A book burning in 1758

Posted by Richard on  UTC 2020-02-01 14:22

The growth of Protestantism and the religious wars in the 17th century had left the Catholic Holy Roman Empire with one great, continuing fear: the insidious effects of the literature of Protestantism and the many sects that flourished alongside it.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was plagued by censorship throughout his life, a censorship that continued for more than half a century after his death. He described censorship as almost the natural order of things:

The spread of culture caused by the printing of books had barely started before censorship became necessary in order to limit that which earlier had been free within its naturally restricted circles.

Kaum wird durch Buchdruckerei Kultur allgemeiner verbreitet, so macht sich schon die Zensur nötig, um dasjenige einzuengen, was bisher in einem natürlich beschränkten Kreise frei gewesen war.
[Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Materialien zur Geschichte der Farbenlehre, 4. Abteilung. Sechzehntes Jahrhundert, Zwischenbetrachtung, in Gedenkausgabe der Werke, Briefe und Gespräche. Band 1–24 und Erg.-Bände 1–3, Band 16, Zürich 1948 ff, p. 395. Online at Zeno.org.]

The Protestants and the Jews were the literate ones – the readers, writers, printers and publishers of Europe. Protestant doctrine made the Bible required reading for the laity, which in turn required the laity to be able to read.

For the serfs of the great feudal and agricultural empire there was no such requirement – they simply had to attend church, listen to what the priest told them and learn certain things such as the Catechism by rote. It was only in the last quarter of the 18th century that the ability to read became an educational goal for the broad mass of the children of the Empire.

For the Empire's rulers, the members of the order of the Society of Jesus were the people best positioned to defend the Empire against the dangers of heretical writings in this dangerous age of printing and reading. The Jesuits, founded in 1540, were the heroes of the Counter-Reformation, the great bulwark against the insidious power of Protestantism. For a long time they were the final arbiters of what was censored and destroyed.

Dangerous opinions lurked not just in purely religious tracts but more and more in scientific, legal and general writings. As the Scientific Revolution took hold and the parallel humanist Enlightenment spread, the censorship problems of the Catholic world only got worse. Each of the many states of the Holy Roman Empire had its own sensibilities (almost always religious in nature) and reacted in its own way.

As part of this campaign against the spread of knowledge and dissent, books were regularly publicly burned, sometimes singly and symbolically, sometimes in piles of copies of an entire confiscated edition. The burning itself was generally performed by the public executioner. There was much ceremonial and enough entertainment value in those days before radio and television to draw a large crowd of spectators – most of whom probably couldn't read anyway.

Goethe's Dichtung

Goethe described a book burning that took place in his native Frankfurt in 1758, when he was nine. Frankfurt was then part of the Holy Roman Empire and its empress, Maria Theresia, had been on the throne for 18 years. Despite her many great and redeeming qualities, it has to be said that she was a deeply pious Catholic bigot of the first rank.

Goethe's account was written down, though, fifty years after the fact. He misremembered or deliberately left out a lot of what the nine-year-old would have seen and adds some remarks that only the famous author, after a lifetime of being banned and hounded by censors, would have come up with.

He was, after all, a great imaginative writer and gave his autobigraphy a wonderful title that cannot be translated in all its nuances but which should be a warning to its readers: Dichtung und Wahrheit, 'Invention/Fiction/Poetry and Truth'.

We witnessed various executions [in Frankfurt] and it is worth a thought that I was also present at the burning of a book. It was an edition of a light-hearted French novel which didn't directly criticise the state but gave no thought to the proprieties of religion and morals. It was really quite terrible to watch a punishment carried out on a lifeless object. The bales [of books] split in the fire and were stirred and stoked up with long forks so the flames could get hold. It was not long before the partly burned pages flew up and were blown all over. The crowd snatched at them avidly. Nor did we stand idly by: we managed to get a sample as did more than a few other people who wanted to get their hands on the forbidden pleasure. Yes, if an author needed publicity he couldn't have done anything better.

Wir mußten Zeugen von verschiedenen Exekutionen sein, und es ist wohl wert zu gedenken, daß ich auch bei Verbrennung eines Buchs gegenwartig gewesen bin. Es war der Verlag eines französischen komischen Romans, der zwar den Staat, aber nicht Religion und Sitten schonte. Es hatte wirklich etwas Fürchterliches, eine Strafe an einem leblosen Wesen ausgeübt zu sehen. Die Ballen platzten im Feuer, und wurden durch Ofengabeln aus einander geschürt und mit den Flammen mehr in Berührung gebracht. Es dauerte nicht lange, so flogen die angebrannten Blätter in der Luft herum, und die Menge haschte begierig darnach. Auch ruhten wir nicht, bis wir ein Exemplar auftrieben, und es waren nicht wenige, die sich das verbotne Vergnügen gleichfalls zu verschaffen wußten. Ja, wenn es dem Autor um Publizität zu tun war, so hätte er selbst nicht besser dafür sorgen konnen.
[Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Aus meinem Leben. Dichtung und Wahrheit, Erster Teil, Viertes Buch, p. 150f. In Goethes Werke. Hamburger Ausgabe in 14 Bänden. Band 9, Hamburg 1948 ff, p. 114-164. Online at Zeno.org.]

The punishment of 'the lifeless object' and the effectiveness of censorship as publicity strike us as the later thoughts of the elderly writer. The same is true of his depiction of the improvisation and chaos of the proceedings. Goethe is also wrong or confused about the books that were burned on that occasion. Let's take a look at what really happened at that book burning in Frankfurt in 1758.

Goethe's Wahrheit

Against Goethe's Dichtung we can set the Wahrheit, the unadorned reality, as contained in the detailed official report of the event, which is substantially different from Goethe's account and which gives a much greater insight into the role of book burning in censorship. The report is two pages long and extremely detailed – the bureaucrats of the Holy Roman Empire can never be accused of the sin of brevity – so here is an abstract:

On the orders of the Emperor Franz Stephan, Maria Theresia's husband, four works of the artisan Johann Friedrich Ludwig, a religious obsessive, were condemned to be burnt. Not just one copy of each but rather several hundred were transported in bundles to the place of execution. The author had been arrested but was released soon after. The printer and compositor had fled and a warrant had been issued for them. The order for the execution was announced on 25 August 1758 to the accompaniment of a drum roll.

The burning ceremony itself took place on 18 November 1758. Present were two mayors, a notary and witnesses, several judges, 60 troops from the garrison, drummers and 16 musketeers to keep the crowd in order. All officials wore ceremonial cloaks and uniforms. Oaths were taken and the sentence was declaimed to drum rolls. A three foot high pile of wood was lit with straw and the executioner and his four assistants sliced open the four piles of bales, tore the books up and threw the scraps onto the fire. The locals were leaning out of their windows and, since it was a market day, a lot of spectators were present.

Abstracted and translated from the German original in Heinrich Hubert Houben, Der polizeiwidrige Goethe, 1932. Nachdruck Egelsbach, Hänsel-Hohenhausen Verlag, 1992, p. 3f.

It seems unlikely that Goethe's account of the crowd running around collecting fragments of the forbidden works is correct. The official description goes to some length to detail the careful and gradual burning of the books: the exploding bales and flying half-burnt scraps of Goethe's description seem to arise more from the poet working up the fragments of his memories than any real observation of an event that took place half a century before.

This was neither the first book burning nor the last in Frankfurt – the authorities would certainly have not made such elementary errors in the task. It is also unlikely that the twenty soldiers policing the crowd would tolerate such wild behaviour, certainly not in front of the assembled dignitaries.

In particular we should note that this scene was taking place in Frankfurt, then as now the capital of the German book trade: the proceedings would be an important lesson for the publishing business.

We also have to remember that books then were not the cheap, easily replaceable objects they are today but relatively expensive craft products: burning a complete edition represented a considerable loss for the printer and publisher. We also note the ponderous and extended judicial process that took almost three months to get from the judgement to the punishment: this book burning was not a trivial, ad hoc affair.

Nor can we fail to be impressed by the complex and expensive coordinated turnout on the part of the city administration, the judiciary and the military: the object of the exercise was clearly not just to destroy the stock of these books but make a public example to deter other transgressors. There can be no doubt how serious the crime was held to be, even though the author himself – who appears to have been more than slightly deranged – was not extensively punished.

Just destroying the books would clearly have not been enough in the viewpoint of the authorities. It was the printers who were still on the run and all their fellows in Frankfurt and the rest of the Empire who are the real targets of this display. One manuscript, however deranged, has little or no effect until printers reproduce it. The printers were therefore the danger, not the authors.

Finally, as Goethe pointed out, the similarities of the proceedings with the execution of a human are striking. In writing of his horror at a 'punishment carried out on a lifeless object' Goethe is expressing a deeper thought, not well formulated and certainly not a nine-year-old's thought: the books are, as it were, proxies for their authors, and all the medieval and religious symbolism on display here is perfectly judged by those in charge.


In our digital age we have more efficient and more carbon-neutral ways of suppressing whatever opinions might be thought to be undesirable, along with the unfortunates who are foolish enough to express them in public. But, on the whole, there is little difference. Loss of livelihood, confiscations, 'cancellation' and even prison await them just as they did the printers and publishers of Goethe's time.

Goethe pointed out that the impulse for the censorship he knew was the leap from manuscripts to books which the plebs could read. Similarly, the impulse for today's censorship has been the leap from the restrictions of print to the potential and terrifying freedoms of online expression.

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