“…when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please

forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the

long sum of history they are one and the same flesh.”

–Ray Bradbury

History can be recorded in many ways, but the most enduring means for the past to be remembered is through written accounts. As Sutter (2001) notes, the permanence and portability of text makes it a powerful cultural medium (p. 143). Though some communities still transmit their stories orally, printed documents are primarily the longest lasting way to record the past. The printed word is a critical means of preserving memory, disseminating, information, indoctrinating ideologies, distributing wealth, and exercising power (Rose, 2001, p. 1).  Books are often symbols of national or religious identity. As Sutter (2001) notes, “The lengths to which conquerors go to seize or destroy books, the perils that conservators courageously face to safeguard them, the efforts of rival political factions to possess them in order to gain the legitimacy they confer: all illustrate the powerful symbolism of the written word” (p. 143).

The written word can be a vehicle for both good and evil. Printing has been linked with the dissemination of radical ideas and the raising of political awareness ever since the Reformation (Finkelstein & McCleery, 2005, p. 143). Words, language, and ideas can all be used as weapons. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the study of the Holocaust.

Hitler recognized the power of the printed word and used it to his advantage to initiate his campaign of hate. By gaining control of the presses, he was able to disseminate his ideology and prevent opposition to it. This set the stage for his ideas to turn into action.

During the Holocaust, Nazis prevented access to written material that they determined to be un-German by plundering libraries and burning books, which were replaced with anti-Semitic material. The American press strategically reported events in such a way that the public’s awareness and response was minimized. In Europe, resistance arose in the form of underground newspapers, pamphlets, and flyers.

After the war, both historians and survivors began to write about the atrocities of the genocide. Historical texts and memoirs, along with the evidence from the meticulous records of the Nazis, provide us a way to begin to understand the incomprehensible.

In sum, the written word had an effect on the Holocaust itself and also on the way we understand it. The following webpages examine several types of printed material – Nazi propaganda, the American press, and books – over the course of World War II and beyond.


Stacks of German documents collected by war crimes investigators as evidence of the Holocaust. National Archives and Records Administration/USHMM. Retrieved from

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