Book Burning and Confronting the Past

In 1973, I was a doctoral student studying in Santiago, Chile, when the military, led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, a socialist. The September 11 coup was not a surprise: sectors of the military had carried out a (failed) dry-run the previous June and, in August, conservatives in Congress declared Allende’s Popular Unity government to be unconstitutional. But the utter ferocity in which it unfolded was. The military’s decision to bomb its own presidential palace (La Moneda), the massive roundup of Allende’s supporters who were herded into the National Stadium, the sight of bodies floating down the muddy Mapocho River which cut its way through the center of town, the hundreds of mutilated bodies I witnessed in the National Morgue – all these and more pointed to the brutality that would define the new regime.

This was confirmed with an act that unfolded on September 23, some two weeks after the coup. Photographs of soldiers tossing books onto a bonfire signaled Pinochet’s comfort with an act firmly associated with fascist Germany.  It was a clear indication that the impulse driving the military was far from a ”restoration of democracy,” as Allende’s conservative opponents had promised. But my own reaction to the event was more immediate – for among the materials consumed in the fire that afternoon were my own books.

Burning Books - Chile September 1973 (David Burnett/Contact)

David Burnett, Gamma

Early that morning, those of us living in the Remodelación San Borja, an apartment block close to the center of Santiago, were awakened by loudspeakers barking orders to remain in our apartments and not try to leave. Looking out my front windows, I could make out the machine gun nests that had been stationed around the complex. My apartment had been searched previously by army soldiers looking for foreigners without proper documentation. This time the search promised to be more thorough, as I could already hear the sounds of soldiers pounding on the doors of the upper-floor apartments.

By that point, I had send many of my books back to the U.S., but I still kept some I was inexplicably reluctant to part with. They now had to go, quickly. A shaft for garbage ran down the interior of the building. With a sad farewell, I slipped the books into the shaft and down to the basement where, mixed with the tenants’ ordinary rubbish, they would no longer identify me as their owner, possibly subjecting me to questioning or arrest.


Book burning, Chile (public domain)

Some hours later, after the soldiers had searched my rooms, I walked down the eight stories to the lobby to get some air. And there I saw my books, intercepted on their slide to the basement, now stacked in the entryway. A group of soldiers soon collected them and dumped them into the street where they joined with other pamphlets, records, posters, and books, to be consigned to the flames. The book burning in Santiago, as much as the other outrages, anticipated the harshly authoritarian Pinochet dictatorship just as it looked back to the Nazi aggression that unfolded almost exactly 40 years before.

Southern Georgia University

I was yanked back to that unhappy day when I read that some students at Georgia Southern University, after hearing an invited lecture by Jennine Capó Crucet on campus last October, placed a copy of her novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, on a grill and set it alight. In a video of the event that circulated on Twitter, students could be heard laughing as the volume caught fire. Capó Crucet’s novel chronicles the challenges a young Latina student encounters at a majority-white college. In a case of life imitating art imitating life, these students, who had read her book as part of a first year experience, were particularly upset with the concept of white privilege she raised in her campus lecture. As one student later wrote on Twitter, “Nobody cared about your shitty book. It was your racist speech and rude Q&A. You spent an hour of our time promoting racism.”

A spokesperson for the university said that Georgia Southern “was not planning any actions against the students involved,” adding that, “while it’s within the students’ First Amendment rights, book-burning does not align with Georgia Southern’s values, nor does it encourage the civil discourse and debate of ideas.” Does not align? It would be hard to find a more banal defense of the values that we as educators are committed to uphold. And perhaps here is where we can begin to sense the gravity of the problem which was expressed both by the students’ actions and the university’s tepid response.

The Chronicle recently followed up its initial report of the book burning, sending a reporter to determine what, exactly, went south at Georgia Southern. The university, she reported, understood before the beginning of the year that it “needed to do something about campus displays of racism.” It attempted to address the issue by shoehorning the coverage of “diversity” issues into its First Year Experience courses. But, as the article points out, relatively few FYE staff were trained to teach these issues or had the time, as one instructor put it, “to do it in the right way.” To top it off, the University System of Georgia was actively cratering the university’s instructional budget.

All of this seems right, even though it remains unclear to me whether administrators were more concerned with curtailing “displays” of racism than with actually addressing racism itself. I have my doubts, but since I know nothing more about them, I’ll assume the best. Yet the book burning incident at Georgia Southern suggests that something far more troubling, and much more pervasive, is unfolding. “Implicit in several professors’ argument,” Lindsay Ellis wrote in the Chronicle, “is a belief that good teaching, backed by sufficient resources, has the power to teach these nuanced themes effectively.” While I would like to agree, history suggests otherwise and, besides, there is absolutely nothing nuanced about book burning or racism. The students’ actions, and the university’s apathetic response suggests a disturbing lack of historical awareness and moral location.

Germany, 1933

In the Bebelplatz, in Berlin, just a few yards from a statue of the great polymath Alexander von Humboldt and the university that bears his name, the Israeli artist Micha Ullmann has constructed a memorial to the book burning that took place, on Goebbels’ orders, on that very spot in 1933. Sunk into the ground and covered by a glass window pane is a small room whose walls are lined with empty white bookshelves. In Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), the philosopher Susan Neiman reminds us of the context of the 1933 book burning in Babelplatz.


Bebelplatz, Micha Ullmann Book Burning Monument (public domain)

What photographs and documentation of that event show, she reminds, is that the participants were made up of “hundreds of well-off and well-read students, and their professors, who gleefully followed the Nazi’s first orders. There are,” she continues, “photos showing their faces beaming as they toss books into the flames right in front of the Humboldt University.” These were not the “illiterate masses,” those who dropped out before completing high school. They were university students and their professors. So perhaps something more is required than adequate resources and the “power to teach nuanced themes effectively” if we are to overcome some people’s impulse to burn that with which they disagree. Jean Améry, an Austrian philosopher who survived Auschwitz, wrote that “knowledge leads to recognition, and recognition to morality.” Knowledge which stops without recognition, and therefore doesn’t lead to morality, is insufficient. Recognition, in this sense, requires a willingness to admit shame about one’s own history.

We can still ask whether it is fair to compare Berlin (1933) or Santiago (1973) with Statesboro, Georgia (2019). Can we compare a dark moment from 1930s Germany when an estimated 20,000 books were burnt, to the torching of a single volume at a Georgia college? Can we attach the crimes of Chile’s soldiers in 1973, fulfilling the orders of their murderous generals, to the actions of a handful of angry, perhaps thoughtless, Georgia undergraduates? The short answer, I am afraid, is yes – these events share a connection. I am not offering the discredited theory that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, that what is present in the “embryo” will be represented in successive “adult” stages. The students’ act of burning Jennine Capó Crucet’s novel does not foretell the rise of a fascist state (or the development of fascist adults) in the U.S. But it does tell us something about the appalling lack of historical understanding and moral clarity that predicated their actions. Burning a book may be allowed under the First Amendment, but when books are burnt and we don’t address it as (one of many) bright red warning signs that our democracy is at risk, we ignore it at our peril. Above Ullmann’s memorial to the Nazi book burning of 1933 is a plaque which quotes the chilling warning of Heinrich Heine, a 19th century German poet: “That was just a prologue. Whoever burns books will eventually burn people.”


Heinrich Heine, “That was just a prologue. Whoever burns books will eventually burn people.”

The students at Georgia Southern were angry, and reading the press reports, it’s fairly clear what they were angry about: they were being asked not just to learn about this country’s racial history and racial present, but to take some responsibility for it. They refused, and some went on to burn the speaker’s book. Their actions point to our failure, as individuals and as a society, to come to grips with the ways that slavery, racial terrorism, and racism have, and continue to, distort, demean and deny the “self-evident truths” on which this country was founded.  What is missing is not just knowledge – and, Lord knows, a lot of that is missing – but the moral foundation rooted in human dignity that can ground and orient that knowledge. In that sense, as Volkhard Knigge, director of Buchenwald Memorial near Weimar, Germany, observed, it is not just a question of remembering the past; we must be willing to confront the past.

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