The destruction of culture and history is about as slippery a slope as you can get. We see villainous enemies of freedom have taken it upon themselves to burn books or – as we are seeing even today in this supposedly enlightened age – tear down statues. But fear not, for this is apparently all in the name of “progress.”
We should rightly ask, though: progress toward what end? We have Black Lives Matter and Antifa activists, and their loose-knit supporters, demanding the removal of statues, the renaming of streets, and, in fact, the very erasure of history. It seems that this “progress” would be aimed at creating a completely new world. And is there anything wrong with the idea of starting a new world? Not inherently, no. But there is a problem when this new world would be controlled by the self-same folks who decided to eviscerate the history and culture of the existing one.
Book burners and history deniers are rife in the distant and not-so-distant past. Yet this blinkered vision of believing you can destroy a book and still be on the correct side of history shows the activists up as just what they are: ignorant of history. Examining the past brings understanding. It is not less history that we need, but more. It is not fewer ties to the past that is required. It’s more.
Has there ever been a case in history where we look back and praise those who put the past to the torch?
In the U.K. and U.S., statues are being torn down. The phrase “Decolonize Your Bookshelf” is making its way into the common parlance, with even some writers pushing this dangerous concept. Certain books are not being republished at the behest of activists; libraries are choosing not to stock various tomes. And private citizens are being pilloried for the books they have on their shelves. What is to become of these poor books that are no longer socially acceptable? They will end up on the pyre.
The German poet and contemporary of Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine, perhaps put it best when he wrote:
“That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.”
Not surprisingly, the Nazis tried to erase him from history.
You Can’t Kill a Concept
This brings us to the very truth of the matter. Books are a reflection of a writer. They are the ephemeral thoughts of a man – or woman – made flesh. Destroying a book, tearing out the pages, is never enough to silence an idea. They are the messenger, not the message. So, what comes next? What is the next step when the ideas in books are spoken aloud by those who have no recourse to the page?
We don’t need to speculate to answer this question. We saw the answer in the last century, in Germany, in Warsaw, in Communist Russia. It is but one step away. And if these closet fascists took the time to learn history, instead of using it as a political tool to further an anti-democratic agenda, they would perhaps not be so keen to begin the short journey down this dark path.
As John Milton wrote in his 1644 book Areopagitica:
“Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them as to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are… Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature… but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”
On April 8, 1933, there began, in Germany, a campaign to destroy all the books that were deemed bad. It was called the “Action against the Un-German Spirit,” and was a co-operation between the German Student Union and its press and propaganda office. The effort was supposed to be a “purification” of the language, and the expiation of all things considered deviant. Is this so different from today?
The censorship is being driven by not only those on the political left but also their advocates in the media. The purification they seek today is to remove all reference to the history that they abhor. But whether or not these statues, books, or buildings fit in with their push to shift the Overton Window, they must understand the tradition they are following.
Just one month after this proto-Nazi push to burn books began, the students were addressed by the infamous Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. He said:
“As a young person, to already have the courage to face the pitiless glare, to overcome the fear of death, and to regain respect for death – this is the task of this young generation. And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. This is a strong, great and symbolic deed – a deed which should document the following for the world to know – Here the intellectual foundation of the November Republic is sinking to the ground, but from this wreckage the phoenix of a new spirit will triumphantly rise.”
Does this not sound familiar? Committing to flames the spirit of the past? The new spirit triumphantly rising? These modern-day protesters are mixing in very poor company.
But here’s the rub. This time, these fascists can’t actually win. Those who live by the sword die by the sword. If the persistence in tearing down statues and destroying books continues, how long will it be before those who oppose this madness start playing by the same rules? Karl Marx defended slavery; there goes the Communist Manifesto. The Islamic prophet Mohammed kept slaves; isn’t the Quran a book of his words? Gandhi considered blacks inferior. And what’s to stop a statue fight-back? What’s to prevent private citizens from putting statues on their own property?
This is an unwinnable war because you can’t use an eraser on select parts of history. The past must be accepted, learned from, and the people of today made stronger and more resilient by those lessons.
The erasure of history creates one thing: ignorance. If these censorial proto-fascists chose to learn history rather than destroy it, we could together focus on building a better future for all.
Read more from Mark Angelides.