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Where Books are Burned, at the End People Will Burn
November 20, 2019

His name was Heller. Gerhard Heller. For his friends in Paris he was just « Gérard » and not an insulting Fritz, a fridolin, a boche, or a chleuh. Heller was a symbol of power. He was a « Sonderfuehrer » in the « Propagandastaffel », practically a low level lieutenant, but for his French contacts he was the ruler of them all. Heller was the censor for French literature, a kind of Napoleon in Nazi uniform. He decided whether Sartre’s books would be published, or Camus. It was up to him to reject the manuscript or help to allocate the necessary paper. In his four years in the Nazi occupied capital of the defeated and humiliated France, Heller read about 800 manuscripts, among them the Albert Camus classics “The stranger” and “The myth of Sisyphus”.

The Sonderfuehrer authorized the publication of “La Pharisienne” by Francois Mauriac. Heller, born in 1909, never studied literature, but psychology and philosophy, as well as French and Italian, and accepted the job offered to him in the occupied Paris immediately. Like 50 million other Germans, he really never was a Nazi or fascist sympathizer, but just accepted the fate of time and the deportation and murder of millions without reacting or revolting. He had to read, at times day and night, since the oppressed French writers were producing during the war years more books than their American or British colleagues, about 9000 titles a year. While the censor searched for anti German sentences or thoughts in manuscripts, German soldiers paraded down the Champs Elysees, and French police searched for Jewish citizens to be deported to Germany and beyond. Or they delivered résistance fighters to the Gestapo, which executed dozens and dozens on Mont -Valérien above Paris.


The German occupiers not only controlled books, but the theater, opera, movie houses, cabarets, and radio broadcasts. Without much opposition the “Syndicat des éditeurs francais” agreed not to publish any books written by Jewish authors, nor would they offer books by communists or other anti-German writers; any works of these devilish spirits already published and in print, they would destroy - 2242 tons of literature were shredded, possibly burned, some one thousand titles in all. The censor, often dressed in civilian cloth, frequented the same Café as Jean Paul Sartre Café Flore (but never spoke to him), and read the manuscript of “The stranger” by Camus in one night, authorizing its publication. Louis Aragon, preparing a novel early in the war, permitted publisher Gaston Gallimard to change his unsympathic German characters into Dutchmen- just not to irritate the censor.

“Dort wo man Buecher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen”, Heinrich Heine, the German author, proclaimed in his play “Almansor” (where books are burned in the end people will burn), because books are the “enemies of totalitarians”, confirmed Sarah Churchwell, which is why they like to burn them.” “The authoritarian’s worst fear, a book”, titled the New York Times, an essay by Harvard literature professor Duncan White, who wrote that ”governments are spending a remarkable amount of resources attacking books-because their supposed limitations are beginning to look like ageless strength. 74 years after liberation from fascist rule in Europe, hope has faded that humanity learned its lesson from the global disaster, which nor only turned cities into dust, but created cynicism, distrust and ever more totalitarian governments, using methods as in the miserable past, as book burning, the repression of literature and the expression of speech. Diplomacy is being reduced to a relic of the past, the days of civility. The power of arms and sanctions and tariffs are replacing arguments and populism is applauding repression and more journalists, characterized by the President of the United States as “enemy of the people”, are jailed and authors and booksellers are silenced through torture and deprivation of freedom.

With online surveillance, digital reading carries with it great risks and semi-permanent footprints, writes Duncan White, a physical book, however, cannot monitor what you are reading and when, cannot track which words you mark or highlight, does not secretly scan your face, and cannot know when you are sharing it with others. Around the world, many authoritarian regimes -having largely corralled the internet-now have “declared war on the written word, their oldest enemy.” The received wisdom after the close of the cold war was that physical books were outdated, soon to be swept aside in the digital age: and that the internet instead was the real threat to governments seeking to repress provocative thinking.”A generation later, the opposite may be true.”

The People’s Republic of China has been the most rigid and successful nation in curbing the internet, and Moscow, just these last days, is provoking its citizen by attempting to impose state control over the internet just as Bejing did. A sign of doom? A return to Orwell’s darkness? China’s stranglehold is the result of their largely successful push in the past decade to ban nearly all bookstores, books, authors and academics that do not adhere to the communist’s party line, said Duncan White. Even before the current Hong Kong protests, there was a crackdown on Hong kong publishers. The “Causeway Bay Books store” for example, and some employers, suddenly disappeared, later discovered to have been detained on the mainland, accused of trafficking in “illegal” books criticizing leading members of the Communist Party. Two years ago the Communist Party formally took control of all private media, including books.


“Wherever authoritarian regimes are growing in strength, from Brazil, to Hungary, to the Philippines”, wrote the Harvard literature professor, “literature that expresses any kind of political opposition is under a unique, renewed threat”. In Russia, a new, even stricter set of censorship laws was announced in march to punish those expressing “clear disrespect” for the state, also known as Vladimir Putin. “Wikipedia” reported that the Chinese government continues to hold public book burnings on unapproved yet popular “spiritual pollution” literature. In september, the Turkish education minister Ziya Selcuk revealed that 301878 books had been taken out of schools and libraries and destroyed. All these works allegedly were connected to Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed for the failed coup attempt against Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016. Research of the British PEN writers group indicates that 30 publishing houses were closed and 80 authors have been criminally investigated or prosecuted in Turkey. In Egypt, the regime of Abdel Fattah El Sissi has imprisoned independent writers, raided bookstores and forced libraries to close. Islamic State terrorists burned more than 100 000 rare books and manuscripts housed in the Mosul Public Library, some dating back a millennium. Lebanon banned “Schindler’s list”, a holocaust documentation, (1982) for the positive depiction of Jews. The bible, no surprise, is off limits in Saudi Arabia. After the British novelist Salman Rushdie published his “The Satanic Verses”, in 1988, the Supreme Ruler of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a “fatwa” against Rushdie, calling on all good Muslims to kill the author and his publisher.


History is littered with facts of destroyed library collections—although the destruction by fire of 400 000 rolls in the Bibliotheca Alexandria in 47 BC was seemingly accidental, the burning of the entire collection of the University of Oxford library in 1683 was on direct orders from the king. Nazi Germany’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, declared in 1933 “from these ashes will rise the phoenix of the new spirit”—in May of that year 25000 books were burned by fascist student organizations. “Buecherverbrennung”, the burning of books, in hindsight seem like the warning lights of a disaster to come. These were not just books, but culture. The authors, in majority German jews and icons of the nation, were forced to escape into exile, as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Arnold Zweig, others, as Carl von Ossietzky or Theodor Wolf were murdered in concentration camps. Hermann Hesse and Heinrich Heine (who is buried in Paris), Erich Maria Remarque or Franz Kafka were declared enemies of the Grossdeutsches Reich. About 4000 book titles were banned and destroyed, a method the rulers of the Catholic Church applied as well through history to control their believers. As early as 1559, Pope Paul IV ordered his clerics to maintain an index of prohibited books, a system of control which was in existence until 1966. Students of history may remember how zealous catholic guardians of moral and decency carried out the sacred inquisition, banning and burning books and at times their authors.


The Catholic Church controlled most or all universities, including the Sorbonne, and all publications. The church decreed in 1543 that no book could be printed or sold without its permission; twenty years later Charles IX of France also declared that nothing could be published without his consent. Europe’s rulers controlled the printing of scientific and artistic expressions that they perceived potentially threatening to moral and political order of society. The leaders of the Soviet Union, founded almost a hundred years ago, advanced their rule without hesitation-the government ordered the mass destruction of pre-revolutionary and foreign books and journals from libraries, history books were re written. Remember “1984”. The party of destroys facts of history which does not fit into the philosophy and ideology of Big Brother. Wars which were lost, never happened. Easy as that. No book burning needed. Boris Pasternak (“Doctor Zhivago”) was supposed to be honored with the Nobel Prize for literature. The Soviet government forced the author to decline. After Nikita Khrushchev was removed from power in 1964 current and future works of Aleksandr Sozhenitsyn were banned, including his “First circle” (1968), which details the lives of scientists forced to work in a Stalinist research center. His “Gulag Archipelago (1973) which for years was an outcast, has been added in 2009 by the Education Ministry to the curriculum for high school students. Nations like China or Russia often use the banning of books to oppress the rebellious elements of their society, and cutting off the internet to curtail communication between the leaders of opposition movements.

The US, a historically and traditionally puritan society, is still engaged in book bans, but more often than not for political but moral reasons. Formal censorship never existed, and often the American courts become the testing ground for the freedom of expression. Just imagine- Voltaire ‘s “Candide” published in 1759, was seized by US customs in 1930 since the book was considered obscene. In 1938 the US government banned Henry Millers novel “Tropic of Cancer” arguing that it dealt too explicitly with his sexual adventures and challenged models of sexual morality. No naked bodies in Hollywood films then, and no Henry Miller on America ‘s bookshelves until 1961 when the ban was lifted. The “Citizens for Decent Literature” continued to label his work as “obscene”. It was not until 1964 that the US Supreme Court finally declared the Miller classic “Tropic of Cancer” not to be obscene and its sale protected by the US constitution. American concern for offensive literature is subsiding only slowly. Public and school libraries are still facing demands to remove books of “questionable content” by groups claiming to represent the interests of parents or religious moral codes. The “Office of Intellectual freedom” of the “American Library Association” stated in their 2017 report that libraries had for the first time seen attacks against library periodical databases.” Most of these are coordinated attacks by a single group that believes information and references to human sexuality found in research databases are pornographic and should be forbidden. In many libraries, including the “British Library” and the “Library of Congress” in Washington, erotic books are housed in separate collections in restricted access reading rooms. In some libraries a special application may be needed to read certain books, perhaps “Lolita”, “Lady Chatterly ‘s lover’ or “Naked lunch”, all banned for decades.


In august 1944, it was time for Gérard Heller to return to Gerhard- the allied landings in Normandie made clear that Paris could be reached by the enemy any day. No more books to be censored. Heller was assigned to Sigmaringen in the Swabian Alb region where the French remnants of fascist collaborators had gathered, among them anti- semetic writers like Louis Ferdinand Céline, waiting for their dramatic fate. In 1932, Céline had written his book “Journey to the end of the night”, which reflected his predicament in exile. Once the last shots were fired, the former censor Gerhard Heller returned to books. As translator for French literature.


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    His name was Heller. Gerhard Heller. For his friends in Paris he was just « Gérard » and not an insulting Fritz, a fridolin, a boche, or a chleuh. Heller was a symbol of power. He was a « Sonderfuehrer » in the « Propagandastaffel », practically a low level lieutenant, but for his French contacts he was the ruler of them all. Heller was the censor for French literature, a kind of Napoleon in Nazi uniform. He decided whether Sartre’s books would be published, or Camus. It was up to h ...