Book burnings…The ritual destruction of written work, tragic acts that are so often conducted communally and en mass. These burnings are the result of heavy censorship and represent an attempt to suppress opposing politics, cultures or religious beliefs. They are a part of our story, the dark underbelly of certain supremacist pursuits.
If you’re unfamiliar with the history of book burning, I’ll start by discussing what is (at least in the western world) the most famous book burnings to have ever taken place…
In May 1933 some 25,000 (perhaps more) so called “un-german” books were burned by German students in Berlin. Approximately 40,000 people gathered as Joseph Goebbels delivered a speech affirming Nazi Germany’s radical right-wing “values.”
Let’s rewind a bit. Remember Martin Luther? His 95 Theses? Luther is often accredited with having kickstarted the Reformation (though this is a general conception and scholarly debates regarding the Reformation’s genesis persist) but the memory of Luther tacking his Theses to a church door in Wittenberg held strong. The belief that these Theses spurred an intellectual revolution that spread across Europe was reflected in Theses presented by a group of German students. Their hopes were to stimulate a similarly revolutionary “purification.”
Beginning on April 6, 1933, the Nazi German Student Association’s Main Office for Press and Propaganda called for “Action against the Un-German Spirit,” a proclamation that would witness an attempt to “ethnically cleanse” Germany in the following years. On April 8th a group of students drafted their “12 Theses,” a deliberate evocation of Luther’s 95 Theses. In sum, these 12 called for the “purification” of German culture.
Fast-forward to Joseph Goebbels standing in front of 40,000 people in Berlin. He speaks:
“Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Gläser, Erich Kästner.”
The famous burning saw the written works of Ernest Hemingway, Karl Marx, Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann and Jack London burst into flames. The list extends far beyond these names. But while Nazi book burning are well known, having been photographed and documented, book burning have lived a much longer history.
To put things in perspective, check out Wikipedia’s list of book burning incidents.
Let’s consider the many complexities that accompany book burning. Obviously they infringe on civil and intellectual freedoms. They represent heavy censorship and in turn, are replaced by myriads of propagandist works. But I want to consider the power of the written word. It’s a topic I’ve thought deeply about and feel needs to be discussed.
I remember hearing kids chant “sticks and stones might break my bones but words will never hurt me.” As a child, unaware of how literacy shapes both an individual and a nation, I agreed. I thought, “sure, words can’t hurt me” and I imagined ghostly letters racing towards me, bursting through my skin, incapable of doing any harm. As I got older I started to consider this chant more critically and began to think “well… I don’t know, words inflict emotional wounds and emotional wounds disperse into people’s lives in varying ways.” So I began to disagree. Upon further thought, I came to consider historical events. Can words hurt a person? Well, yes, I realized, they can. They have. Words are far more powerful than we give them credit for. So powerful, in fact, that rulers have felt the need to burn books throughout history in order to protect given ideologies. That engaging with such works, words, could cost a person their life is proof enough that words can hurt.
I’m currently taking a class in Chinese military strategy. The first week we studied Confucian classics… We spoke about China’s tumultuous military history, the overturning of dynasties and in this conversation we touched on China’s history of book burning. The Qin dynasty controlled China from 221-206 BCE and under Qin rule, massive burnings destroyed nearly all copies of the Confucian classics. Emperor Qin Shi Huang is remembered as the man who unified China and developed one of the world’s first centralized bureaucratic empires. He is also remembered as a paranoid man who was responsible for the death of some 400 scholars and the burning of Confucian works. He feared the written word as he did the enemy’s sword.
Following the Qin dynasty, the Han dynasty was founded and ruled between 206 BCE and 220 CE. During these years, China witnessed a kind of classical revival. The re-introduction of Confucianism influenced educational standards and national values. Confucianism was easily targetable during Qin rule because it appeared to clash with Legalism, which encouraged strict laws and uniform justice in order to maintain civil order. Meanwhile, Confucianism encouraged deep thought and a philosophical approach to civil and military matters. The book ban was lifted in 191 BCE.
Meanwhile, burnings continue to reflect violent attitudes towards politics, religions or cultural ideals. These barbarous acts attempt to smother ideas that espouse beliefs opposing those of the “leaders.” We continue to witness burnings in the contemporary world. ISIS, for example, burned thousands of rare manuscripts in 2015. Ransacking the Mosul Library in Northern Iraq, ISIS proceeded to burn thousands of books, once again casting a light on what is, ultimately, a cultural and intellectual tragedy.
There have been many, many more incidents throughout history. My heart breaks to think of them but I believe that books are stronger than fire for they hold ideas and an idea may be condemned, argued, hated, but it cannot be burned. So despite the heinous nature of these crimes, I have hope that individuals will fight censorship, fight for their intellectual freedom and hold onto valuable ideas whether they exist in print or not.
“It hardly matters why a library is destroyed: every banning, curtailment, shredding, plunder or loot gives rise (at least as a ghostly presence) to a louder, clearer, more durable library of the banned, looted, plundered, shredded or curtailed.”
― Alberto Manguel,
I’ll conclude by encouraging you to acknowledge the power of words, to recognize their strength and use them wisely and bravely. They are a gift, a weapon and a shield. How you use them is up to you.