Subscribe to History Today

As the holders of both our cultural and personal memories, books seem sacred and their destruction, no matter the cause, is always shocking, writes Kenneth Baker.

The earliest recorded book burning took place in 213 BC, when the Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang, having conquered the seven warring states, set about shaping a new nation by creating a common currency, a common language and a common set of weights and measures. To protect this new state he ordered the building of a Great Wall and to protect himself after death he had built a great army of terracotta warriors. He also ordered that all the books that carried the collective memory, all the history and traditions of his new subjects, should be burnt: for good measure he killed 460 scholars, probably by burying them alive. In the Cultural Revolution of 1966-79, Mao Zedong ordered that ‘old ideas, old customs, old habits, and old books should be burned’. After the fires and the killing of 46,000 scholars, Mao went on to boast: ‘We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang by a hundred fold.’

Books are the essential cornerstone of every civilisation and so we see their destruction as a desecration. In the Abbasid Caliphate of the ninth century the great Arabic scholar Al Jahiz wrote:

The composing of books is more effective than building … for there is no doubt that construction eventually perishes and its traces eventually disappear while books handed down from one generation to another and from nation to nation remain ever renewed.

John Milton, in his great pamphlet on free speech, Areopagitica, wrote that ‘a good book is the precious life-blood of a master’s spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life’. In the 20th century, Jorge Luis Borges noted that ‘of all man’s instruments the most wondrous is, without any doubt, the book ... it is the extension of memory and imagination’. The key word here is ‘memory’. Books form the collective memory that any conqueror, dictator or fanatic seeks to destroy. George Orwell’s totalitarian government in his novel 1984 had a department whose duty it was to collect books on the written record of the past to be burnt in secret furnaces. 

The power of religious or political regimes derives from their leader’s absolute conviction that what they are doing is right. This moral certainty has driven many religions and regimes to impose belief, to compel obedience, to censor and burn books, to spy on dissidents, to imprison, to torture and to kill. Such certainty lay behind the Inquisition in Spain, Calvin in Geneva, Stalin in Russia, Hitler in the Third Reich, Mao in China, the Stasi in East Germany, the generals in Brazil and Argentina and today the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The Burning of Books or St Dominic de Guzman and the Albigensians, By Pedro Berruguete, 15th century.

Just as books can represent the unwanted shared memory of a culture, so, too, can its people and the removal of their voices take place alongside the destruction of books. Not a single person was burnt at the stake in Europe for over 600 years following the fall of the Roman Empire, until Robert II of France, known as the Pious, ordered 16 heretics to be burnt at Orleans in 1022. This established burning as the punishment for heretics and witches until the last suspected witch was burnt in northern France in 1835. 


In 1480 Ferdinand and Isabella established the Spanish Inquisition. It started burning copies of the Talmud and Torah and then burnt 700 Jews between 1481 and 1488. When the Conquistadors came into contact with the Aztecs in 1519, they realised that they had stumbled upon a sophisticated civilisation with imposing buildings and substantial wealth in gold and books. It had to be destroyed, for it was pagan, and so Franciscan monks organised bonfires where books, written records, pictures, idols and traditional ceremonial clothes were all consumed by flames.  

Such religious motivations for burning are not uncommon. William Tyndale had fled to the Netherlands, where he thought he would be safe to publish his English translation of the Bible, but he was betrayed and burnt at the stake in 1536. His last words were: ‘Ope the King of England’s eyes.’ Mary Tudor was determined to reverse the Reformation and, during her short reign, 286 Protestants were burnt, including 56 women. When Wolsey and Pygot were burnt at Ely they were clutching English Bibles in their hands.

On the other side of the religious divide, in 1553 Calvin justified the burning in Geneva of Servetus, a biblical scholar who challenged the whole concept of predestination. He was burnt with what was thought to be the last copy of his book chained to his leg, although in fact three have survived. Calvin also condemned to the flames anyone who supported Servetus.

In recent years Islam has excised unwelcome voices. The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel, was burnt in Bradford and London and he was subjected to an Iranian fatwa, which encouraged devout Muslims to kill him. Only this year the price on his head has been increased by $600,000 by a group of Iranian zealots, a shocking move as Rushdie had committed no crime. The jihadi terrorists who invaded the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in 2015 shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ as they killed three cartoonists and nine other people.

Joseph Goebbels gives his speech at the Opernplatz book burning, Frankfurt, May 10th, 1933

The most infamous burning of books in the 20th century was the bonfire organised by Joseph Goebbels in the Opernplatz, Frankfurt on May 10th, 1933. Bands were laid on to accompany student songs, torches were provided for the marchers, news cameras had been summoned and Goebbels was billed to make a speech at midnight:

It is a strong, great and symbolic performance, a performance which should document for all the world: here the spiritual foundations of the November Weimar Republic sink to the ground. But out of these ruins there will arise the phoenix of the new spirit ... the past lies in the flames ... today under this sky and with these flames we take a new oath: the Reich and the Nation and our Leader, Adolf Hitler, Heil! Heil! Heil!

He was using fire not just to cleanse and purify German culture but also to destroy Marxism, socialism and trade unionism. To obliterate, in Hitler’s own words, an ‘un-German spirit’. One of the most shocking aspects of this particular book burning was that its ringleaders were not looters or thugs, but students, egged on by their professors. The general reaction of the world’s press was of amazement rather than anger. It was dismissed as the childish action of witless youths, an act of stupidity, rather than an exercise in evil, and it was left to the cartoonists in Europe and America to express the true horror of what had happened. 


Not all books are burnt intentionally or with malice and there have been numerous unfortunate losses. The maid of J.S. Mill, for example, used the first hand-written volume of The French Revolution by Thomas Carlyle to light a fire. Then there are the libraries burnt as a result of war: the Alexandrian library was burnt three times; the library of Lieges was destroyed in each World War; and the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milošević, ordered the destruction of the National Library of Sarajevo in 1992.  

Perhaps overlooked when we consider book burnings, are the writers, usually authors or poets, who burnt their own works. Thomas Hardy was one of the most assiduous burners and his gardener was kept busy at Max Gate in Dorset, destroying a vast amount of material, including the early drafts of his poems and the notebooks he always carried with him to note down interesting events, characters and poetic phrases – just one of which survives. 

Many authors destroy material they think is simply not good enough: Jorge Luis Borges remarked of his early books: ‘If the price wasn’t too high I would buy and burn them.’ Graham Greene came to dislike his first book, Babbling April, a collection of poems, and destroyed copies. Others, like Hardy, did it because they did not want some future scholar digging into the privacy of their lives. In characteristic style, he commented: ‘If all hearts were open and all desires known – as they would be if people showed their souls – how many gaspings, sighings, clenched fists, knotted brows, broad grins and red eyes should we see in the market place.’

To protect her husband Richard’s posthumous reputation, Lady Isabel Burton burnt his latest translation of The Scented Garden with its infamous ‘Terminal Essay’ on pederasts. She sent a letter to the Morning Telegraph explaining that she did it out of fear that her husband might be considered a homosexual. ‘Sorrowfully, reverently and in fear and trembling I burnt sheet after sheet until the whole volume was consumed.’ Philip Larkin, just three days before he died, asked his secretary and lover, Betty Mackereth, to destroy his diaries. She had a peek at some of them: ‘They were very unhappy – desperate really.’ 

Amid this history of burning there are some lucky escapes. Virgil’s request, that the whole of the Aeneid should not be published after his death since he had not completed it, was countermanded by the Emperor Augustus. Franz Kafka died at 40, his only notable published work being Metamorphosis, and he gave explicit written instructions to his friend Max Brod to burn everything left behind, which included his unfinished novels, The Trial and The Castle. Brod ignored the instruction and published everything Kafka had left. Vladimir Nabokov had also left an incomplete and fragmentary novel, The Original of Laura, and gave clear instructions for it to be burnt after his death but this was ignored by his son, who eventually published it in 2009. The book did nothing for Nabokov’s reputation but it did occasion a debate about whether such final directions from the grave should be followed: Tom Stoppard said ‘burn it’; John Banville said ‘save it’.


Before the 15th century it was just possible to destroy every copy of a book in circulation – the limitations of copying by hand meant numbers were comparatively low – but the invention of the printing press put an end to that. It has been estimated that in the whole of the 14th century clerical scribes across Europe produced a little over 2.5 million books. In the 1550s, the printing presses of Europe produced that number in just one year. This led Pope Paul IV in 1559 to publish the Index of Forbidden Books, which inevitably was a failure.

In the electronic age it is impossible to destroy information. The ‘delete’ button does not delete; the material will turn up somewhere else. Censorship is possible, as China has shown, but it is expensive, elaborate and almost certainly not comprehensive. The burning of books has become technically futile but it survives as a symbol to impress the naive, warn the dissenter or rally the faithful. 

A previously unpublished poem by Ted Hughes perfectly encapsulates the power of burning books. Here is an extract:

Where any nation starts awake
Books are the memory. And it’s plain
Decay of libraries is like
Alzheimer’s in the nation’s brain.

And in my own day in my own land
I have heard the fiery whisper: ‘We are here
To destroy the Book
To destroy the rooted stock of the Book and

The Book’s perennial vintage, destroy it
Not with a hammer not with a sickle
And not exactly according to Mao who also
Drained the skull of adult and adolescent

To build a shining new society
With the empties ...

Kenneth Baker is a former Cabinet minister, an expert on political cartoons and the author of On the Burning of Books (Unicorn Press, 2016).

Burning Books

Related Articles

Joseph Goebbels

By Robert Pearce

The career of the Third Reich’s ‘evil genius’.
Betrayed by the British: King Feisal of Iraq on a visit to to London, November 1927.

By Akil N. Awan and A. Warren Dockter

The inaccuracies in Islamic State's version of history.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email