Burning Books and Bricks: a Brief History of Cultural Destruction

By Chloe Kaczvinsky

Cultural monuments and sites have historical and personal significance for nations.  A radical group may target such sites to demonstrate a blatant and intentional disregard for a culture’s history and to display the scope of the group’s power over a population. Such tactics have historically been employed in cases of genocide, in which this denigration of physical space symbolizes the destruction a people or a previous history that does not align with the radical group’s cause. Of late, the rise of radical Islam in parts of the Middle East has resulted in the destruction of many monuments and cultural icons. In these cases, radicals believe these symbols violate strict Islamic principles. However, in other instances, this destruction also demonstrates the group’s international presence. While the destruction of monuments strives to erase a place’s history and culture, the destruction of books aims more specifically at the culture’s knowledge itself. Within radical movements, book burnings reach beyond the censorship of material regimes, who wish to keep the books from its citizens.  Rather, book burnings seek to destroy essential cultural knowledge and the evidence of its existence.

To understand the motives behind the destruction of cultural sites and monuments, it is first necessary to explore their significance, both to local and to larger communities. James E. Young writes extensively on the importance of monuments in post-WWII Germany and the meaning they hold for Jewish, German, and global communities. In a poem calling for a memorial to the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw and those killed in the Holocaust, Julian Tuwim describes how

“we shall surround that monument to the ignominy of our foes and to the glory of our tortured heroes with chains wrought from captured Hitler’s guns, and every day we shall twine fresh live flowers into its iron links, so that the memory of the massacred people shall remain forever fresh.” [1] 

This poem and its role in the creation of the monument indicates the symbolic power a site can have on a collective group, becoming both a rallying point for the group as well as a physical indication of a shared cultural history. Indeed, given the global significance of the event being commemorated, the importance of the remains of the Warsaw ghetto and the monument to the victims become part of a global heritage and are essential to the history of the human race.

However, the importance of memory as it is contained in important cultural sites is best demonstrated by Young’s commentary on the Polish government’s attempt to control and direct the meaning of the Warsaw monument. In 1983 the Polish government campaigned to nationalize the monument. According to Young, this was an attempt to control the memory of the Jewish uprising, a way to honor its heroes while separating the monument from any potential inspiration to the Solidarity Trade Union to begin a similar uprising against the current government.  This effort was unsuccessful and Solidarity-led strikes broke out mere weeks after the nationalization of the monument.[2] The simultaneous fear and honor present in the Polish government’s actions indicate the importance of the memory embedded in this particular monument, and more generally the association between memory and cultural sites. A simple statue must have a deeper function than its physical memorialization in order to potentially provoke opposition movements. Indeed, these monuments sites become intricately woven into the conception of a people or place in its history. They create uniquely powerful places, embedded both with the memory of their past and their modern importance in the formulation of a group’s identity and culture.

The international community acknowledges the importance of cultural sites to both the particular culture and to greater humanity. On its website, the UNESCO World Heritage Organization declares that the organization “seeks to encourage the identification, protection, and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. This is embodied in an international treaty." [3] This treaty, furthermore, officially provides protection to sites that have been identified as key to the heritage of a place, people, or to the world during wartime. These sites are identified by a blue shield, and an international agency of the same name is also supposed to aid in the protection of these key places. [4] Despite this legal protection, many cultural heritage sites are targeted by various armies and groups who hope to eliminate representations of a history that they feel opposes their aims.

Considering the power of such cultural sites, it is therefore unsurprising that radical groups who aim to change the status quo to accommodate their ideologies also gravitate towards destroying important cultural sites that represent the existing order. One of the most famous campaigns is the Nazi destruction of various cultural artifacts under the Third Reich. It was this systematic destruction that led to the international prohibitions on the destruction of important cultural sites and objects during war. [5] The destruction was also accompanied by systematic looting, where various Nazi institutions competed for the spoils of the conquered areas. [6] As is the case in most examples of cultural destruction, the looting and destruction allowed the Nazis to demonstrate their power over conquered territory, either by physically taking or destroying symbols of the conquered’s history.  This hypothesis is supported by the fact that such action decreased when the Soviets regained some measure of power and forced the Nazis to refocus their efforts on protecting their preexisting territories. [7] The interplay of power with a broader campaign to destroy or marginalize a culture is central to many cases of cultural heritage destruction.  More precisely, these campaigns exist because cultural sites and objects possess significant power to populations, and the destruction of these symbols attacks the psychological importance of the culture.

 The 2002 destruction of Nabus, a Palestinian cultural site, by Israeli forces highlights how the targeting of cultural sites is a demonstration of power used during civil wars and colonization efforts.  Bleibleh’s analysis of the space in Nablus focuses more on the city as a whole than on the importance of the space for the colonized, but her observations are also important for understanding the historical importance of the city and the subsequent Israeli destruction. She notes how the various Israeli military tactics, which include demolition of buildings and individual-oriented responses such as curfews, create a constant struggle between the Israelis and Palestinians.  It is within this hybrid landscape “where public space as well as private space, becomes a space of resistance and confrontation within the current sovereignty conflict.” [8] In other words, the political conflict is actively played out in the landscape, as is evident in the Israeli destruction of ancient parts of the city.

In the typical history of a conquering group trying to assert its dominance over a population, Israel is responsible for the destruction of numerous important and historic buildings and sites in Palestine. In a demonstration of the significance of the destruction, while the city was under Palestinian rule before the most recent Israeli invasion, the government embarked on a campaign to protect the city and its architecture, including projects to survey and restore key sites and buildings. [9] This can be taken as a clear demonstration of the importance of the city’s historic buildings to the people of Nablus and the Palestinians more generally. However, the preservation carried out by the Palestinian government can be clearly contrasted with the destruction carried out by the Israeli troops.

Although critics argue that the destruction was carried out solely to aid the troops and tanks navigate through the city, [10] the missile-targeted destruction of several key sites can be much better understood as an effective demonstration of Israeli military and cultural dominance. Some of the impacted sites include the Al-Khadra Mosque, the oldest one in the city built over a thousand years ago, two olive oil soap factories (one of the city’s famous crafts) from the 1700s, and the Al-Jadedeh Hammam (Turkish bathhouse), also from the 1700s, that had been recently restored and was still a key social space for the city. [11] This initial destruction was followed by condemnation from the international community, including UNESCO, regarding how Nablus “is an important component of the cultural identity of the Palestinian people and integral part of its heritage. Its intentional destruction has an adverse consequence on the human dignity and the human rights of the Palestinian people.” [12] Considering the history of political conflict between these two populations as well as the Israeli invasion, it is easy to see this incident as one example of the many throughout history of an invading group attempting to destroy the colonized people’s cultural history, as well as a show of power and an attempt to actively obliterate the opposing group’s place in history.

Attempts to exert power over a group while destroying their history is not limited to conquering armies. In contrast to the Nazi’s campaign of cultural destruction and looting in conquered territories, the massive destruction of cultural property in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995 was instead the result of a civil war between ethnic minorities within a single area. [13] Former Yugoslavia is a particularly illustrative example of the potential for cultural destruction in areas inhabited by two or more ethnic groups. According to Stone and Bajjaly, in 1998 the Croatian government gave UNESCO a list of key cultural sites and later “every one of the sites on this list, including the World Heritage Site of Dubrovnik, was specifically targeted by opposition forces during the war in an apparent attempt to undermine the Croatian psyche." [14] This situation portrays the common dynamic in which one group tries to destroy another culture’s heritage and simultaneously demonstrates the group’s power over the other population. The instances of cultural destruction in former Yugoslavia are clear examples of both racial and ethnic motives that can underlie such actions, and also portray how an attempt to demonstrate power is often intertwined with the more apparent motives of destroying an enemy’s cultural heritage.

Further, the waves of destruction of monuments and cultural icons in the Middle East may be linked to the rise of radical Islam and the idea that these cultural items contradict Islamic fundaments. However, while the targeting of these artifacts aligns with the goal of destroying non-Islamic cultural symbols, it is also represents an attempt to assert power over a region. For example, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001 was one of the most publicized recent cases of the destruction of an important cultural symbol. Jamal Elias argues that “in the context of other incidents of iconoclastic destruction in the modern Islamic world, it becomes clear that the Taliban’s iconoclastic acts lie at the intersection of local and global concerns that transcend an opposition to images in and of themselves.” [15] His analysis stresses the importance of the cultural civil war between the Shi’a, Persian speaking population, and the conquering Sunni Taliban.  Elias further emphasizes the dynamic between those who attempted to preserve the important cultural artifacts of the Buddhas, as opposed to the destructive motives of the Taliban. [16] Manhart, in addition, argues that the Taliban did not feel it was necessary to honor any of the international agreements concerning artifact protection, in part because their government was not internationally recognized. [17] Both of these arguments are important to consider when examining the ultimate motivations behind the destruction.

Ultimately, this incident, like most cases of cultural site destruction, originates in an attempt to assert power by destroying the physical remnants of a group’s history.  However, as noted by Nielsen, while the destruction of the Buddhas did follow the call for the destruction of idolatrous statues, the Taliban chose to target the most well-known and visible statues, which indicates a demonstration of political control as well as an attempt to destroy images viewed as contradictory to the teachings of the Qur’an. [18] The selective destruction of the most famous statues indicate that not only was this an act targeting non-Muslim history, but that it was meant to demonstrate the Taliban’s power over the territory to the global community.

While the destruction of monuments symbolizes an assault on a place’s history and culture, the destruction of books aims at to attack a culture’s knowledge. In an introduction on the history of book burning, Rebecca Knuth lists the tragedies of “Vandals sacking Rome, Saracens burning the Alexandrian Library, Vikings attacking the Christian monasteries that had sustained learning through the Dark Ages, and the burning of heretics and their texts during the Spanish inquisition,” [19] indicating that such an attack is hardly a new phenomenon. In the written copy of his speech, Hans Hillerbrand discusses the practice of book burning in a religious context.  He notes that the because the words of holy texts such as the Bible or Qur’an are implicitly sacred, any idea contrary to those teachings, or mediums that espouse them, are, by definition, heretical. [20] The stark delineation between sacred and heretical expressed in this context can be applied to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, as well as to other instances of cultural vandalism driven by ideologues.  These cases further emphasize the importance of ideology in understanding these types of cultural attacks.

The Nazi regime modernized the practice of book burnings as a form of cultural destruction during World War II.  As noted by J. M. Ritchie, Nazi public book burnings included invitations to the general public to clear out their own libraries in addition to the systematically eliminate any books in libraries that fell under a list of the type the regime wished to be destroyed. [21] Ritchie then elaborates commenting how the destruction of books was a campaign that aimed “at specific, selected targets: pacificstic, socialistic, sexually-liberated, and Jewish literature.” [22] Knuth’s book notes how the destruction of books, both by the Nazis and by others throughout history, can be identified with the practice of iconoclasm because both share the goal of destroying a “heretical” cultural element. [23]  It is therefore clear that the practice of book burning does involve an attempt to cleanse some part of a culture, perhaps even more explicitly than in cases dealing with cultural sites and artifacts.

A recent example of the specific targeting of a library and the book collection inside can be gained again from the violence and conflict in former Yugoslavia in the last decade of the twentieth century. In this case, Bosnian Serbian forces bombed the National Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992, destroying almost all of the collection, which included rare books and manuscripts. [24] This was only one instance of the systematic campaign to eliminate the cultural evidence of the religious and ethnic plurality that characterizes the region. In a paper on the destruction, András Riedlmayer notes that not only do these attacks serve “as part of a strategy of intimidation aimed at driving out members of the targeted group,” [25] but they also help to erase records of the Muslim and Catholic people who lived there, both through their erasure from literature but also in destroying the records of property ownership. [26] These actions effectively erase the memories of these people from a history and culture the Bosnian Serbians believed belonged solely to them. The existence of this functional goal, as well as the existence of more political and ideological goals, once again demonstrates the complex motivations that are present in cases of the destruction of cultural property, whether in the form of building and statue vandalism, or in the destruction of books and libraries.

It is therefore evident that cultural heritage destruction primarily targets physical symbols of history such as monuments or cultural sites that may oppose a radical group’s beliefs or motives.  Idols that may counter a religion’s doctrine or the history of an opposing ethnicity are equally targeted. However, within this seemingly simple desire, it is also important to consider the role power plays in the destruction, whether it be over the targeted group or as a general demonstration to display a group’s adeptness to the international community. Understanding how sites are targeted is thus essential in trying to preserve these sites, important to both local communities and to world heritage, that remain under threat of destruction.


Chloe Kaczvinsky is a senior at UPenn majoring in international relations and minoring in biology. 

[1] Julian Tuwim, “We, Polish Jews…” quoted in James E. Young, “The Biography of a Memorial Icon: Nathan Rapoport’s Warsaw Ghetto Monument,” Representations 26 (1989): 79.

[2] James E. Young, “The Biography of a Memorial Icon: Nathan Rapoport’s Warsaw Ghetto Monument,” Representations 26 (1989): 92-93.

[3] "World Heritage,” UNESCO World Heritage Convention, accessed December 8, 2015. http://whc.unesco.org/en/about/.

[4] Peter G. Stone and Joanne Farchake Bajjaly, introduction to The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq, ed. William Logan, Máiréad Nic Craith, and Ullrich Kockel (West Sussex: Wiley and Sons, 2015), 6.

[5] Beatrice Helena Date Nielsen, War on Culture: The Destruction of Cultural Property During Civil Wars (Sierra Vista: University of Arizona Honors Program, 2015), 4-5.

[6] "Destruction of Cultural Property,” Art Institute of Chicago: Windows on the War, accessed December 8, 2015, http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/TASS/Destruction.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Sahera Bleibleh, “Everyday Urbanism Between Public Space and ‘Forbidden’ Space: The Case of the Old City of Nablus, Palestine,” in The Proceedings of Spaces of History (University of California, 2010).

[9] ICOMOS, “Destruction in the West Bank, April 2002,” Heritage at Risk (2002-2003): 157-158.

[10] Ibid. 158

[11] ICOMOS, “Destruction in West Bank,”158-195.

[12] Museum of Tourism and Antiquities, “Press Release—Intentional Destruction of the Historic City of Nablus,” Heritage at Risk 2004-2005: 184.

[13] Tina Segota, “Review of Bosnia and the Destruction of Cultural Heritage,” Journal of Heritage Tourism (2015), doi:10.1080/1743873X.2015.1068965.

[14] Stone and Bajjaly, Destruction of Cultural Heritage, 7.

[15] Jamal J. Elias, “The Taliban, Bamiyan, and Revisionist Iconoclasm,” in Striking Images, Iconoclasms Past and Present, ed. Stacy Boldrick, Leslie Brubaker, and Richard Clay (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), 146.

[16] Ibid 146-7

[17] Christian Manhart, “The Intentional Destruction of Heritage: Bamiyan and Timbuktu,” in A Companion to Heritage Studies, ed. William Logan, Máiréad Nic Craith, and Ullrich Kockel (West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, 2015), 283.

[18] Nielsen, War on Culture, 8-11.

[19] Rebecca Knuth, Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2006), 1.

[20] Hans J. Hillerbrand, “On Book Burnings and Book Burners: Reflections on the Power (And Powerlessness) of Ideas,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 74, No. 3 (2006): 595.

[21] J. M. Ritchie, “The Nazi Book-Burning,” The Modern Language Review, 83 No. 3 (1988): 637.

[22] Ibid. 639

[23] Knuth, Burning Books, 11.

[24] Blair Kuntz, “The Politics of Cultural Genocide: Uses and Abuses of the Destruction of the National Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a Western Propaganda Tool,” Progressive Librarian 40 (2013): 91.

[25] András Riedlmayer, “Killing Memory: The Targeting of Libraries and Archives in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” MELA Notes, 61 (1994): 3.

[26] Ibid.


Bleibleh, Sahera. “Everyday Urbanism Between Public Space and ‘Forbidden’ Space: The Case of the Old City of Nablus, Palestine.” In The Proceedings of Spaces of History (University of California, 2010).

“Destruction of Cultural Property” Art Institute of Chicago: Windows on the War. Accessed December 8, 2015. http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/TASS/Destruction.

Elias, Jamal J. “The Taliban, Bamiyan, and Revisionist Iconoclasm.” In Striking Images, Iconoclasms Past and Present, edited by Stacy Boldrick, Leslie Brubaker, and Richard Clay. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013.

Hillerbrand, Hans J. “On Book Burnings and Book Burners: Reflections on the Power (And Powerlessness) of Ideas,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 74, No. 3 (2006): 593-614.

ICOMOS. “Destruction in the West Bank, April 2002.” Heritage at Risk (2002-2003): 157-160.

Knuth, Rebecca. Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2006.

Kuntz, Blair. “The Politics of Cultural Genocide: Uses and Abuses of the Destruction of the National Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a Western Propaganda Tool” Progressive Librarian 40 (2013): 91-108.

Manhart, Christian. “The Intentional Destruction of Heritage: Bamiyan and Timbuktu.” In A Companion to Heritage Studies, edited by William Logan, Máiréad Nic Craith, and Ullrich Kockel. 280-294. West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, 2015.

Museum of Tourism and Antiquities. “Press Release—Intentional Destruction of the Historic City of Nablus.” Heritage at Risk 2004-2005: 184.

Nielson, Beatrice Helena Date Nielsen. War on Culture: The Destruction of Cultural Property During Civil Wars. Sierra Vista: University of Arizona Honors Program, 2015.

Riedlmayer, András. “Killing Memory: The Targeting of Libraries and Archives in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” MELA Notes, 61 (1994): 1-6.

Ritchie, J. M. “The Nazi Book-Burning” The Modern Language Review, 83 No. 3 (1988): 627-643.

Segota, Tina. “Review of Bosnia and the Destruction of Cultural Heritage.” Journal of Heritage Tourism (2015). doi:10.1080/1743873X.2015.1068965.

Stone, Peter G. and Joanne Farchake Bajjaly. I]Introduction to The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq, Edited by William Logan, Máiréad Nic Craith, and Ullrich Kockel. West Sussex: Wiley and Sons, 2015.

Tuwim, Julian. “We, Polish Jews…” quoted in James E. Young, “The Biography of a Memorial Icon.” Representations 26 (1989): 79-80.

“World Heritage,” UNESCO World Heritage Convention. Accessed December 8, 2015. http://whc.unesco.org/en/about/.

Young, James E. “The Biography of a Memorial Icon: Nathan Rapoport’s Warsaw Ghetto Monument.” Representations 26 (1989): 69-106.