Book burning is the deliberate destruction by fire of books or other written materials, usually carried out in a public context. The burning of books represents an element of censorship and usually proceeds from a cultural, religious, or political opposition to the materials in question. Book burning can be an act of contempt for the book's contents or author, intended to draw wider public attention to this opinion, or conceal the information contained in the text from being made public, such as diaries or ledgers.
In some cases, the destroyed works are irreplaceable and their burning constitutes a severe loss to cultural heritage. Examples include the burning of books and burying of scholars under China's Qin Dynasty (213–210 BCE), the destruction of the House of Wisdom during the Mongol siege of Baghdad (1258), the destruction of Aztec codices by Itzcoatl (1430s), the burning of Maya codices on the order of bishop Diego de Landa (1562), and the burning of Jaffna Public Library in Sri Lanka (1981).
In other cases, such as the Nazi book burnings, copies of the destroyed books survive, but the instance of book burning becomes emblematic of a harsh and oppressive regime which is seeking to censor or silence some aspect of prevailing culture.
In modern times, other forms of media, such as phonograph records, video tapes, and CDs have also been burned, shredded, or crushed. Art destruction is related to book burning, both because it might have similar cultural, religious, or political connotations, and because in various historical cases, books and artworks were destroyed at the same time.
When the burning is widespread and systematic, destruction of books and media can become a significant component of cultural genocide.
The burning of books has a long history of being a tool utilized by authorities both secular and religious, in their efforts to suppress dissenting or heretical views that are believed to pose a threat to the prevailing order.
According to the Hebrew Bible, in the 7th century BCE, King Jehoiakim of Judah burned part of a scroll that Baruch ben Neriah had written at prophet Jeremiah's dictation (see Jeremiah 36).
In 213 BCE Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, ordered the burning of books and burying of scholars and in 210 BCE he supposedly ordered the live burial of 460 Confucian scholars in order to stay on his throne. Though the burning of books is well established, the live burial of scholars has been disputed by modern historians who doubt the details of the story, which first appeared more than a century later in the Han Dynasty official Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian. Some of these books were written in Shang Xiang, a superior school founded in 2208 BCE. The event caused the loss of many philosophical treatises of the Hundred Schools of Thought. Treatises which advocated the official philosophy of the government ("legalism") survived.
In the New Testament's Acts of the Apostles, it is claimed that Paul performed an exorcism in Ephesus. After men in Ephesus failed to perform the same feat many gave up their "curious arts" and burned the books because apparently, they did not work.
And many that believed, came and confessed and shewed their deeds. Many of them also which used curious arts, brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver.
After the First Council of Nicea (325 CE), Roman emperor Constantine the Great issued an edict against nontrinitarian Arians which included a prescription for systematic book-burning:
"In addition, if any writing composed by Arius should be found, it should be handed over to the flames, so that not only will the wickedness of his teaching be obliterated, but nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him. And I hereby make a public order, that if someone should be discovered to have hidden a writing composed by Arius, and not to have immediately brought it forward and destroyed it by fire, his penalty shall be death. As soon as he is discovered in this offense, he shall be submitted for capital punishment....."
According to Elaine Pagels, "In AD 367, Athanasius, the zealous bishop of Alexandria... issued an Easter letter in which he demanded that Egyptian monks destroy all such unacceptable writings, except for those he specifically listed as 'acceptable' even 'canonical'—a list that constitutes the present 'New Testament'". (Pagels cites Athanasius's Paschal letter (letter 39) for 367 CE, which prescribes a canon, but her citation "cleanse the church from every defilement" (page 177) does not explicitly appear in the Festal letter.) Heretical texts do not turn up as palimpsests, scraped clean and overwritten, as do many texts of Classical antiquity. According to author Rebecca Knuth, multitudes of early Christian texts have been as thoroughly "destroyed" as if they had been publicly burnt.
In 1759 Pope Clement XIII decreed that all books of biologist Linnaeus should be burned.
Activity by Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376–444) brought fire to almost all the writings of Nestorius (386–450) shortly after 435. 'The writings of Nestorius were originally very numerous', however, they were not part of the Nestorian or Oriental theological curriculum until the mid-sixth century, unlike those of his teacher Theodore of Mopsuestia, and those of Diodorus of Tarsus, even then they were not key texts, so relatively few survive intact, cf. Baum, Wilhelm and Dietmar W. Winkler. 2003. The Church of the East: A Concise History. London: Routledge.
According to the Chronicle of Fredegar, Recared, King of the Visigoths (reigned 586–601) and first Catholic king of Spain, following his conversion to Catholicism in 587, ordered that all Arian books should be collected and burned; and all the books of Arian theology were reduced to ashes, along with the house in which they had been purposely collected. Which facts demonstrate that Constantine's edict on Arian works was not rigorously observed, as Arian writings or the theology based on them survived to be burned much later in Spain.
In 1244, as an outcome of the Disputation of Paris, twenty-four carriage loads of Talmuds and other Jewish religious manuscripts were set on fire by French law officers in the streets of Paris.
During the Spanish colonization of the Americas, numerous books written by indigenous peoples were burned by the Spaniards. Several books[quantify] written by the Aztecs were burnt by Spanish conquistadors and priests during the Spanish conquest of Yucatán. Despite opposition from Catholic friar Bartolomé de las Casas, numerous books found by the Spanish in Yucatán were burnt on the order of Bishop Diego de Landa in 1562. De Landa wrote on the incident that "We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction".
The founding of the Church of England after King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church led to the targeting of English Catholics by Protestants. During the Tudor and Stuart periods, Protestant citizens loyal to the Crown attacked Catholic religious sites across England, frequently burning any religious texts they found. These acts were encouraged by the Crown, who pressured the general public to take part in such "spectacles". According to American historian David Cressy, over "the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries book burning developed from a rare to an occasional occurrence, relocated from an outdoor to an indoor procedure, and changed from a bureaucratic to a quasi-theatrical performance".
With the Bishops' Ban of 1599 the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London ordered an end to the production of verse satire and the confiscation and the burning of specific extant works, including works by John Marston and Thomas Middleton. Nine books were specifically singled out for destruction. Scholars disagree about what properties these nine books have in common to cause official offence.
During the War of 1812, a British expeditionary force routed an American militia at Bladensburg. Shortly thereafter, the British marched into Washington, D.C., briefly capturing and occupying the city. In retaliation for the American destruction of Port Dover, the British ordered the destruction of several public buildings in the city, including the Library of Congress, erected just fourteen years prior. The U.S. Capitol was also burnt by the British, with books from the Library of Congress being used to burn the building. Both the library and the Capitol were rebuilt after the war.
Following John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, slaveholders and their supporters spread panic about abolitionism, believing that anti-slavery conspiracies would lead to widespread slave revolts. Pro-slavery southerners burned books in Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas, including textbooks from public schools. Books that were critical of slavery, or insufficiently supportive of it, were seen as "anti-Southern" by the book-burners.
Anthony Comstock's New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, founded in 1873, inscribed book burning on its seal, as a worthy goal to be achieved. Comstock's total accomplishment in a long and influential career is estimated to have been the destruction of some 15 tons of books, 284,000 pounds of plates for printing such "objectionable" books, and nearly 4,000,000 pictures. All of this material was defined as "lewd" by Comstock's very broad definition of the term – which he and his associates successfully lobbied the United States Congress to incorporate in the Comstock Law.
Main article: Nazi book burnings
The Nazi government decreed broad grounds for burning material "which acts subversively on Nazi Germany's future or strikes at the root of German thought, the German home and the driving forces of German people".
Further information: Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers § Media censorship
Under the occupation of Japan overseen by GHQ, any kind of criticism of the Allies was banned and many books were prohibited and deleted. Over 7,000 books were destroyed.
In Catholic hagiography, Saint Vincent of Saragossa is mentioned as having been offered his life on condition that he consign Scripture to the fire; he refused and was martyred. He is often depicted holding the book which he protected with his life.
Another book-saving Catholic saint is the 10th-century Saint Wiborada. She is credited with having predicted in 925 an invasion by the then-pagan Hungarians of her region in Switzerland. Her warning allowed the priests and religious of St. Gall and St. Magnus to hide their books and wine and escape into caves in nearby hills. Wiborada herself refused to escape and was killed by the marauders, being later canonized. In art, she is commonly represented holding a book to signify the library she saved, and is considered a patron saint of libraries and librarians.
During a tour of Thuringia in 1525, Martin Luther became enraged at the widespread burning of libraries along with other buildings during the German Peasants' War, writing Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants in response.
During the Revolutions of 1848 in the Austrian Empire the Imperial Court Library (now Austrian National Library) was in extreme danger, when the bombardment of Vienna caused the burning of the Hofburg, in which the Imperial Library was located. The fire was halted in a timely manner - saving countless irreplaceable books, diligently collected by many generations of Habsburg emperors and the scholars in their employ.
At the beginning of the Battle of Monte Cassino in World War II, two German officers – Viennese-born Lt. Col. Julius Schlegel (a Roman Catholic) and Captain Maximilian Becker (a Protestant) – had the foresight to transfer the Monte Cassino archives to the Vatican. Otherwise the archives – containing a vast number of documents relating to the 1500-years' history of the Abbey as well as some 1,400 irreplaceable manuscript codices, chiefly patristic and historical – would have been destroyed in the Allied air bombing which almost completely destroyed the Abbey shortly afterwards. Also saved by the two officers' prompt action were the collections of the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome, which had been sent to the Abbey for safety in December 1942.
The Sarajevo Haggadah – one of the oldest and most valuable Jewish illustrated manuscripts, with immense historical and cultural value – was hidden from the Nazis and their Ustaše collaborators by Derviš Korkut, chief librarian of the National Museum in Sarajevo. At risk to his own life, Korkut smuggled the Haggadah out of Sarajevo and gave it for safekeeping to a Muslim cleric in Zenica, where it was hidden until the end of the war under the floorboards of either a mosque or a Muslim home. The Haggadah again survived destruction during the wars which followed the breakup of Yugoslavia.
In 1940s France, a group of anti-fascist exiles created a Library of Burned Books which housed all the books that Adolf Hitler had destroyed. This library contained copies of titles that were burned by the Nazis in their campaign to cleanse German culture of Jewish and foreign influences such as pacifist and decadent literature. The Nazis themselves planned to make a "museum" of Judaism once the Final Solution was complete to house certain books that they had saved.
When Virgil died, he left instructions that his manuscript of the Aeneid was to be burnt, as it was a draft version with uncorrected faults and not a final version for release. However, this instruction was ignored. It is mainly to the Aeneid, published in this "imperfect" form, that Virgil owes his lasting fame – and it is considered one of the great masterpieces of classical literature as a whole.
Before his death, Franz Kafka wrote to his friend and literary executor Max Brod: "Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me... in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread." Brod overrode Kafka's wishes, believing that Kafka had given these directions to him, specifically, because Kafka knew he would not honour them – Brod had told him as much. Had Brod carried out Kafka's instructions, virtually the whole of Kafka's work – except for a few short stories published in his lifetime – would have been lost forever. Most critics, at the time and up to the present, justify Brod's decision. In his foreword to Kafka's The Castle Brod noted that when entering Kafka's apartment after his death, he found several big empty folders and traces of burnt paper - the manuscripts which were in these folders having evidently been destroyed by Kafka himself before his death. Brod expressed pain at the irreversible loss of this material and happiness at having saved so much of Kafka's work from its creator's ruthlessness.
A similar case concerns the noted American poet Emily Dickinson, who died in 1886 and left to her sister Lavinia the instruction of burning all her papers. Lavinia Dickinson did burn almost all of her sister's correspondences, but interpreted the will as not including the forty notebooks and loose sheets, all filled with almost 1800 poems; these Lavinia saved and began to publish the poems that year. Had Lavinia Dickinson been more strict in carrying out her sister's will, all but a small handful of Emily Dickinson's poetic work would have been lost.
In early 1964, several months after the death of C.S. Lewis, Lewis' literary executor Walter Hooper, rescued a 64-page manuscript from a bonfire of the author's writings – the burning carried out according to Lewis' will. In 1977, Hooper published it under the name The Dark Tower. It was apparently intended as part of Lewis' Space Trilogy. Though incomplete and evidently an early draft which Lewis abandoned, its publication aroused great interest and a continued discussion among Lewis fans and scholars researching his work.
Although the act of destroying books is condemned by the majority of the world's societies, book burning still occurs on a small or large scale.
In Azerbaijan, when a modified Latin alphabet was adopted, books which were published in the Arabic script were burned, especially those published in the late 1920s and 1930s. The texts were not limited to the Quran; medical and historical manuscripts were also destroyed.
Book burnings were regularly organised in Nazi Germany in the 1930s by stormtroopers so that "degenerate" works could be destroyed, especially works written by Jewish authors such as Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, and Karl Marx. One of the most infamous book burnings in the 20th century occurred in Frankfurt, Germany, on May 10, 1933. Organized by Joseph Goebbels, books were burned in a celebratory fashion, complete with bands, marchers, and songs. Seeking to "cleanse" German culture of the "un-German" spirit, Goebbels compelled students (who were egged on by their professors) to perform the book burning. To some this could be easily dismissed as the childish actions of the youth, but to many in Europe and America, it was a horrific display of power and disrespect. During the denazification which followed the war, literature which had been confiscated by the Allies was reduced to pulp rather than burned.
In 1937, during Getúlio Vargas' dictatorship in Brazil, several books by authors such as Jorge Amado and José Lins do Rego were burned in an anti-communist act.
In the People's Republic of China from the 1940s to present day, library officials publicize the burning of "illegal publications, religious publications".
In 1942, local Catholic priests forced Irish storyteller Timothy Buckley to burn a book The Tailor and Ansty by Eric Cross about Buckley and his wife, because of its sexual frankness.
In the 1950s, over six tons of books by William Reich were burned in the U.S. in compliance with judicial orders. In 1954, the works of Mordecai Kaplan were burned by Orthodox Jewish rabbis in America, after Kaplan was excommunicated.
In Denmark, a comic book burning took place on 23 June 1955. It was a bonfire which consisted of comic books topped by a life-size cardboard cutout of The Phantom.
During the military dictatorship in Brazil from (1964-1985), several methods of censure were used, among them, torture and the burning of books by firemen.
Some supporters have celebrated book-burning cases in art and other media. Such is the case in Italy in 1973 with The Burning of Heretical Books over a side door on the façade of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, the bas-relief by Giovanni Battista Maini, which depicts the burning of "heretical" books as a triumph of righteousness.
During the years of the Chilean military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet from 1973 to 1990, hundreds of books were burned as a way of repression and censorship of left-wing literature. In some instances, even books on Cubism were burned because soldiers thought it had to do with the Cuban Revolution.
In 1981, the Jaffna Public Library in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, was burned down by Sinhalese police and paramilitaries during a pogrom against the minority Tamil population. At the time of its burning, it contained almost 100,000 Tamil books and rare documents.
Kjell Ludvik Kvavik, a senior Norwegian official, had a penchant for removing maps and other pages from rare books and he was noticed in January 1983 by a young college student. The student, Barbro Andenaes, reported the actions of the senior official to the superintendent of the reading room and then reported them to the head librarian of the university library in Oslo. Hesitant to make the accusation against Kvavik public because it would greatly harm his career, even if it was proven to be false, the media did not divulge his name until his house was searched by police. The authorities seized 470 maps and prints as well as 112 books that Kvavik had illegally obtained. While this may not have been the large-scale, violent demonstration which usually occurs during wars, Kvavik's disregard for libraries and books shows that the destruction of books on any scale can affect an entire country. Here, a senior official in the Norwegian government was disgraced and the University Library was only refunded for a small portion of the costs which it had incurred from the loss and destruction of rare materials and the security changes that had to be made as a result of it. In this case, the lure of personal profit and the desire to enhance one's own collection were the causes of the defacement of rare books and maps. While the main goal was not destruction for destruction's sake, the resulting damage to the ephemera still carries weight within the library community.
In 1984, Amsterdam's South African Institute was infiltrated by an organized group which was bent on drawing attention to the inequality of apartheid. Well-organized and assuring patrons of the library that no harm would come to them, group members systematically smashed microfiche machines and threw books into the nearby waterway. Indiscriminate with regard to the content which was being destroyed, shelf after shelf was cleared of its contents until the group left. Staff members fished books from the water in hopes of salvaging the rare editions of travel books, documents about the Boer Wars, and contemporary materials which were both for and against apartheid. Many of these materials were destroyed by oil, ink, and paint that the anti-apartheid demonstrators had flung around the library. The world was outraged by the loss of knowledge that these demonstrators had caused, and instead of supporting their cause and drawing people's attention to the issue of apartheid, the international community denounced their actions at Amsterdam's South African Institute. Some of the demonstrators came forward and sought to justify their actions by accusing the institute of being pro-apartheid and claiming that nothing was being done to change the status quo in South Africa.
The advent of the digital age has resulted in the cataloguing of an immense collection of written works, exclusively or primarily in digital form. The intentional deletion or removal of these works has often been referred to as a new form of book burning. For example, Amazon, the world's largest online marketplace, has increasingly banned the sale of controversial books. An article in The New York Times reported that "Booksellers that sell on Amazon say the retailer has no coherent philosophy about what it decides to prohibit, and seems largely guided by public complaints.".
A biblioclastic incident occurred in Mullumbimby, New South Wales, Australia in 2009. Reported as "just like the ritual burning of books in Nazi Germany", a book-burning ceremony was held by students of the "socially harmful cult" Universal Medicine, an esoteric healing business which was owned by Serge Benhayon. Students were invited to throw their books onto the pyre. Most of the volumes were on Chinese medicine, kinesiology, acupuncture, homeopathy and other alternative healing modalities, all of which Benhayon has decreed evil or "prana".
Russian nationalists burned Ukrainian history books in Crimea in 2010. Prorussian demonstrators burned books in Eastern Ukraine, 2014.
After the failed 2016 Turkish coup d'état, the Turkish government burned 301,878 books deemed related to the coup or its alleged leader, Fethullah Gülen, including 18 textbooks with the word "Pennsylvania" in them. Photos of books being burned became a viral sensation on the internet once they were taken by a website named Kronos27.
In April 2019 Poland, priests in Gdańsk burned Harry Potter books.
In 2019, the French-language Providence Catholic School Board in southwestern Ontario held a 'flame purification' ceremony and burned around thirty recently banned children's books. The ashes were used as fertilizer to plant trees and according to the participants the action was 'to turn a negative to a positive'. The books included Tintin and Asterix and were deemed harmful to Indigenous people.
Since the introduction of the controversial national security law in 2020, multiple counts of biblioclasm have been reported. Shortly after the introduction of the new law, books written by prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy figures, including Joshua Wong and Tanya Chan, have been removed from public libraries. In 2021, 29 previously available titles about the Tiananmen Massacre are completely removed from the public libraries, whilst 94 of the remaining 120 titles are only available on request. In 2022, reported by local media, three secondary schools removed more than 400 books since June 2021. Unlike the two book burning happened in the public libraries, the schools were not given any concrete criteria but the schools had to perform the self-censorship themselves. Titles that were removed included those related to the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests, Tiananmen Massacre and jailed activists. In the same year, the Hong Kong government also refused to provide a list of books that have been removed from the public libraries.
In February 2021 some religious communities in the United States have started holding book burning ceremonies to garner attention and publicly denounce heretical beliefs. In Tennessee pastor Greg Locke has held sermons over the incineration of books like Harry Potter and Twilight. This trend of calling for the burning of books one's ideology conflicts with has continued into the political sphere. Two members of a Virginia school board Rabih Abuismail, and Kirk Twigg, have condoned the burning of recently banned books to keep their ideas out of the minds of the public. In September 2023, Missouri State Senator and gubernatorial candidate Bill Eigel showed off a flamethrower at a campaign event and vowed to burn "woke pornographic books [...] on the front lawn of the governor's mansion" if elected.
During the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the facts of the destruction of Ukrainian books, especially on the history of Ukraine and the history of the Russian-Ukrainian war, are known. In Mariupol, Russians burned all the books from the library of the church of Petro Mohyla. In the temporarily occupied Mariupol, Russian invaders are throwing away books from the library collections of the Pryazovskyi State Technical University. Russian “military police” seize and destroy books on Ukrainian history and culture in the occupied territories in the Northeast of Ukraine. There are also cases of destruction and damage to the Ukrainian archives with documents about the Soviet repression and attempts to introduce Russian re-educational programs in Melitopol.
In the Sikh religion, any copies of their sacred book, Guru Granth Sahib, which are too badly damaged to be used, and any printer's waste which bears any of its text, are cremated. This ritual is called an Agan Bhet, and it is similar to the ritual which is performed when a deceased Sikh is cremated.
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