The Real Incident behind “Where They Have Burned Books, They Will End Up Burning People”

October 20, 2017 | Shlomo Avineri
About the author:

The famous aphorism in the title of this item—often cited in reference to the Nazis—comes from Almansor, a play by the great German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, published in 1823. The play is set in Granada just after its annexation to Christian Spain in 1492; the line is spoken by a Muslim character in reference to the mass burning of the Quran by the Inquisition. But, writes Shlomo Avineri, the author most likely had a different event in mind:

Although, in the years following the end of the Napoleonic wars and the 1815 Congress of Vienna, Heine and his Jewish friends were able to attend university and aspire to careers as German writers and scholars, these years also saw the emergence of virulent modern German nationalism. The torchbearers of this movement were the student fraternities. . . .

In 1817, under the guise of celebrating the 300th anniversary of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses,” the fraternities called for a major pilgrimage to the Wartburg fortress in Thuringia, where Luther had once found refuge from his Catholic pursuers. . . . The Wartburg Festival, as it was called, was one of the first political mass demonstrations of the 19th century. Under the banner “Honor, Liberty, and Fatherland,” more than 500 students made the trek to Wartburg Castle. The festive procession culminated in a torchlight parade, with speeches by a number of student leaders and university professors—and a celebratory book burning.

The first volume to be thrown into the flames was the Napoleonic Code, which had been introduced in some German states during the brief period of French hegemony. The students and their teachers saw the civil code as a symbol not only of foreign occupation, but also of the universalistic ideas of the Enlightenment and hence something anti-national and anti-German. Of course, these were precisely the ideas that underwrote the equal rights that had been granted to Jews in the Rhineland and other German areas under French rule or influence. . . .

Another one of the authors whose books were condemned to the flames was Saul Ascher, a German Jewish philosopher and publicist who is today almost totally forgotten. Born Saul ben Anschel Jaffe to a Berlin Jewish banking family, he was one of the first Jewish students to receive a doctorate. By the second decade of the 19th century, Ascher was famous throughout Germany for a series of popular publications in which he supported the ideas of the French Revolution and called for full civic rights for Jews everywhere. Ascher was close to . . . Heine, who wrote about him several times and visited Ascher on his deathbed in 1822, shortly before the publication of Almansor.

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