Book burnings in history

Lithograph: Luther burning the Papal Bull
Luther burning the Papal Bull, section from the lithograph entitled Das Leben Martin Luther’s und die Helden der Reformation!, New York, 1874
Deutsches Buch- und Schriftmuseum der Deutschen Nationalbibliothek Leipzig

Book burnings in history

Freedom of thought in flames

That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.

Heinrich Heine, Almansor, 1823

The public burning of provocative books stands as the ultimate form of literary censorship. Over the course of history, the practice has been used by state and religious authorities and ideological opponents as a sign of protest. Indeed, the destruction of books for religious, political or moral reasons dates back to ancient times. Often, an organised judicial process preceded the burning itself. In many cases, such as that of Martin Luther, authors and publishers reprinted and disseminated their banned works secretly.

The Roman Catholic Church conducted especially widespread book burning activities in the 17th and 18th centuries. In Mexico, in 1561, the Franciscan monk Diego de Landa ordered the burning of all known Mayan writings, leading to an unprecedented level of destruction of written cultural artefacts. Today only four Mayan codices are left intact. The Nazi seizure of power in Germany in 1933 led to a considerable number of staged book burnings in cities across the country. This resulted in the expulsion and persecution of authors on an unprecedented scale. Book burnings still take place in our modern era: in 1989, Muslims in Bradford burned Salman Rushie’s Satanic Verses and in 2012 American soldiers burned a copy of the Quran at a US military base in Afghanistan.