“You may burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas those books contain have passed through millions of channels and will go on.” -Helen Keller. (Baez 2008, p. 211)
When I began this research journey into censorship and book burning/destruction, I had no inkling of how vast and varied the history was of books and knowledge lost over thousands of years. How to make sense of the history of censorship and book destruction and the numerous reasons for banishing books into non-existence?
Books and libraries have been systematically destroyed out of fear, differing beliefs and a will to dominate and control groups of people. By eliminating sources of knowledge, whole communities of people have had their freedom to question and think controlled to basic privileges. (Knuth 2003)
Censorship and destruction of the written word has been a victim and casualty of war, a precursor to human atrocities, blamed for corrupting young minds, inciting controversy and scandal and inflaming religious groups.
In this report I will present a brief outline of the history of censorship and book destruction, focusing on particular cases in point. By examining specific events I will demonstrate the differing pathways and angles we can research when exploring censorship and book destruction/book burnings.
Obscenity, profanity, social discontent, and political criticisms.
In the novel Fahrenheit 451, a society is kept under control by firemen who systematically burn all existing books. The title refers to the temperature that must be reached for paper to ignite. (Karolides 2005, p. 447) This novel was conceived from post-World War II despair and cynicism, as many novels were to follow in this manner at the time. (Karolides 2005, p. 447)
Fahrenheit 451 “portrays humans as having lost touch with the natural world, with the world of the intellect and with each other. As the fire captain observes “the word ‘intellectual’ became the swear word it deserved to be.” (Karolides 2005, p. 447) Fahrenheit 451 was deemed inappropriate as it contained the words ‘hell”, “damn,” “abortion,” references to alcoholism and a reference to a navel. (Karolides 2005, p. 448) These sections of Fahrenheit 451 were edited, without notification, inside the book or to the author, and sold in bookstores and used in school classrooms. Uncensored versions were also sold simultaneously in bookstores with the edited copies. (Karolides 2005, p. 449)
Many other books have been given similar treatment as Fahrenheit 451, going through a process of being picked and dissected for obscene content, messages that are considered to be corruptive, and dissident. Examples of socially rebellious books that have been censored at some point in history are works such as A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Naked Lunch by William Seward Burroughs, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Works considered sexually explicit have caused much controversy in the past and have frequently been banned. As society has become more liberal in its attitudes, and laws have changed many of these once prohibited books now are (in most countries) free to be read. (Karolides 2005, p. 311)
The laws of the 19th century tried to define the difference between “erotic” and “pornographic” works in order to categorize and censor books. The lines between erotica and pornography have now become blurred. (Karolides 2005, p. 312) Famous examples of obscene and scandalous books once censored and forbidden for sexually explicit content include The Arabian Nights by Sir Richard Burton, Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a woman of pleasure by John Cleland, The Kama Sutra by Vatsyayana, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H Lawrence, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller and Ulysses by James Joyce to name a few.
Society and government bodies have also censored and banned books based on political leanings. Governments have dealt a heavy hand on books that question the legitimacy of government policies and laws, or if the opinions expressed threaten established ideas by creating new pathways of opposing thought. Books have been forbidden on political grounds if they humiliate a government, expose a government or criticize their policies and right of power. (Karolides 2005, p. 1)Political suppression can also be underhanded and subtle; many school librarians and teachers prevent certain books from even entering a school so as to avoid uproar from parents and conservative groups. This act of suppression, in itself, reiterates and supports governmental control of its citizen’s freedom to read, to question and to think independently. George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four have been banned and censored in the past, based on political grounds. Animal Farm is a fantasy story in which a group of farm animals successfully overthrow their human masters and create a utopian society for themselves where everyone is equal and have equal share of all resources. However, eventually, the group of pigs, who are the smartest of the animals, rise above the other animals through treachery. The pigs then threaten the other animals into submission, starve them and submit them to slavery, in the end doing business with the enemy; the humans. At the end of the novel the animals cannot distinguish the difference between the pigs and the humans. Animal Farm was banned for its political criticisms, communist ideologies, criticizing corrupt political leaders and for encouraging people to rise against their leaders. (Karolides 2005, p. 16)
Front cover of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Front cover of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four also suffered at the hands of public furor and censorship. The book was banned for fear that it exposed the negative aspects of a totalitarian society, surveillance, and for the sexual content in the novel. Other books that have been censored for political reasons include The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, which was burned publicly throughout the United States, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century by Arthur R. Butz, Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trombo, Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler and The Ugly American by William J. Laderer and Eugene Burdick amongst many. Suppression by picking apart particular books is insidious and threatens our supposed rights to freedom of speech and thought as citizens, enforcing an unseen, intangible act of mass control.
Wreck, ruin and neglect.
“Lost” and “destroyed” often amount to the same thing in the history of books: sometimes works are lost because they have been destroyed and sometimes they are destroyed simply because they have disappeared.” (Baez 2008, p. 41)
Many ancient libraries suffered this fate throughout the course of history. One such library that is speculated to have suffered invasions, earthquakes and eventually neglect is the ancient library of Alexandria. (Baez 2008, p. 51-54) The ancient library of Alexandria, contained papyrus scrolls of works by Aristotle, Sophocles and Euripides and other great writers. (Baez 2008, p. 42-52) Historians have a number of theories as to how the library of Alexandria came to be lost and destroyed. These theories include natural disasters such as the earthquakes in Alexandria between the years 320 and 1303. Another speculation was that the great library was destroyed by the Roman invasion in which the library may have been burned down, and the other theory is that the library suffered neglect and abandonment, due to the lack of funding, forcing librarians to desert the library and move on. (Baez 2008, p. 53-54)
Religious zealots and one bespeckled boy wizard.
Religion has always divided groups of people, leading to acts of extreme behaviour, suppression and violence. The Inquisition which occurred during the Renaissance during the 1500’s was an extreme religious institution that was put in place to set citizens straight and to expel heretics. The Inquisition was the antithesis of The Renaissance; hand in hand intellectual growth and conflict raged. Those who did not follow the teachings of Catholicism, otherwise known as heretics were persecuted, tortured, excommunicated, arrested or murdered. (Baez 2008, p. 145) After the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church was concerned with how popular Protestantism had become. In order to control this, the Church stepped up its attack on heretics, authors and publishers leading to many deaths. Books were censored and a list invented by Pope Paul IV, that contained titles of books considered detrimental to the Catholic faith. This list was created in 1559 and was called the Index of Prohibited Books. (Baez 2008, p. 145-146)
At this time the Spanish Inquisition was also happening. Philip II was ruthless in his quest to create a Catholic Europe, censoring and destroying thousands of books. Philip II ordered the executions of authors and publishers and sentenced to death Jews and Arabs who refused to convert to Catholicism. (Baez 2008, p. 146) The Index of Prohibited Books specified that works such as the Koran, the Talmud, works by Luther and Calvin and books that contained themes on necromancy, superstition, divination and sexuality were forbidden. (Baez 2008, p. 147)
Image of the "Rome edition of the Catholic 'Index of Prohibited Books' (Fishburn 2008)
Image of the "Rome edition of the Catholic 'Index of Prohibited Books' (Fishburn 2008)
To this day the censorship of books for religious reasons continues to happen. Burning of the Bible and the Koran has been used as symbols of protest by fundamental Christians and Muslims. In September 2010, a Texan minister from the United States, attempted to organize a “Burn the Koran Day” to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the two towers in New York, in which many people perished. This planned act of protest, defiance and sacrilege did not come to fruition due to fear of retaliation attacks on soldiers in Afghanistan.
In the 20th century religious censorship still affects many books. One infamous example is that of Salam Rushdie’s novel titled The Satanic Verses, released in 1988. The Satanic Verses is a fantasy tale that questions faith and good versus evil. The reason this book has caused so much uproar is the subtle references the book contains about Islam and the Koran. Rushdie was forced to go into hiding, as Iran’s president at the time; Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini placed a death sentence on Rushdie’s head. (Karolides 2005, p. 288)
The Harry Potter series, by J.K Rowling was a big hit around the world in the early 21st century. The stories center around the life and struggles of a boy wizard named Harry Potter. However, Harry Potter has been challenged and criticized by fundamentalist Christian groups. (Karolides 2005, p. 242) These groups and parents alike considered Harry Potter to be dangerous for children to read because the books promoted Satanism, witchcraft, occultism, drug use and anti-family beliefs. (Karolides 2005, p. 242) Christian groups have restricted their children from particular school classroom teachings by using the Hatch Act, available on the Internet which states that “parents have the right to excuse children from classroom activities involving discussion, nuclear issues, education on human sexuality, ‘globalism,’ ‘one-world government’ or ‘anti-nationalistic curricula,’ evolution including Darwin’s theory, and witchcraft, occultism, the supernatural and mysticism.” (Karolides 2005, p. 242)
Christian schools in Britain, United States, Sweden and Australia have forbidden the reading and distribution of Harry Potter in their school libraries. There was also a wave of book burnings with protesting across the United States and Russia between 2001-2003. (Karolides 2005, p. 243) The examples of religious groups banishing and controlling what people can and cannot read are vast and numerous.
Death, destruction and war.
“The book is the double of man, and burning it is the equivalent of killing him.” (Polastron 2007, p. x)
Libraries and archives of books tend to be the casualties of war. Cultural heritage often becomes collateral damage in times of upheaval and libraries often suffer the consequences of deliberate destruction in war times; a way of showing brute power and of breaking the spirit of the perceived enemy. These acts of destruction often signal the prelude to other atrocities against humanity. (Knuth 2003) There have been famous incidences throughout history of mass pillaging and destruction of collections of books. Rebecca Knuth in her book Libricide, refers to the phenomenon of burning books and committing mass murder as “libricide.” (Knuth 2003)
Firstly, I will explore the climate of Germany leading up to World War II, and the ensuing Holocaust in which millions of Jews were murdered. Secondly, I will assess Mao’s China, resulting in the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s. During this time mass destruction of libraries occurred, citizens were tortured and murdered and millions of Chinese starved to death. These effects are still felt to this day. Finally I will look at Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror on Kuwait during the 1980’s.
Image of a propaganda poster from World War II (Fishburn 2008)
Image of artist, John Heartfield's anti-Nazi poster (Fishburn 2008)
The social climate in Germany after World War 1 had ended, was one of despair, loss of identity and anger, which was the catalyst for Hitler’s propaganda flourishing and his quest to create the ultimate Aryan race. (Knuth 2003, p. 75) Hitler stirred the Germans to actively participate in acts of anti-Semitism by disseminating propaganda, enforcing segregation, stripping Jewish families’ homes of money, books and personal belongings, rationing food, public humiliation of Jews and stripping libraries of all cultural materials relating to and created by Jews. Hitler’s Nazi collective would eventually lead to the torture and extermination of 6 million Jews in the death camps. The Holocaust did not just spring up one day out of nowhere; years before genocide occurred the Nazi’s were crushing the spirit of the Jews by eliminating their history and culture. One such event that was publicly shown was the book burnings on May 10th, 1933.
Rebecca Knuth sums up the mindset of the German community as dictated by Hitler’s ideologies: “The creation of a superior German being and nation took precedence over all else. Nazism was fundamentally anti-intellectual and focused on will and force. Rejecting modernity, reason, the tenets of the Enlightenment, and humanism, Nazi ideology stressed the collective, loyalty to Hitler and the Reich, and obedience to ideological imperatives over individual responsibility.” (Knuth 2003, p. 78)
In the early 1930’s Hitler began implementing his plan to restore Germany to a ‘pure’ and ‘superior’ race. (Knuth 2003, p. 77-78) To begin creating the perfect Aryan race Hitler began by ridding Germany of ‘unfit’ German citizens. This was achieved through forced sterilization of alcoholics, the mentally ill and mentally disabled. Euthanasia of handicapped adults, babies and criminals became common practice. Under the authority of Hitler the medical body killed 75,000 handicapped adults and babies. (Knuth 2003, p. 79) Knuth (2003, p. 79) points out that this initial euthanasia of ‘unworthy’ German citizens was a “prelude to Nazi genocide,” the development of efficient mass killing techniques such as the gas chambers, and exposed “the willingness of Germany’s medical profession to adopt an ideological biomedical vision in which killing was a therapeutic imperative.” (Knuth 2003, p. 79)
The May 10 public book burnings in 1933, on Opernplatz in Berlin, by the German student associations and headed by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, was the most memorable book burning display in the 20th century. The ceremony was flanked by the SA, and students with fire lit torches, marching in a parade forming the Nazi swastika, which was filmed from above. (Fishburn 2008, p. 31) That night 25,000 books were burned for hours and hours.
“In a celebratory speech on the night of the 1933 Berlin book burnings, Dr. Paul Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda director, triumphantly proclaimed, “The past is in flames!” Libraries were very important to German society, and Goebbels, as architect of a new society, was celebrating the book burning as symbolic of revolutionary purification and an impending cultural renaissance.” (Knuth 2003, p. 97)
Video of the May 10th, 1933 public book burnings, Berlin, Germany.
During that infamous week of May, libraries, institutes and personal collections of books were burned and looted all over Germany. Joseph Goebbels continued to censor and strip all the libraries in Germany. The Nazi party raided 267 synagogues; this resulted in 410,000 books being destroyed. (Baez 2008, p. 215) The Great Talmudic Library was also destroyed in Poland in Hitler’s reign of terror in 1939. Poland suffered the loss of an estimated 15 million books. (Baez 2008, p. 217) This mass destruction was likened to a “funeral pyre of the intellect.” (Knuth 2003, p. 95)
When Hitler and Germany was finally facing defeat around 1944, acts of revenge destruction occurred as a final act of defiance. Libraries in Paris, Britain, Poland, Italy and Germany were destroyed through bombing to seal the deal of the Bibliocaust.
This horrendous chapter in history of loss, ruin and genocide still haunts the world to this day and serves as a warning of the dangers of a totalitarian society. Intellectuals and free thinking are considered the most dangerous enemy of a totalitarian society, as reading encourages free thinking, questioning and knowledge, factors that could incite mass revolt against the enforcers of oppression.
Mao Tse-tung held such beliefs. During the 1960’s Mao started the Cultural Revolution in China, effectively turning China into a communist country, in which his citizens lived in fear and under extreme levels of oppression and famine.
Mao “described China’s 600 million people as having two remarkable peculiarities: “They are, first of all, poor, and secondly, blank. That may seem like a bad thing, but it is really a good thing. Poor people want change, want to do things, want revolution. A clean sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it..” (Knuth 2003, p. 169-170)
The Communist Party took control of the army, courts, prisons and police force. (Knuth 2003, p. 170) Peasants were pitted against the upper classes in structured meetings; these meetings would usually result in many murders occurring with forced confessions leading to grisly torture and death. Up to 5 million people were executed in the initial years because they resisted being brainwashed. (Knuth 2003, p. 171) Mao classed his citizens into two categories, either ‘Red’ or ‘Black.’ The citizens in the Black category would pay a high price for their perceived lack of loyalty to Mao.
“The proletarian class was composed of five Red categories: Workers, poor and lower middle-class peasants, revolutionary soldiers, revolutionary cadres, and revolutionary martyrs. The class enemies fell into seven “Black” categories: landlords, rich peasants, reactionaries, bad elements, rightists, traitors, and spies. Later an eighth category, “capitalist roaders in authoritative positions,” and a ninth category, intellectuals (scientists, teachers, artists, and writers)” (Knuth 2003, p. 171)
A famine swept the country at the time, in which an estimated 30 million people perished. Mao chose to ignore this atrocity, and was not blamed for this famine occurring as the people of China believed Mao was a fair leader. (Knuth 2003, p. 174-175) Mao ordered the purging and destruction of many books and libraries that did not serve his purpose, or was considered anti-Marxist and anti-Communist. He then replaced many of the works that were destroyed with propagandist texts. Mao considered intellectuals to be the most dangerous enemy of his as they were affiliated with Western values, were bourgeois and would have the propensity to “express dissent.” (Knuth 2003, p. 179) Many intellectuals were put into forced ‘brainwashing’ sessions, and those who showed resistance were executed. (Knuth 2003, p. 179-180)
By 1966, four million copies of textbooks had been confisticated, with the closure of universities and secondary schools. The students who were left with no study to do, joined the Red army and were so fervent in their beliefs and in Mao’s policies that they had no qualms with killing people who they believed were betraying Mao’s policies, as the communist regime was all that they had grown up to know. (Knuth 2003, p. 183) The effects of the Cultural Revolution are still felt to this day in China, as they still live under communist rule. Cultural Revolution Policies are only available to be read outside of China, as they do not want the public to know about the past events and the fact that 20-30 million people perished in during the Cultural Revolution. (Knuth 2003, p. 193)
During Saddam Hussein’s time in power during the 1980’s and 1990’s, he also suppressed the freedom to read and think of his citizens in Iraq and Kuwait. Saddam Hussein tortured and murdered intellectuals and destroyed various libraries. He then re-stocked these libraries with propagandist texts. (Knuth 2003, p. 145-146) These totalitarian regimes show us the perceived danger of knowledge, and that knowledge is power against oppression, suppression and domination.
The future of censorship.
How will censorship function in the future? With the advent of the e-book and internet file sharing, has book burning become an obsolete act of aggression? Is physical book destruction a thing of the past?
Dr Simone Murray states that “the debate about censorship has become very complex..the old laws that backed up censorship were based on the idea of territoriality and the idea of the book as a physical object. But with the arrival of the internet, that old link has been cut, and it has become much harder to ban the content of books, if not the physical form.” (Sullivan 2010, p. 13)
Books are now restricted by copyright holders, preventing internet access and books don’t even make it to press as multinational publishing companies, who wish to make a profit only invest in conservative books that will make sales, putting an end to the publication of risky subjects. (Sullivan 2010, p. 13)
The main theme of contention in these modern times is that of terrorism and euthanasia. Books promoting terrorism and euthanasia have been banned in many countries and are even banned from university libraries. However, these books can be illegally viewed over the internet, which has created a new dimension in the censorship debate. (Sullivan 2010, p. 12) As stated by Frank Moorhouse, “we now live in two worlds when it comes to censorship” and book destruction: the intangible world of the internet where “anything and everything can be found” and the old world of tangibility, of the physicality of the book and the traditional views associated with it. (Sullivan 2010, p. 12)
The events of the past have shown us one thing: restricting the access and flow of information and, thus quelling the ability to form individual opinions, results in masses of people being moulded and brainwashed. These lessons from history serve as a reminder and warning of how easy it is to control the minds of people and the importance of monitoring censorship, so that humans are allowed the basic right to read with free choice, without fear or shame.
Baez, F 2008, A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: from ancient Sumer to modern Iraq, MacAdam, Atlas and Co, New York.
Fishburn, M 2008, Burning Books, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire, New York.
Karolides, N.J, Bald, M & Sova, D.B 2005, 120 Banned Books: censorship histories of world literature, Checkmark Books, New York.
Knuth, R 2003, Libricide: The regime-sponsored destruction of books and libraries in the twentieth century, Praeger, Westport, Connecticut.
Polastron, L.X 2007, Books on Fire: the tumultuous story of the world’s great libraries, Thames & Hudson, London.
Rose, J (ed) 2001, The Holocaust and the book: destruction and preservation, University of Massachusetts Press, U.S.A.
Steinle, P.H 2002, In Cold Fear: The Catcher in the Rye censorship controversies and postwar American character, Ohio State University Press, U.S.A.
Sullivan, J 2010, ‘Censorship and sensibility’, The Age, 10 July, A2, p12-13.