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The smell of burning books

By Cameron Forbes - posted Monday, 10 September 2007

In springtime Germany in 1933, the air smelled sweet to Nazis. Books were burning, ideas were being reduced to ashes and wickedness was going up in smoke.

Students marched in torch-lit parades and tossed books on bonfires to stirring songs, cheers and the brassy encouragement of bands. The destruction - the Action against the Un-German Spirit - was synchronised by Joseph Goebbels whose portfolio was called, with no sense of irony, Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda.

They burnt books on communism, Jewish intellectualism, history, arguments for equality, psychoanalytical theory and political thought. They burnt calls for freedom. Into the flames went Brecht, Marx, Lenin, Freud, HG Wells, Helen Keller, Thomas Mann and Jack London (though not his adventure stories). They burnt Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, with its negativism on warfare.


The smell of burning books is the sign of a sick government, one that does not want its people to know their history.

Books are being burned in Indonesia now, by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration. The Attorney-General, Abdul Rahmen Saleh, ordered the confiscation of thousands of school text books, which, his office argues, challenge “accepted truths” of Indonesia’s history.

What they do challenge is the military/administration version of the brutal events of September 30, 1965, and their bloody aftermath. The truth is that six generals were killed on that night but what remains unclear is the role of the PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party, in what has been presented as a coup attempt. The further truth is that the military was deeply involved in the holocaust that followed.

The West, with America and Australia in particular, cheering from the sidelines, had no doubt about the dynamics and about the military’s role. On October 5, 1965, American Ambassador Marshall Green cabled Washington: “Army in control, and it has important instruments of power such as press, radio and TV … Army now has opportunity to move against PKI if it acts quickly … Despite all its shortcomings we believe odds are that army will act to pin blame for recent events on PKI and its allies. Much remains in doubt, but it seems certain that agony of ridding Indonesia of effects of Sukarno has begun.”

There was agony indeed, as men, women and children were slaughtered, though Australia’s Prime Minister, Harold Holt, managed to hide his horror when he spoke to a gathering of the Australian American Association at New York’s swank River Club. “With 500,000 to a million communist sympathisers knocked off,” Holt said, “I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place”.

The CIA later put this “reorientation” into perspective, reporting that “in terms of the numbers killed the anti-PKI massacres rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War and the Maoist bloodbaths of the 1950s”.


In Bali, the momentum built slowly, until the military arrived. Then the island, called by Pandit Nehru, “the morning of the world”, had its midnight. Teams from Suharto’s Operations Command to Restore Security and Order moved through the beautiful countryside urging villagers on, telling them there was no such thing as a neutral position.

A prominent Balinese I spoke to decades later, Dr AAM Djelantik recalled that for hours every night his family had been kept awake by the roar of army-provided trucks driving past with loads of the doomed. They were delivered to a professional butcher who beheaded them with a Japanese samurai sword.

In charge of the army operation was Sawro Edhi, head of the para-commando regiment. Edhi, who went on to organise the farcical “Act of Free Choice” in Irian Jaya, would become father-in-law of another high-ranked army man, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, now President of Indonesia.

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About the Author

Cameron Forbes is an Australian Journalist of the Year award-winner for his work in Asia. Forbes is one of Australia's most respected foreign correspondents and author of the best-selling book Hellfire. His latest book, Under the Volcano: The story of Bali, was published in August 2007 by Black Inc.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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