Richard Evans dishes to the Guardian about Nazi book burnings

Historians in the News

Throughout history, says Matt Fishburn, author of Burning Books, a chronicle of the phenomenon through the ages, most official book-burnings have been about "control", to announce "what a regime stands for". Like previous such ceremonies, the Nazi burnings (which Fishburn said, on their 75th anniversary in 2008, have since become "a cultural benchmark, a popular analogy and a common insult – to burn a book today is to be a 'fascist'") were, essentially, about "announcing what would be acceptable in future; shaping the new public sphere. The burnings were the symbol; the repressive legislation that came in their wake was what really enforced it."

Why burning, though, rather than some other kind of destruction? The symbolism of flames is plain. For Andrew Motion, former poet laureate and chair of this year's Man Booker prize, "books are little encapsulations of human effort and wisdom and, I suppose, of our sense of history. So to burn one of any kind, and certainly one that is a representation of a culture and set of beliefs, is to appear to consign it to the flames of eternal damnation." Book-burning, he says, is first and foremost a monumental "manifestation of intolerance. It's the conflation of what ought to be nuanced views into one, hate-filled act."...

Does Pastor Jones fit this picture? There's an important difference between his plans and officially sanctioned book-burning campaigns such as those of the Nazis, says Richard Evans, regius professor of history at Cambridge and a specialist in German social and cultural history. While the book-burnings of 1933 were largely independently led by fascist students, presaging the "mass violence, real and symbolic" that was then starting to take over Germany, they were actively encouraged by the Nazi leadership in a bid to "purge the un-German spirit". Jones's International Burn-a-Koran Day is, on the other hand, an act of defiance and, in choosing to burn just one book many times over, "quite clearly a symbolic attack on Islam as a whole".

Anyone who had tried to burn Mein Kampf in 1933, Evans says, "would have been arrested and shot".
Read entire article at Guardian (UK)

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