While this was nothing new—the Siennese down the road invented book burnings years before, the Florentine manifestation was by far the biggest ever. Word of it spread far and wide. Overall, the Pope in Rome was not pleased with Savonarola and determined that he had to go. A year later, he did, hanged on a cross and burnt alive on the very spot where the bonfire had taken place.
There have been numerous other instances of book burning. Typically, they take place under authoritarian regimes that want to suppress dissent and opposing points of view.
Moving ahead almost 450 years, another short-lived dictator, Adolf Hitler, staged his own bonfires in Berlin and 33 other German cities, burning thousands of “degenerate” books that offended his and Nazi sensibilities. Among the precious works condemned to the flames were books by Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Bertolt Brecht, Erich Maria Remarque, Ernest Hemingway and Albert Einstein. The Nazis accompanied these grotesqueries with pomp, including parades and marching bands. In the first such episode, on May 10, 1933, more than 25,000 books met a fiery fate.
The American Library Association reports that in fall 2021, it received an 'unprecedented' 330 reports of book challenges, each of which could include multiple books. Right-wing groups spurred on by social media, are pushing challenges to school and public libraries, targeting mainly books about race, gender and sexuality. Amazingly, even such American classics as To Kill a Mockingbird are on the list that these extremists want banned. In one Tennessee County, the popular children’s book, Maus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, fact-based, Animal Farm-like story about the Holocaust, has been removed from the curriculum by the local school board. A Tennessee legislator is advocating that “both sides” of the Holocaust be taught in classrooms. This conjures up disturbing memories of Donald Trump proclaiming that “there were very fine people, on both sides” at the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Trump’s assertion of a moral equivalence between a vile hate group and decent, law-abiding Americans marks a low point in the presidency and our history. Note: Maus hit #1 on Amazon this month.
Historically, it has always been a small step from book banning to book burning. The danger in “deplatforming” classic works that school children should be able to learn from and discuss appears to be the hard right’s latest attempt to subvert democracy and replace it with authoritarian rule. While they follow in lockstep with both Savonarola’s and Hitler’s playbooks, they may want to consider what happened to both “role models.”
February 4, 2022