Book burning in Manila
“Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”—Heinrich Heine
BOOK burning has a long and dark history. According to Holocaust Encyclopedia, book burning refers to the “ritual destruction by fire of books or other written materials.” Usually done in public, the burning of books “represents an element of censorship and usually proceeds from a cultural, religious, or political opposition to the materials in question.”
One of the most famous of these events, the encyclopedia points out, is the burning of books under the Nazi regime. On May 10, 1933, university students in Germany burned up to 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books at Berlin’s Opernplatz. The bonfire was a “symbolic act of ominous significance … presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture.”
Prodded by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, in an action to bring German arts and culture in line with Nazi goals (including anti-Semitism and the superiority of the Aryan race), right-wing students threw onto the bonfire the “unwanted” books with great ceremony, band playing and “fire-oaths.”
On April 6, 1933, according to the encyclopedia, the Nazi German Student Association’s press and propaganda office proclaimed a nationwide “Action against the un-German Spirit,” to climax in a literary purge or “cleansing” by fire. Local chapters were to supply the press with blacklists of “un-German” authors.
Among the authors whose books the students burned on May 19 were well-known socialists such as Bertolt Brecht and August Bebel; Karl Marx; critical “bourgeois” writers like the Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler; and “corrupting foreign influences,” among them American author Ernest Hemingway. Also torched were the writings of the 1929 Nobel Prize-winning German author, Thomas Mann, whose support of the Weimar Republic and critique of fascism raised Nazi ire, and the works of best-selling author Erich Maria Remarque, whose anti-war novel, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Nazi ideologues had vilified as “a literary betrayal of the soldiers of the World War.”
Other writers on the blacklists included American authors Jack London, Theodore Dreiser and Helen Keller, whose belief in social justice encouraged her to champion the disabled, pacifism, improved conditions for industrial workers and women’s voting rights. Also burned were the writings of the 19th-century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote in his 1820-1821 play, Almansor, the admonition: “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.” Almansor referred to the burning of the Qur’an during the Spanish Inquisition.
Wikipedia points out that some particular cases of book burning are traumatically remembered, “because the books destroyed were irreplaceable and their loss constituted a severe damage to cultural heritage, and/or because this instance of book burning has become emblematic of a harsh and oppressive regime.”
Such were the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and the burning of books and burying of scholars under China’s Qin Dynasty. The chronology of book-burning is long. It has been pointed out that torching books has a long history “as a tool wielded by authorities both secular and religious, in efforts to suppress dissenting or heretical views that are perceived as posing a threat to the prevailing order.”
It need not be belabored that, according to scholars, “when books are ordered collected by authorities and disposed of in private, it may not be book burning, strictly speaking—but the destruction of cultural and intellectual heritage is the same.”
According to the scholar Elaine Pagels, in AD 367, Athanasius, the zealous bishop of Alexandria … issued an Easter Letter in which he demanded that Egyptian monks destroy all such unacceptable writing, except for those specifically listed as “acceptable.” The chronology of book-burning incidents includes the destruction of the House of Wisdom during the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258, along with all other libraries in Baghdad. According to legend, the waters of the Tigris “ran black for six months with ink from enormous quantities of books flung into the river.” Books have been attacked and have suffered at the hands of regimes or religious authorities in many climes and regions, and for various motivations.
In Orwell’s “1984,” Wikipedia points out, “the euphemistically-called ‘memory hole’ is used to burn any book or written text which is inconvenient to the regime.”
Closer to home, it has been pointed out that “the advent of the digital age has resulted in an immense collection of written work being catalogued exclusively or primarily in digital form. The intentional deletion or removal of these works has been often referred to as a new form of book burning. This reference is more closely related to the relationship between book burning and censorship than the systematic and categorical elimination of a particular body of literary work. In general, book burning does not refer to individual censorship, but rather to an act of mass censorship”—at the hands of a bureaucratic thought police. We will examine this issue in the next column.