Teachable Moments

Book Burning

The German poet Heinrich Heine once wrote, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.” (Almansor, 1821) Tragically, his words were prophetic. A little over one century later, on May 10, 1933, the National Socialist (Nazi) Student Association carried out a nationwide campaign of book burning in Germany. Less than a decade after that, the Nazis were – in fact – burning people. One of the reasons that events progressed as they did was that enough people who disapproved did not speak up while it was still possible to do so. We must learn from this history.

Book burning is a vile, reprehensible act that has no place in the civilized world. It is a violent act designed not to disagree with a message but to destroy the messenger. After all, books simply transmit ideas. It is people who create, embrace, and spread them. Any act of destruction directed at a book is ultimately aimed at its author and its readers. This is the opposite of debate or disagreement. To enter into an argument with someone is a sign of respect. To seek to silence them in flames is not.

Sadly, book burning is not a barbaric relic of the distant past. An extraordinary amount of recent news has focused on a small church group in Gainesville, Florida proposing to burn copies of the Qur’an on September 11th. There are many ways to respectfully mark the ninth anniversary of 9/11, but this is not one of them. It appeals only to the basest instinct to stereotype and demonize. This group seemed unwilling to listen to the appeals of American leaders and the wishes of millions of their fellow citizens to refrain from this act. While the world waited, hoping to hear of a change their plans, it became clear that the story is not just about burning of physical representations of a religion, but about a display of bigotry against people and nations who are clearly not a threat to anyone.

Regarding book burning, historian Saul Friedlander observed, “…when books were burned throughout the Reich, no intellectual in Germany, or for that matter anyone else within the country, openly expressed any shame.” (Nazi Germany and the Jews: Volume I, 1997) That was true then. It must not be true for us today. It is a shame that we have to confront this issue now, but it is better to do it now than to regret not doing so later.

Ironically, long before this particular incident entered the news; the Holocaust Center scheduled an exhibit about Nazi book burning, entitled “Fighting the Fires of Hate”. It will be on display from January 1-March 15, 2011. The lessons to be learned are still relevant today.


1. What message does this pastor and his followers intend to send to the world? What “Christian” values, if any, does this action support? What “Christian” values, if any, does it undermine?
2. Some have blamed the media for making this story too accessible. Is there too much freedom of the press? What about too much freedom of speech?
3. It seems that the pastor leading the book-burning had never read the Qur’an. Do you think that might have made a difference in his decisions if he had studied the book and the religion more closely?


Book-burning (and destruction of CDs and DVDs) still takes place from time to time in our country. Who sponsors these events? What books and music do they choose to destroy? How do they explain their choices?

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