Fall/Winter 2003

The Past Is in Flames: An Interview with Rebecca Knuth

Jeffrey Kastner and Rebecca Knuth

“Wherever they burn books,” observed the German poet Heinrich Heine, “they will also, in the end, burn human beings.” These words were written in 1823, more than 75 years before the start of the century in which their prophecy would be so grotesquely fulfilled. In her new book, Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century (Praeger, 2003), University of Hawaii professor Rebecca Knuth examines attacks on books and libraries as aspects of larger patterns of ethnocide and genocide. Using case studies from the last century in which book destruction was employed as a strategic instrument of large-scale violence against either external or internal enemies—against Jews within Germany and against other ethnic and national groups throughout Europe by Nazi Germany; by Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia; by Iraq during its occupation of Kuwait; and by China, both through its internal Cultural Revolution and in its annexation of Tibet—Knuth investigates both the symbolic and practical function of books and libraries in zones of military conflict. She spoke with Cabinet senior editor Jeffrey Kastner by phone from Honolulu.

Cabinet: What brought you to the book project?

Rebecca Knuth: Libricide began with two questions really—what distinguishes people who mourn the destruction of books from those who destroy them, and how can the ideals of human progress be reconciled with the mass violence and destruction of culture that characterized the 20th century. It seems to me that there’s a lack of analysis in most accounts of the destruction of books and libraries—you get these sorts of emotional witness accounts that describe the damage and then typically proceed to attribute the violence to barbarism. It’s a seductive explanation, but it fails to recognize two critical factors: the political nature of written records and the fact that such destruction often follows a common pattern. The destruction of books and libraries is often goal-oriented and carefully rationalized within struggles between opposing worldviews.

Although you point out that there’s a long history of this behavior, your book is concerned specifically with the 20th century.

As I did the research for the book, I began to realize that a pattern was emerging and I could most successfully nail that pattern for the 20th century. It’s parallel to the idea that mass murder has always existed, but in the 20th century we have this newly defined phenomenon of genocide. So when I linked libricide—the destruction of books and libraries—with genocide, I felt that it was important to lay out parameters that I could sustain. I also felt that locating it in the modern era might help shift the discussion away from the model that looks at this whole question of book destruction from the point of view of bibliophiles—of people who have this relation to books as precious objects, who want to run their hands over them—and more in the direction of thinking about free information and open discourse and its relationship to humanism and democratic societies.

You note that the destruction of books has been used in both symbolic and also very real and tangible ways within different conflicts.

Yes, it does have a symbolic function, but it’s also practical and pragmatic. A lot of the information that’s destroyed is the type that sustains—historically or culturally—the other side. If you want to dominate an enemy, you have to neutralize or negate them; take away any sort of information that stands up against you and the type of political and social approaches you want to implement, or that supports the memory of whatever system was operative before the conquest.

And one of the most interesting aspects of your book is just how many different kinds of contexts you set out.

There’s a very heterogeneous array of behaviors that fall under the rubric of libricide; it’s an activity that has a number of different impetuses behind it and that serves a lot of different purposes. Reactionary ideologies like nationalism, militarism, imperialism, racism, as well as revolutionary ideologies like Communism—all of these are implicated in these instances of destruction. And very often more than one is present in any given situation.

The first major incidence of libricide you cite in the 20th century was the German destruction of the library at Louvain in Belgium, during World War I.

Yes. During a six-day period in late August 1914 during which the Germans sacked the city, they destroyed some 230,000 volumes at the library, including a collection of 750 medieval manuscripts and more than a thousand incunabula. The telling thing about that incident was that they destroyed the Louvain library in World War I and then promptly destroyed it again in World War II, almost as if to repudiate any of the outcry over the first destruction. In fact, strategic attacks on cultural institutions were formally incorporated into German war theory through the notion of the kriegsbrauch, which stated that “war cannot be conducted merely against the combatants of an enemy state, but must seek to destroy the total material and intellectual (geistig) resources of the enemy.” The German situation with regard to this is interesting—there were public book burnings held there in the mid-19th century as a means of protesting the government, of expressing the desire for greater freedom.

Holland House Library, London, after a German air raid in October 1940.

It’s also interesting for what it suggests about another part of this equation—this strain of book destruction that, for the people who do it, is seen not as a retrograde behavior but as a sign of progressivism; this idea that the past, history, is the enemy that needs to be identified and neutralized.

There’s a lot of precedent for that. As an aside, it’s also a dialectic that informs contemporary views about things like the destruction of the Alexandrian library.

How so?

Alexandria was obviously one of history’s greatest libraries—it tried to have a comprehensive collecting policy, to have every major text. It was also a research center; it brought in scholars from around the world, and so it was like a tremendous think tank. There are a lot of stories about how it was destroyed—that it was burned by the Romans, that it was destroyed by the Muslims when they took the city, that they burned the texts to fire the bathhouses. No one is really sure. And just as scholars have argued different positions about its causes, there are also different opinions about its meaning—there’s the idea that it was a horrible loss to civilization, but also that it was an important creative impetus to new growth and study. Those lines of reasoning are also present around the issue of book destruction—individuals involved with extensive destruction of libraries often believe that their ideology demands the expunging of the past, of the old ways of doing things. That it’s a revolutionary process; that it purifies.

This would be primarily within a given country, as a kind of internal revolutionary instrument.

Yes, but then you get into this very nebulous thing about what is internal versus external. The kinds of extremist ideologies that employ this kind of destruction often contain some notion that the activity is designed to reunite or reconstitute certain national or ethnic constituencies that have for whatever reason been separated. This was certainly the case with the Serbs, who consciously destroyed libraries, not to mention other aspects of cultural patrimony, in Croatian cities like Zadar, Vukovar, and Dubrovnik. One three-day attack with incendiary devices on the National Library in Sarajevo in August 1992 destroyed more than 1.5 million books. Or the Iraqis, who announced that Kuwait was the 19th province of Iraq. In their six-month occupation, Iraqi troops looted and destroyed every library in Kuwait. By some estimates, 50 percent of all book stocks in Kuwaiti public and school libraries were lost. Also lost was the entire collection of the Kuwait University library, more than half-a-million books, and Kuwait’s national archives. Likewise, the Chinese who went into Tibet in the late 1950s and early 1960s—and destroyed what one scholar has estimated to be 60 percent of that country’s extant philosophical, historical and biographical literature—would say that Tibet was an internal struggle.

China figures in two of your case studies—the one about Tibet and one that details the internal destruction of books and libraries as a result of the Cultural Revolution.

For me and I think many others, the Cultural Revolution has always loomed as an inexplicable phenomenon, where a country just savaged itself and its extraordinary cultural heritage. What I realized as I went further back was that it all began with the Great Leap Forward—even today, the Chinese are much more reluctant to discuss the Great Leap Forward than the Cultural Revolution. It was ultimately a fight between the moderates and the radicals over the course of the revolution. And revolution, as posed by radicals, chews up books and libraries, chews up culture. There’s also the fact that information props up science and technology, all the things that were to be displaced by revolutionary fervor. I think there are parallels to what happened in Pol Pot’s Cambodia—where they essentially exterminated the entire intellectual class—and the track that Mao was on. Obviously, most ideologues tend to be anti-intellectual. They may value texts if they support their ideology or they may value them on a personal level—as, ironically, did both Pol Pot and Mao—but they’re very leery of the ideas in books. Most battles over the fate of books and libraries are finally battles between extremist ideologies and humanistic democracy—between illiberal ideas and liberal ideas, between repression and human rights. They often stem from anti-intellectual, anti-cosmopolitan, anti-modern, anti-international attitudes. That was definitely motivating the Taliban, which I discuss just at the end of the book. It was also motivating Pol Pot and Mao. It’s actually operative right across the board. When the Nazis had the book fires and Goebbels stood up there and gave his famous speech about burning the un-German foundations of Germany—triumphantly proclaiming, “The past is in flames!”—he was reacting against this whole question of humanism and the impulses towards an international world culture.

Rebecca Knuth is an Associate Professor in the Library and Information Science Program at the University of Hawaii. Her book Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the 20th Century was published in 2003.

Jeffery Kastner is a Brooklyn-based writer and senior editor of Cabinet.