For some book reviews I dilly-dally on choosing a book, either because nothing as jumped out as absolutely wonderful or because there are too many options to pick from. But as soon as I saw “When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II” I knew this would be my review book.
Molly Guptill Manning’s “When Books Went to War” covers reading and censorship during World War II and the impact of both on the war. On May 10, 1933, over eighty thousand people watched or participated in a massive book burning in Berlin that started a conflagration of flames that crossed Germany. Crowds cheered as “un-German” books were burned in 94 different book burnings. “Un-German” books included all works by Jewish authors, and a multitude of other authors including Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Helen Keller, Ernest Hemingway and H.G. Wells.
People across Europe and America were outraged at the destruction of books and censorship of ideas. Demonstrations were held in America, while H.G. Wells established the Library of Burned Books in Paris in 1934. The library held copies of all books banned or burned by the Nazis, and also held in safekeeping books and writings donated by anyone who thought their collections were at risk. In an ironic twist, when the Nazis took Paris, they took the Library of Burned Books into safekeeping, carefully preserving the items in the collection.
By 1938, over 18 categories of books had been banned by the Nazis, with 175 titles and 565 authors on the list. Hitler was fighting his war on the battlefields and in the libraries. The ALA, or American Library Association, felt that the best weapon against Hitler was a book itself. By encouraging Americans to read, his book burnings and censorship would stand in sharp contract and his propaganda would be diluted.
Books had been found in American wars ever since the Civil War. In 1921, the Army Library Service was created by the War Department to be responsible for 228 libraries at Army Posts at that time. But the service quickly had its funding cut, fell into neglect, and state libraries were allowed to take books for their collections. By the time WWII came around, there were no desirable titles left and new camps had no books or libraries at all. With the draft enacted, soldiers were pulled from their civilian lives, stationed far from home, and many times stationed places with very little means of entertainment. Reading was their only outlet.
To help with the drastic need of reading material for soldiers, the ALA started the National Book Defense Campaign. The public was encouraged to donate books to be sent to Army Camps in America and to soldiers overseas. The response was overwhelming, but the logistics in sorting the books, filling the need for wanted reading material and shipping heavy hardbacks made the job almost impossible. It was quickly realized that a soldier carrying a heavy pack of equipment would have difficulty carrying hardback books around, conveniently sized, featherweight volumes were needed instead.
When the Council on Books In Wartime was formed in 1942, they wanted to see how books could help the war effort. They took as their motto “Books are weapons in the war of ideas”. Before the 1940s and paper rationing, paperbacks were almost unheard of. Most bookstores wouldn’t stock them at all. Pocket Books was the first American publishing company to mass produce paperbacks, selling them five-and-dime chains and drug stores. As of 1943, no book existed that met the specific needs of the soldier on the frontline, it would have to be invented. Thus, the “Armed Services Edition” or ASE, was born.
The ASE was small, durable, and of topics that would educate and entertain soldiers. By the end, over 1300 different editions were printed. History, popular fiction, westerns, poetry, educational texts, plays, and a variety of subjects were selected. Every new printing had soldiers eagerly devouring books, trading them, and searching for titles. These little books fit perfectly into a pocket, so they were found where ever the Army and Navy were.
As soldiers made their way across Europe, they carried ASEs that were titles that had been banned by the Nazis. After years of oppression and censorship by the Nazis, there was basically no longer an independent publishing industry in Europe. To help with this, Overseas Editions, OEs, were printed to replace books that had been banned and destroyed in occupied Europe. The ASE model was so popular, and so cost efficient in regards to paper use, that it was used by the British publishing industry to help rebuild after the war.
Because the ASEs, a multitude of soldiers returned home with a love of reading that they did not have when they first went off to war. They brought that new appreciation for reading with them to college as many of them used the benefits of the new GI Bill. Many other veterans carried home their ASEs that helped them survive a trying and difficult war.
The history of the ASE was fascinating and I barely brushed the surface of the fight against censorship and how the love of reading impacted WWII. I finished this book with a list of “new” old titles to read, and an appreciation of how important books have been and still are. Come by the library and pick up “When Books Went to War” to enjoy this read yourself.