Book burning in Switzerland in 1965: the people of Brugg look on as so-called “inferior” literature – comics, cheap novels and tabloid newspapers – is consigned to the flames.
Book burning in Switzerland in 1965: the people of Brugg look on as so-called “inferior” literature – comics, cheap novels and tabloid newspapers – is consigned to the flames. Keystone

Mickey Mouse goes up in flames

Comics smoulder, books burn: in Aargau in 1965, mounds of so-called “trashy fiction” ended up on a fire. The campaign was called “Fight the trash", and it was intended to set the scene for further book burnings. But the scheme backfired.

Menoa Stauffer

Menoa Stauffer

Menoa Stauffer studies Contemporary History and German Language and Literature at the University of Zurich and is part of the editorial team of the student magazine Elfenbeintürmer (etü).

Brugg, May 1965. Teenagers diligently collected up comic books that were to be thrown onto a bonfire in the evening twilight. The campaign was spearheaded by teacher Hans Keller, also known as the “Schundpapst”, the “pope of dross”. The objective was to incinerate what Keller called “Schundliteratur”, trashy works of literary fiction. This was to keep young people safe from the corrupting influence of inferior reading material. Mickey Mouse, Lassie, Fix und Foxi and Schweizer Illustrierte ended up in a disorderly jumble on the heap, but there were also magazines such as Der Sonntag and Leben und Glauben that were not otherwise counted as trash.
Classified by Hans Keller as “trash”: “Mickey et Guillaume Tell” comic, c. 1970.
Classified by Hans Keller as “trash”: “Mickey et Guillaume Tell” comic, c. 1970. Swiss National Museum © Verlag Hachette & Cie

The prototype campaign: “Kampf dem Schund” 

Everything was perfectly arranged: Migros sponsored the food, publishers Ex Libris offered “good books” in place of the trashy numbers, and Swiss TV even turned up to cover the story. The Brugg campaign was the dress rehearsal for a fight against immoral writing that was intended to mobilise the entire country. According to the plan prepared by a task force made up of representatives of cantonal youth associations, on 1 August, Switzerland’s national holiday, a traditional bonfire was to be lit in every canton, burning trashy books and comics. Even Switzerland’s Federal Department of Home Affairs, wanted in on the movement to declare war on this literary rubbish. The debate had been raging since the late 19th century, but there was still no consensus on what actually constituted “trash”. While “smut” referred to pornographic texts and images, “trash fiction” encompassed everything that was considered indecent, which allowed plenty of latitude. Time and again, this sparked discussion both within and outside the social morality movement, from right to left. What everyone did agree on, though, was the harm that trashy literature would inflict on the nation’s adolescents.
A VW bus with loudspeakers and the message “Kampf dem Schund” leads the procession through Brugg.
A VW bus with loudspeakers and the message “Kampf dem Schund” leads the procession through Brugg.   Keystone

The menace: Buffalo Bill and detective novels

Trash fiction distorts one’s sense of truth and reality, violates the norms of morality, brutalises its readers, and thus encourages crime – especially detective novels and novels of banditry whose main themes are “deceit, corruption, violence, cruelty and murder”, according to a federal government report of 1959. Fear of juvenile delinquency was one of the most common arguments against trash fiction, and this remained so after statistics showed that juvenile delinquency generally declined in the post-war period. However, American comic books imported from Germany satisfied the desire for youth literature which for a long time was not catered to by Swiss publishers. Anyone in Switzerland who managed to get hold of a Nick Carter comic surreptitiously passed it on. There was a thriving business in comic trading. One teacher, who admitted to having previously read trashy literature himself, was surprised to find that there were “also bright pupils” among the readers of this filth. Even so, this sort of thing had to be stopped.
In East Germany too, there were campaigns to burn “trashy literature", as here in Berlin on 2 June 1955 to mark International Children’s Day.
In East Germany too, there were campaigns to burn “trashy literature", as here in Berlin on 2 June 1955 to mark International Children’s Day. Wikimedia / German Federal Archive

The legal basis: between fighting trash, and freedom of the press

In legal terms, Swiss law offered a basis only for the seizure of “objectionable erotica”, so-called smut, but not for the confiscation of trash fiction. Morality associations tried a number of times to change this. In 1931, spurred on by Germany’s new legislation on trashy filth and smut, the Schund- und Schmutzgesetz of 1926, the Arbeitsgemeinschaft zum Schutze der Jugend gegen Schund und Schmutz, a committee dedicated to protecting young people against trash and smut, pushed for the inclusion of a new article in Switzerland’s criminal code. This was quickly met with resistance from artists, writers and publishers, who felt that Switzerland’s literary culture and its freedoms were threatened. The Federal Assembly ultimately rejected the bill in favour of freedom of action and press freedom. However, this didn’t mean the subject was entirely off the table. Twice, in 1948 and 1959, the federal government asked what actions the cantons were taking to safeguard against trashy literature. For Federal Councillor Philipp Etter, the “deluge of trash and smut” was a “boil” and a “canker” – old-fashioned terms from the field of medical hygiene. In 1963, Etter therefore set up the "he documentation centre for printed matter that was harmful to young people and the public at large". This organisation maintained lists of banned smutty and trashy literature as a basis for searches in the cantons. It was an attempt to establish binding criteria. But what was considered indecent or obscene continued to be a highly controversial issue; there were very few criminal convictions based on these lists. The committee’s decision-making practice came in for more and more criticism up to 1974, and freedom increasingly took precedence over morality in public opinion.
Book burning on the Opernplatz in Berlin on 10 May 1933.
The burning of books brought back uncomfortable memories of events during National Socialism around 30 years earlier. Book burning on the Opernplatz in Berlin on 10 May 1933. Wikimedia / German Federal Archive

The burning: beginning of the end

While the struggle against smut and pornography continued, the fight against trash fiction sputtered out in the 1960s. The incineration campaign in Brugg was a crucial turning point. Some media heavily criticised the burning, and drew parallels with book burnings during the Nazi era. Due to the scathing reaction of the press, the Federal Council stepped back from involvement in the pressure group, and the planned cantonal incineration campaigns on the national holiday were called off. Far from setting the tone for a successful morality drive, the botched dress rehearsal ended up being the beginning of the end for the burning of trash fiction.
The organisers’ initial delight at the presence of television crews quickly faded: the coverage of the event was “in a deliberately ironic tone” and the reporting didn’t present the positive aspects of the incineration campaign (in German). SRF

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