Darnton (History/Harvard Univ.; The Case for Books, 2009, etc.) takes an ethnographic approach in this deeply researched comparative history, examining how censorship functioned in three authoritarian regimes: 18th-century monarchal France; 19th-century India under the British Raj; and 20th-century East Germany.
The author’s surprising discoveries complicate the definition of censorship as repression by a ruling class in its effort to control social order. In Enlightenment France, censors acted as collaborators with authors, taking on the role of peer reader or copy editor to make a manuscript viable for royal privilege—i.e., an official stamp approving publication. These censors, often authors themselves, assiduously carried out their role, and authors often willingly revised their work. “Despite the occasional disputes,” writes Darnton, “censorship…drove authors and censors together rather than apart.” The British in India, in an effort “to understand the Indians, not merely to defeat them,” were intent on gathering information: “Everything was surveyed, mapped, classified and counted, including human beings….The catalogues of books belonged to their effort to catalogue everything.” By monitoring publications, they could detect signs of rebellion. Not until the British noted “explosions of nationalism” in the early 20th century did surveillance lead to police repression and legal prosecution. Authors, publishers and printers were arrested and tried according to newly created laws. In Germany, Darnton talked with two censors and had access to considerable archival dossiers. The censors claimed their job was to publish works that fit into the government’s overall plan: “Censorship as they understood it was positive. In some ways, it was downright heroic—a struggle against heavy odds to maintain a high level of culture while building socialism.” Dossiers reveal the details of that struggle: manuscripts purged of references to individualism; dire restrictions on travel, even within the country; and outright violence. Censorship in East Germany, as elsewhere, involved an interlaced system of authors, editors, bureaucrats, publishers and, not least, readers themselves.
In the current climate of debate over national surveillance, Darnton’s vibrant history takes on particular relevance.