by William H. Benson
May 10, 2000
We need the stimulus of differing opinions and opposing ideas. Human beings are mortal; they die, but the ideas and thoughts that they can conceive and propose can then live forever. Certain ideas that transcend a human being’s position and that uplift and enhance and spur that person on toward a greater future are ideas that should and must live forever. Optimism, encouragement, and achievement are ideas permanently stored on the shelves of the libraries around the world.
But not everyone has always agreed. For example, on May 10, 1933 the Nazis celebrated their contempt for learning by building an enormous bonfire of 20,000 books, incinerating works on psychology and philosophy and all were written either by socialists, liberals, or Jews. This is a sad anniversary, for book burning falls into the same category as does censorship and other forms of ruthless conformism. It is a reversion or a step backwards from Western Civilization’s ideals.
Friedrich Nietzche said that the final lesson of history is, “Let’s never go back there again.” Indeed, book burnings are grim events. There are no welcome signs. Let’s not go there.
Seven years later, tense discussions and long faces adorned England’s War Cabinet after Germany attacked Belgium, Holland, and France. The English-speaking people on the British Isles understood that they were next. So, on May 10, 1940 the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, offered his resignation to King George VI. The King then summoned Winston Churchill to Buckingham Palace and asked him to form a new government to deal with Germany’s threat to England.
Churchill was a professional politician, who had served off and on for four decades in the House of Commons. He was also a journalist who wrote lengthy essays for journals about the issues and governmental policies that he either opposed or favored. Also, he wrote dozens of books, primarily histories but also about his adventures. Both friends and political opponents loved to hear him give a speech, for he was labelled the best speaker in Parliament.
But he was considered a gadfly, a nuisance, and a pest who invariably pointed out the British government’s faults and mistakes, more than he offered a solution. He was not the logical choice for Prime Minister at this grave hour in England.
Three days later on the 13th, Churchill stood before the House of Commons and challenged the English:
“I would say to the House, as I have said to those who have joined this Government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.’ You ask what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength God can give us. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.”
His words rallied the British, and eventually after a very costly war he realized his victory; Western Civilization he helped preserve.
The choice remains today. Do we burn the books or do we write the books? Do we empty the library shelves of their books or do we add to the collection? Do we search out and eradicate ideas that do not conform to our own or do we listen and, at least, try to tolerate others’ opinions.
H. L. Mencken said, “It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull.” Book burners are so absolutely and thoroughly convinced that they are right that they are, of all things, most dull. Socrates, the first of philosophers, suggested that “truth” is not usually ever possessed, but that it can only be found in its pusuit.
And what was the victory that Churchill so pursued with a promise of blood, toil, tears, and sweat? He simply wanted to secure the right for others to voice their opinions without fear of reprisal. In other words, he wanted to end all future book burnings.