When We Burn Books…

Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen


—Heinrich Heine
House of Leaves burning (photo by Learning Lark)

In her 2017 article A Brief History of Book Burning, from the Printing Press to Internet Archives Lorraine Boissoneault writes, “As long as there have been books, people have burned them.” Books were burned to silence a dissonant, threatening and potentially rousing voice; they were burned to wipe out a cultural presence; They were burned to control and curtail intellectual freedom; they were burned to simply ruin and pillage and destroy.

Books and libraries have been targeted by people of all backgrounds for thousands of years, sometimes intentionally and sometimes as a side-effect of war, Boissoneault tells us. “In 213 B.C., Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang (more widely remembered for his terracotta army in Xian) ordered a bonfire of books as a way of consolidating power in his new empire.” According to historian Lois Mai Chan, “His basic objective was not so much to wipe out these schools of thought completely as to place them under governmental control.” 

Boissoneault adds, “When al-Qaida Islamists invaded Mali, and then Timbuktu in 2012, among their targets were priceless manuscripts—books that needed to be burned.” The damage might have been much worse if not for men like Abdel Kader Haidara, who risked their lives to protect the medieval works. He and others succeeded in smuggling out 350,000 manuscripts.”

“Qin was only one in a long line of ancient rulers who felt threatened enough by the ideas expressed in written form to advocate arson,” says Boissoneault. Qin and religious leaders like him are only a small part of the early book-burning equation. “A lot of ancient book burning was a function of conquest,” writes author Rebecca Knuth. The Library of Alexandria had its contents and structure burned during several periods of political upheaval as a casualty of brutal war and associated despoliation and pillaging.

When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, there were suddenly far more books—and more accessible knowledge. Book burning continued, unfettered, perhaps taking on a more symbolic and insidious role, and no less violent.

In 1966, when Mao Zedong took power in China and implemented the Cultural Revolution, any book that did not conform to party propaganda, such as those that promoted capitalism or other dangerous ideas, were destroyed. In 1992, the Jaffna Public Library of Sri Lanka—repository of nearly 100,000 rare books of Tamil history and literature—was burned by Sinhalese Buddhists.

German writer/poet Heinrich Heine

Heinrich Heine’s Prediction

In his 1821 play, Almansor, the German writer/poet Heinrich Heine wrote: Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen, “Where they burn books, they will in the end burn human beings.” He was referring to the burning of the Muslim holy book, the Qoran as part of the eradication of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, during the Spanish Inquisition half a century before.

A century later, on May 6-10th, 1933, Heine’s books were among the thousands of volumes publicly hauled out and burned by Nazi brownshirts, SS and Hitler Youth groups in Berlin’s Opernplatz (Bebelplatz). A violent outburst that, in fact, did foreshadow the blazing ovens of the Holocaust. Some twenty thousand books were burned, including those by Heinrich Mann, Karl Marx, Albert Einstein.

Nazi book burning in Opernplatz, Berlin, 1933
Brownshirts and Hitlerjugend perform Nazi salut as books burn in Opernplatz, Berlin in 1933

Wikipedia defines ‘book burning’ as the “practice of ceremoniously destroying by fire one or more copies of a book or other written material.” The practice, usually carried out in public (like public hangings in Medieval times) is generally motivated by moral, religious or political objections to the material. Some notable and particularly destructive book burnings have included:

  • the destruction of the Library of Alexandria;
  • burning books and burying scholars (‘live burying’) under China’s Qin Dynasty (3rd Century);
  • Cathar texts in the Lanquedoc region of France in the 13th Century;
  • the Talmud in Paris by the French crown in 1242;
  • Arabic and Hebrew books at Andalucia, Spain, in 1499;
  • Servetus’s “heretical” writings along with the writer at Geneva;
  • Maya sacred books in Yucatan (1562);
  • Tyndale’s New Testament by the English authorities in 1525 and 1526;
  • Luthar’s Bible in Germany (1624) as ordered by the Pope;
  • Robespierre’s destruction of religious libraries in 1793;
  • anti-communist books by the Bolsheviks in 1917;
  • Jewish, anti-Nazi and “degenerate” books by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s;
  • Communist and “fellow traveller” books by Senator McCarthy in 1953;
  • The Satanic Verses by Muslims in the UK in 1988; and,
  • Harry Potter books at various American cities.
Hitler youth burning books at Opernplatz, Berlin, in 1933
Book-burning crowd at Opernplatz, Berlin, in 1933

“Even when the knowledge itself isn’t prevented from reaching the public, the symbolic weight of burning books is heavy,” writes Boissoneault.

“Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them as to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are,” wrote John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, in his 1644 book Areopagitica. “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature… but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury on the Dummying Down of an Obedient Society

In the 1967 introduction of his novel, Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury implied that the Nazi book burnings inspired his story. I found this statement both eloquent and powerful: “It follows then that 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 in the same flesh.”

Addressing currently relevant themes of censorship, conformity and anti-intellectualism, Bradbury’s 1953 cautionary tale explores a fictional future society that has institutionalized book burning in an effort by authorities to maintain order and ‘happiness’. In this world, firemen don’t put out fires; they start them. The book gets its title from the temperature that paper catches fire and burns.

The book-burning fireman Guy Montag in Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film Fahrenheit 451

The story begins with Montag, an ordinary fireman, after a day’s work of burning:

It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of historyMontag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by the flame. He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror.”

–Fahrenheit 451
Firemen Beatty and Montag on their way to burn books (from Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film)

Soon after, Montag encounters an old lady who refuses to leave her house when the firemen come to burn her books. She dies alongside the stories she cherishes. Montag then meets the girl, Clarisse, who knows something of the past, when firemen used to put out fires, during a time when there were no informers and people were not afraid.

“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door,” Montag’s superior warns him, arguing for why they must be burned and their knowledge erased. “Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?” A foreshadowing of what follows.

Fahrenheit 451 weaves a compelling political and social tale that follows one man’s journey in finding his soul and his ability to judge for himself—through his rediscovery of literature.

Book burning in Opernplatz, Berlin, 1933

“Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible.”

Barbara Tuchman, 1980 address at Library of Congress
Burning German book (photo by Amnesty International)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

One thought on “When We Burn Books…

  1. Pingback: Tipsday: Informal writerly learnings, Jan 16-22, 2022 | Writerly Goodness

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