Dispatches from the Houghton, Part Three: Deeper into the Shadows


By: Robert M. Sarwark

This time around at Harvard’s Houghton Library, I hit a bit of a stride. My first two trips, documented on this blog here and here, served as essential starting points. But now, after the third, I feel that I’m making real progress in terms of the outline for and then the actual content that I would like to make it into my working manuscript.

But, more importantly, this last trip has given me one more week to ponder some of the bigger issues of intellectual freedom that might most interest you, dear reader of this blog.

I also carried with me on this last trip a 2004 paperback edition of writer, librarian (he was ALA president in 1953!), and intellectual-freedom advocate Robert B. DownsBooks That Changed the World, first published in 1956. In his introduction, he writes, “If a book stirs up violent opposition and equally partisan feeling in support of its point of view, the probabilities are that it has deeply affected the thinking of the people. Official censorship and other efforts at suppression also are indicative of its reception.” I’ll be referring to this excellent work throughout this post as a way to hopefully contextualize some of my findings.

World Changing

For the first few days at the Houghton I focused on handling, photographing, and reading sections of extremely well-preserved first editions of specific banned books. These included Galileo’s Massimi Sistemi del Mondo Tolemaico, e Copernicano… (1632); Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651); Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie (1751); George Sand’s La Mare au Diable (The Devil’s Pool; 1846); among a few other more obscure titles. Downs offers these remarks on Galileo in particular: “[U]nder threat of torture and death by the Inquisition, [he] was forced on his knees to renounce all belief in Copernican theories, and was sentenced to imprisonment [though the exact nature of this punishment is disputed] for the remainder of his days.” The particular volume I consulted — one of the same edition that ultimately got Galileo in so much trouble — remained on the Index from its condemnation in 1634 all the way until 1822(!).

Thomas Hobbes’ LEVIATHAN, 1651, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Towards the end of my trip, though, I was ready to move on to the twentieth century. Since with more recent and circulating books I needn’t be tethered to the Houghton reading room, that Thursday I relocated to the Law Library so that I could stretch out my books, computer, and other belongings a bit more. Plus, their hours stretch much later into the evening, even on weekends.

As I entered, there appeared portraits of notable and world-renowned Harvard Law graduates, high up on the reading-room walls. Former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes demanded gruffly, “What are you doing here?” I reminded him that he was dead and to please mind his own business. He piped right down. Then I thought, Which one of these carrells was Barack Obama’s favorite? Couldn’t get as much of a definitive statement on that one. I’ll have to ask him the next time we run into each other.  

The book I was most eager to start reading was one that I hadn’t ever heard of before my research for this project. I had come across this book in J.M. de Bujanda’s Index des livres interdits, Vol. XI, my primary reference source, as I began to stray out of the more distant past and into the twentieth century. In this case, however, I was for the first time extremely tempted to actually agree with the Vatican’s decision to blacklist a particular book. Compared to many of the esoteric, near-impenetrable tomes of the 16th to 18th centuries that I’ve read, this one is perhaps the most genuinely dark and insidious. I’ll just cut right to the chase here: Among the several thousand authors listed in the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books was none other than a high-ranking Nazi of the Third Reich.

The Big Lie

On the influence of Adolf Hitler’s infamous Mein Kampf, which was itself, incidentally, never officially banned by the Church, Downs writes: “A great nation and its allies committed themselves to carrying out the fanatical ideas in the book. By the outbreak of World War II, 5,000,000 copies had been distributed in Germany alone.” Lesser known than Hitler and his infamous henchmen Himmler, Goebbels, and Göring was one Alfred Rosenberg, Leader of Nazi Germany’s Office of Foreign Affairs, Commissar for the Supervision of Intellectual and Ideological Education, and Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories. In 1930, just three years before the Nazis would rise to power in Germany, at the age of about 37, Rosenberg had published his own book in Munich.

Though the capital of modern-day Estonia has been called Tallinn since that country’s independence in 1918, Rosenberg was born in what was then known as the city of Reval. Since Estonia was at that time part of the Russian Empire, he was thus a subject of the Tsar throughout his childhood and young manhood. He even completed his doctorate in Moscow. Though Rosenberg and his family identified as “pure” ethnic Germans, at least one bold journalist made the studied claim that Rosenberg was in fact descended from a variety of non-Germanic people-groups, including Jews, and thus was not “Aryan” whatsoever. It seems probable that this insecurity regarding his ancestry — whether internal or external at its source — contributed to the manifestations of his (and, predictably, many others’) racist ideology. But whatever the case, Rosenberg’s membership in the burgeoning Nazi Party predated Adolf Hitler’s own by eight months. The two men would be close yet uneasy allies through the 1920s and ‘30s and up until the Third Reich’s defeat and demise in 1945.

Rosenberg’s two entries on the Index are from 1934 and 1935 and correspond, respectively, to 1.) his Myth of the Twentieth Century: An Evaluation of the Spiritual-intellectual Confrontations of Our Age (1930; see the above link for the original German title and publishing information) and 2.) a response to the criticisms of that book, published in 1935. Essentially, the Myth is a historical and sociological attempt to justify the racial superiority of Aryans generally and Germans specifically. He writes intensely and long-windedly of such pseudo-scientific concepts as “race soul” — we are who we are not because of our individual choices or talents but are essentially predetermined in our individual natures and abilities by racial inheritance. “Either we upbreed the old blood and thereby find renewed vitality and a heightened will to struggle,” he argued, “or the Teutonic-European values of culture and ordered government will sink under the filthy human flood of Cosmopolis…” Rosenberg is also credited as developing and popularizing the concept of Lebensraum (“living space”), or the need for the German Volk to expand themselves both geographically and culturally.

Also deeply entrenched in the occult and semi-spirituality of the Nazi regime, Rosenberg suggests a wide variety of theories, including that Aryans may have originated on the mythical island of Atlantis (or some other now-vanished utopia); that the influence of Jewish St. Paul caused a bastardization of the originally intended doctrines of Christianity; and that Jesus was himself probably not Jewish or Semitic whatsoever. “Jesus possibly was Aryan,” he wrote, “or partially so, showing the Nordic type strongly.” Talk about wishful thinking. This theory, to Rosenberg, thus explains Christ’s powers of charisma over non-Aryans (he cannot, at least, deny that the first Christians were most certainly Jews) as well as offering a tidy apologia for Greater Germany’s adherence to Christianity for so many centuries. What’s more, this same argument cleared the way for Rosenberg to present a reimagined template for the state religion of the Third Reich, one ensconced in the more “natural” volkish (pagan) traditions of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples, while not unfamiliar to the masses who had been raised and educated among the more culturally specific precepts of Nordic Protestantism (i.e., Lutheranism).

Running Afoul of the Vatican

Of all the many scapegoats and boogeymen in Rosenberg’s dense book, it’s not surprising that Jews are the most prominent. Anti-Semitism was an obvious hallmark of the Nazis and their horrific practices throughout the 1930s and 40s. Less well known, however, is some Nazis’ disdain for the Catholic Church. While not as distinct as an ethnic group per se as the Jews had been for centuries in Germany, Catholics and Catholic institutions in geopolitically important regions such as Bavaria often threw up roadblocks to the Nazis’ charges toward both political and ideological dominance throughout Europe and the world. “Piece by piece,” James B. Whisker explains, “Rosenberg tried to show that the Church was both administratively and ritually Near Eastern-Jewish-Etruscan-Roman and anti-Nordic. Its practices are, in his view, alien to the German spirit. They corrupt it and they undermine the national-state.” And then, of course, there were the surrounding Catholic-majority countries such as France and Poland, which the Third Reich intended to permanently conquer and dominate.

Rosenberg’s most hated (though begrudgingly admired, according to Whisker) subset of Catholicism was the Society of Jesus, the Jesuit order of priesthood founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the sixteenth century. On that topic he remarks, “We know of the monstrously strong evil dream of Ignatius of Loyola whose soul-destroying breath lies even today over our entire culture.” And, more generally, he summed up Christianity, “with its vacuous creed of ecumenicalism and its ideal of humanitas, [as having] disregarded the current of red-blood vitality which flows through the veins of all peoples of true worth and genuine culture.” It’s not surprising, then, why the Catholic Church found Rosenberg’s books unacceptable. His ideas directly contravene, by my count, seven (§§2-7 and §11) of the twelve sections of Canon 1399 of the then-current Code of Canon Law (Volume II, Book Three (“Of Things”), Part Four, Title XXIII, “Of the Censorship and the Prohibition of Books,” 1917; Woywod et al. 1952). Based on my reckoning, that’s far more than most other forbidden texts included on the Index.

Downs frames the end of the Nazi era: “The funeral pyre which consumed the mortal remains of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun on April 30, 1945, deep underground in the Berlin chancellery, was a climax that might have been imagined by the operatic composer Hitler most ardently admired, Richard Wagner, for a new Götterdämmerung, or Twilight of the Gods. The scene rang down the curtain on a vast melodrama that had opened a generation earlier…” Though Hitler perished in the shadows, many of his highest-ranking officers were publicly tried at Nuremberg for their crimes against humanity. Included among them was Alfred Rosenberg, who was executed by hanging in the early hours of October 16, 1946. Peter Peel, author of the preface to the 1982 English-language translation of Myth of the Twentieth Century, contends, “He was hanged, it would appear, for what he thought and wrote.” While I am in no position whatsoever to weigh in on the validity of any other human being’s capital punishment, Peel seems to completely disregard here what Downs much more convincingly argues in his introduction: that books have the power to not only deeply affect but change the world through the actions that proceed them.  

After his death, Rosenberg’s two books would remain on the Index until its abolishment in 1966, almost exactly 20 years later.


Robert SarwarkRobert M. Sarwark is a librarian at the Art Institute of Atlanta and a 2018-2019 Visiting Fellow in Publishing History at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. His scholarly interests include historical and contemporary censorship, with a particular focus on the (now-defunct) Catholic Index of Forbidden Books. He is originally from Chicago and enjoys dogs, pizza, and writing bios in the third person. Find him on Twitter @RobSarwark.


  • This is a fascinating piece, and particularly relevant in light of neofascism’s popularity in much of Europe today. I would like to clarify your assertions about the Nazis’ opposition to the Catholic Church. Of course, the Nazis were anti-Christian. There is no dispute about their immersion in myths of a glorious pre Christian past of Nordic supremacy. However, the Christian churches as institutions almost all cooperated with Hitler. Why did the Catholic Church not put Mein Kampf on its Index? Perhaps Rosenberg, at a remove from Hitler’s total power, was an easier target. The Church never excommunicated Hitler, a Catholic, either, but in 1949 Pius XII excommunicated all Catholics who supported Communism. Furthermore, centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, actively promoted by the churches, were easily exploited by Hitler in his near successful program to annihilate all Jews. While Rosenberg specifically denied that Jesus was Jewish, questioning or minimizing Jesus’s life-long Judaism had long been part of Christian tradition at that point, and Jesus’s depiction in Christian art distanced him from his Semitic ancestry.
    Whether or not, in theory, Rosenberg contravened Canon Law is irrelevant. The pope, and other church leaders, were steeped in the deep anti-Semitism of their own education and upbringing, and they were also afraid that if they challenged Hitler they might lose the religious adherence of their flock.
    I’m sure you are familiar with two of many books on this subject:
    David Kertzers, The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism
    John Cornwell’s HItler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII
    The previous pope, Pius XI, had made stronger statements condemning the Nazis.
    Ultimately, more than 1,200 Roman Jews were deported to Auschwitz in full view of the Vatican and its officials.
    You are correct that the Nazis held Christianity in contempt. But the inclusion of Rosenberg’s book on the Index is little more than an interesting footnote, or further evidence of the Church’s hypocrisy regarding Jews at the time.

  • Thanks very much for your response, Emily. Your insight is greatly appreciated. What is most puzzling to me, though, is the parsing out of the rationale behind Index condemnations. It seemed to me a foregone conclusion that the Congregation of the Index would have to have technical justification, based on Canon Law, for each book it blacklisted, Rosenberg’s included. His very specific targeting of the Church — and especially the Jesuits — seems to me to make that a foregone conclusion. However, I am certainly open to the possibility that he just happened to be low-hanging fruit, as you’ve suggested. I certainly aim to find out more.

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