Children read among the ruins of the destroyed National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, 1992
Children read among the ruins of the destroyed National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, 1992 © Alamy

On May 10 1933, on Berlin’s Unter den Linden, a crowd of 40,000 chanted and cheered as books by Jews, homosexuals and communists were consigned to the bonfire. Nearly six decades later, on August 25 1992, Serbian forces rained shells down on Sarajevo’s National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The bombs were incendiaries, designed to raise fire on impact. Serbian snipers picked off firefighters as they tried to save the library. It was not an accidental target. Neighbouring buildings were not hit.

Rulers and armies have targeted libraries for centuries. During the Reformation, monastic buildings and their libraries across Europe were torn down. In England, Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries resulted in tens of thousands of books being destroyed or sold for scrap.

When American forces attacked the British city of York (today’s Toronto) in 1813, they burnt the library in the legislative buildings. A year later, British forces set fire to the presidential mansion and the Capitol, which contained the newly created Library of Congress.

When people burn books, they are doing more than attacking words on paper. They are attempting to destroy the record of a people’s past and, through that, their right to be present.

The Nazis’ book burning, writes Richard Ovenden, was a “warning sign of their policy of genocide”. The attack on the Sarajevo library was “born of the desire to wipe out the memory of Muslim participation in Bosnian history and culture”.

Ovenden is the head of Oxford university’s Bodleian Library. The library was the creation of Sir Thomas Bodley, one of a group of post-Reformation antiquarians determined to rescue what they could of the past. Francis Bacon, Bodley’s contemporary, described his library as “an ark to save learning from the deluge”. Today, with 13m printed items, the Bodleian is the UK’s second-biggest library after the British Library.

Burning the Books grew out of a 2018 FT opinion column Ovenden wrote about the Windrush scandal, the denial of residence rights to a group of Caribbean immigrants who had lived legally in the UK for decades.

The Empire Windrush arrives at Tilbury Docks in London, 1948. Landing cards were subsequently destroyed making it hard for Windrush immigrants to prove their right to remain in Britain © Getty Images

Ovenden was infuriated by the discovery that the Home Office had destroyed the landing cards of post-second world war Commonwealth arrivals, making it hard for the Windrush immigrants to prove their right to remain. The cards’ destruction, he wrote then, “indicates at best a failure of sound management inside the Home Office, and at worst a culture of callous disregard towards certain categories of Britons”.

There is anger in this book, but admiration too. Ovenden writes of the Sarajevo library staff who formed a human chain in a vain attempt to save 1.5m books, manuscripts and maps. He recounts the extraordinary story of the “paper brigade”, the Jewish scholars forced by the Nazis in occupied Vilna to select books to be sent to Frankfurt as a record of the soon-to-be-exterminated people and to consign the rest for pulping. Instead, they managed to smuggle books into hiding in the ghetto. After the war, Antanas Ulpis, who was sympathetic to what remained of Lithuanian Jewry, hid Jewish books from the country’s Soviet overlords, secreting them in a church, even stuffing the organ pipes.

FT Weekend Festival

Tune in to hear Richard Ovenden discuss censorship and the importance of libraries with the classicist Mary Beard in a specially commissioned film at the FT Weekend Festival in three days of online debates from Sept 3-5. To purchase a festival pass visit: ftweekendfestival.com

In free societies, there is still a danger to our records, not only in events such as the Windrush card destruction, but in the underfunding and closure of public libraries. It is tempting to think the danger of literature erasure is now behind us because we can store it all digitally. This, Ovenden says, is mistaken. Digital records are fragile.

The UK Web Archiving Consortium, a collaboration between the six main libraries of the UK and Ireland, has discovered that half the websites they preserve disappear from the internet within two years. After three years, the figure is 70 per cent.

He worries, too, about the large technology companies that hold mountains of digital material without accountability to governments or the public. Ovenden’s solution is to tax the tech giants properly so that we can finance the preservation of the world’s archives. Tech tax justice has proved elusive, but this book should stir us to thinking and to action — against censorship, against careless loss, and for the preservation of the memory of where we came from and of our right to be where we are. 

Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack, by Richard Ovenden, John Murray, RRP£20/Belknap Press, RRP$29.95, 320 pages

Michael Skapinker is an FT columnist and contributing editor

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