Brief History: Book Burnings

  • As the U.S. prepared to mark the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a small fringe church in Gainesville, Fla., planned to remember the day by burning copies of the Koran. The proposed action brought hundreds of protesters to the streets of Kabul and prompted a stern reprimand from the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, who warned that the stunt would endanger troops.

    While book burnings in our time have been acts of sensationalism and symbolism, in the past, torching texts was a tactic used by conquerors to wipe the slate of history clean. In 213 B.C., China's Emperor Shih Huang Ti thought that if he burned all the documents in his kingdom, history would begin with him. (He went as far as burying alive those scholars who continued to teach old ideas.) Eight centuries later, legend says, Caliph Omar burned some 200,000 objectionable books belonging to the library of Alexandria, warming the city's baths for six months. When the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, the waters of the Tigris were said to have run black with ink from all the destroyed books. In 1492, after the Spanish conquered Granada, the last Muslim kingdom in Western Europe, they allegedly emptied many of the city's treasured libraries and set their contents all to flame.

    Then there are those who have burned books to silence opposing views. Catholics torched the writings of Protestant reformer Martin Luther. The Nazis lit a towering bonfire of books by Jewish and leftist writers such as Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud and Upton Sinclair. And many 1950s Americans, spurred by Senator Joseph McCarthy, hunted for procommunism books to burn. Speaking out against the red scare in a 1953 commencement address, President Dwight Eisenhower offered a powerful reminder. "[We must] not try to conceal the thinking of our own people," he said. "They are part of America."