Quick takes // by Ben Frankel"An act of extreme intolerance and bigotry"

Published 4 April 2011

Florida pastor Terry Jones made good on his threat to burn a Koran; the backlash has begun: in Afghanistan, demonstrators attacked a UN building, killing twenty and wounding eighty-three; among the dead are Norwegian, Romanian, Swedish, and Nepalese nationals; experts worry that the wave of protest will sweep the Muslim world; last year, Obama, Clinton, Gates, Petraeus, Muller and others warned of the pernicious consequences burning the Koran would have; they were criticized in some quarters for having a “chilling effect” on free speech — but they were right; fighting for the hearts and minds of more than a billion Muslims is difficult enough without Jones’s reckless and narcissistic action

It was all so depressingly predictable.

Two weeks ago, a nutty Florida pastor named Terry Jones made good on his threat from last year, and after a “trial” by the few members of his Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, a Koran was soaked in kerosene and then set on fire.

There are two arguments against the burning of the Koran. The first is that it is a profoundly uncivilized act.

Here is one example. In the 1930s, Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, ordered the burning of books written by Jews and other “un-Germans.” On 6 April 1933, the German Student Association (Deutsche Studentenschaft) proclaimed a nationwide “Action against the Un-German Spirit,” which was to climax in a literary purge or “cleansing” (Säuberung) by fire

On 10 May 1933, the students launched their Säuberung by burning more than 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books, mostly written by Jewish authors. On that night, in most university towns across Germany, nationalist students marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit.” They carried with them thousands of books taken from university libraries and book stores, books which were deemed “un-German.” At the meeting places — city squares, public parks — the students threw the books into the bonfires with great fanfare: band-playing, songs, “fire oaths,” and incantations.

Local residents were encouraged to bring “un-German” books from their homes and throw them into the pyres.

In Berlin, some 40,000 people gathered in the Opernplatz to hear Joseph Goebbels deliver a fiery address: “No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state!” Goebbels continued:

The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end. The breakthrough of the German revolution has again cleared the way on the German path… Here the intellectual foundation of the [pre-Hitler] November Republic is sinking to the ground, but from this wreckage the phoenix of a new spirit will triumphantly rise.

Not all book burnings took place on 10 May as the German Student Association had planned. Some were postponed a few days because of rain. Others, based on local chapter preference, took place on 21 June, the summer solstice

Among the authors whose books students burned that night were those by socialists such as Bertolt Brecht and August Bebel; the founder of communist thought, Karl Marx; “bourgeois” writers like the Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler, and “corrupting foreign influences,” among them American authors Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and Helen Keller, English writer H. G. Wells; and all books by Jewish authors, among them Franz Werfel, Max Brod, Franz Kafka, Stefan Zweig, and many more.

Notable among those works burned were the writings of nineteenth-century iconic German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine. In Heine’s 1820 play Almansor, one of the characters says: “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen” (“Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people”).

Are there evil people — al Qaeda and others — who use a selective reading of the Koran to justify their dastardly deeds? Of course there are. To say that Bin Laden and his cohort are true representatives of the Koran’s teaching, however, would be as accurate as saying that Terry Jones is a true representative of the teachings of the New Testament.

The second argument against Jones’s irresponsible action is practical. Last year, President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, General David Petraeus, FBI director Robert Mueller, and many other leaders publicly called on Jones not to go through with his plan, and he agreed.

There were those who criticized these officials for voicing their objections to the Koran burning. A bizarre argument was advanced that their criticism would have a chilling effect on free speech. I dealt with this line of criticism a month ago, when I wrote:

Had Obama, Clinton, Gates, Petreus, and the director of the FBI not commented on the pernicious consequences of the Koran burning for U.S. national interest and to U.S. troops, and had they not expressed the government’s disapproval of the burning, they could have been accused — justifiably — of dereliction of duty.