Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Book Burning

On the 10th May 1933, 40,000 people gathered in the Opernplatz (Berlin) to hear the German propaganda minster, Joseph Goebbels, deliver a speech that would result in thousands of books being condemned.

On that night, more than 25,000 books were thrown onto bonfires. Books that had been classified as “un-German” were set alight, in what Goebbels described as “Action against the un-German spirit”.

An act of extreme censorship that would continue to shock our futures, but which would not silence our minds, imprison our speech, or break our spirit. Against a backdrop of severe violence, voices refused to lie quiet in the embers; they rose from the ashes: tall, strong and defiant. For example, Helen Keller’s voice rose in response to the ashes of her own burnt books, saying that “Tyranny cannot defeat the power of ideas”. She, along with many other authors, poets and  playwrights, refused to be oppressed – fire could destroy their written works, but it couldn’t eliminate their thoughts or their ideas.

Similarly, Stephen Vincent Benet’s radio play, They Burned Our Books, was broadcast on the eighth anniversary of the book burnings. With the same flames that the Nazis had used to destroy, new works were sparked into existence and spirits were lit, spurred into action. Benet sets the scene, and against spouting Nazi ideologies he calls forth voices of wisdom and enlightenment from over the centuries to speak. It is a piece of writing that has the ability to move you, while the voices of past poets and writers inspire even the most dormant of minds.

Extract from Stephen Vincent Benet’s They Burned Our Books
A book's a book. It's paper, ink and print.
If you stab it, it won't bleed.
If you beat it, it won't bruise.
If you burn it, it won't scream.
[Crackle of flames]
Burn a few books – burn hundreds – burn a million-
What difference does that make?

Voice of Schiller [firm and thoughtful]:
It does to me.
Excuse me, sir – my name is Friedrich Schiller,
A name once not unknown in Germany,
One of the glories, so they said, of Germany,
A Germany these robbers never knew.
Over a century and a half ago
I spoke and wrote of freedom.

I spoke against oppressors and dictators.
I spoke for every man who lifts his head And will not bow to tyrants.
And, though I died, my poems and plays spoke on
In every tongue, in every land for freedom,
For that's what books can do.

Thank you for reading,



Ashley R Lister said...


Moving and stirring stuff from a cautionary period of history.


Anonymous said...

Books are STILL being destroyed - in this country.

I have a friend who, due to a driving offence, had to perform community service. He was sent to a local branch of Oxfam. There, he says, books that were deemed uncommercial (ie. old, yellowed, dog-eared or of too narrow -interest)were sent for recycling. I couldn't believe that a charity was ritually doing what Goebbels had only done as a one-off propaganda exercise. Unfortunately it appears to be true: