August 25, 1914: Book Burning, A Crime Against History

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A Brief History

On August 25, 1914, during the opening stages of World War I German soldiers burned the Library of the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, destroying a treasure of ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance works.  Over 300,000 books were burned, many of them irreplaceable volumes now lost forever.  Thousands of manuscripts of various types were burned, along with 1000 Incunabula (printed works made before 1501, the earliest works printed by machine).  A specific work that was lost was the Easter Island Rongorongo Text E, a wooden tablet etched with glyphs made by Easter Island natives before invasion by Europeans.

Digging Deeper

This act of barbarity was rightly condemned by the Western Allies for throughout history book burning has cost us a wealth of information that can never be brought back.  It is our contention that book burning of any sort is an act of weakness by people who are either too stupid to understand the historical value of all printed works or too insecure in their own beliefs to allow evidence of any other opinions or information.  When you see people burn books for religious or political reasons, you can bet those doing the burning are doing so because of a lack of faith in their own ideas masquerading as ultra-faith.

A related and equally barbaric form of behavior is the destruction of works of art, again, the acts of a set of people that feel threatened by the existence of someone else’s work.  Today we are seeing priceless treasures in the Middle East destroyed by Islamic fundamentalists bent on the destruction of all things not specifically related to their particular idea of Islam.  (But how outraged they are when an idiot burns a Quran!)

We have graphic images of Nazi book burning rallies where all works by Jewish authors were burned in huge bonfires, and we know how that one turned out!  The Ray Bradbury novel, Fahrenheit 451 (1953) portrays the idiocy of a society that is so insecure in its own system that all books are burned.  This type of behavior is typical of dictatorships and hate filled ideological societies, repressive in nature and resistant to any hint of improvement or change.  Besides the Nazi’s of Germany, other societies that have burned or repressed books include Communist China, North Korea, and the Soviet Union, as well as Dynastic China, the Aztecs, and current Islamic states.  Apparently, if you do not like historical facts, destroy the records of them and rewrite your own.  Even the US has seen piles of burning books.

Probably the most egregious example of a book burning occurred when the Library of Alexandria was burned in in several incidents between 48 BC (by Julius Caesar) and 391 AD (by the Coptic Pope).  Another was the destruction of the Library of Baghdad (known as “The House of Wisdom,” the largest library in the world at the time) in 1258 by the Mongols.  Both of these repositories of manuscripts, books, histories, plays and records were lost with no back up copies available.  Because of this, there is much to ancient history that we can only guess about, as the original documents have been destroyed.  Our knowledge of Alexander the Great, for example, is based on writings about 300 years after his death, which of course leaves plenty of room for error.  This example is just 1 of many examples of the frustration of historians experience in trying to piece together facts about our past.

Today, we also deal with those that would limit internet information, including the “deletionists” on Wikipedia that are constantly erasing articles that they think are “unnecessary.”  Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think about book burners and deletionists?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Zuckerman, Larry.  The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War I.  NYU Press, 2004.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.