Libricide

The Nazi book-burning campaign began on this night in 1933. The highly orchestrated and publicized bonfires took place in dozens of university towns across Germany, the students urged on by marching bands, torchlight parades, and speeches by local dignitaries. The following is excerpted from a speech made in Berlin by Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda:

German men and women! The age of arrogant Jewish intellectualism is now at an end!… You are doing the right thing at this midnight hour — to consign to the flames the unclean spirit of the past. This is a great, powerful, and symbolic act.… Out of these ashes the phoenix of a new age will arise.… Oh Century! Oh Science! It is a joy to be alive!

The Berlin students formed human chains to move the 25,000 books from trucks to the pyre and recited “fire oath” condemnations of nine categories of “inaccurate” and “un-Germanic” writing:

  • Against class struggle and materialism, for national community and an idealistic lifestyle, I commit to the flames the works of….
  • Against decadence and moral decay, for discipline and decency in family and state, I commit to the flames the works of….
  • Against soul-shredding overvaluation of sexual activity, for the nobility of the human soul, I commit to the flames the works of….
  • Against impudence and presumption, for veneration and reverence for the immortal German national spirit, I commit to the flames the works of….

Scholars of censorship say that the Nazi book burnings reflected most of the ideological elements behind such events: nationalism, imperialism, militarism, racism, and totalitarianism. But studies such as Lucien Polastron’s Books on Fire (2004) remind us that Germany was far from the first or last nation to advocate and practice “libricide.” Polastron lists seventy-five separate library destructions, from ancient Thebes to modern Iraq, and tries to fathom the reasons behind them:

Why? Because, as the lawmakers of ancient China and the Nazis in Czechoslovakia decided, an educated people cannot be governed; because the conquered peoples must change their history or their beliefs, like the Aztecs; because only the illiterate can save the world, a common theme of the millenarian preachers of every era; because the nature of a great collection of books is a threat to the new power, like Taoism in the eyes of the Mongols, or Shiism to the Sunnis, or the Reformation to traditional Catholicism.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.