On many streets of the world’s cities the past is croaking its “obscure raven song” (Heinrich Heine). By torchlight, stupid things, reflecting the most ignorant medieval times, are being said. A narrow-minded mob, which whines much about love and belief, but whose love is nothing other than hatred and whose belief consists solely of irrationality, and which, in its ignorance, knows of nothing better to do than to topple statues.
The young people who are destroying and torching reliques of the past remind me of those German students who met at the Wartburg in 1817. On October 18th of that year, about five hundred students and a few professors met for a protest rally against reactionary politics. During the Wartburg festival, objects belonging to the authorities were destroyed and even books were burned. As the books of the German-Jewish publicist Saul Ascher were burning, protesters chanted: „Woe to the Jews, who hold dear their Judaism, but mock our national German identity!“
The spirit of 1817 and the spirit of 2020 are similar in nature. Young people recognize only enemies in their political opponents, from whom they feel victimized. Their indignation increases with their convictions. They are dead certain that they are first and only generation which finally sees through it all. They are the self-defined good guys. All the countless generations before them who have strived to give meaning, value and significance to their lives, experiencing both successes and defeats, are now judged wrong. They are so wrong that the symbols of their former existences must be destroyed. Those who criticize the destruction are labeled as reactionary and evil, and face massive defamation. Writers who criticise some of the movement’s excesses or follies are banned from major internet platforms.
Critics are being silenced in 2020. As in 1817, today some protesters who destroy symbols enter into an ominous alliance with those activists who were and are extremely critical of Jews, and particularly of Israel, vehemently and unforgivingly.
A sad climax was reached when youth, who believed that they belonged to a movement that would create a brave new world, tossed books into the fire during a protest in May 1933, planned and staged by German student organizations in Berlin and in many other cities.
Heinrich Heine‘s books and many others were burned. Heine who witnessed the book burning at the Wartburg protest, said: „That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.”
The sentence is from Heine’s tragedy „Almansor“, set in 15th century Spain. The sentence is spoken by the Muslim, Hassan. It refers to a burning of the Koran that took place during the conquest of Spanish Granada by Christian knights under the inquisitory cardinal Mateo Ximenes de Cisneros.
Hassan: „To those fighters once I had joined in the mountains, the cold sneer, fled with flaming heart. Just as the snow up there, never do the embers in our breast disappear; as those mountains never move, so never wavered our faithfulness; and how often we rolled down from those mountains as crushing stone boulders, from those heights to the Christian people in the valley; and when they died gasping, as distant whimpering mourning bells, and fear chants dully, the sound was a sweetness in our ears.“
Almansor: „We heard that the terrible Ximenes, at the market place of Granada – my tongue freezes in my mouth – threw the Quran into a flaming pyre!“
Hassan: „That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.“
A man, who criticizes book burning, slaughtered people. For Hassan burning a copy of the Quran is a mortal sin, but the killing of Christians resonates „sweetness in his ears“.
Within this context, Heinrich Heine’s sentence takes on a very special meaning. On the one hand, Heine criticizes the act of burning books, but on the other hand he also makes clear the double standard with which a person condemns the burning of books as a crime, but calls the killing of human beings as lustfully beautiful. A country in which burning books is forbidden, but killing people is not, has quite different problems.
I would rather live in a country where the symbols of the state and books may be burned, but hardly anyone does so, than in a country where the oppressed long to burn the symbols of oppression, but are not allowed to do so.
But, I have one condition. The things you destroy must belong to you. Anyone may burn my books, but he must buy them first. Anyone who topples statues, plunders businesses and torches other people’s property is a criminal like those Nazis who stormed into synagogues to burn the books there.
The state must protect the right to own books, but must not be allowed to determine what may be done with a book. It makes no difference between a state inviting people to burn books or prohibiting the burning of books. Such a state would rather imprison people than allow the books of its own political ideology be burned.
People can work creatively, journalistically and scientifically without fear of state paternalism only if the constitution guarantees freedom of opinion, freedom of the press and freedom of art. This freedom also includes the right to burn books without fear of state sanctions. I therefore take the liberty – and I am sure that I am not even betraying Heinrich Heine in the slightest – by adding a clause to his famous sentence:
„That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also; and where it’s forbidden to burn books, people will also be burned“
But there is a great difference in what is happening these past few weeks. No one has the right to destroy other people’s property. This is absolutely not the obscure raven song of 1817, but rather the brutal destructive fury of 1933.
Translation: William Wires