On a recent trip to Bonn, Germany, our guide led us to a powerful memorial in the city’s Market Square where the Nazi Party had carried out one of its first bucherverbrennung, or book burnings, on May 10, 1933.
In May 1983, to mark the 50th anniversary of that infamous event, the then-West German capital unveiled a muted but striking display of bronze book spines vertically placed amid the rebuilt square’s cobblestones. Recording the authors and titles of many of the volumes tossed onto the pyre, the density and impact of the display increases near the Rathaus, or Town Hall, steps where the actual book burning took place.
To keep the memorial ritually alive, on every May 10 since then, citations from burned books are read at a commemorative ceremony and copies of different books destroyed there are handed out to passersby.
As I scanned the square for recognizable titles, one in particular seemed to leap out at me amid the scatter of famous works lying among the stones. There was the very familiar Sonoma County name of Jack London engraved on the bronze spine of one of his most significant and radical works, “The Iron Heel.”
Suddenly the events of more than 80 years ago became even more intensely real and close to home. These were not simply random volumes tossed on the flames by Nazi fanatics, or those caught up in the fervor of the moment, but works deliberately chosen because of the ideas they carried. Ideas that, in fact, were truly subversive to the single-grained, hate-filled ideology of the Third Reich, particularly because they expressed a belief in the indomitable human spirit and its continuous struggle for freedom and dignity.
This seems particularly significant now as we pause to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the life and work of Sonoma County’s and one of America’s most famous authors, who died at the age of 40 at his Glen Ellen ranch in November 1916.
“The Iron Heel,” written in 1908, was one of London’s most radical and ultimately influential works. Written from the perspective of the far future, it describes the doomed revolt of a band of rebels, based here in Sonoma County, struggling against the crushing weight of what he called “the Oligarchy,” essentially a corporate state dominated by ruthless capitalist forces. Recognizing the danger of concentrated wealth and power overwhelming the working class in his own time, London chronicled the potential triumph of modern authoritarian state power over the lone individual. His prescient work became the first and, arguably, the most influential in what later became the list of 20th-century dystopian novels culminating in such classics as Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984.”
Standing in Bonn’s Market Square in 2016, long after the flames meant to obliterate their words and ideas were doused — and even while still immersed in similar struggles for human rights and dignity — one could only feel thankful to London and those memorialized around him for the still vital testaments to the human spirit they left behind.
Les Adler is an emeritus professor of history at Sonoma State University. He lives in Cotati.