A reminder of the anniversary of the Nazi book burning has been popping up on my calendar since May. I didn’t want to let it go by without notice. We should not forget the burning of bodies began with the burning of books.
Among those consigned to the ashes in this “Action against the Un-German Spirit” are these:
John Dos Passos
Maybe we don’t care about the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin or Trotsky. Maybe Kafka is a little too Kafkaesque for our taste, and Freud too Freud. But into the fire went the work of Erich Maria Remarque whose profound novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, spoke so eloquently about the horrors of war.
An appeal to a fervent nationalism doesn’t want people to be reminded of the horrors of war, so into the fire it must go. And writers who are critical of the government must go. And those who are not like us (Jews, homosexuals, gypsies and others in the case of Nazi Germany) – they too must go.
When we incite the chanting of huge crowds and parade out flags the size of football fields, room for reflection, critique and questions must be silenced as unpatriotic. Into the fire the books must go. Into the fire the ideas must go. Into the fire the speakers must go.
In religious terms this is the difference between cult and church. Cult doesn’t allow any other information but what the cult leader allows. Church may have an orthodoxy, but it welcomes dialogue. What is truly church is always trying to articulate its teaching more clearly, not just shouting down the questions. It listens. It engages. It questions. It pays attention to scholarship. It reflects on research. Cult isolates; church engages. Cult divides; church connects. Cult consolidates power; church disperses it. Cult lives to be served; church lives to serve.
When those who govern are no longer interested in service, no longer open to dialogue, no longer concerned about facts – when it seeks and serves power – then bad things happen to the powerless. Then we burn books. And after the books, we burn people. They are sinners, after all. They are not like us. They are not our neighbors. They are not even fully human.
Christians should not play with matches. Nor should we stand quietly by when others are setting fires.
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Oh, the books of Albert Einstein were also burned.
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Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14597 / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0