By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Wherever books are burned, men also, in the end, are burned.’ This observation – which is sometimes rendered in slightly different wording – has become famous as a kind of warning statement about the dangers of extreme forms of censorship. But what is the origin of this phrase, and who said it?
In the 1930s, the Nazis rounded up books by a whole range of authors – beginning with thinkers like Karl Marx but, in time, including figures as diverse as Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, and even Felix Salten, the author of Bambi – and burned them in mass ceremonies which sought to destroy the ideas contained in those books, ideas which were deemed to run counter to Nazi ideology.
There is an association between burning books and burning people, as the famous quotation which is the topic of this post makes clear. Although the acts are obviously on a different scale from one another, many fans of civilisation are queasy over the idea of burning books – even books containing unpleasant or downright odious ideas and ideologies – because the idea of attempting to destroy the products of civilisation strikes them as barbaric.
Counter bad ideas with good ideas, not with a match and a can of petrol. And certainly the Nazi regime offers an object lesson in just how slippery the slope can become, in extreme cases, between burning books and burning individuals.
In 1953, the American author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) wrote Fahrenheit 451, a novel in which books are burned, not because the ideas contained within them are especially abhorrent to one group of people, but because the idea of book themselves – and reading, education, and free thinking – ran counter to the government depicted in Bradbury’s future society.
So the kind of censorship depicted in Bradbury’s novel is of a different kind because books themselves, rather than specific books, are considered Bad News.
As Bradbury himself said: ‘You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.’
Book burning, then, is an act of cultural desecration, and is especially associated with the twentieth century.
But the statement in question here – ‘Wherever books are burned, men also, in the end, are burned’ – belongs not to the twentieth century but to the nineteenth. The author who wrote these words was a German Romantic named Heinrich Heine.
Or, to give him his full name, Christian Johann Heinrich Heine (1797-1856). Heine was a journalist and essayist, but he was also a poet and a leading figure in German Romanticism. Perhaps his closest English parallel would be Charles Lamb or (in some respects) William Hazlitt. Heine was Jewish by birth but in religious terms he was a Christian: he converted to Lutheranism.
Heine’s famous statement about book-burning, in its original German, runs:
Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.
This remark is often translated as: ‘Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.’ Other translations render Heine’s original statement as ‘That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well’ or, most famously, ‘Wherever books are burned, men in the end will also burn.’
But where does this quotation originate?
It comes from Almansor: A Tragedy (1823). This work, a play in verse (although it might better be described, perhaps, as a dramatic poem), has been almost entirely forgotten and is not read much now. It’s set in fifteenth-century Spain, with the titular Almansor, a Moor, or north African Muslim, the last in a long and noble family line. He falls in love with a Spanish Christian girl who converts to Islam, but – as the subtitle ‘A Tragedy’ suggests – things do not end well for the couple.
This work has fallen into obscurity now, with the exception of the one line from the poem which has become, in turn, Heine’s best-known quotation: ‘Wherever books are burned, men in the end will also burn.’
The practice of book-burning has a word: bibliocaust. Sadly, it is alive and well in the present century: as recently as 2019, an Ontario school board held a ‘flame purification ceremony’ in which a number of books which were deemed to be offensive were publicly burned.