“I know many books which have bored their readers, but I know of none which has done real evil.”
So said Voltaire in the eighteenth century. Since then, the world has seen the publication of Mao’s Little Red Book, Qaddafi’s Green Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf, three books which might be considered as a sort of grotesque canon of totalitarian literature, covering as they do both extremes of the political spectrum, with rogue state oppression somewhere in the middle. All three were published in the twentieth century, the century in which totalitarian ideology somehow managed to evade reason and irreversibly scar the face of human history.
“[Our purpose is] to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, and that they help the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind.”
The above quotation from Mao’s Little Red Book provides a singularly perverse view of the function of literature and art in society. It is not often that books are seen as weapons that can be wielded by the forces of oppression, but unfortunately art is an inherently malleable thing, only as benign and constructive as the artist chooses it to be. As such, we can hardly be surprised if on occasion literature is co-opted by the forces of darkness and used as a tool to further the totalitarian policies of oppressive regimes, all the more so since propaganda is a key element of any dictatorship. Ultimately, there is no denying that books have been complicit to a certain extent in some of the worst atrocities committed by human beings.
And yet the hideous number of deaths caused by the regimes of twentieth century tyrants does not necessarily refute Voltaire’s point; a book in and of itself can do no harm, unless the reader is of a particularly frail and sensitive disposition. Of course, that a book is unable to commit genocide of its own volition does not settle the debate over the potential harm caused by books either, in vaguely the same way that a rifle being unable to commit murder on its own does not settle the debate over US gun control (see the laughable simplicity of the NRA’s slogan “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”). One could argue that Mein Kampf, which is still banned in numerous countries, including Austria and Russia, continues to incite racially aggravated violence across the world, from Greece to Colombia.
Interestingly, Mein Kampf was never banned in Germany, but its publication has been restricted since the end of the Second World War by the state of Bavaria, which owns the copyright to it. This copyright expires in 2016, seventy years after Hitler’s death, and Bavaria plans to publish an annotated edition of the book before this happens, in an attempt to educate new readers and make it “commercially unattractive” to publish in the future. The latter may be optimistic, but perhaps this is the best way to proceed. After all, to ban books, however offensive or inflammatory the content, is to fall into the totalitarian’s trap. In view of this, the Literature of Oppression series aims to look at some of the worst books ever published by oppressive regimes, not, we hope you will agree, in an attempt to stoke anger or resentment, but in order better to understand the influence they continue to exert, whether or not that influence is still enforced down the barrel of a gun.