Where they burn books …

by Andrea Strobl

“Where they burn books, they end up burning people.”

As is well known, this sentence comes from Heinrich Heine and is used today above all in connection with the Third Reich – understandable, since Heine’s words seem almost prophetic in retrospect. But Heine was not a prophet; rather, he was recalling the long history of politically, ideologically or religiously motivated book burnings. The quotation comes from his tragedy Almansor (1823), set around 1500 at the time of the expulsion of the Moors from Spain; the sentence above refers to the burning of books of Islamic theology ordered by the Bishop of Toledo in 1499. Even if today, when we hear the catchword “book burning”, we involuntarily think of the Third Reich, we must not overlook how far back the history of the deliberate destruction of written material and books goes. From the very beginning, the written word not only served to disseminate knowledge, literature or various religious and political convictions, but could also represent a danger from the same point of view. Whereas once it was tablets that were smashed or “erased” in places with a chisel, this was later followed by manuscripts that were torn up, blackened page by page or burned and thus irrevocably lost to posterity. After the invention of printing, however, it was no longer so easy to erase written thought forever. From then on, book burnings took on an increasingly ritualised character and symbolic significance.

Heinrich Heine, © georgios

However, they could and should serve to intimidate the potential reader or the sustained denigration of authors, to silence them, often to destroy their livelihoods and to counteract further dissemination and reception of their works. The literary historian M. de Vigneul-Marville put it succinctly in the 18th century: “War has been waged as much against books as against peoples.”

A look at some exemplary moments in the long and complex history of the burning of written material (the first examples go back to the 2nd century BC) may perhaps inspire one or two readers to take a closer look at this history of destruction.

The history of book burnings based on religious battles is particularly long. Already in the Acts of the Apostles, such an act of destruction is described: “Some of the wandering Jewish conjurors also tried to invoke the name of Jesus the Lord over the one possessed by evil spirits […]. This was done by seven sons of a certain Skeua, a Jewish chief priest. […] And the man in whom the evil spirit dwelt rushed upon them, overpowered them, and so afflicted them that they fled from the house naked and bruised. […] all were seized with fear and the name of Jesus the Lord was highly praised. Many who had become believers came and openly confessed what they had done before. And not a few who had practised sorcery brought their magic books and burned them in the sight of all.” (Acts 19:13-20). This biblical passage was often to serve as a reference for many of the book burnings that followed – just as one can see in the chronology of book burnings how often a historical reference point, and thus implicitly legitimisation, was sought.

The scholastic and theologian Peter Abaelard, probably known to many from his famous correspondence with his student and later lover Héloïse, already felt the long arm of the Church. Less well known, however, is that in 1121, after the Council of Soissons, Abaelard was forced to burn his philosophically based doctrine on the Trinity, De Unitate et Trinitate Divina, which advocated the rebellious view of the time that man could only find true faith through the application of reason: “One cannot believe anything that one has not first reasonably understood, and it is ridiculous to preach to others what one cannot reasonably understand either oneself or the person to whom one is preaching.  Abaelard had to burn his writing with his own hands – which was considered a “self-purifying act” by the church at the time. After long years of dispute with his great opponent in matters of faith, Bernard of Clairvaux, his work Opera Theologica was also condemned 20 years later at the Council of Sens. Even before his defence could take place in Rome, Abaelard died in 1142 in a monastery near Chalon-sur-Saône, banned from the church and obliged to remain silent. Pope Innocent II ordered the burning of his writings. This was the first book burning of the Middle Ages ordered by a pope. Abaelard’s books burned “in incendio celebri” (in glorious fire), as reported by Gottfried of Auxerre.

Between 1240 and 1248, on the orders of Pope Gregory IX, the Talmud was thoroughly examined for heretical content, which led to the burning of the Talmud in Paris, the most extensive book burning of the Middle Ages: first, as many copies of the Talmud as possible were confiscated in France, England and the kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula. The charge consisted of 35 points, e.g. the presumption of the Talmud to have greater authority than the Bible, various blasphemies or calls for the murder of Christians. After the two-year investigation, the sentence was passed, and on 17 June 1242, 24 carts were piled into a huge funeral pyre – around 12,000 copies of the Talmud are estimated to have been burned. It was the first time that books were destroyed in this way “in maxima multitudine” (in the greatest quantity). The gigantic fire raged for two days. For Ashkenazi Jewry, the burning of the Talmud in Paris meant another reason for persecution and murder in many places – and for further burnings of Jewish writings. Only one medieval copy with the almost complete text of the Babylonian Talmud will survive these acts of extermination: Codex Hebraicus 95 from 1342, which is now in the Bavarian State Library.

Book burnings were particularly terrifying when authors were burned at the same time as their writings: On 6 July 1415, the Bohemian theologian and reformer Jan Hus was burned at the stake in Constance. In his main treatise De ecclesia, written in 1413, he opposed, among other things, the idea of an infallible papacy and recognised only the Holy Scriptures as the sole authority: “The pope is a bishop like another bishop over his bishopric and nothing more.”

He also castigated the worldly possessions of the church, the viciousness of the clergy, opposed the sale of indulgences and advocated church services and the Bible in the vernacular.

In 1414, he was declared guilty of heresy at the Council of Constance and sentenced to death; his books were to be burned. In July 1415, he was led past his burning books to the Schindanger of Constance and executed. Shortly before his execution, he is said to have exclaimed: “Today you roast a goose, but from the ashes a swan will rise” (alluding to his surname, which means “goose” in Czech). Jan Hus is a Czech national saint and is regarded in the Protestant Church as the forerunner of Martin Luther, who later had De ecclesia printed in an edition of 2000 copies.

Jan Hus, © georgios

“Falò delle vanità” – “Fire of the Vanities” (also “Purgatory of the Vanities”): This term goes back to the Dominican monk and penitential preacher Girolamo Savonarola, among others. Italy at the end of the 15th century is a torn country, divided into city republics and a powerful, corrupt church state under Pope Alexander VI, who was not averse to worldly pleasures, to say the least. Florence was left virtually deserted after the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the unhappy reign of his son Piero and a brief takeover of the city by the French. In these confused times, Savonarola’s reformational religious convictions met with understanding from a broad population: “Faith pulls upwards, the senses pull downwards. […] If we want to serve God, we must not love Mammon.”  His goal is the establishment of a morally and ethically pure state of God. In the middle of the Carnival of 1497, youthful followers of Savonarola parade through the houses of the city to collect books and objects that are considered an expression of the general moral decay. On 7 February 1497, Savonarola had a 15-metre-high funeral pyre built from them in the Piazza della Signoria. The writings of Ovid, Petrarch and Boccaccio, among others, fell victim to this fire of vanity – although not for ever, as printing had already been invented. But not only books, but also valuable paintings, musical instruments, gaming tables, luxurious pieces of clothing and furniture and much more are sent to this bizarre funeral pyre. “Destroy the idols, lest the Lord turn against us!” cries Savonarola into the flickering flames. Bitter irony of history: excommunicated by his arch-enemy Pope Alexander VI, only a year later, in May 1498, he was condemned as a heretic, hanged and then burned – on the very Piazza della Signoria where his Bonfire of the Vanities had blazed just a year before. Only three years after his death, Alexander VI issued a bull ordering the general burning of anti-papal writings. As much as Savonarola was reproached for his fanaticism, his religious ideas continue to have an effect to this day. The Protestant Church venerates him as a martyr and Pope John Paul II initiated the procedure for Savonarola’s beatification in 1998.

“Because you have blotted out the truth of God, the Lord blot you out today! Into the fire with you here!”  With these words, Martin Luther burned a copy of a papal bull of excommunication on 10 December 1520, after his followers had fanned the fire in front of the Elster Gate in Wittenberg with canon law books and various writings by Luther’s opponents. This was preceded by the following: After Luther’s famous 95 Theses had been published in October 1517 and Luther found more and more followers throughout the German Empire, Pope Leo X finally issued the bull Exsurge Domine in June 1520, in which Luther was threatened with ecclesiastical excommunication unless he recanted half of his theses within 60 days of the bull’s announcement. At the same time, Luther’s writings were ordered to be burned and the call to do so was loudly proclaimed in the church pulpits. However, this call was not very successful – only in Cologne, Mainz, Trier and a few smaller towns did pyres with Luther’s writings actually burn in October of the same year. For Luther, this meant that the time had come to push ahead with the final break from Rome. Not ready to recant his theses, he went a decisive step further: by directing the act of burning books in the most spectacular way against the Pope himself, he now declared him a heretic in his turn. The break with Rome was irrevocably completed, the Reformation could no longer be stopped – and the bull Exsurge Domine was to be the last that could be addressed to Roman Christendom in its entirety.

The scene of another historically significant book burning is Wartburg Castle near Eisenach in Thuringia: There, on 18 October 1817, the Wartburg Festival, organised by the students of the Jena fraternity, took place. This was a mass rally with over 500 students from thirteen German universities who, waving the black-red-gold flag as the distinctive sign of the German original fraternity for the first time, demanded national unity and political freedom. The date and place were not chosen at random: The day referred to the victory over Napoleon in the Battle of the Nations in Leipzig four years ago; the year referred to the publication of Luther’s theses 300 years ago; in turn, Luther had spent some time at Wartburg Castle in 1521 working on his translation of the Bible, which the students regarded as the most important national-language work and as a rejection of any kind of foreign cultural domination. The climax of the event was to be the burning of anti-liberal and reactionary writings. However, since no books were burned, but only bundled waste paper pages with a printed or handwritten title page, this burning had only a purely symbolic character. The list of writings is said to have been compiled by the educator and politician Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, who went down in German history under the name Turnvater Jahn, one of the founding fathers of the German Urburschenschaft.

Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, © georgios

While the bales of manuscripts blazed in the fire, Hans Ferdinand Maßmann, a follower of Jahn, gave an impassioned speech against the authorities, in which he also referred to the above-mentioned burning of the papal bull by Martin Luther: “So we too want to let the flame consume the memory of those who have desecrated the fatherland by their speech and deed, and have enslaved freedom and denied truth and virtue in their lives and writings […].

Incidentally, Heinrich Heine, who himself had belonged to a fraternity for a time, wrote about this book burning in 1840: “At Wartburg Castle the past croaked its obscure raven song, and by torchlight stupidities were said and done worthy of the most stupid Middle Ages! […] The very person who proposed the burning of books at the Wartburg was also the most ignorant creature that ever walked the earth.”

This brings us to the end of what can only be described in a very abbreviated form in this limited context: When, on 10 May 1933, the fires blazed all over Germany and fanatical supporters of a fatal political ideology consigned countless books by now outlawed authors to the flames, an unprecedented climax of the burning of intellectual thought was reached. It was “the night in which German literature was to be expelled for all the world to see and erased from the memory of the country, from the past, present and future”, as Volker Weidermann aptly puts it. The historical background is sufficiently well known. What is less well known, however, is who actually drew up this list of books to be burned and authors to be ostracised: no relevant literary scholars or other luminaries were the authors, but a hitherto inconspicuous librarian named Wolfgang Herrmann, who, with a few strokes on his typewriter, was to upend and in many cases destroy the lives of so many authors of that time. He was born in Alsleben (Saale) in 1904. After studying history, he became a librarian in the municipal public library in Breslau in 1929, and later for a short time in the municipal library in Stettin. In 1931 he joined the NSDAP and became increasingly involved in library policy in the National Socialist sense. He began to draw up the first lists, which were initially only intended for lending libraries – he was not thinking of book burnings, but only of a successive exchange of library stocks. In 1932, he was appointed head of a Berlin office of the People’s Librarians’ Association and published an initial list of which books would henceforth no longer be considered “German” in the people’s libraries. He constantly expanded and updated this list – until it fell into the hands of those students of the organised “Deutsche Studentenschaft” (DSt) who had the idea of large-scale book burnings and promoted them with vehemence; they were even able to win over Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels as a prominent speaker. Hastily, book inventories were searched throughout the country, books were sorted out, confiscated and extensive collection campaigns were carried out. On the night of 10 May, the time had finally come: books burned all over Germany, Joseph Goebbels held his “fiery speech” on Unter den Linden square and proclaimed “the end of the age of exaggerated Jewish intellectualism”. An entire world of books went up in flames that night. Wolfgang Herrmann (whose further life could be told here) fell near Brünn in 1945. Despite the immense scale of this action – unique in the history of book burnings – it was of course clear that such destruction alone could by no means achieve its goal. F. M. Wimmer points out that burnings only became effective when “other measures such as censorship, banishment, indoctrination and propaganda were added” – unfortunately, the National Socialists also knew this all too well.

But even in the further course of the 20th century and in the still young 21st century, the symbolic act of burning books has obviously still not “lost its appeal” – a curious recent example: just a few months ago, an evangelical priest in the USA burned some Harry Potter volumes and even shared this live on Facebook. Today, such nonsensical gimmicks are contrasted by the systematic digitisation of manuscripts and books, which facilitates unrestricted access to the written word and makes final destruction no longer possible.

So much would have to be mentioned here, so many authors and their burnt works could be mentioned, countless treatises and books have been and will certainly continue to be written about the long, complex history of the shameful destruction of intellectual thought.

While dealing with this topic, however, one book in particular came to mind: Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 from 1953. In it, Bradbury depicts a dystopian society in which books are considered the greatest enemy of an authoritarian regime and systematic book burnings on a grand scale are part of everyday life. The sole salvation of humanity’s immense body of thought is promised by a few brave people who have formed a secret community in which each of them memorises his or her favourite book and passes it on to a younger member of the community – they all thus become bearers of hope in an inhuman regime that has declared war on the written word. “Living” books – this is probably the most comforting thought one can find in a book (!) after all the stories of destruction:

“And one fine day […] the books can be written again. People will be called up, one after the other, to testify to what they have assimilated, and then it will go back into print until the next cultural twilight, when we will perhaps have to start all over again with the whole tricky business. That’s just the wonderful thing about human beings, they never get discouraged and exasperated to the extent that they ever stop starting all over again, because they know exactly that it’s worth it.'”


Schmitz, Rainer: Was geschah mit Schillers Schädel?, München, 2008


Wimmer, Franz Martin: Feurige Argumente – Bücherverbrennungen und Geistesgeschichte, in: https://www.uibk.ac.at/wuv/pdf/ehem/wimmer_feuer.pdf










Paris Talmud Burning:



Müller, Daniela: Die Pariser Verfahren gegen den Talmud von 1240 bis 1248 im Kontext von Papsttum und französischem Königtum, in:  https://brill.com/view/book/edcoll/9789047424826/Bej.9789004171503.i-626_011.xml

Jan Hus:





Girolamo Savonarola:





Martin Luther:

Schaff, Philip (1916) [©1888]. “The German reformation from the publication Luther’s theses to the Diet of Worms A.D. 1517–1521”. History of the Christian church. Vol. 6 (2nd rev. ed.). Charles Scribner’s Sons.







Bücherverbrennung 1933:

Weidermann, Volker: Das Buch der verbrannten Bücher, Köln 2009



Titelbild: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/B%C3%BCcherverbrennung#/media/Datei:Paulus_B%C3%BCcherverbrennung.jpg


Do you always want to be informed about the latest activities?

Fine Arts

History of Austria


Der Leiermann

Nur eine E-Mail !

Erhalten Sie unseren Newsletter und lesen Sie Interessantes aus der Welt der Kunst und Kultur, Beiträge aus der Geschichte und immer das Neueste vom Leiermann.
Zur Anmeldung

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This