Reactions to Heinrich Heine on Burning Books

Nazi Germany was an environment that discouraged individuality. Independent thought was considered dangerous, as Hitler required a high degree of unanimity to carry out such his audacious program. If enough people expressed dissenting ideas, the Nazi party could, consequently, fall. To effect censorship, therefore, Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, formed alliances with nationalistic German students to begin the practice of book burning. They believed that if they burned Jewish and Communist literature, they could, more easily, eliminate “inferior” races.

In his essay, Austin Cline suggests, “Books are merely the means by which a message is communicated.” However, without planting a seed, it cannot grow, nor could the Jewish and Communist ideals be spread without a vessel such as literature to do so. Yet, is there any evidence that Jews were recruiting to their ranks, or that Hitler feared Jewish cultural imperialism? Perhaps Hitler had another goal in mind. “Once people are persuaded to burn books, then at least some of them could be persuaded to take the further step of burning those responsible for the creation of those books.” Perhaps Heinrich Heine anticipated Hitler when he observed this.

The essay suggests that it is impossible to completely suppress an idea. I disagree with this. If we consider an idea that has been completely forgotten due to censorship (or any other reason) this idea must be regenerated, independent of its first conception. However, if an exterior force, such as censorship, is suppressing the resurgence of an idea, then it is almost impossible for it to ever reemerge, therefore, the idea can be lost.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was a Roman philosopher, political theorist and Roman constitutionalist who lived about 100 years before Christ. He is famously known for saying, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” Books are evidence of civilization. They encompass both knowledge and art, two aspects that define a society. Therefore, burning can do nothing but aid in the fall of not just opposing ideologies, but also those that the burners are trying to promote. I think Cicero’s thoughts illustrate this well. Society needs somewhere to store its collective knowledge, without which, it is nothing, and is, “Without a soul.” This is the main problem I see with book burning.

In Fahrenheit 451, Montag sees book burning not only as the practice of burning ideas, but annihilating someone else’s efforts as well. Metaphorically, he even suggests that it is burning the author himself. Montag’s response to this is distress, as would be most peoples empathizing with an artist who’s work has been destroyed. For this reason, I believe book burning is indeed sinister and a horrendous event in history.

Isobel Dobbin Sears

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3 thoughts on “Reactions to Heinrich Heine on Burning Books

  1. I really liked how you said “However, without planting a seed, it cannot grow, nor could the Jewish and Communist ideals be spread without a vessel such as literature to do so.” This provided a clear image of how the the books acted as a medium for the ideas. I also enjoyed the connection you made to the novel.
    -Hannah Brennan

  2. The main point of your posting that really stuck out to me was when you said “If we consider an idea that has been completely forgotten due to censorship (or any other reason) this idea must be regenerated, independent of its first conception. However, if an exterior force, such as censorship, is suppressing the resurgence of an idea, then it is almost impossible for it to ever reemerge, therefore, the idea can be lost.” I think it was a really important point to touch on when we are focusing on McCarthyism and censorship both in the book and in our world!
    – Hannah DeBourke

  3. Your allusion of the Roman Philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero, really helped emphasize how important books are to people because they are a part of us, and without them, we are lost and “without a soul” They hold the knowledge that we need to be, and build on the people that we are. Taking this away from people is what the book burning is about, destroying the person along with the book itself. You made a very strong point here with this that I love, thank you!
    -Kristen

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