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Nazi Germany banned books, too

This is not an echo of the past: It’s a replay.

4 min read
Thousands of books smoulder in a huge bonfire as Germans give the Nazi salute during the wave of book-burnings that spread throughout Germany. (Photo from National Archives at College Park [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons)

There. Can you smell it? It’s bitter and somehow peppery. The scent of pages beginning to curl at the edges and paper turning brown. The first faint curls of smoke in the evening air. Out along the street, the flickering orange light of torches is drawing near. It’s the season for book murder.

A book that can’t be read is a dead book. It doesn’t matter if that book is locked away in a storage locker or reduced to a pile of ashes any more than it matters if a person is buried or cremated. Dead is dead. A book is a tool for moving ideas between two minds—not just ideas, but perspectives, empathy, and understanding. We cannot see through someone else’s eyes … except that we can with books. They are the defining instrument of civilization. Repressing them is the defining act of barbarism.

Those who murder books always have their reasons. They are always the same reasons.

In May 1933, several thousand people gathered in Berlin’s Opera Square. They brought with them books — 25,000 of them — from authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, Jack London, and Albert Einstein. At the end of the evening, they piled the books into a great mound, and then — with a band playing in the background and universal applause — they burned them. As the flames roared up, the crowd heard a speech from German Minister of Enlightenment Joseph Goebbels. The era of critical race theory is now at an end, Goebbels told them. Then he shouted that the flames would put an end to wokeness.

Actually, Goebbels didn’t mention CRT. He said “Jewish intellectualism.” And he didn’t say “woke.” He talked about “the Un-German Spirit."

But it’s the same thing. It’s exactly the same thing.

The same thoughts and hate are what drive “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, and 200 other books to be banned from Florida schools under new laws passed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis defends the removal of these books by calling them “pornography.” The Nazis used the term “decadent.” Potayto, potahto. The words may have been slightly edited, but the meaning hasn’t shifted even a millimeter. This is not an echo of the past: It’s a replay.

Under Florida’s new rules, the single form below is all it took to get poet Tony Medina’s book “Love To Langston,” which consists of poems paying tribute to one of the greatest literary figures of the 20th century, banned from schools in Florida. It didn’t require a single example of any objectionable material in the book. It didn’t require properly filling out the form. It took just a few scrawls and a checkmark to make that book unavailable to students at any level.

The person who scribbled on this form (but didn’t leave a legible name) called Medina’s book “indoctrination.” The Nazis called Ernest Hemingway’s work “a corrupting influence.” Clearly, Florida hasn’t yet banned Roget’s Thesaurus.

Whether it’s Alabama lawmakers claiming that textbooks have “too much Black history,” Florida parents chasing down any book with a hint of gay characters, or Nazis banning the Theory or Relativity because Einstein was Jewish, the zeal of book murderers in using the power of the majority to steamroll the experiences, ideas, and sheer existence of minorities is unchanged.

Whether it’s Republicans forcing the College Board to rewrite requirements on teaching American history, or Nazis tossing “All Quiet on the Western Front” into the flames for failing to provide a suitably heroic account of German actions in World War I, the motivations have not moved a hair’s breadth.

Florida isn’t alone, of course. Equally egregious rules in Texas actually had that state pacing the nation on repression before DeSantis kicked off his election cycle drive to make “the Sunshine State” even worse. There are numerous other deep-red state legislatures and other equally ambitious Republican governors who are ready to hop on the boat. We see you, Tennessee.

It doesn’t matter that the great majority of books murdered in Florida were the tragic victims of just a few zealous serial killers. The same was true in Germany in the 1930s. It’s true almost everywhere that history, science, biography, philosophy, and anything else that can be squeezed between covers — which is everything that is — goes to die.

It’s always a small group that carries out the murder. Everyone else stands by and lets them. John Mill explained this in 1859 when he wrote, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” Which is probably why he shows up on banned book lists to this day.

Book murder is about closing minds and ending opportunities. Most of all, it’s about ensuring conformity. That’s why DeSantis is out to keep the children of Florida from reading about those degenerate Jews and their anti-German depravity. Oh, sorry. I mean trans youth and wokeness.

And … wait. Can you smell it? That rising smoke. And at the corners of your vision, the flickering light of torches.


Written by Mark Sumner. Cross-posted from Daily Kos.

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