By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan
Not far from the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin is a public square known as the Opernplatz, where, on May 10th, 1933, one of the world’s most infamous book burnings occurred. German students had organized a nationwide, pro-Nazi “Action against the Un-German Spirit,” culminating in numerous book burnings. The one at Opernplatz was the largest. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s chief propagandist, addressed 30,000 eager young Nazis there, urging the mob to “consign to the flames” books that encouraged “decadence and moral corruption.” Several years later, the Nazis turned from burning books to bodies.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed every January 27th, the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp where the Nazis killed an estimated 1.1 million people. More than one million of those killed were Jews. Also killed were communists, Roma (too often referred to by the disparaging term “gypsies”), Christian pacifists, LGBTQ+ people, Soviet prisoners of war, people with disabilities and others deemed enemies of the German Reich. As this solemn anniversary was recognized around the world this year, a startling, related news story began circulating: the McMinn County, Tennessee school board voted, unanimously, to ban one of the best-known memoirs of Auschwitz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus” by Art Spiegelman. “Maus” depicts the experiences of Spiegelman’s parents, Vladek and Anja, before, during and after their imprisonment in Auschwitz. The comic book format casts Jews as mice and Germans as cats. Auschwitz is called “Mauschwitz.”
Citing “rough, objectionable language” in the book and one drawing depicting Spiegelman’s mother in her bathtub after she died by suicide, the board voted on January 10th to ban the book and to remove it from the 8th grade curriculum.
“I am not denying it was horrible, brutal, and cruel,” board member Tony Allman said, referring to the Holocaust, according to the meeting’s minutes. “It’s like when you’re watching tv and a cuss word or nude scene comes on it would be the same movie without it. Well, this would be the same book without it.” Continuing his critique of “Maus,” Allman added, “It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff, it is not wise or healthy.”
Lance McConkey, a history teacher who lives in McMinn County and teaches in a neighboring district told us, “There’s no pretty way to teach the holocaust.” McConkey is a teaching fellow with the Tennessee Holocaust Commission and a recipient of its Belz-Lipman Holocaust Educator of the Year Award. He uses “Maus” in the classroom and told us, “The kids love ‘Maus’. It’s easy for them to read.”
Art Spiegelman says he never intended the book for children, but, since its publication and garnering the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, he has changed his opinion: “I’ve now met many, many children who have studied it in school, who found it on their own, who were given it by their parents, and it actually is received with a degree of real wisdom in their reading,” Spiegelman said on the Democracy Now! news hour. “Comics are for whoever can understand them. Certainly, the school board doesn’t.”
McMinn County is not alone in banning books. The racial reckoning following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, in May, 2020, revitalized interest in teaching the literature of race and racism and of books by and about marginalized communities. This has led to a counter campaign to ban books, coordinated with groups like Moms for Liberty, Parents Defending Education and No Left Turn in Education, all funded by rightwing billionaire Charles Koch. Books with Black or LGBTQ+ themes are high on their target list.
PEN America is tracking educational gag order legislation, listing 89 pending bills before state legislatures nationwide, from a bill in Iowa barring use of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project in teaching to New Hampshire’s HB 1255, 'An Act Relative to Teachers' Loyalty,’ which would ban public school teachers from depicting U.S. history in a negative light. The American Library Association received an unprecedented 330 reports of efforts to ban or challenge books just last fall.
“When you make something forbidden, it only makes it more tempting. Putting our books at the center of attention and trying to make them forbidden, it’s, honestly, only making more people interested,” George M. Johnson noted on Democracy Now!. Johnson’s deeply personal book “All Boys Aren’t Blue” has been banned in 15 states.
Berlin’s Opernplatz now has a memorial to that notorious 1933 book burning, called “The Empty Library.” A glass window in the ground reveals an illuminated subterranean room with empty white bookshelves. The Nazi book burnings in the spring of 1933 were a harbinger of what was to come. The epidemic of book banning sweeping our country today must be confronted and stopped now.