One of the oldest forms of knowledge registration and transmission, the books, have always been among the main enemies of dictatorial governments. Understanding why this is fundamental to the existence of intellectual, cultural and thought freedom.
Far beyond Nazism
When you think about burning a book, you immediately think of Germany’s Nazi regime in the first half of the 20th century. In May 1933, with the support of the population, convinced by the advertisements made by Joseph Goebbles, Minister of Nazi Propaganda, thousands of books were thrown on bonfires in the Opernplatz square. The burned copies were handpicked: books by Jewish writers and which, according to the current government, propagated ideas that were out of line with Nazi ideology. Thus, the objective was, in addition to the symbolism of destroying what is considered “enemy”, to prevent the knowledge contained in such works from reaching the population.
But anyone who thinks that this was the first, and last, case of burning books is mistaken. In the 15th century, during the Spanish Inquisition, Arabic manuscripts were burned by the Catholic church; in the 19th century, in the United States, the New York Society, for the Suppression of Addiction, used book burning as a symbol of combating immorality; between 1940 and 1960, a period known as Macarthismo, in the United States, books considered “communist” were burned or removed from circulation; in 2020, the government of Rondônia, the northern state of the country, ordered classics from Brazilian literature to be removed from schools.
What does book burning say about a government?
All of the events mentioned above have one thing in common: the attempt by a dominant force to prevent certain content from reaching the general public. It is not a matter of burning books, but of burning specific ideas that may, according to those in power, influence the population in a way contrary to their ideals. With that in mind, it is clear that book burning is directly linked to information control.
Everyone is tired of knowing which books are a source of information. Not leaving or filtering subjects, classifying them as “acceptable” or “unacceptable” for distribution, is the same as ending intellectual freedom. If applied in the long term, we have a society that only knows what its leaders want it to know and, with that, the establishment of a dictatorial – and, therefore, totalitarian government.
Why do dictators burn books?
If you add what has been said so far, one of the answers to this question is already clear. Dictators burn books to dominate a society. Is there a more effective way to maintain totalitarian government than by preventing a people from knowing what is beyond it?
Making a society believe that it is living what is best for it eradicates the possibility of revolts and revolution. Obviously, since the birth of the press – and, perhaps, writing – it has become almost impossible for this task to be carried out. And we just have to thank you for that.
From reality to fiction: dystopias
If you were wondering what a world in which a totalitarian government would dominate would be like, implanting the burning of books and filtering information as government measures, be aware that literature is full of dystopias – the opposite of utopia – to lead us to these unfortunates worlds and make us reflect.
I brought three super famous books that tell us a little about it.
It is impossible not to think about Ray Bradbury’s book when it comes to book burning. The name of the book, in itself, already refers to this: it is the temperature, on the fahrenheit scale, at which the paper catches fire.
In Bradbury’s work, American society itself chose to stop reading, and this was publicized and encouraged by the government. Firefighters, who previously put out fires, are now responsible for starting them. Montang, the protagonist, is a firefighter who puts his values in check when he finds a woman willing to die along with his books. After all, what is it about books that would make a person die with and for them?
Perhaps the most famous dystopia to address the issue, George Orwell’s book is almost an analysis of the ideology and objectives of a totalitarian government.
In the plot, the protagonist Winston works falsifying facts so that they are always in agreement with the government. In its heart, however, it fuels the will to revolution. Upon meeting Julia, or a party member, he embarks on a mission to destroy Big Brother – but the end may not be what he imagined.
Showing the consequences and impacts of a totalitarian government through a woman’s vision, Margaret Atwood’s book brings a different guise to the subject by adding discussions of the feminist agenda.
Atwood’s work shows us what life is like for Offred, a maid in Gilead society. Women no longer have rights, and their only role, as a nurse, is to serve and become pregnant. Books, newspapers and universities are no more. In Gilead, information – and knowledge – is monopolized by the rulers, but even that is not capable of destroying a woman’s spirit.