Oz Blog News Commentary

Book burning

February 22, 2024 - 16:29 -- Admin

The Nazis burnt books by Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque among many other well-known intellectuals, scientists and cultural figures, many of whom were Jewish1. 

The 1929 Nobel Prize-winning German author Thomas Mann, supported the Weimar Republic and his critique of fascism raised Nazi ire. Erich Maria Remarque was vilified by Nazi ideologues for his unflinching description of the First World War in All Quiet on the Western Front. The Nazis characterised it as “a literary betrayal of the soldiers of the World War”1.

The work of Jaroslav Hašek was also consigned to the flames. He is best known for his novel The Fate of the Good Soldier Švejk during the World War, an unfinished collection of farcical incidents about a soldier in the First World War which satirised the ineptitude of authority figures. The novel has been translated into about 60 languages, making it the most translated novel in Czech literature2.

Jack London was another whose works were burnt. He was part of a radical literary group in San Francisco and a passionate advocate of animal rights, workers’ rights and socialism. London wrote several works dealing with these topics, but his most famous works include The Call of the Wild and White Fang3.

Helen Keller was another author whose works were burnt. Her belief in social justice encouraged her to champion the disabled, pacifism, workers’ rights, and women’s voting rights. Others were Bertolt Brecht, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Georg Lukács, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Victor Hugo, John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Upton Sinclair, Joseph Conrad, Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, H.G. Wells, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Maxim Gorky, Vladimir Lenin, Vladimir Nabokov, Leo Tolstoy and Leon Trotsky4.

Also among those works burned were the writings of beloved nineteenth-century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote in his 1820–1821 play Almansor the famous admonition, “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen”: “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people”5. So it proved to be; in the ovens of the Nazi’s death camps.

Valentina Gomez, a Republican running for Missouri secretary of state, posted a video to social media in which she used a large blowtorch to burn some books, falsely claiming that books with LGBTQ+ themes are indoctrinating and sexualising children. If elected, she promised to preside over widespread efforts to remove books from public libraries6.

Why do totalitarian regimes often target culture? Because the regimes want to control the flow of ideas and the narrative, particularly of history. Art can illustrate the struggles and humanity of individuals and may combat stereotypical narratives, challenging the status quo simply by its existence. If we end up empathising with others, it dilutes ‘culture war’ narratives dehumanising already marginalised people branded as enemies in culture wars.

This sort of attitude is now afoot in the US and Australia. In the US, a nationwide anti-art narrative has manifested itself as extreme pressures of targeted culture war political narrative of sustained attacks on the LGBTQ community in Republican states. Books targeted include Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel memoir, Gender Queer, and Jonathan Evison’s semi-autobiographical novel Lawn Boy, both of which deal with growing up while coming to terms with being LGBTQ. Are some books probably too mature for teaching students in schools? Possibly. But while the book banners always claim they want to “protect children”, these books were in the adult section of a public library7. The ‘Protecting the children’ is simply a ruse to hide their main game, which is imposing their religious extremism on everyone else.

In addition to the books by Kobabe and Evison, other books banned in various parts of the US include the following:

  • Maus by Art Spiegelman, a graphic novel that tells the story of the Nazi invasion of Europe and the Holocaust. The second volume of this went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, the first and only graphic novel to do so.
  • The Bluest Eye by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison is a book about racism, incest and sexual abuse.
  • The Call of the Wild by Jack London is the story of a pampered pet dog who must survive in the wild.
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank is a clear-eyed glimpse into the thoughts of a young teenager hiding in an attic to avoid being rounded up by the Nazis during World War II. But this is not the reason for its banning; Frank describes her anatomy, and this has upset the religious nutters who are generally obsessed with sex.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a coming-of-age tale of a young girl during the arrest and trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman. It deals with racism and sexuality.
  • Where’s Waldo (i.e. Where’s Wally) by Martin Handford; apparently because in one of the drawings of a beach scene there was a partially topless woman sunbathing.
  • Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez includes graphic depictions of teen sex between a Mexican American girl and a black American boy in 1930s Texas. It also covers topics like segregation and rape.
  • Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is the story about a young boy who is punished by being sent to bed without supper. That night, his dreams take him to a dark land where he becomes king of the Wild Things.
  • Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds is a nonfiction book about race in the US.
  • This Book is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do The Work” by Tiffany Jewell tells teenagers how to stand up against racism.
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is a young adult’s reaction to the police shooting of Oscar Grant.
  • George by Alex Gino is a story of a young boy who knows she is a girl.
  • Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin is based on a series of interviews with transgender teenagers8.

Don’t get carried away saying ‘only in America’, because there have been pushes to have some of these books, and others, banned in Australia. Australian Catholic RWNJ Bernard Gaynor has called for the book Gender Queer (by Maia Kobabe) to be banned9, 10. Welcome to Sex (by Kang & Stynes)11 was campaigned against by an organisation which is simply a front for the Catholic Church, and the campaign was based on abuse of the staff at Woolworths12, such that Woolworths removed it from their shelves and allowed it to be purchased only online11.

These calls to ban books they deem unsuitable will continue from the religious. They want to control what people see and read, as religion is largely about controlling people, in part by allowing them to read only what they deem acceptable. In this, they are similar to totalitarian regimes, and that is why they have jumped into bed with the antidemocratic forces in the US (i.e. Trump’s Republican Party), and why they have largely taken over the Liberal Party in Australia, and why these culture wars will continue.