Biblioclasm: A Quick Study on the History of Book Burnings

“History is a race between education and catastrophe.” — H.G. Wells

From Confucius writings to the Enlightenment pseudo-sciences, books, manuscripts, art, and journalism have aided in the dissemination of innovative ideas. Much of the ideas are interpreted by the producers themselves or by critics of the works, forcing subjective opinion of appropriateness and relevance. Until recently, books constituted the largest source of information and access to new ways of thinking. An open mind is always appreciated; however, it can also be perceived as a threat to the establishment or maintenance of power.

From as early as 210 BC — when Chinese Confucian scholars were allegedly buried alive and their books burned by order of Qin Shi Huang — to the “digital book burning” of today — through content censorship and deletion — books, manuscripts, and like information sources are considered threats to unstable and apprehensive institutions.[1]


Books as a Threat to Religion

One of the biggest institutions in history is that of religion. Christianity in particular has an ugly history of book burning. One such instance was Constantine the Great’s edict against Non-Trinitarian Arians. The biggest difference between Trinitarian and Non-Trinitarian is the belief that ‘the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit’ are all one, as to the former, and that they are separate, as to the latter. In 325 CE Constantine the Great decided that the “ungodly writings” of Non-Trinitarian Arians were harmful to the people.[2] In fact, the real ‘damage’ was that people would might begin to think critically, making Constantine not so Great.

Another such incident is the burning of the Library of Alexandria during a religious riot. In 391 CE “Emperor Theodosius issued a decree sanctioning the destruction of all pagan temples,” pagan books, and any other form of pagan learning.[3] The Emperor and his “fanatic Bishop Theophilus” saw any form or evidence of ‘Paganism’ as a clear danger to the authority of the Christian Roman Church in a City where the average inhabitant was not affiliated with Christianity.

Christianity continued its suppression of non-Christian religions during 1244 when the Talmud and other Jewish Manuscripts were targeted for destruction. Charges against the Talmud alleged that it “contained blasphemies of Jesus and Mary, attacks on the Church, pronouncements hostile to non-Jews, and foolish and revolting tales.”[4] Much was lost in the destruction of the Talmud, a catastrophe rivaled only by the continued loss of religious freedom.


Books as a Threat to Culture

In the secularized world of the Modern Era, books threaten more powerful, political institutions. In fact, 84 years ago (May 10, 1933), Adolph Hitler and his Stormtroopers celebrated a Book Burning. Some of the authors included in the Book Burning were as follows:[5]

Albert Einstein

Harvelock Ellis

Lion Feuchtwanger

Sigmund Freud

André Gide

Franz Kafka

Erich Kästner

Hellen Keller

Alfred Kerr

Jack London

Heinrich Mann

Thomas Mann

Karl Marx

Hugo Preuss

Marcel Proust

Walter Rathenau

Erich Maria Remarque

Margaret Sanger

Arthur Schnitzler

Upton Sinclair

Jakob Wasserman

H. G. Wells

Stefan Zweig

Emile Zola

As you may see, many authors were Jewish. According to Volker Ullrich, about three weeks before the Book Burning, on Hitler’s birthday, Thomas Mann wrote “This revolution boasts of its bloodlessness…but it is the most hateful and murderous revolution that has ever been.”[6] Although this did not incite the incident, I imagine it fanned the flames a bit. Ullrich interprets this as validation of Hans-Ulrich Wheler’s description of this period as a “totalitarian revolution.”[7] Ullrich himself describes the changes that occurred after Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933 as “characterized by an alliance between traditional elites in the military, major industry, large-scale agriculture and governmental bureaucracy, on the one hand, and the Nazi mass movement and it’s Fuhrer on the other.”[8] With this, Ullrich sets the stage to present the Book Burning as the Führer protecting his interests and the interests of the industries loyal to him, rather than for the good of the people he claims to want to protect from degeneracy. To assert and maintain his power, Hitler needed to reshape German culture so that “all sectors of cultural life were to be brought into line with Nazi ideas.”[9]

The unfortunate thing to remember is that those involved, the students of Universities and the administrators, were easy to manipulate. To them, the burning of this literature would ‘cleanse’ and save them from the ‘poison’ of Jewish Intellectualism. I agree with Ullrich in calling this a “repulsive manifestation” of power.[10]


Book Burnings a Threat to Today

I encourage everyone to think what kind of harm Book Burnings have had on today’s society, and what could have been different. Although some books and manuscripts survived, we know not what we will never learn from what isn’t available today due to these tragic moments in history. Although print books have become scarce, the digital content many of us rely on is easily manipulated; censored; erased.[11] In a sense, technology has made it easier and more efficient to gain knowledge, but also to pick and choose what we know and what we want to turn a blind eye to.

Featured Image: Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin: “Un-German” and “Unnatural” Literature is Sorted Out for the Book-Burning Ceremony, May 1933, GHDI.

[1] Lucia Ruggiero, Digital Books; Could They Make Censorship and ‘Book Burning’ Easier?, DigitalMeetsCulture.Net.

[2] Constantine the Great, Edict Against Nontrinitarian Arians, Web.Archive.Org.

[3] Heather Phillips, The Great Library of Alexandia?,

[4] Christian – Jewish Relations: Burning of the Talmud, JewishVirtualLibrary.Org, 2008.

[5] The Burning of the Books, JewishVirtualLibrary.Org, 1998.

[6] Volker Ullrich, Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939, trans. by Jefferson S. Chase {New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), 453.

[7] Ullrich, 453.

[8] Ullrich, 452.

[9] Ullrich, 453.

[10] Ullrich, 253.

[11] Ruggiero.


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