NewsStreet Scribe

The Right Burns and Bans Books as Culture War Escalates

Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, was banned by a Tennessee school board.

In a scene reminiscent of the darkest days of Nazi Germany, books were burned earlier this month by a howling mob right here in a nation that calls itself “the land of the free.” 

Greg Locke, a right-wing preacher in Tennessee, led his congregation in an eerie nighttime book burning at his church near Nashville. Citing the Bible’s book of Acts, the reactionary reverend caterwauled against the demonism and witchcraft that he claims are contained in books and entertainment that raise his holy hackles. Consigned to the flames at the minister’s book burning were copies of Harry Potter books, the Twilight series and the Masonic Bible, along with Ouija boards and Tarot cards. Pastor Locke is a Bible-brandishing, pulpit-pounding backer of former President Donald Trump who has used his ministry to support QAnon conspiracy craziness and the Proud Boys gang of street-fighting stormtroopers for Trump.

Also in Tennessee, last month the McMinn County school board banned the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus from the 8th grade curriculum. The book depicts Nazis as evil cats and Jews as hapless mice caught up in the horrors of the Holocaust. Cartoonist Art Spiegelman, who wrote and illustrated the book and whose parents survived the infamous Auschwitz death camp, called the ban “absurd” and said, “This is not about left versus right. This is about a culture war that has gotten totally out of control.” 

The attempt to ban Maus may have backfired. Sales of the cartoon book have soared in recent weeks. Pastor Locke’s book burning and the McMinn County book banning may become the biggest embarrassments to the Volunteer State since the Scopes Monkey Trial that pitted evolutionary science against religious fundamentalism in the tiny town of Dayton, TN in 1925.

Art Spiegelman Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, was banned by a Tennessee school board.

Book burnings in Nazi Germany began in 1933, soon after Adolf Hitler came to power. Led by Nazi officials and right-wing university students, the events spread quickly across Germany. Books by such authors as Sinclair Lewis, H.G. Wells, Helen Keller, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Albert Einstein and John Steinbeck were torched by German mobs, but book burning and antisemitism had gone hand in hand in Germany long before Hitler’s regime. As early as 1817 German university students had burned books, particularly those written by Jewish authors. In 1821 Heinrich Heine, a German Jewish writer, had warned that “those who burn books will in the end burn people.” Heine died in 1856, but his warning was prescient. The 19th century writer’s books were burned by Nazi fanatics in his home country in the 20th century.

When the book burnings began in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, huge crowds marched in New York City in protest of the burnings and other policies of Hitler’s Reich. Journalist Walter Lippmann warned his fellow Americans that “there is a government in Germany which means to teach its people that their salvation lies in violence.” Sadly, the protests ebbed and the burning of books in Germany did indeed lead to the burning of people there. 

Today the howls of hatred from screaming mobs echo down the hallways of history and resound right here in 21st century America. Antisemitism is on the rise in this country today, and Republican Party apologists for Donald Trump’s regime are calling the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riot “legitimate political discourse.” Crybaby “conservatives” whine about “cancel culture” and “critical race theory” while sanctioning the banning of books or curricula that tell the whole history of this nation—the good, the bad and the ugly.

Since 1982, Banned Books Week has been an annual celebration of the freedom to read. This year’s event will take place at libraries, schools and bookstores across this nation from Sept. 18–24. The observance is needed now more than ever as the chilling winds of authoritarianism blow across our political landscape. In 2010 Sara Bloomfield of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum spoke words of warning that still are true for Americans in the year 2022: “The most important aspect of the Nazi book burnings is not what the Germans did, but what others failed to do.”