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“Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” ("Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn human beings.") – Heinrich Heine, Almansor, 1821
Eighty years ago today the glow of torches and bonfires illuminated the midnight sky as hundreds of thousands of Germans bore witness to the launch of an era of official state censorship and enforced cultural homogeneity with an act – the burning of books - that endures today as a symbol of all authoritarian attempts to repress free thought and expression.

The symbolic act of book burning was nothing new, and in fact has a dark and infamous history dating back at least as far as the destruction of Confucian books and scholars in China’s Qin Dynasty c213 B.C. But the Nazi’s consignment of books to the flames, perhaps due to its commemoration in photographs and newsreel footage shown around the world, perhaps due to the enormity of the human tragedy that followed in its wake, stands as contemporary society’s most widely recognized icon of the totalitarian belief in ideological purity and homogeneity.

Heralded by a proclamation of a nationwide “Action Against the Un-German Spirit” issued by the Main Office for Press and Propaganda of the German Student Association, and accompanied by a call for a "pure" German language and culture free from the “corrupting influences” of Jews, Marxists, liberals, socialists, anarchists, pacifists and others, a night was set aside for the Action’s most publicized and symbolic event: a ceremonial burning of books in 34 university cities and towns across Germany.

On the night of May 10, 1933, nationalist students marched in torchlight parades that drew crowds of spectators to designated gathering places lit by roaring bonfires. Following speeches by Nazi Party officials and leading academics, students threw books deemed in opposition to the new “pure” German nationalist spirit into the fires to the accompaniment of band music, songs, and chants. In the largest such event that night, some 40,000 people gathered in Berlin’s Opernplatz to hear newly-appointed Reich Minister for Public Enlightment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels deliver a fiery address on the triumph of the new German spirit:

"German men and women! The age of arrogant Jewish intellectualism is now at an end. The breakthrough of the German revolution has again cleared the way on the German path...The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you. … And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the unclean spirit of the past. This is a great, powerful and symbolic act - a deed which should document the following for the world to know… from these ashes the phoenix of a new spirit will triumphantly rise…. Oh century! Oh science! It is a joy to be alive!”

The "Action against the Un-German Spirit" earned widespread newspaper and newsreel coverage in Germany and abroad and, in many German cities, live radio broadcasts that brought the speeches, songs, and ceremonial incantations to German citizens in their homes.

The Nazi book burnings provoked immediate, strong reactions in the United States. Newspaper editorials and political cartoonists denounced the bonfires. Newsweek called it a “holocaust of books”, the earliest identified use of that term in connection with the Third Reich; Time called it a “bibliocaust.” American writers including Helen Keller, Lewis Mumford, and Sinclair Lewis – some of whose books had been consigned to the flames – wrote open letters condemning the book burnings. The American Jewish Congress organized massive street demonstrations in more than a dozen U.S. cities to protest Nazi persecution of Jews, using the May 10 book burnings to broaden the coalition of anti-Nazi groups.

Throughout the ensuing Second World War, President Franklin D. Roosevelt would evoke the book burnings as a vivid example of the difference between a democratic America and Nazi Germany. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt condemned the book burnings in her daily newspaper column. Organizations ranging from the Library of Congress, the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, and the National Council of Women to the Writer’s War Board, the Council on Books in Wartime, and the Office of War Information used the tenth anniversary of the book burnings in 1943 to rally Americans around the war effort.

Lest we think book burning is a thing of the past, however, or limited to foreign nations and ideologies, we should note that book burning is alive in the 21st century, and as often as not, right here at home.

Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, announced in July 2010 that he would burn 200 copies of the Qur'an on September 11, 2010. After a storm of criticism and threats, Jones called off that plan, but did burn a Qur'an in the sanctuary of the church on March 20, 2011. Others Qur’ans have been ceremoniously burned by Fred Phelps of Kansas’ Westboro Baptist Church, and by a church in Nashville.

The Amazing Grace Baptist Church of Canton, North Carolina, headed by pastor Marc Grizzard, intended to hold a book burning on Halloween 2009. The church holds all translations of the Bible other than the King James Version to be heretical, and also considers the writings of Christian writers and preachers such as Billy Graham and T.D. Jakes and most secular musical genres to be heretical expressions. However, a heavy rain, protesters and a state environmental protection law against open burning resulted in the church not burning but ceremoniously tearing apart the offending media.

The congregation of Christ Community Church in Alamogordo, New Mexico, burned Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling and the supernatural novels of Stephen King, along with CDs and other items deemed to be “the work of the devil”, in December 2011.

In September 2010 the Pentagon bought and burned 9,500 copies of Operation Dark Heart, a memoir by U.S. Army intelligence officer Lt. Col Anthony Shaffer, for containing what they considered to be sensitive information.

Sometime during the weekend of April 15–17, 2011, books and other items designated for a new public library in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints community of Colorado City, Arizona, were removed from the facility where they had been stored and burned nearby. A lawyer for some FLDS members has stated that the burning was the result of a cleanup of the property and that no political or religious statement was intended, however the burned items were under lock and key and were not the property of those who burned them. The investigation remains open.

Freedom of thought and the free expression of ideas are concepts we take for granted at our own risk. May the events of May 10, 1933, eighty years ago today, serve as a reminder to us all of where unchallenged repression and insistence on conformity and the affirmation of “shared values” can lead.

Originally posted to Richard Riis on Fri May 10, 2013 at 01:41 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks, Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, and Community Spotlight.

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