Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, in 1822, penned the prophetic words, “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.” Being a book-lover, I can attest that there is nothing gloomier than the sight of a bonfire on which books have been burnt.
It’s also hard to wrap your head around the fact that people who designed the most extensive systems of repression and execution in the modern world, were also the individuals who studied culture and literature. They were keen readers and writers. They were bibliophiles who frequented bookshops and libraries.
In this post, let’s look at four infamous book-burners who were also intense book-lovers at some point in their lives:
#1. Adolf Hitler
Better known for burning books than collecting them, Hitler was so much in love with books that he had built three libraries at his private residences in Munich, Berlin, and Obersalzberg.
By the time he committed suicide, he had amassed 16000 volumes in his libraries.
An avid reader who loved Shakespeare, Hitler devoted himself to the life of an artist after leaving school. He used to draw and read compulsively. The popular Educational Society bookshop on Bismarkstrasse was his favorite hangout place.
Timothy W. Ryback writes in his Hitler’s Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life, “He read voraciously, at least one book per night and sometimes more, he claimed…I take what I need from books.”
In the 1930s, under his command, the Chief Propagandist for the Nazi party – Joseph Goebbels led the largest book bonfires in Berlin. The Nazi book burnings became a thing since. Hitler destroyed millions of books by Jewish writers at the same time it was exterminating millions of Jewish people.
#2. Joseph Stalin
During his period in a seminary, the young Stalin sought freedom to read in the bookshop of Zakaria Chichinadze, afraid that the books he borrowed from the public library might be checked and lead to retribution.
At that time, the tsars ruled with an iron hand in St Petersburg. Most publishers had directives to exalt the figure of the Tsar.
Joseph Stalin was fond of Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three. He was even punished for smuggling it into the seminary and when in 1896 an inspection turned up a copy of Hugo’s The Toilers of the Sea, he was handed a lengthy stay in the solitary cell.
When he won power years later, the same Stalin developed a convoluted system of controlling texts. He repeatedly purged libraries of books he thought were harmful to the Communist society. His followers used book-burning displays to win supporters and intimidate those with opposing views.
#3. Mao Tse-tung
In the last 1920s, when Hitler was setting the Nazi propaganda machine in motion, another future dictator, Mao Tse-tung, was opening a bookshop and publishing house in Changsha which he named the Cultural Society of Books. His business soon saw success and was able to hire more employees.
In previous years, Mao had worked as a librarian. When he became a bookseller in the 1920s, he started to call himself a communist.
Around forty years later, he unleashed The Cultural Revolution on his people whose main front was the burning of books.
#4. Fidel Castro
During the early days of his reign, the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was once asked about his favorite books. Like an ardent book-lover, he named two: The Communist Manifesto and State and Revolution. In prison, he devoured all manner of reading matter, from Victor Hugo and Zweig to Marx.
Later on, his arsonists targeted the books for being subversive and representing non-Communist ideologies.
While these were just a few examples, history is littered with incidents of book-burning across the world. Dictatorships in Chile and Argentina publicly burned books. Serbian mortars tried to destroy the National Library of Sarajevo.
And, before you jump the gun and make up your mind that it’s only dictators who burnt books. No. Democracies have also engaged in the naked dance of banning books. In the 1920s, the United States Postal service burnt copies of Ulysses.
I recall Ray Bradbury’s epic dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. It tells the story of a tyrannical government destroying subversive books by fire and citizens’ resistance of memorizing those forbidden books to preserve them for future generations.
I would hate to see Bradbury’s dystopian nightmare inch even slightly closer to reality, but that’s the kind of volatile world we live in.
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