Burning books as a ritual destruction of a culture

Book burning is the ritual destruction by fire of books or other written materials, usually carried out in a public context. The burning of books represents an element of censorship and usually proceeds from a cultural, religious, or political opposition to the materials.

In some cases, the destroyed works are irreplaceable and their burning constitutes a severe loss to cultural heritage. Examples include the burning of books and burying of scholars under China’s Qin Dynasty 213–210 BCE, the obliteration of the Library of Baghdad in the 1258, the destruction of Aztec codices by Itzcoatl in the 1430, the burning of Maya codices on the order of bishop Diego de Landa 1562. As we can see, the book burning is a method used in the whole history. In fact, we have important cases in the last 100 years.

From how it emerges in the aforementioned examples, the book burnings has always been used in order to destroy the culture of a country concerning traditions and customs of a population. This was the exact purpose of the Nazi book burning which was a campaign conducted by the German Student Union (the “DSt”) to ceremonially burn books in Nazi Germany and Austria in the 1930s. The books targeted for burning were those viewed as being subversive or as representing ideologies opposed to Nazism. These included books written by Jewish, pacifist, religious, liberal, anarchist, socialist, communist, and those who spoke out about gender and sexuality among others.

The Nazi book burning campaign is not the last. The Burning of Jaffna Public Library in Sri Lanka, in the 1981, represents one of the latest cases of book burning. 

The burning of the library in Sri Lanka was an organized mob of Sinhalese origin went on a rampage on the night of May 31 to June 1 burning the library. It was one of the most violent examples of ethnic biblioclasm of the 20th century. However, neither the Burning of Jaffna Public Library in Sri Lanka represents the latest case in the history. Indeed, more than 300.000 books have been removed from Turkish schools and libraries and destroyed since the attempted coup of 2016, according to Turkey’s ministry of education.

The Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has announced that in the last three years he has kidnapped and destroyed as many as 301.878 books that – according to the thesis of the government – spoke of the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, former friend of Erdoğan then accused, for political reasons, of every wickedness. The news was given by the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet, but it came only recently in Western newspapers thanks to an article in The Guardian. For some time now various associations dealing with human rights and freedom press had denounced “the closure of at least 29 publishing houses” accused of “spreading terrorist propaganda”, where terrorist propaganda means any dissonant thesis with respect to the regime in power: activists have long accused the Erdoğan government of having closed newspapers and indicted journalists and intellectuals with “facade charges”, with the excuse – for example – of “punishing the culprits of the failed coup” three years ago , as a result of which Erdogan arbitrarily fired hundreds of thousands of people from their jobs, even arresting thousands more.

The criteria with which the books were seized and destroyed are not clear, but judging from the previous ones, the government does not seem to have gone astray: already in December 2016 a Turkish newspaper wrote that about 1.800.000 school books had been retired and reprinted, writes the Guardian, simply because they contained words unwelcome to the Government.

The aforementioned cases show the strong power of books.

A book can change the future vision of a country or region. A book can change the judgement on a culture. A book can change the world.


By Domenico Greco

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