Ninety years ago this week, on May 10, 1933, Nazi students organized a huge bonfire in a center square in Berlin. More than 5,000 students arrived carrying torches, accompanied by tens of thousands of onlookers. Approximately 20,000 books deemed as “un-German” were burned. In more than 30 other university cities throughout Germany that night, books were torched. Scientific works by Einstein and Sigmund Freud, as well as novels by Ernest Hemingway and Jack London, were destroyed.
Social justice works by Helen Keller were also targeted. The day before the organized book burnings, Ms. Keller wrote an open letter to German students, noting that “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them.” Her letter was published on the front page of the New York Times and in hundreds of other newspapers.
Today a heartbreaking memorial marks the spot of the infamous burnings on Berlin’s Bebelplatz — a plaque engraved with a chillingly prescient line from a German play written in 1817: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.”
Nine decades later, our nation now faces organized book banning, rather than burnings. Regardless, it should cause alarm among all Americans. Don’t dismiss the current rise in book banning in Texas, Florida, Utah, Missouri, Iowa, and South Carolina as simply the overzealous work of a vigorous and vocal minority. In 1933, the Nazi Party was a minority too. Many average Germans viewed the book burnings as a university fraternity prank, unwilling to believe that a society as educated and culturally rich as Germany’s could actually wish to destroy ideas. Yet totalitarianism often seeps into a society through the control of ideas and free expression.
A recent report by PEN, an organization founded more than 100 years ago in support of freedom of expression, revealed that of the nearly 1,500 book removals that PEN tracked in the last six months of 2022, nearly 75% were driven by organized efforts or because of new legislation. The recent rise of organized “parental rights” networks such as Moms for Liberty (with 200 chapters nationwide) and U.S. Parents Involved in Education (with 50 chapters) means that specific books, often with titles that center on LGBTQ+ and gender identity themes or those that address racial inequality and history, are targeted. In some jurisdictions, targeted works include classics of modern literature such as The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Bluest Eye by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison.
With the recent passage of legislation in both the General Assembly and the Senate, Illinois is poised to become the first state to withhold state funding from any of the state’s 1,600 public or school libraries that remove books from their shelves. However, Illinois is not an island. The book banning actions of Texas and Florida governors and legislators demand our urgent attention. They may represent minority actions now, but the prospect of rising censorship around the country is terrifying.
Freedom of speech is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. For more than two centuries, freedom of speech and freedom of expression have served as cornerstones of our democracy. If we want these crucial rights to endure, we must remain vigilant in their protection.
Helen Keller’s powerful words to the Nazi students 90 years ago echo back and call us to action in 2023. We’ve learned nothing from history if we think that ideas can be killed.
Anne Rooney is a health-care consultant, writer, and a 40-year Oak Park resident who is passionately committed to freedom of speech.