Censorship and Banned Books 1933-1945

The Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University presents public events, exhibits and educational resources focused on World War II and the Holocaust in an effort to promote education and dialogue about the past and its significance today. The Censorship and Banned Books exhibit opened in September 2017 at the MHHE and was also on display in fall of 2018 at the Athenaeum Gallery at Kennesaw State University's Sturgis Library. This educational module, based on the exhibit, is intended for you to explore at your own pace. Once you have scrolled through the sections and viewed the related images, artifacts, and quotations, you will have an opportunity to engage with the content through a series of guided explorations followed by a bibliography for further research.

Image: Exhibit on display at the Sturgis Library, 2018. Courtesy Adina Langer

Censorship and Banned Books: 1933 - 1945

The freedom to read is an essential right, protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Though central to democracy, it is often taken for granted. Censorship is not a new phenomenon. Various groups throughout history have felt that Americans needed to be protected from political ideas or social forces that they saw as corrupt or obscene. At times, market forces led to self-censorship in an effort to avoid controversy.

During the 1930s, as the world struggled with the consequences of World War I and the Great Depression, competing ideologies took hold throughout the world.

This exhibition explores the ways in which the United States and Germany attempted to control the flow of information in the form of art and literature, and the reasons, sometimes similar, why they attempted to do so.

The American Library Association (ALA) and the Association of American Publishers (AAP) launched the first Banned Books Week in 1982 in response to a surge in books being challenged or removed from school, library, and bookstore shelves. More than 11,300 titles have been banned in the United States since that time.


When on display, this exhibit opened with an introduction and four "chapter" headings encouraging visitors to explore further. The chapters are arranged in chronological order and include:

The second section of the exhibit included artifact cases displaying books that were banned in Germany and the United States between 1933 and 1945. The books are arranged based on the country in which they were banned, with books that were banned in both countries placed in an overlapping space.

The last section of the exhibit discusses the cultural legacy of censorship and banned books in the United States and Germany. It is followed by an opportunity for further engagement with the themes of the exhibit.

Self-Censorship in Hollywood: The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930

During the 1920s, Hollywood executives competed for a share of the box office receipts, and studios tried to surpass each other in sensational content and shock value. But pushing boundaries on the silver screen provoked a backlash. Communities across the nation established censorship boards to review movie content before it was released to the public.

In Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio (1915), the Supreme Court ruled that free speech protections did not extend to motion pictures. This established a precedent for censorship of movies at the state and local level. In response, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) established a code to govern content considered appropriate for public audiences.

The code was established in 1930 (detailed below), but it was not enforced until 1934, when the MPAA's president Will Hays hired Joseph Breen to oversee it. In addition to limiting sex, violence, and profanity in films between 1934 and the late 1960s, the code limited Hollywood studios from expressing anti-Nazi or pro-war sentiment until the outbreak of World War II in December 1941. In the 1960s, the code was replaced with the MPAA ratings system we know today.

A Code to Govern the Making of Motion Pictures, 1930-1955; Courtesy Motion Picture Association of America, Inc.

1930 Code: Resolved, That those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:

  1. Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words "God," "Lord," "Jesus," "Christ" (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), "hell," "damn," "Gawd," and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
  2. Any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
  3. The illegal traffic in drugs;
  4. Any inference of sex perversion;
  5. White slavery;
  6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
  7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
  8. Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
  9. Children's sex organs;
  10. Ridicule of the clergy;
  11. Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;

And be it further resolved, That special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:

  1. The use of the flag;
  2. International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country's religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
  3. Arson
  4. The use of firearms;
  5. Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);
  6. Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
  7. Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
  8. Methods of smuggling;
  9. Third-degree methods;
  10. Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
  11. Sympathy for criminals;
  12. Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
  13. Sedition;
  14. Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
  15. Branding of people or animals;
  16. The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
  17. Rape or attempted rape;
  18. First-night scenes;
  19. Man and woman in bed together;
  20. Deliberate seduction of girls;
  21. The institution of marriage;
  22. Surgical operations;
  23. The use of drugs;
  24. Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
  25. Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a "heavy".

Image: Still from The Public Enemy, a pre-code 1931 gangster film produced by Wwarner Brothers Studio. In this cene, gangster Tom Powers (James Cagney) pushes half a grapefruit into his girlfriend Kitty's face (Mae West). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Literary Purge: Nazi Book Burnings of 1933

On January 30, 1933, German president Paul Von Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor of Germany despite the Nazi Party having only won 33% of the vote in elections the previous July. One month later, the Reichstag fire enabled Hitler to consolidate power. On April 6, the German Students Association’s Main Office for Press and Propaganda proclaimed a nationwide “Action against the Un-German Spirit” to climax in a literary purge or “cleansing” by fire.

The students, a bulwark of support for the Nazis, drafted twelve “theses” evocative of Martin Luther, on April 9, intended to outline what represented a “pure” national language and culture. On May 10, 1933, university students across Nazi Germany burned thousands of books including works by noted American authors including Hellen Keller, a pacifist and advocate for the rights of the disabled, and world-renowned German author Erich Maria Remarque, known for his realistic portrayal of World War I in All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). Among those works burned were the writings of a beloved nineteenth-century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote in his 1821 play Almansor:

“Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”
Berlin, Opernplatz, Bücherverbrennung (Courtesy U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Image: A member of the Sturmabteilung throws confiscated books into the bonfire during the public burning of "un-German" books n the Obernplatz in Berlin. Courtesy U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Spectacle of the Degenerate: Munich Art and Music Exhibitions 1937-1938

Joseph Goebbels became head of the Nazi ministry of propaganda in September 1933. In 1937, Goebbels put Adolf Ziegler in charge of a commission to confiscate from museums and collections any artwork deemed modern, degenerate, or subversive.

Over 5000 works were seized and 650 were presented in an exhibit in Munich intended to foment revulsion against the "perverse Jewish spirit" penetrating German culture. The exhibit displayed the art in a chaotic manner intended to disparage the artists. Ironically, the notion of “degenerate art” or art produced by people whose minds had been poisoned by modern life, came from the 1892 publication of the book, Entartung, by the German-Jewish author and critic, Max Nordau.

The popularity of the Entartete Kunst exhibit prompted the presentation of Entartete Musik, an exhibit about degenerate music, the following year. Goebbels and other cultural ministers in the Third Reich endeavored to purge the influence of jazz, atonality, and Jewish composers from German music. Only classical styles that celebrated “blood and soil” values of racial purity, militarism, and obedience, were allowed to remain and were subsequently harnessed for propaganda purposes.

Adolf Hitler and Adolf Ziegler inspect the installation by Willrich and Hansen of the Degenerate Art Show, 1937. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Poster for the "Degenerate Music" (Entartete Musik) exhibition, 1938. The subtitle "Eine Abbrechnung von Staatsrat Dr. H. S. Ziegler" means "A reckoning by state council H. S. Ziegler, PhD". Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Image: Jean Metzinger, 1913. En Canot (Femme au Caot et a l'Ombrelle), oil on canvas. 146 x 114 cm. Exhibited at Manes Pavilion in Prague, 1914, acquired in 1916 by Georg Muche at the Galerie Der Sturm, and subsequently confiscated by the German Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in 1936 or 1937. It was then shown in the Degenerate Art Exhibition (Entartete Kunst) in Munich. The painting has never been found. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Setting the Tone: The Office of War Information During World War II

At first, the United States did not have an equivalent to Germany's Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the United States Office of War Information (OWI) by executive order 9182 on June 13, 1942 to consolidate the functions of the Office of Facts and Figures, the Office of Government Reports and the Division of Information of the Office for Emergency Management.

Lead by former newsman Elmer Davis, the office oversaw radio, film, and printed material to ensure that it promoted patriotism, rationing, women's participation in wartime work. The OWI worked with other bureaus of the government including the Office of Price Administration and the Civil Service Commission to create and review wartime propaganda posters.

Poster were ideally suited for reinforcing powerful but simple messages to Americans in very public places -- the grocery store, the post office, or the city street. These messages worked. On a large scale, Americans supported the war effort and felt duty-bound to join the front lines, find industrial work, and conserve materials such as metals and waste fats.

The OWI was more concerned with disseminating information than with active censorship, but it did strongly encourage people not to talk openly about what they knew about the war with slogans like:

“Loose lips sink ships.”
"Enemy Ears Are Listening" poster depicting Benito Mussolini, Hideki Tojo, and Adolf Hitler, 1942. Courtesy University of North Texas Libraries Digital Library, Government Documents Department

Image: Elmer Davis, Head of the Office of War Information (OWI), Courtesy Library of Congress


Banned Books in Germany

In Germany, books were banned if they were written by Jews or promoted “Jewish” ideas associated with modernism, including new theories in physics and psychology. They also discouraged sympathetic portrayals of people with disabilities and others who failed to live up to "Aryan" ideals.

Books Banned in Germany, on display at the MHHE, 2017. Courtesy Adina Langer

Classical Theory of Electricity and Magnetism by Max Abraham

  • Abraham was the first to theorize the structure of the electron. His works were banned in Germany because Abraham was Jewish, even though Abraham had been conscripted to work on radio transmission science for the German government during WWI. Germany’s predilection for banning Jewish scientists arguably cost them the atomic bomb during the war.
  • Published in 1932.

Understanding Human Nature by Alfred Adler

  • Adler was the founder of “Individual Psychology” which posited that the interior and exterior realms were equally important in forging one’s psychological state. He was most famous for originating the idea of the “inferiority complex.” His works were banned in Germany because of his Jewish heritage (and because Adolf Hitler probably had an inferiority complex).
  • Published in 1927.

Basic Writings by Sigmund Freud

  • Freud is arguably the most famous psychological theorist of the 20th century. His writings were banned in Germany both because of his Jewish heritage and because of their focus on human sexuality.
  • Published in 1938.

Marxism and Darwinism by Pannekoek

  • Pannekoek was a Dutch astronomer and Marxist theorist most famous for his critique of the “Survival of the fittest” ideology of the Social Darwinists. Pannekoek comments, “Strong as these arguments may appear at first sight they were not hard for socialists to overcome”. In countering these views he cited the social nature of humankind which meant that individuals draw their strength from co-operation with others. Nazi ideology, predicated strongly on Social Darwinism, rejected this critique.
  • Published in 1912.

Banned Books in the United States

The United States had a particular discomfort with depictions of race relations in the South, unflattering portrayals of rural life, the use of profanity, and descriptions of nudity or sexual conduct. Of course, certain people in the United States were also interested in banning Adolf Hitler’s treatise which sparked the rise of National Socialism.

Booked banned in the United States, on display at the MHHE, 2017. Courtesy Adina Langer

Mein Kampf, 1936 edition

  • Adolf Hitler’s Nazi manifesto was first banned in Czechoslovakia and Poland for its militaristic and insulting undertones. When Hitler came to power in 1933, the American Hebrew and Jewish Tribune, along with other Jewish organizations attempted to prevent its first publication in the U.S. Since the end of WWII, it has remained banned in Germany except in excerpted, commented editions.
  • Published in 1925 in Germany, 1933 in the US
The Postman Always Rings Twice  by James Cain. Collection, Museum of History and Holocaust Education

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain

  • Cain’s first novel depicts an explosive combination of sexual attraction and loose morality. In it, a passionate love affair gives way to murderous rage. The crime novel was banned in Boston by that city’s powerful board of censors. So powerful and predictable in their proclivities were Boston’s censors that “banned in Boston” came to be synonymous with “sexy and exciting.” During WWII, this book was among a popular cohort published as cheap “armed services editions,” read widely by the troops. After the war, the book was adapted as one of the first successful examples of film noir.
  • Published in 1934

God's Little Acre by Erskine Caldwell

  • Challenged or banned in Massachusetts, Colorado, and Pennsylvania for its depictions of incestuous attraction and flagrant sexuality, the book was also a loving-but-painful parody of white poverty in the rural South. Caldwell’s earlier novel, Tobacco Road had been banned from the U.S. mail in 1941, but his books were also read widely by troops during the war.
  • Published in 1933.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

  • This classic novel of the Depression-era migration of dust-bowl-ravaged “Okies” to California was challenged or banned most frequently for “profanity” and foul-language. It was also among the most popular novels with troops during WWII.
  • Published in 1939.
The Rise of American Civilization by Charles and Mary Beard. Collection, Museum of History and Holocaust Education

The Rise of American Civilization by Charles and Mary Beard

  • Ten years after it was published, this historical treatise was seized and destroyed by New Orleans police. A classic economic perspective on the history of the American founding, this book lost favor during the Cold War. An icon of the progressive school of historical interpretation, Beard’s reputation suffered during the Cold War era when the assumption of economic class conflict was dropped by most historians.
  • Richard Hofstadter (a consensus historian) concluded in 1968: "Today Beard's reputation stands like an imposing ruin in the landscape of American historiography. What was once the grandest house in the province is now a ravaged survival".
  • Conversely, Denis W Brogan believed that Beard lost favor in the Cold War not because his views had been proven to be wrong, but because Americans were less willing to hear them. In 1965 he wrote, “The suggestion that the Constitution had been a successful attempt to restrain excessive democracy, that it had been a triumph for property (and) big business seemed blasphemy to many and an act of near treason in the dangerous crisis through which American political faith and practice were passing”.
  • Published in 1927.
Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith. Collection, Museum of History and Holocaust Education

Strange Fruit by Lillian Eugenia Smith

  • Banned in Boston because the book was thought to promote “lascivious thoughts… and arouse lustful desire” many felt that Smith’s razor-sharp depictions of race, class, gender, and sexuality in a Georgia town during the 1920s were more to blame. Although it became a bestseller at the end of World War II, it did not enjoy the same popularity for school audiences as books on similar topics such as To Kill a Mockingbird. Smith claimed that the title referred to "the damaged, twisted people... who are products of our racist culture."
  • Published in 1941.

Common Themes

Both Germany and the United States felt threatened by communism and tended to ban books with communist or Marxist themes. Both countries were troubled by modern critiques of World War I and by graphic sex and violence associated with "degenerate" culture.

Display of books banned in both Germany and the United States, MHHE, 2017. Courtesy Adina Langer

The State and Revolution by Vladimir Lenin

  • Lenin’s treatise on the role of the state as a tool of “oppression of the other classes by the ruling class,” necessitated its continued existence after the Marxist revolution to serve the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” This notion was equally frightening to the Nazis, who burned the book in 1933, and to American city and state governments, who seized the book from stores and the U.S. mail during the 1940s and 1950s.
  • Published in 1917.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. Collection, Museum of History and Holocaust Education

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

  • Although published too late to make it into the Nazi bonfires of 1933, this book was nonetheless banned in Germany along with all of Hemingway’s works. In the U.S. It was declared “nonmailable” by the postal service. This power by the USPS to stop the flow of information by regulating “mailable” material has been used off and on, especially during times of war and conflict, since the days of the first Continental Congress of 1776. A known anti-fascist who wrote about his time fighting for the Republic in the Spanish Civil war, Hemingway was targeted in the US largely due to his propensity to compare US policies to Fascism and Communism, and for graphic depictions of violence.
  • Published in 1940.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

  • First banned in Boston and then burned in the Nazi bonfires, An American Tragedy was considered offensive both for its depictions of sex, violence, and immorality in modern life, and for its portrayal of female agency and sexually, particularly offensive to Nazi culture.
  • Published in 1925.

Das Kapital by Karl Marx

  • Capital, Marx’s analysis of social systems leading him to embrace a Communist alternative, was banned from 1939-1945 by the German government. It was repeatedly challenged in US bookstores and school libraries throughout the 1940s and especially during the decades of the “red scare.”
  • Published in 1867.

Censorship and Banned Books: Cultural Legacy

In the United States, censored or banned books have often risen in popularity. Despite persistent private efforts to ban books, especially in schools, most Americans are uncomfortable with attempts to curtail free speech.

In contrast, today's German state promotes books that were banned by the Nazis and bans books that promote Nazi ideology.

“Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard… We can have intellectual individuals and the rich cultural diversity that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. When they are so harmless to others or to the State as those we deal with here, the price is not too great. But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.”

~ Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, West Virginia Board of Education vs. Barnette, 1943

“The constitutional right of free expression is powerful medicine in a society as diverse and populous as ours. It is designed and intended to remove governmental restraints from the arena of public discussion, putting the decision as to what views shall be voiced largely into the hands of each of us, in the hope that use of such freedom will ultimately produce a more capable citizenry and more perfect polity and in the belief that no other approach would comport with the premise of individual dignity and choice upon which our political system rests… That the air may at times seem filled with verbal cacophony is, in this sense, not a sign of weakness but of strength.”

~ U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 91 S. Ct. 1780, 29 L.Ed.2nd 284, 1971. [Case about right to protest, albeit profanely, during the Vietnam War]


The following activities invite you to explore themes presented in this online exhibit. Explore on your own or share your research with the MHHE on Twitter @KSUMHHE

Listen to the Sticky Notes podcast special episode on the composers suppressed by the Nazi government in Germany and then answer the questions that follow.

  1. Why did the Nazi government persecute and suppress composers during the 1930s?
  2. How did these composers and their supporters work to resist this suppression?
  3. What can you do to share the music of artists who were killed during the Holocaust?
Censorship by the Numbers Infographic, 2019. Courtesy American Library Association

Take a look at the top ten banned books of 2020 listed here according to the American Library Association as well as the lists from previous years and then consider the questions that follow.

  1. What do the reasons for challenging or banning these books have in common? In what ways are they different?
  2. What trends do you notice in the top books that were challenged or banned over the past few years?
  3. Why do you think that people continue to censor or ban books in schools in the United States?
  4. Why do you think that ALA picked the following slogan for Banned Books Week 2021?
"Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.”

Resources for Further Reading

Thank you for visiting this online exhibit. Please consider the following resources for further reading on the history of censorship and banned books.

For more offerings from the KSU Department of Museums, Archives, and Rare Books, visit: