Sony Pictures Classics/Photofest

A Stasi official observing the interrogation of the lover of an East German playwright whose loyalty to the state is questioned, in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others, 2006

I have only once met a censor on active duty. In the spring of 1989, my friends at the newly founded Polish opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza let me take a cartoon up to the in-house censor at the printing house of the main Communist Party daily, on whose weary old presses Solidarity’s organ for the dismantlement of communism was now being produced. I knocked on the door, only to find a bored-looking woman in a floral dress, with a cigarette on her lip and a glass of tea at hand. She slowly scanned the cartoon and the article to which it related, as if to demonstrate that she could read, and then stamped her approval on the back of the cartoon.

My taskmistress showed few obvious signs of being an intellectual, but one of the leitmotifs of Robert Darnton’s new book is how intellectually sophisticated censors have often been. Drawing on original archival research, he offers three fine-grained, ethnographic (his word) studies of censors at work: in Bourbon France, British India, and Communist East Germany. In eighteenth-century France, the censors were not just writers manqués; many were writers themselves. They included men like F.-A. Paradis de Moncrif, a playwright, poet, and member of the Académie française. To be listed as a Censeur du Roi in the Almanach royal was a badge of honor. These royal censors initialed every page of a manuscript as they perused it, making helpful suggestions along the way, like a publisher’s editor. Their reports often read like literary reviews. One of them, M. Secousse, solicitously approved an anthology of legal texts that he himself had edited—thus giving a whole new meaning to the term “self-censorship.”

In British India, the censors—not formally so called—were scholars and gentlemen, either British members of the elite Indian Civil Service (the “heaven born”) or their learned Indian colleagues. Harinath De, a candidate for the post of imperial librarian in Calcutta in 1906,

had mastered Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Marathi and Guzerati, along with some Provençal, Portuguese, Romanian, Dutch, Danish, Anglo-Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and a smattering of Hebrew, Turkish and Chinese. He got the job.

Besides being a librarian, that job involved contributing summary reviews to an extraordinary printed catalog of every book published in the Raj from 1868 onward. It included more than 200,000 titles by 1905. Although given to describing anything with erotic content, including the hanky-panky of Hindu gods, as “filthy,” these literary monitors were often highly appreciative of the works under review, especially when the authors showed some virtuosity of style and depth of scholarship.

In the summer of 1990, Darnton, the lifelong historian of books and censorship, had the thrill of finally meeting two real-life censors. In East Berlin, the capital of the soon-to-be-history German Democratic Republic, he found Frau Horn and Herr Wesener, both holders of advanced degrees in German literature, eager to explain how they had struggled to defend their writers against oppressive, narrow-minded higher-ups in the Party, including an apparent dragon woman called Ursula Ragwitz. The censors even justified the already defunct Berlin Wall on the grounds that it had preserved the GDR as a Leseland, a land of readers and reading. Darnton then plunges with gusto into the Communist Party archives, to discover “how literature was managed at the highest levels of the GDR.”

He gives instances of harsh repression from all three places and times. Thus, an eighteenth-century chapter of English PEN could have taken up the case of Marie-Madeleine Bonafon, a princess’s chambermaid, who was walled up, first in the Bastille and then in a convent, for a total of thirteen and a half years. Her crime? To have written Tanastès, a book about the king’s love life, thinly disguised as a fairy tale. In 1759, major works of the Enlightenment, including Voltaire’s poem on natural religion and Diderot’s Pensées philosophiques, were “lacerated and burned by the public hangman at the foot of the great staircase of the Parlement” in Paris.

In British India, civilized tolerance of native literature turned to oppression in the early years of the twentieth century, as Indian nationalist protests grew following the partition of Bengal. A wandering minstrel called Mukanda Lal Das was sentenced to three years’ “rigorous imprisonment” for singing his subversive “White Rat Song,” with lyrics that come out in the official British translation like this:

Do you know, Deputy Babu, now your head is under the boots of the Feringhees, that they have ruined your caste and honor and carried away your riches cleverly?

In East Germany, Walter Janka suffered five years of solitary confinement for being too much involved with György Lukacs in 1956.


Yet such outright persecution is not Darnton’s main theme. As his subtitle suggests, what really interests him is “how states shaped literature.” They have generally done so, he argues, through processes of complex negotiation. In eighteenth-century France, censors made suggestions on grounds of taste and literary form; they also ensured that no well-placed aristocrats received unwelcome attention and that compliments to the king were sufficiently euphuistic. Different levels of authorization were available, from the full royal privilege to a “tacit permission.”

In East Germany, elaborate quadrilles were danced by censors, high-level apparatchiks, editors, and, not least, writers. The celebrated novelist Christa Wolf had sufficient clout to insist that a very exceptional ellipsis in square brackets be printed at seven points in her 1983 novel Kassandra, indicating censored passages. This of course sent readers scurrying to the West German edition, which visitors smuggled into the country. Having found the offending words, they typed them up on paper slips and gave these to friends for insertion at the correct place. Among its scattering of striking illustrations, Censors at Work reproduces one such ellipsis on the East German printed page and corresponding typewritten slip.

Klaus Höpcke, the deputy minister for publishing and the book trade (a state position, and therefore subordinated to higher Party authorities), seems to have spent almost as much time in the 1980s fending off the Party leaders above him as he did curbing the writers below. He received an official Party reprimand for allowing Volker Braun’s Hinze-Kunze-Roman, the scabrous story of an apparatchik and his chauffeur, to be published, albeit in a carefully “negotiated” form. Finally, in a flash of late defiance, Deputy Minister Höpcke even supported an East German PEN resolution protesting against the arrest of one Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1989.

Some celebrated writers do not emerge trailing clouds of glory from the cold-eyed files of censorship. Voltaire, that legendary champion of free speech, apparently tried to get the royal censors to suppress the works of his enemies. It was the censor-in-chief who, while he might not have agreed with what Voltaire’s enemies said, defended their right to say it.

The office of the East German Politburo member responsible for culture, Kurt Hager, “kept long lists of writers who sent in requests for visas, cars, better living conditions, and intervention to get their children into universities.” A plea by the writer Volker Braun to be allowed a subscription to the leading West German liberal weekly Die Zeit went all the way up to Hager, with a supportive letter from the deputy minister, who argued that this would provide Braun with materials for a novel satirizing capitalism. In the course of tough negotiations with senior cultural apparatchiks in the mid-1970s, Braun is even recorded as saying that Hager was “a kind of idol for him.” Can we credit him with irony? Perhaps. Writers who have never faced such pressures should not be too quick to judge. And yet one feels a distinct spasm of disgust.

The section on East Germany is the longest in this book, but ultimately not the most revealing. Indeed, it feels to me as if there is a paradox here: in Darnton’s pages, the writers and censors who are longest dead come most alive, while those who are in some cases still alive seem most dead. Why is this? Partly it is because the ideological-bureaucratic language of East German cultural policy is so deathly dire, so mind-numbingly wooden, that even a gifted writer has to struggle to bring it alive—whereas the literary monitors of both Bourbon France and British India have their own grace of style and engaging exoticism.

Partly it is because Darnton knows eighteenth-century France so intimately that it is as if he lives there, and it comes alive through him. Although he had the great luck to be based in Berlin in the year the Wall came down, and wrote a fine firsthand account of it, he does not have quite the same easy intimacy with East German life. For example, he discusses how the top Party leadership worried about the way to deal with the Deutsches Theater, one of East Berlin’s leading theaters. But what had the Deutsches Theater been up to? Its between-the-lines cultural resistance included, as I vividly recall, a dramatic performance of Heinrich Heine’s Germany: A Winter’s Tale by the actor Eberhard Esche. Electrified, the East German audience thrilled to Esche’s delivery of such lines as

Mein Kopf ist ein zwitscherndes Vogelnest
von konfiszierlichen Büchern

My head is a twittering bird’s nest
of confiscatable books.
(My translation)



Gedankenfreiheit genoß das Volk,
Sie war für die grossen Massen,
Beschränkung traf nur die g’ringe Zahl
Derjen’gen, die drucken lassen.

The people enjoyed full freedom of thought,
at least among the masses,
restrictions only affected the
small group of the writing classes.
(Translated by T.J. Reed)

In short, what East Germany’s highest censors were unsettled by was, among other things, a classic German attack on censorship. (I still have the poster for that performance on my wall at home in Oxford. It was designed by a friend of mine, who wanted to frame it with the nineteenth-century liberal, and then West German, colors of black, red, and gold. But the censors would not allow this, and insisted on removing the outer line of black, leaving the poster trimmed only in red. I have reversed the censorship with the aid of a black frame.)

Moreover, while Darnton vividly describes his encounter with those two East German censors, he does not seem to have talked to many of his other main characters—Volker Braun, for example—who might have illuminated the effects of the politbureaucratic documents with more by way of human detail. An ethnographic opportunity missed, perhaps? Yet it seems churlish to carp when this ethnographer of censorship has given us so much vivid, hard-won detail, illuminating narrative, and subtle, original insight.

Censors at Work is not a systematic treatise on censorship. Characteristically, after a couple of lines about the clash of liberalism and imperialism in nineteenth-century British India, Darnton writes that they came together “in the lives of individuals—not as empty ‘isms’ but as personal experiences, which exposed contradictions underlying systems of power.” And immediately we are plunged into the story of James Long, an Anglo-Irish missionary in Bengal who developed a deep knowledge and love of Bengali literature, and was then sued for having arranged the publication of an English translation of a Bengali melodrama about oppression by British indigo planters, one of them named Mr. Rogue.

Robert Darnton, Paris, circa 2012

Nonetheless, in the introduction and conclusion Darnton does try out some more general thoughts about the nature of censorship. “Where is north in cyberspace?” is his arresting first sentence. And having reaffirmed the virtues of the First Amendment, the last paragraph of the book concludes: “While attempting understanding, one must take a stand, especially today, when the state may be watching every move we make.” In between, he sets up an opposition between two views of censorship: “on the one hand, a story of the struggle between freedom of expression and the attempts to repress it by political and religious authorities; on the other, an account of constraints of every kind that inhibit communication.”

While cautioning against the potentially “Manichaean quality” of the first approach, and recognizing what the Romanian novelist Norman Manea called “the harsh laws of the marketplace,” he is generally impatient with the second, broader view.* He quotes without obvious sympathy Christa Wolf’s claim that “I do not know of any country in the world in which there is no ideological censorship or censorship of the market.” And he gives an amusing list of things his students at Harvard mentioned when he asked them, “What is censorship?” This includes “wearing or not wearing a necktie,” “political correctness,” “algorithmic relevance ranking” and even “calling a professor ‘Professor.’”

We should not, he says, follow the poststructuralists in seeing censorship in every expression of power, for “if the concept of censorship is extended to everything, it means nothing.” This is clearly right. In a masterly essay on “the ontology of censorship,” the First Amendment scholar Frederick Schauer teased out the same point: “There is no subset of human behavior that we can identify solely because it restricts our communicative possibilities, since all human behavior both constitutes and restricts our communicative possibilities.”

Darnton insists on a quite rigorously narrow view of censorship as consisting in “attempts by the state to control communication.” “If censorship concerns state sanctions applied to books…,” he begins one sentence. And again: “Censorship as I understand it is essentially political; it is wielded by the state.” The challenge of our time, he suggests, is “the problem posed by the convergence of two kinds of power—that of the state, ever-expanding in scope, and that of communication, constantly increasing with changes in technology.”

But what exactly, in this last sentence, is meant by the “power…of communication”? What kind of power, wielded by what or whom? The locus of the censoring power is obviously neither single nor unchanging. Darnton himself observes that the censoring authority over the book trade in France had originally lain with the University of Paris, while the clergy and the parlements often intervened. It was only in the eighteenth century that the state fully established its monopoly of power in this field.

In our time, powerful states still provide the most obvious, egregious examples of censorship. Contemporary India has used an only slightly modified version of the British Raj’s article 124A on sedition (which figures large in Darnton’s chapter on British India) to prosecute or at least frighten critics. A Harvard University study of Chinese Internet censorship plausibly argues that China’s censorship apparatus is, in absolute terms, probably the largest in human history. Cyberutopian hopes that the Internet would, in and of itself, defy and blow apart territorial state sovereignty have proved illusory. But these days “north” is not exactly where it was in what might be called the classic era of the modern state, between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries.

Nonstate actors play an important part in the illegitimate curbing of human expression, in several ways. During the 1980s and 1990s, academic attention turned from the censoring state to the silencing group. Catherine MacKinnon argued in relation to pornography, as did others in relation to hate speech, that the real—or, at least, the really neglected—problem was powerful people silencing less powerful ones. The speech of the powerful was able to silence or drown out that of the powerless. At the extreme, this silencing led to what Rae Langton memorably called the “illocutionary disablement” of women and vulnerable minorities. Their “no” did not have the force of “no.” The state was therefore called upon to silence the silencers—so that others might express themselves more freely. Laws against hate speech in many European countries were conceived at least partly in this spirit, although I would argue that they have had perverse and unintended consequences.

Who is the censor in such circumstances? Or is the state engaged in good censorship, preventing some bad speech in order to enable better speech? Nowadays, the word “censorship” has almost entirely negative connotations, but for much of its semantic history, from the original censors in ancient Rome all the way through to the twentieth-century British Board of Film Censors, it was—in the self- understanding of the censors and those who appointed them—a positive term. They were guardians of public morality, true religion, sound mores, and good taste: educators and edulcators. Today, in both public and private regulation of hate speech or pornography, we have something not entirely dissimilar. We just don’t call it censorship. Now it seems perfectly reasonable, even helpful, to have a stipulative, value-loaded definition of censorship as something always negative and illegitimate, but such public and private regulations are still deliberate restrictions on human communication.

Then there is the problem of violent intimidation by terrorists, religious fanatics, or mafiosi. Violent intimidation is mainly used by nonstate actors, although it is also aided and abetted by unscrupulous states. This is one of the largest threats to free speech in the contemporary world, but the word “censorship” does not feel quite right to describe it. While these people are most emphatically trying to shut other people up (for example, by murdering them), “censorship” seems to imply a process, and probably some machinery, of systematic, ongoing control.

But what about the enormous, sometimes near-monopoly information businesses that are such a salient feature of the age of the Internet? While I have been writing this review, Amazon has been engaged in a titanic struggle with the publisher Hachette, in the course of which Amazon has had the cheek to invoke George Orwell while making it more difficult for its customers to get the books of Hachette authors. Amazon controls such a large share of the book market that few writers can do without it. I read that some authors have been frightened to sign letters of protest, or withdrawn their names having already done so. Amazon is not a state and its motives are commercial, not political. Are we sure that means the word “censorship” is entirely out of place?

Facebook, the world’s predominant social network, has both automated procedures and individual employees determining what content should and should not be seen by more than one billion people. For example, it takes a dim, not to say puritanical view of the display of female breasts, a reservation not shared in some other cultures. One is vaguely reminded of those British Indian librarians tut-tutting about “filthy” stuff going on among the natives and their gods.

Facebook bars some kinds of content, but not others. Within the often broad limits of the national (and European) laws that Facebook’s lawyers consider it obliged to obey, these decisions are made privately, according to internal guidelines, by mainly young men and women sitting in front of screens in Palo Alto and a few other locations. In one of many illuminating asides, Darnton reminds us that the word “privilege” is “etymologically, ‘private law.’” Those whom Jeffrey Rosen has christened “the Deciders,” whether at Facebook, Google, Twitter, or any other giant information business, are making a kind of private law, with very little transparency, accountability, or right of appeal. (Wikipedia, the community-run, not-for-profit online encyclopedia, has a more transparent editorial process and a set of explicit standards, but even it has Deciders in the background, adjudicating the most difficult cases.)

In another incarnation, Darnton is well known as the David of the public digital library battling against Goliath Google’s attempt to digitize all books, and then to profit from the sale of access to at least some of them. Again, Google is not the state, and not openly political, but some of its digitizing could have resulted in restriction on the reading public’s access to the printed word.

Now Google is engaged in a quite extraordinary operation, processing tens of thousands of individual requests for links to material online to be taken off its search engines localized in the EU (,,, etc.), in compliance with a recent, controversial “right to be forgotten” ruling of the European Court of Justice. If I don’t like some references to me that turn up in the search results when I Google myself, I can ask that those links be removed. To be clear: this adjudicating role is not one that Google sought. On the contrary, it fought hard (and in my view rightly) not to be placed in this position. It has been forced into it by the decision of a court that represents a powerful community of twenty-eight European states.

The fact remains that, in executing Google’s response, its employees are in effect acting as private censors. If the link to an item of information about me is not taken down, I can appeal to European data protection agencies, and through European courts, citing my privacy interest or “right to be forgotten.” But if a search link to something that I have written is taken down by Google at someone else’s request, I can only appeal to Google, using the word “appeal” in a loose, colloquial sense.

None of this is to argue, simplistically, that the censoring power, after centuries of residing mainly with the state, is now migrating back to private powers—with Google, Facebook, and Amazon taking the part of medieval churches. It is, however, to suggest that the reality of censorship in our time, especially in cyberspace, is the outcome of multiple, sometimes untransparent negotiations between and within both public and private powers, as complex as any that Darnton describes in his splendid book.