Vanity of the Bonfires

by Ann M. Colford & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & urning a book is not easy. The tightly bound pages do not allow enough oxygen to get in for quick combustion. Burning a lot of books is even harder; a pile of books is a heavy, dense mass that doesn't necessarily make good fuel. So anyone who wants to burn thousands of books at a time really has to put some thought, planning and effort into it.

That's exactly what students in Nazi Germany did in 1933, just months after the burning of the Weimar Constitution. On May 10, 1933, young Nazi supporters in cities across Germany organized to burn literary works deemed unsuitable, to rid their society of ideas contrary to the rising tide of rabid nationalism. Some 25,000 books went up in flames that night, in a huge "Action against the Un-German Spirit" that eerily presaged the flames of Kristallnacht and the mass ovens of the concentration camps. Authors whose work was destroyed ranged from Bertolt Brecht and Friedrich Engels to Ernest Hemingway and Helen Keller.

The story of the Nazi book-burnings and subsequent American reaction is told in "Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings," a traveling exhibition from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., that opens at Gonzaga's Foley Center Library on Saturday.

"In this age of media and electronic this-and-that, there's something about burning books that makes a statement," says Eileen Bell-Garrison, GU's dean of library services, who worked with the university's Institute for Action Against Hate to bring the exhibition to Spokane. "It hits you in the gut. It is iconic, a symbolic medium. The exhibit is about how book-burning has become a symbol of censorship, of suppression of ideas and ultimately of hate."

The burning of books during the Nazi era may not be as familiar to Americans today as later atrocities, but at the time the images resounded. During World War II, the book-burnings functioned for Americans as symbolic of the freedoms at stake in the conflict. Bell-Garrison says doing the research for the exhibit has been an education for her.

"It has really helped me understand how Hitler created this whole ideology," she says, "and how, when you're trying to create an ideology, the natural thing to do is to destroy other ideas."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & f course, the Nazis are not the only group in history to try to stamp out ideas they believe are dangerous.Even in 21st-century America, the burning of books is alive and well. Six weeks ago, on Jan. 27 -- International Holocaust Remembrance Day -- a white supremacist group in Minneapolis staged what it called the "Great Minnesota Book Burning," targeting the Talmud, the Koran and other books deemed "anti-American" or "anti-white" by the group. Various fundamentalist Christian groups have burned the works of J.K. Rowling, saying her Harry Potter books are anti-Christian and promote witchcraft. Other religious groups have targeted books addressing sexual abuse or gay and lesbian themes. Vandals have burned school libraries, including right here in Spokane. And that doesn't even consider the thousands of challenges to books faced by libraries and school boards across the country.

"School libraries run into this daily, mainly from parents who are well-meaning," says Bell-Garrison. "Their child brings a book home that they find offensive for some reason, so they take it upon themselves to say, 'I do not want my child exposed to this, and I don't think anyone else should be able to see it, either.' They have such a strong conviction that it blinds them. People get so caught up in their own ideology that they don't think anyone could think differently."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & U & lt;/span & ltimately, book-burning is an act of terrorism, as this exhibition shows. It uses fear and intimidation to accomplish what reasoned and civil debate cannot: the suppression of ideas. If one seeks to consolidate power -- "power over" rather than "power with" -- then the biggest threat comes not from some outside force but from critical thinking within.

But ideas cannot be eliminated by destroying the evidence or by frightening people into silence and submission. As a society, we can only counter opposing ideas with critical thinking of our own. And that's where libraries come in.

"The hallmark for librarians is the freedom to read," Bell-Garrison says. "As librarians, we say there's something in our library to offend everyone."

"Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings," on loan from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, will be on view on the third floor of GU's Foley Center Library, from March 10-May 5. Viewing hours are Monday 9 am-7 pm; Tuesday-Friday 9 am-5 pm; Saturday noon-4 pm (closed Friday-Monday, April 6-9, for Easter). Visit or call 323-6533.

Dreamworks Animation: The Exhibition @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 11
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