During the last week of September, a number of organizations observe Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of the freedom to read. As the Library of Congress is currently commemorating the hundredth anniversary of U.S. involvement in World War I, this is an opportunity to explore a wave of book burnings in American towns that took place during the war. It’s also a chance to examine the ways in which these events were covered in newspaper accounts, as well as the attitudes that underlie the news coverage.
The United States’ entry into World War I was followed by a wave of anti-German sentiment, which in many cases was directed toward German-American institutions, businesses, and individuals. Eventually, even the German language became a target of suspicion.
One senator introduced a bill to prevent the teaching of the German language in the public schools of Washington, D.C. “We owe a duty to our children. We must protect them from the German monster by removing the trap–the German language.” At the same time, state and local educational agencies investigated the possible dangers of German-language instruction. A German textbook used in the Seattle area was criticized for including excessive expressions of German nationalism and was eventually withdrawn by the school board.
In many communities, however, residents did not wait for institutions to take action, and instead destroyed German textbooks in vigilante raids. The digitized newspapers in Chronicling America contain many examples of public burnings of German-language textbooks, songbooks, and other material.
In North Platte, Nebraska, for example, several hundred German textbooks were taken from the high school building and burned on a vacant lot while a crowd sang a requiem to Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. An area newspaper editorial declared that the members of the mob were “to be commended rather than condemned. This generation, and the next, and still the next will have no use for anything that has a German tinge, the books would have proven obsolete, better by far that they vanish and that their ashes be scattered to the four winds.”
Today, book burning is widely seen as an abhorrent symptom of a repressive society. However, in many newspaper accounts of the time, the textbook burnings of World War I are portrayed as patriotic acts committed to guard against tyranny. To support your students as they explore these contradictions, encourage them to search Chronicling America in 1917 and 1918 using search terms such as “textbook” and “burned.”
- As students analyze accounts of book burnings, encourage them to identify common language used across the accounts and consider how that language might shape readers’ perceptions of the incidents.
- Challenge students to find a newspaper account of a book-burning incident and rewrite it as it might appear in a U.S. news story published today.
- Ask students to research book burnings in other countries in later conflicts and identify similarities and differences between accounts of those incidents and those in the U.S. during World War I.
Please share any insights your students discover in the comments!