Censoring Anne Frank’s diary because of ‘sexuality’ is not just denigrating but a smokescreen

There are efforts to silence Anne Frank now as she was silenced in the past

Noah Berlatsky
Thursday 21 September 2023 17:00 BST
A photo of Anne Frank and her diary
A photo of Anne Frank and her diary (AP2009)

Over recent years, conservatives have launched a steady series of attacks on public and school libraries, demanding the removal and banning of books they deem immoral or a threat to children. The frightening wave of censorship has been compared more than once to Nazi book burnings. Now, the GOP has gone out of its way to validate those comparisons by targeting the work of Anne Frank, a German Jewish diarist who recorded her life between the ages of 12 and 15 before she was murdered in Hitler’s concentration camps.

The effort to silence Frank now as she was silenced in the past is brazen, but unsurprising. The far right’s hatreds and obsessions today are much the same as their hatreds and obsessions have ever been. The same marginalized people are singled out as scapegoats in the name of the same supposedly pure, but actually violent and intolerant, community.

The graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary created by Israeli screenwriter Ari Folman has been the target of censorship before; the far-right group Moms for Liberty got the book removed from a school library in Florida earlier this year. This most recent challenge occurred in Texas. A middle-school teacher was fired for assigning the graphic novel to a class of eighth-graders. The students are around the same age as Anne when she was hiding from the Nazis in an attic.

The graphic novel adaptation has been singled out in part because it includes passages in which Frank discusses her period and her lesbian fantasies. Anne edited these passages, and entries about crushes on boys, out of a version of the diary she prepared for herself, but they have been added back into most contemporary editions. That’s because editors and readers believe that it’s imperative to acknowledge Anne as a complete human being and a complete writer. The Nazis declared Anne unclean and murdered her in the name of purity. We don’t want to endorse them by blacking out portions of her life as too dirty or insufficiently respectable.

Conservatives, though, don’t seem to care about Frank’s legacy. Their attack on the graphic novel is in line with the current right wing censorship panic, which has focused on LGBT books like Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir and Juno Dawson’s This Book Is Gay. In 2022, a record-breaking 2,571 titles were targeted for censorship – a 38 percent increase over 2021. These book bans have been reinforced and compounded by death threats and bomb threats against those who oppose them. The “vast majority” of challenged books, according to the ALA, were written by or about LGBT people or people of color.

The right claims that books about LGBT people are unfit for children. The assumption is that gay or bisexual children, like Anne Frank, don’t exist, shouldn’t exist, or shouldn’t be able to read about people with experiences like their own.

It’s notable that the Nazis censored LGBT material too. A few months after Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933, Nazis engaged in a violent bacchanal of book burning. They specifically targeted Magnus Hirschfield’s Institute for Sexual Research, a medical center which provided gender affirming care to trans patients and conducted groundbreaking research. Nazis and Nazi-sympathizing Germans burned the institute’s entire priceless library, much of it irreplaceable.

Hirschfield was a gay Jewish man. The Nazis hated him for being Jewish, of course. But they also targeted him for his sexuality. As far as the Nazis were concerned, gay people and Jewish people were part of the same “threat.”

Hitler was committed to establishing a pure Aryan community, in which strong white men and dutiful white women would produce perfect white children to serve the Fuhrer and conquer the world. “All things which take place in the sexual sphere are not the private affair of the individual, but signify the life and death of the nation,” Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS declared. The Nazis were obsessed with the idea that Jewish people would weaken the Aryan race by having children with white Germans; Mein Kampf is filled with rants against “race defilement.” By the same token, LGBT people were seen as a threat to pure procreative sexuality.

Right wingers may claim that they dislike Anne Frank’s work because it discusses bisexuality, not because Frank is Jewish. But you can’t separate out a Jewish Anne from a queer Anne. She’s all one person. Whether you target her for one identity the Nazis despised or for another identity the Nazis despised, you’re still targeting the same girl the Nazis murdered.

Fascists want to get rid of those they deem deviant; they want to prevent them from speaking and prevent others from seeing them. Censoring Frank’s diary and Frank’s discussion of her sexuality is a way of saying that Frank’s words and Frank’s experiences are dangerous, infectious, impure. That is exactly what the Nazis thought about Jewish people, and about LGBT people too. That’s why they killed Anne Frank. Her words, though, lived on, and defied them. We shouldn’t silence her where they failed.

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