Tuesday, 19 May 2015


“The paper burns, but the words fly away.” - Ben Joseph Akiba

The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank was written by a Jewish schoolgirl who hid with her parents in a secret room in a flat in German-occupied Amsterdam for three years before they were betrayed to the Gestapo at the time of WWII.  She died at the age of 15 years with most of her family in the Bergen-Belsen death camp (1945). Only her father survived to find the diary and have it published. The diary is a poignant account of a young woman’s thoughts and feelings, simple joys and irrepressible optimism, even under the most desperate circumstances. As well as being a significant part of world literature, it is now a mandatory part of the curriculum at all German schools.

In 2006, a group of about 100 skinhead Neo-Nazis kicked around, tore up and burned copies of this book. They cheered and shouted, singing Nazi anthems as they disrupted a gala celebration of Midsummer. This is of course déjà vu. In the 1930s, in Germany, Nazi supporters made mounds of the books written by Jews and burned them in huge pyres. Even then, some knowledgeable journalists recalled the prediction of the poet Heinrich Heine, who had said a century earlier: “Where one burns books, one will soon burn people.” The Holocaust that followed was painful proof of Heine’s prediction.

There is concern worldwide with the re-emergence of extreme right groups that are responsible for many activities that are evidence of racial hatred, religious intolerance and the curtailment of civil liberties, free speech and freedom of thought. It is a sign of our times perhaps, with increasing terrorist attacks, the rise of fundamentalism in many of the world’s major religions (Islam, Christianity, Hinduism) and the economic problems that many people in even the world’s richest countries are finding themselves in. Many predict that we are steadily heading towards warfare on a global level.

The burning of books is a symbolic act nowadays, but nevertheless a particularly reprehensible and loathsome one to me, as a rational, tolerant, thinking person who respects other people and their ideas. However, in the past the burning of books was even more insidious and had as an effect the expunging of the history of a whole culture. For example, when missionaries began to travel to the New World, ecclesiastical book censors and the practice of book burning went with them. Anxious to convert the Mayans, missionaries destroyed nearly all of their books. Only three or four Mayan books remain in the world today. Needless to say, a wealth of historical, social, anthropological, scientific and artistic information has been lost to us.

More of these book-burning incidents may be quoted and this list is from Wikipedia (see article here)

1. Chinese Philosophy books (by Emperor Qin Shi Huang)
2. Sorcery scrolls (by Early converts to Christianity at Ephesus)
3. Epicurus’ book (at Paphlagonia)
4. Egyptian alchemy texts (by Diocletian)
5. Christian books (by Diocletian)
6. Books of Arianism (after Council of Nicaea)
7. The Sibylline Books (by Flavius Stilicho)
8. Egyptian non-conforming Christian texts (by Athanasius)
9. Repeated destruction of Alexandria libraries
10. Etrusca Disciplina
11. Nestorius’ books (by Theodosius II)
12. Qur’anic texts (ordered by the 3rd Caliph, Uthman)
13. Competing prayer books (at Toledo)
14. Abelard forced to burn his own book (at Soissons)
15. Samanid Dynasty Library
16. Destruction of Cathar texts (Languedoc region of France)
17. Maimonides’ philosophy (at Montpellier)
18. The Talmud (at Paris)
19. Wycliffe’s books (at Prague)
20. Non-Catholic books (by Torquemada)
21. Decameron, Ovid and other “lewd” books (by Savonarola)
22. Over a million Arabic and Hebrew books (at Andalucia)
23. Tyndale’s New Testament (in England)
24. Servetius’s writings (burned with their author at Geneva)
25. Maya sacred books (at Yucatan)
26. Luther’s Bible translation (in Germany)
27. Hobbes books (at Oxford University)
28. Anti-Wilhelm Tell tract (at Canton of Uri)
29. Religious libraries (by Robespierre)
30. Early braille books (at Paris)
31. Anti-Communist books (by Bolsheviks)
32. “Valley of the Squinting Windows” (at Delvin, Ireland)
33. Jewish, anti-Nazi and “degenerate” books (by the Nazis)
34. Theodore Dreiser’s works (at Warsaw, Indiana)
35. Comic books (at Binghamton, New York)
36. Judaica collection at Birobidzhan (by Stalin)
37. Communist and “fellow traveller” books (by Senator McCarthy)
38. Wilhelm Reich’s publications (by U.S. Food and Drug Administration)
39. Library of writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer (by Suharto Regime)
40. Jaffna library (by Sinhalese police officers)
41. Anti-Pinochet Dictatorship books (at Valparaiso)
42. “The Satanic Verses” (in the United Kingdom)
43. Oriental Institute Library, Sarajevo (by Serb nationalists)
44. Books “contrary to the teachings of God” (at Grande Cache, Alberta)
45. Abu Nuwas homoerotic poetry (by Egyptian Ministry of Culture)
46. Harry Potter books (at various American cities).

A small step now from the grim dystopia of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” becoming reality. Oh, what wonderful world we live in! How proud we should be to call ourselves human beings. Hail Homo sapiens sapiens!

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