ people, a growing pressure to build and prepare to use ever more destructive weapons – always, of course ‘in justified self-defence’, or it now in Gaza, in Lithuania, Estonia or for blockades against people on the borders of Texas, Arizona or along the Mediterranean coast. And with this hatred came pressure for conformity. Don’t rock the boat – otherwise! Such trends are gaining momentum and are aimed at the accession of total power, and not just among the clearly extreme right-wing groups! Because so many of the real, accepted leaders have ties to the billionaire profiteers who are excited about new conflicts and more mansions, planes and yachts.

It is the new spirit of protest against these trends, the hunt for new answers, that worries and even frightens dominant circles. So they send the police to Hind’s Hall or the courtyard of Humboldt University. Sometimes they are victorious and can break the resistance, sometimes local victories can be achieved. But it is the long-awaited movement that counts, and the collaboration with equally courageous workers in car factories, at Walmart or Starbuck stores or in Central Africa and Central America.

There is an additional irony; the site of Friday’s protest was the courtyard of East Berlin’s Humboldt University, which was given that name shortly after the defeat of the Nazis and the liberation of Berlin by the Red Army on May 8e (1945 Looking down on today’s warriors is the statue of Alexander von Humbold, a great scientist and explorer who fervently opposed the slavery he saw in Latin America and the USA in the twenties of the nineteenth century – and against oppression everywhere, a worthy patron and in the beautiful building (where Albert Einstein once taught) and despite the many changes in the character of the university over the years One sentence has been preserved in old letters above a wide central staircase. It was written by another famous man who once studied here and it can also be considered very relevant. The author was none other than Karl Marx. The words were: “Philosophers have so far only interpreted the world in different ways; the point, however, is to change it.” caused the mayors and many politicians to become so angry and worried and to send in the police. Let’s hope that the better analogies are models and not the scary ones!


About Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the United States and now lives in Berlin. He fled his post in the US Army in the 1950s because he risked reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard University and in Buffalo, New York. He ended up in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson archive and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book, A socialist defector: from Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee (Monthly Review Press), is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 to 1990, the enormous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism and the importance of today’s struggle. His address is wechsler_grossman (at) yahoo.de (also for a free subscription to the Berlin Bulletins sent by MR Online).