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The Real History Behind Book Burning and Fahrenheit 451

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When the HBO adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 premieres on Saturday, the movie will introduce a contemporary twist to the centuries-long history of burning books — one in which Bradbury’s story plays a significant role.

References to book burning date back far into history: The Chinese Emperor Shih Huang Ti “thought that if he burned all the documents in his kingdom, history would begin with him” in 213 BCE, TIME previously noted. And when “the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, the waters of the Tigris were said to have run black with ink from all the destroyed books.” But, experts say, book burning as we know it today is a relatively recent development.

“In the modern sense, it’s very much a mid-20th century idea, very much a propaganda thing that happens during World War II,” says Matthew Fishburn, author of Burning Books.

The defining moment for that modern history came in 1933, with one of history’s most infamous book-burnings — the one that prompted TIME to coin the word “bibliocaust.” It was that year, in Berlin and elsewhere, that Nazi forces led the burning of tens of thousands of books, from the works of Sigmund Freud to those of Jack London. Along with the Nazi ideology that there existed a superior race of people came the idea that there was one true cultural and ideological canon; that which didn’t fit was consigned to the fire.

“The old goes up in flames, the new shall be fashioned from the flame in our hearts,” Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels told the crowd then, as TIME reported.

As the scholar Rebecca Knuth explained to Smithsonian.com last year, the path to that moment in 1933 in some ways starts with the printing press and the subsequent spread of mass media. Whereas hand-written manuscripts that predated movable type were more valuable for their scarcity, relatively few people had access to them and not everyone understood just how much the distribution of knowledge could change world events. Although books had always been (and still are) incidentally destroyed or stolen in times of conflict, it was only later that their destruction gained greater symbolism, even as they became easier to replace. (What TIME called a “bibliocaust” Knuth has called “libricide,” which she uses to describe the 20th-century phenomenon of “large-scale, regime-sanctioned destruction of books and libraries” within “a framework of genocide and ethnocide.”)

As the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum points out in its record of that moment in 1933, Germany’s history of burning books didn’t start with the Nazis. In 1817, for the 300th anniversary of Martin Luther’s launching of Protestantism, students held a major burning of “Un-German” books. According to Fishburn, by the time of the Nazi book-burning, in some ways the practice would have seemed “weirdly anachronistic,” a holdover from an earlier time when burning a book could have actually made a difference in what people knew.

“Books were in such multiples, thanks to industrial book production,” Fishburn explains, “the idea that you could get rid of the books you didn’t like seemed impossible.”

That is perhaps, he says, why it took a little while for the wider world to understand what the Nazis were up to. Some authors initially felt pride to have been included in such a bonfire, and Fishburn says that some book lovers in English-speaking countries expressed a certain wistfulness that in Germany books were thought to hold such power. But the Nazi authorities really were out to close off society to certain ideas, and they were unfortunately far more successful at it than many expected.

When that truth became clear, the modern power of book-burning was reinforced — as was the idea that to be the one burning the books was a sure sign of villainy.

In 1945, after the Allies defeated the Nazis, Berlin saw another round of what was described as a “literary cleanup” — this time an anti-Nazi one — that TIME noted was “not quite like Goebbels’ book-burning; but yet it was quite like it.” In general, though the U.S. government participated in this effort, it did so with a consciousness that it was better to quietly pulp the undesirable books than to burn them publicly.

“It becomes very bad to be labeled a book burner, but it’s not necessarily considered bad to just clear out whole shelves of books from a public institution,” Fishburn says.

The taboo against book-burning was highlighted when, not long after, the United States experienced its own period of fear about books that didn’t fit in. In the 1940s and ’50s, as the Cold War took seed, the country saw its share of book-burnings. In 1940, members of the Binghamton, N.Y., Board of Education, for example, proposed a public burning of textbooks thought to be subversive. (In a crucial distinction from the Nazi book-burning, most American incidents took place on the local level; the federal government was well aware of the backlash that would come with publicly burning books, says Fishburn.)

In 1953, at the height of the American book-burning debate, the American Library Association and American Book Publishers Council issued a statement defending “the freedom to read.” It was that same year that President Eisenhower delivered a commencement address at Dartmouth imploring students, “Don’t join the book burners.” As Fishburn notes in his book, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 came out in 1953, having been written in the context of this national conversation. Fishburn posits that “the iconic role of book burning in the popular imagination took hold, and an orthodox position on book burning was forged” in this period between 1933 and 1953.

Book-burning by then had become a sort of shorthand: if you are on the side of book-burners, you’ve already lost the argument.

The release of Fahrenheit 451 in many ways marks the end, or at least the culmination, of the modern era of book-burning. The Nazis had reintroduced the idea to society and the U.S. had learned the hard way that, due in large part to that association, the practice was taboo. By the time Bradbury wrote his book, the symbolism of the idea would have been clear to all of his readers — and it still holds today.

As Knuth notes in Burning Books and Leveling Libraries, the 20th-century phenomenon of mass regime-sponsored destruction of books has been accompanied, especially more recently, by more scattershot small-scale destruction, such as a Koran-burning planned by a small Florida church in 2010. This works on the same theory as mass book burning does: books represent ideas, and destroying them is also a surefire way to get attention, even if it doesn’t entirely accomplish what the book-burners wanted.

And large-scale book burning does continue: In 2013, al-Qaeda-affiliated militants in Mali burned the library in Timbuktu and in 2015 ISIS burned books from Mosul’s library, as a show of both ideological and territorial conquest.

So, though the prime era of book-burning has passed, and with it the atmosphere that created Fahrenheit 451, the symbolism is baked into the world’s memory, and words on fire are still a tragically powerful image. As TIME’s Lance Morrow wrote in 1988, after a fire at the main library of the Soviet National Academy of Sciences in Leningrad, “whenever books burn, one is haunted by a sense of mourning.”

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com