“It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.” — Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
A famous quote whose very words, in America at least, eclipse the name of its author or the play from which they derive goes as follows: “That was but a prelude! Where men burn books, they will end in burning men”. Even if the reader of these words does not know that today they are inscribed on the Empty Library Memorial in the Bebelplatz in Berlin, it will likely conjure up images in their minds of the Nazi burning of Jewish books which took place in the very place where that memorial now stands.
This aphorism is quite prophetic and fitting for the memorial, but the original literary and historical context of the quote broadens its context and applicability to other mob actions. It was written by the German author Heinrich Heine in his 1823 work Almansor. The story is a lyrical play set in Cordoba in 1492 during the reconquista of Spain and revolves around the tragic story of two Muslim lovers. Upon hearing of the Christian army’s capture of the Alhalmbra, where their King Boabdil kneeled before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, and the gathering and burning of Korans in the marketplace, Almansor’s servant Hassan gives his famous prediction of the violence and bloodshed to come which we now know as the Spanish Inquisition.
Some sacred texts may be kept in semi-public places, as in a church, a mosque, a synagogue, or a library, but most are kept in private homes. Though book-burnings have often been the expression of mob violence, statues have proved to be a more frequent and obvious public target. Although it is impossible to rank where exactly book-burning and iconoclasm are located on the path to bloodshed, or to definitively judge one as worse than the other, it is interesting to note that in Islamic theology, there is a prohibition of graven images, which means that on the path of escalating violence — from peace, to book-burnings or iconoclasm, to murder — a step was skipped and the process expedited. Historians don’t have any firm numbers on how many people died or were expelled during the Inquisition, but contemporary church records in Sardinia and Sicily show nearly 32,000 were burned at the stake in those regions, and another 17,000 “men” made of straw and burlap were burned in effigy, as a ritualistic purging of real flesh-and-bone heretics who escaped.
Another example of this escalation in violence was the French Revolution. Bibles were burned and desecrated. As the revolution was already underway in October of 1793, the 28 kings of Judah carved in stone in the portal of Notre Dame in Paris — mistaken by the mob as being French Kings — were decapitated. And in that same year on October 16th, Queen Marie Antionette lost her head as well at the hands of the mob at the guillotine. Twenty one of the twenty eight heads were found buried in 1977, but the Queen never got hers back. The guillotine simultaneously severed France from its rulers, its insufficiently revolutionary citizens, and its past.
In the three cases of the Spanish Inquisition, the French Revolution, and Nazism, book-burnings and iconoclasm were to varying degrees tribal (alternatively, “racial”) or ideological in origin, but the nature of book-burnings and iconoclasm lends itself to ideology. In these three cases heretical thought, the ideas of the Ancien Régime, and “Jewish science” and “Jewish decadence” were intolerable to the aggressors. But the ideas contained in these books were not extinguished when they were publicly burned. They existed in the public memory through statues and monuments. After the statues were gone, the existed still in the minds of men. And when the mob could not cut the idea off at the root, they cut men off at their necks.
Iconoclasm has been a prelude to the woke spasms of today. The mass looting and arsons were preceded by physical attacks on conservatives, which were preceded by popular depictions of the murder and decapitation of President Trump, which were preceded by mob attacks on Confederate monuments. Like the other terrors which came before Wokeness, the greatest sin of today’s iconoclasts is often reducing infinitely complex characters to just one thing. Just as Muslims who revere Jesus as a prophet were reduced to intolerable heretics, a comparatively weak and benign king and queen were reduced to insufferable tyrants, and great discoveries were reduced to “Jewish science”, the Woke reduce historical figures to their worst common denominator. To them, a statue of Columbus is not a monument of a great explorer but an homage to an abuser and murderer of Native Americans; the Jefferson Memorial is not a temple for the man who penned some of our noblest ideals but an endorsement of his slave ownership; a stone on a modern street corner once used as an auction block for slaves is not a public reminder of past wrongs but a perpetual psychic aggression towards minorities. These modern iconoclasts intentionally confuse and confound the reason for the monument’s existence with the darkest of its crimes.
None of these interpretations of historical figures as “just one thing” makes us any more aware of their proper historical context. Czech-French author Milan Kundera puts it better than I ever could in his Book of Laughter and Forgetting:
“Prague, as Max Brod said, is the city of evil. When the Jesuits, after the defeat of the Czech Reformation in 1621, tried to reeducate the people in the true Catholic faith, they swamped Prague with the splendor of Baroque cathedrals. The thousands of petrified saints gazing at you from all sides and threatening you, spying on you, hypnotizing you, are the frenzied occupation army that invaded Bohemia three hundred fifty years ago to tear the people’s faith and language out of its soul.”
“The street Tamina was born on was called Schwerinova Street. That was during the war, when Prague was occupied by the Germans. Her father was born on Cernokostelecka Avenue. That was under Austria-Hungary. When her mother married her father and moved in there, it was Marshal Foch Avenue. That was after the 1914–1918 war. Tamina spent her childhood on Stalin Avenue, and it was on Vinohrady Avenue that her husband picked her up to take her to her new home. And yet it was always the same street, they just kept changing its name, brainwashing it into a half-wit.”
“Wandering the streets that do not know their names are the ghosts of monuments torn down. Torn down by the Czech Reformation, torn down by the Austrian Counter-Reformation, torn down by the Czechoslovak Republic, torn down by the Communists; even the statues of Stalin have been torn down. In place of those destroyed monuments, statues of Lenin are nowadays springing up in Bohemia by the thousands, springing up like weeds among ruins, like melancholy flowers of forgetting.”
But by far, the greatest danger in burning books and destroying statues is that it dehumanizes the persons or peoples represented by them. It could lead to a repeat of the political assassinations of the 1960s, a cold civil war, a new inquisition, or a bloody revolution.
There are unknown numbers of statues still in existence which may well deserve to be removed, but if we are to keep our humanity, we should dismantle them with all the pomp and ceremony of a formal funeral and the seriousness of an executioner but only after a proper public deliberation and judgement has been made. We should also learn from the world’s great religions’ sacred reverence for the Word and the Image, by treating our statues with the same reverence as our books — both good and bad.
Article used with permission from the author.