Friday, May 16, 2008

The Anniversary of Book Burning

Recently we passed the 75 anniversary of Nazi book burning and on the occasion, a ceremony was held in Berlin, among other German cities. Last week I saw a poster in Berlin on the occasion that invited the public to the event. What caught my attention was the poem by a German poet on top of the poster, which read: Wherever they burn books, one day they will also burn humans.

At the very least, the Nazis showed that this was not just a slogan but also the reality.

A few days ago a film on book burning in Hitler’s Germany was shown to the public. What is frightening about the film is that the individuals who are shown to be tossing books into the flames are decent-appearing people, and not outcasts or drifters. Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels (officially the Minister for Public Enlightenment) says something in the film that is striking: “If perished milk is given to children in schools, the government is accountable; if expired medicine is given to patients, the government is accountable; corrupt books are worse that perished food. We will not allow injurious food to be given to German children.”

Goebbels words sound similar to those who these days defend censorship and condemn people for their views. What is even more frightening is that the public book burnings in the film were only part of the bigger picture and events that took place outside the public view. And sometimes this issue does not even need books, censors or flames. By simply telling people not to read a book or that it should not be in a library simply because I do not like it or its views is in practice doing what Goebbels was prescribing and preaching.

Governments that create conditions for book publishing and designate pre-viewers to read books before making them available to the public, in fact view themselves as self-appointed guardians of the public. They do the same thing with newspapers. Governments that have money and power but deny the Internet and bandwidths to the public too are doing what the book burners were doing. While people around the world read San Suu Kyi book, those in Burma are not allowed to, or Chinese language books abound all over the world except in China. These events and practices are no less than the book burnings that have taken place.

So as the 75 anniversary of book burning passes and the event is condemned worldwide, other forms of book-burning flourish. These events and views need to be condemned as well. Anyone who bans a reading material because he or she does not like its contents needs to be rebuked. Stalin did the latter without actually burning any books.

Robert Mugabe did this in yet another way. With seventy percent illiteracy, a 10,000 percent inflation rate, there is no money or desire to buy books for anyone. There are also some countries that do not have a Mugabe but their illiteracy policies and rates amount to a form of book burning.

But regardless of how the goals are accomplished, whether through Nazi book burning or Stalin’s methods, Mugabe’s practices, the colonels polices in Burma, etc one thing is clear: Book burning indicates a fear, the fear of free thought and ideas. Book burners know that they have nothing to say and his fear drives him to book burning. Samuel Beckett was right when he said that one day people would read all the burned books and hatred for the book burners would abound. If human progress and advance could be contained and checked, then the Church with its threats, Nazism with its zeal, Stalinism with its arrogance would have succeeded. But none of them did.