Throughout history, governments have sought to maintain control of their populations by monitoring and censoring materials the leaders consider seditious, improper or revolutionary. Sometimes that ban goes so far as burning books. Understanding the history of book burning leads to appreciation for the ways some people try to protect the freedom to write and read.
Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang typically receives the ignominious credit for the first official book burning in about 213 B.C. He reputedly wanted recorded history to begin with him, increasing his importance, so he ordered the destruction of written history books. He included philosophy texts in the burning decree, because they encouraged people to question the government's practices. Book burnings also happened in ancient Rome in the third and fourth centuries. Emperor Diocletian ordered the burning of older Egyptian alchemy manuscripts, and approximately 75 years later, a Christian bishop named Athanasius insisted that monks burn texts containing dogma not aligned with the current beliefs.
The Nazis in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s suppressed anti-Nazi beliefs through various means, including the burning of books that advocated ideas contrary to Nazi thinking or books written by Jews, socialists or anyone who disagreed with their propaganda. In February 1933, just a few days after Hitler gained the position of chancellor, the government enacted the Law for the Protection of the German People, allowing for confiscation of such writings. Three months later, book burnings began on college and university campuses. About 10 percent of the books in public collections in Germany were destroyed.
International Modern Incidents
Book burning continued in the 20th century and even into the 21st. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, the Chinese government destroyed many texts. Between 1960 and 1970, few Chinese libraries were open, and many were burned along with their contents. Only communist works survived the destruction. The fires continued into Tibet with the Communist Red Guard in 1966. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge regime burned more than 80 percent of the texts in the national library -- anything espousing concepts the regime considered corrupt or anti-government.
American Book Burning
The United States has also experience purposeful book burning, often as a form of protest. Rather than the government burning books, the people tend to instigate book burning in the U.S. While banning more commonly takes place, book burning still occurs, often as a symbolic gesture. Although they did not follow through with their threat, members of the library board in St. Louis, Illinois, in 1939 planned to burn John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" on the courthouse steps to protest its vulgarity. More recently, a pastor in Gainesville, Florida, in 2013 threatened to burn nearly 3,000 copies of the Quran in symbolic retaliation for the 9/11 attacks.
- University of Houston: History of Book Censorship
- Penn State University: Heinrich Heine on Burning Books
- United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization: Lost Memory -- Libraries and Archives Destroyed in the Twentieth Century
- The University of Arizona: Timeline
- World.edu: Global Education Network -- Banned Books Awareness -- "The Grapes of Wrath"
- U.S. News: Quran-Burning Pastor Terry Jones' Arrest Could Be Unconstitutional, Experts Say
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