Book Burning Brings Frightening Historical Impact to New Political Mania 

Disturbing videos released on social media by GOP candidates raise questions about the historical significance of book burning by governments.

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Left side is blue with two vertical blocks and a stack of books. The other side is red with two horizontal blocks and a fire burning.

Trigger Warning: The discussion of homophobia in this article may be triggering to some readers.

Valentina Gomez, a 24-year-old Republican woman running for Missouri state senate, posted a video on X last week in which she blowtorched books in her backyard. Gomez claims that if she is elected to office, she will oversee the burning of Missouri Public Library books which she views as “grooming” and “sexualizing” young people.

The books being burned in the video include Naked: Not Your Average Sex Encyclopedia by Myriam Daguzan Bernier and Queer: The Ultimate LGBTQ Guide for Teens by Kathy Belge and Marke Bieschke. 

Left side displays book cover of  a cartoon of a gender neutral person looking under their underwear. The right side is a book cover which is simply black with the letters of the word QUEER in rainbow.
IMAGE VIA CANVA/BOOKSHOP

A Terrible Trend

Amid invalid attacks on Meta owner Mark Zuckerberg, Gomez stated her voice on Instagram was being “suppressed.” She also said,

Message is simple. You want to be gay? Fine be gay. Just don’t do it around children. Stop putting books in libraries about sexualization, indoctrination and grooming of children.

Valentina Gomez, Huffpost

Parts of Instagram responded vehemently to the act of censorship and book burning by Gomez, with comments including comparisons to the Nazi regime in Germany.

Gomez is not the first Missouri GOP candidate to post burning videos to social media. In September, Missouri gubernatorial candidate, Bill Eigel, posted a video burning cardboard boxes representing “leftist policies” in his backyard. Eigel also posted to X,

But let’s be clear, you bring those woke pornographic books to Missouri schools to try to brainwash our kids, and I’ll burn those too ― on the front lawn of the governor’s mansion.

Bill Eigel, X

The History of Book Burning

The terrifying trend of book burning that is being threatened by the far-right conservatives running for office is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, governments have used book burning in imperial conquests and extremist regimes to suppress the dissemination of information to the people. Here are just a few of the litany of examples of massive book burnings in world history.

China

The first book burning in recorded history occurred in 213 BCE by China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who stated,

I have collected all the writings of the Empire and burnt those which were of no use.

Quin Shi Huang, Free Speech History

According to historian Lois Mai Chan, the emperor’s primary objective was not necessarily to eradicate the schools of thought presented in the poetry, philosophy, and history books that his regime burned. Instead, the intent was to place the ideas introduced in the literature under his government’s control.

Over two millennia later, when Mao Zedong took power in China and implemented the Cultural Revolution, he drove zealous teenagers to burn any book that didn’t adhere to party propaganda and promoted “dangerous” ideas like capitalism and democracy.

Nazi Germany

In Nazi Germany, propaganda was used to frame the Nazis as the victims of the Jewish people. This propaganda was subsequently used to justify massive book burnings carried out by students of the Nazi regime. The first and most significant burning occurred on May 10, 1933, by Nazi Party university students on significant books written by Jewish, liberal, and progressive writers. The bonfires of books were one of the first symbols of Nazi censorship and intolerance of specific social groups and classes. 

Photo of university students in Berlin in 1933 burning books in a bonfire and putting up the Nazi salute.
IMAGE VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The destruction of what was seen by the Nazi Party as culturally non-German works was part of an effort by Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, to fuse the Nazi Party with German arts and culture. The students who led the book burnings in university towns throughout the country on May 10 described the act as a response to the Jewish “smear campaign” against Germany. 

In this short film a Holocaust survivor, an Iranian author, an American literary critic, and two Museum historians discuss the May 10 burnings and why totalitarian regimes target literature through book burning.

Al-Qaida

The al-Quaida invasion of Mali, followed by Timbuktu, in 2012 led to the destruction of libraries and monuments that had stood for seven centuries. Many priceless, ancient manuscripts were targeted to be burned due to al-Qaida’s view that they were sinful, pagan writings. The Timbuktu mayor stated in May 2013 that two buildings containing the targeted writings were destroyed while the al-Qaida forces fled the area from French troops. 

The hand of a woman tentatively touching and brushing an ancient manuscript set against a wood table.
IMAGE VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Thankfully, upwards of 200,000 manuscripts were saved by the efforts of men like Abdel Kader Haidara who risked their lives to smuggle out the manuscripts. However, the issue of digitizing the ancient literature to preserve it from harm was then turned into a years-long effort which in 2018 was still only 20 percent completed. 

A Scholarly Look at Book Burning

Rebecca Knuth, author of Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century and Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction, states, “A lot of ancient book burning was a function of conquest.” 

On top the photo of a man huddled in a corner surrounded by books. Below a picture of a Nazi book burning.
IMAGE VIA BOOKSHOP

Knuth also states that the Enlightenment era and the invention of the printing press made the dissemination of information more accessible outside of the elite classes, thus taking control away from the elite. The elite’s response by burning books was an attempt to reclaim the control they had lost.

What This Means for American Readers

This is not the first time in American history that literature has been under attack by government entities. In the early 20th century, James Joyce’s Ulysses was burned by the United States Postal Office any time a copy was shipped to American soil.

Though it has been 90 years since the American government lifted the ban on Ulysses, as American politics have become more divisive in recent years, book bans and book burning have once again been on the rise.

Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible.

Barbara Tuchman, Smithsonian Magazine

Due to the First Amendment of the Constitution, Americans have a right to consume any type of information that they please and then form whatever opinion or perspective they choose as a result. To deny Americans literature is to threaten their fundamental right to knowledge and to inflict upon them governmental agendas that endanger not only individual rights but also the ideals of free thought, knowledge, and learning that America was built upon. 


Are you interested in reading more articles like this? Read this article on Bookstr’s 2023 Book Ban Roundup!

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