Civic/Social/Education / Theology/Religion

Book burning has religious foundations

The Huffington Post is currently running a short piece and slideshow: Book Burning In History: Martin Luther To Harry Potter. The byline is somewhat misleading since the print below it focuses on, arguably, the most famous book burning incident in history–Berlin’s Opernplatz in 1933, when 40,000 Germans assembled to carry out a book-burning demonstration by torching the works of “Heinrich Mann, Bertolt Brecht and Karl Marx, as well as Ernest Hemingway, Jack London and Thomas Mann.” May 2013 is the 80th anniversary of the Opernplatz demonstration.

The Nazis were not the first to burn books. Christians too have these demonstrations nestled in their history, and I think it necessary to hold these two groups and their similar acts alongside one another. I do not mean suggest that the Nazi book burning at Opernplatz is a Christian event (though the assembled were likely from Lutheran and Catholic parishes). The Nazis in their actions can hardly be characterized as Christians, but this does not preclude their actions from being understood in Christian names and through Christian vision. Such a comparison needs nuance and careful attention.

Citing a 2010 CBC News interview, Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction author Rebecca Knuth states that book burnings “are highly symbolic. When you destroy a book you are destroying your enemy and your enemy’s beliefs.”[1]

The Nazis’ Opernplatz book burning is one of the many burnings listed in The Huffington Post’s visual timeline. This list includes an illustration of Catholics handing over Martin Luther’s works for incineration and a picture of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter being burned at the beginning of the last decade. Few images, however, are as vivid as the number of Berliners dressed in plain clothes, giving the sieg heil salute, and surrounding the conflagration in compliance with the new regime’s desires. [A similar scene, you may remember, is depicted in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, to the tune of Johann Gottfried Piefke’s Königgrätzer Marsch.]

From the Holocaust Museum’s archive:

In a symbolic act of ominous significance, on May 10, 1933, university students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture. On the evening of May 10, in most university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit.” The scripted rituals called for high Nazi officials, professors, university rectors, and university student leaders to address the participants and spectators. At the meeting places, students threw the pillaged and “unwanted” books onto bonfires with great ceremony, band-playing, and so-called “fire oaths.” In Berlin, some 40,000 persons gathered in the Opernplatz to hear Joseph Goebbels deliver a fiery address: “No to decadence and moral corruption!” Goebbels enjoined the crowd. “Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Gläser, Erich Kästner.”[2]

The Opernplatz assembly, as the The Huffington Post timeline suggests, is not the first time in history that men and women have assembled for the expressed purpose of burning literature, an act of symbolic, but also concrete, significance. Not only does the bonfire purge the assembled body of pernicious literature, but it also names the dangers that are among the assembled and encourages them to avoid these dangers if they are to remain among the pure.

Such an event is equally important because the event and action identify and mark a people by the very performance of the action. The Christian name for this performance is liturgy. Book burning is especially cogent as a liturgical act since it is hardly a secret event but is most efficacious when it is performed in the open air, like the Opernplatz.

The strange precedent of book burning the Nazis inherited has, of course, a Christian significance on its own. The charter text is found in Acts of the Apostles, where Paul’s ministry leads him to Ephesus, the major Greco-Roman city of Asia Minor, what is now Turkey:

Some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, ‘I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.’ Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit said to them in reply, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?’ Then the man with the evil spirit leapt on them, mastered them all, and so overpowered them that they fled out of the house naked and wounded. When this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, everyone was awestruck; and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised. Also many of those who became believers confessed and disclosed their practices. A number of those who practiced magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins.[3]

The narrative in Acts barely includes Paul–only his name–which the unfit exorcists attempt to co-opt for their own purposes. The residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks alike, witness the truly strange turn of events, and many renounce their quasi-spiritual practices, which Acts name as magic. They bring their magic books, which had been purchased at great personal expense, to the city center for incineration. As Acts notes, the book burning is not only a publically visible protest about literature but about economics as well.

What separates the Ephesus book burning from the Berlin’s Opernplatz? Both were public demonstrations in the center of major urban communities. Both groups engaged in acts that not only identified their own group but also named particular literature as dangerous, unfit for future use, and burned without remainder.

C. Kavin Rowe, Associate New Testament professor at Duke University’s Divinity School, takes particular interest in the event at Ephesus. In World Upside Down, a work that engages the peculiar politics of the early church in Acts, Rowe notes:

Luke’s account, however, emphasizes that this book burning in Ephesus was both voluntary and public. The converts are not forced by the Ephesian authorities to hand over their materials for destruction; nor are they coerced by Paul or the Ephesian disciples… The practioners of magic simply gather their books and burn them.[4]

The Opernplatz book burning tells a different story: SA, or “brownshirts,” soldiers stand at attention and supervise the event; Hitler Youth groups fill the square; all this at the behest of the Joseph Goebbels in one of his inaugural acts for the Third Reich. The authors of the works burned, like Heminway and Mann, narrate the great failures of Germany in World War I and could not be a part of the new German regime.

Compare this with the Christian converts in Acts. Rowe continues:

Not only does the public action prevent the books from being used by others who are not simply persuaded, it also visibly and dramatically enacts the irreversibility of the practitioners’ divulgence and confession. Books once burned can never be retrieved. The termination of magical practice and the burning of the books that make such practice possible thus visibly mark and publicly proclaim the end of a way of life. The life that supports and is supported by magic has gone up in flames.[5]

Whether by force or by fraud, the Opernplatz scene rewrites the history of Germany by eliminating it, whitewashing over it, and propping up in its place an imagined and inauthentic continuation of a regime, the artificial maintenance of the new Reich’s alleged status quo. The Ephesus demonstration, on the other hand, marks the beginning of new patterns of life, initiated by the purgation of what had not given life but maintained evident darkness among its practitioners. The name for this transition is called conversion.

The witness and inherited history of the Ephesian conversion, however, has to be handled with cautious care, for Christians themselves have been the purveyors of book burning, which lacked in charity and did not witness to conversion. The Acts passage itself exhibits that not all exorcisms are equal, just as the book burning at Opernplatz is not on par with Ephesus.

Instead, individuals and communities of particular moral discourse must measure with care the life-ways they adhere to as a reflection of the patterns of life they witness to and profess. The books that communities read, even the ones they deem difficult and even problematic, are to be handled with great care. If the community finds it necessary to eliminate certain practices, certain ways of being, and certain ways of understanding, this elimination must follow the path that gives life and enacts fruitful conversion, not the order of death and its status quo.


[1] Daniel Schwartz. CBC News: Sep. 10, 2010. Web. http://www.cbc.ca. 13 May, 2013.
[2] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Book Buring.” http://www.ushmm.org/ 11 May, 2012. Web. 13 May, 2013.
[3] Acts 19:13-19. New Revised Standard Version. 1989.
[4] C. Kavin Rowe. World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Greco-Roman Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 43.
[5] Ibid.

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