Humboldt and Gaza – Berlin Bulletin #222

By Victor Grossman

This is No. 222 of the Berlin Bulletin, which Victor Grossman has been writing for decades. Grossman left the U.S. Armed Forces in the early 1950s by swimming to the Soviet Zone from the U.S.-occupied zone of Vienna, Austria. The Soviet authorities took him to East Germany; later he settled in East Berlin when it was the capital of the German Democratic Republic. Grossman writes here of the German state’s repression against those protesting genocide in Gaza today, with a look back at 1933 Germany.

No books were burned this time in early May. But there were ironic parallels, some all too alarming!

It was May 10 in Germany’s terrible year 1933. Hitler had been in power for hardly three months when students and staff emptied the university libraries of forbidden books and threw them, an estimated 20,000 books by over a hundred authors, into the flames of a giant bonfire. Most authors were German — Jewish, atheist, liberal and leftist: Bertolt Brecht, Anna Seghers, Sigmund Freud and Magnus Hirschfeld, but also some foreign works were thrown into the flames — Maxim Gorki, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, John Dos Passos.

Ninety-one years later, this May 3, just across Berlin’s famous Unter den Linden boulevard and in the same university courtyard where those books had once been dragged from, some of today’s students — courageous, determined, the total opposite of the Nazis of 1933 — were forcibly hauled away to waiting police vans. The students of 1933 were advocating murder, preparing for the genocide which was to follow. These students of 2024 are protesting against murder and genocide.

The mayor and the authorities claimed that forbidden Hamas slogans were called out, justifying their brutal cuffing and arrests. It is possible that some Arab participants, emotionally moved by news and the pictures from Gaza, may have generalized these feelings. Who knows? And does it matter? This group was not antisemitic; it also included Jewish students, a few of them Israeli exiles.

Actions target genocide, far right

The spirit of these first 300 demonstrators, as in similar scenes at other colleges and universities in Germany and other countries — and so very courageously all over the U.S. — was directed against destruction worse than any since 1945, of homes, mosques, churches, libraries, schools and universities in Gaza and against the killing of over 35,000 human beings, a majority of them women and children, and the physical and psychical maiming of so many more.

But these demonstrations, now growing rapidly in number, were more than that. For many they also expressed protest at the entire scene now engulfing Germany, and not only Germany. Hatred is in the air, with century-old feelings of superiority, growing pressure to build ever more destructive weapons and prepare to use them — always, of course, “in justified self-defense,” whether in Gaza, in Lithuania, in Estonia or for blockades against human beings at frontiers in Texas, Arizona or along Mediterranean seashores.

And with this hatred there were mounting pressures for conformity. Don’t rock the boat — or else! Such trends are gaining strength, aiming at the accession of total power, and not only with the obviously far-right groups! For so many of the proper, accepted leaders have ties with the billionaire profiteers thrilling at new conflicts and more mansions, jets, yachts.

New spirit of protest

It is the new spirit of protest against these trends, the hunt for new answers, which has dominant circles worried, even fearful. That is why they send police into Hind’s Hall [at Columbia University] or the courtyard of Humboldt University. Sometimes the rulers prevail and can break resistance, sometimes local victories can be won. But it is the long-awaited movement which counts, and its match-up with equally courageous workers at auto plants, at Walmart or Starbucks shops or in Central Africa and Central America.

‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.’ – Karl Marx. Inside Humboldt University, Berlin. (WW Photo: John Catalinotto)

There is an added irony: The site of Friday’s protest was the courtyard of Humboldt University in East Berlin, given that name soon after the defeat of the Nazis and the liberation of Berlin by the Red Army on May 8, 1945. Looking down upon today’s fighters is the statue of Alexander von Humboldt, a great scientist and explorer, who ardently opposed the slavery he saw in Latin America and the U.S. in the 1820s and oppression everywhere. A worthy patron.

And inside the handsome building (where Albert Einstein once taught) and despite many changes in the university’s character over the years, one sentence has been saved, in golden letters above a wide central staircase. It was written by another famous man, who once studied here, and it might also be considered as very relevant. The author was none other than Karl Marx. The words were: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

Perhaps it is fear of the revival of such a spirit which has caused the mayor and many politicians to become so angry and worried and to send in the police. Let us hope the better analogies are the models, not the frightening ones!

For more about the Berlin Bulletin, see

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