Helen Keller Writes a Letter to Nazi Students Before They Burn Her Book: “History Has Taught You Nothing If You Think You Can Kill Ideas” (1933)

Helen Keller achieved noto­ri­ety not only as an indi­vid­ual suc­cess sto­ry, but also as a pro­lif­ic essay­ist, activist, and fierce advo­cate for poor and mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple. She “was a life­long rad­i­cal,” writes Peter Dreier at Yes! mag­a­zine, whose “inves­ti­ga­tion into the caus­es of blind­ness” even­tu­al­ly led her to “embrace social­ism, fem­i­nism, and paci­fism.” Keller sup­port­ed the NAACP and ACLU, and protest­ed strong­ly against patron­iz­ing calls for her to “con­fine my activ­i­ties to social ser­vice and the blind.” Her crit­ics, she wrote, mis­char­ac­ter­ized her ideas as “a Utopi­an dream, and one who seri­ous­ly con­tem­plates its real­iza­tion indeed must be deaf, dumb, and blind.”

Twen­ty years lat­er she found a dif­fer­ent set of read­ers treat­ing her ideas with con­tempt. This time, how­ev­er, the crit­ics were in Nazi Ger­many, and instead of sim­ply dis­agree­ing with her, they added her col­lec­tion of essays, How I Became a Social­ist, to a list of “degen­er­ate” books to be burned on May 10, 1933. Such was the date cho­sen by Hitler for “a nation­wide ‘Action Against the Un-Ger­man Spir­it,’” writes Rafael Med­off, to take place at Ger­man Universities—“a series of pub­lic burn­ings of the banned books” that “dif­fered from the Nazis’ per­spec­tive on polit­i­cal, social, or cul­tur­al mat­ters, as well as all books by Jew­ish authors.”

Books burned includ­ed works by Ein­stein and Freud, H.G. Wells, Hem­ing­way, and Jack Lon­don, Stu­dents hauled books out of the libraries as part of the spec­ta­cle. “The largest of the 34 book-burn­ing ral­lies, held in Berlin,” Med­off notes, “was attend­ed by an esti­mat­ed 40,000 peo­ple.”

Not only were these demon­stra­tions of anti-Semi­tism, but their con­tempt for ideas appealed broad­ly to the Nazi phi­los­o­phy of “Blood and Soil,” a nation­al­ist car­i­ca­ture of rur­al val­ues over a sup­pos­ed­ly “degen­er­ate,” poly­glot urban­ism. “The soul of the Ger­man peo­ple can again express itself,” declared Joseph Goebbels omi­nous­ly at the Berlin ral­ly. “These flames not only illu­mi­nate the final end of an old era; they also light up the new.”

“Some Amer­i­can edi­to­r­i­al respons­es” before and after the burn­ings, “made light of the event,” remarks the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Muse­um, call­ing it “sil­ly” and “infan­tile.”  Oth­ers fore­saw much worse to come. In one very explic­it expres­sion of the ter­ri­ble pos­si­bil­i­ties, artist and polit­i­cal car­toon­ist Jacob Bur­ck drew the image above, evok­ing the obser­va­tion of 19th cen­tu­ry Ger­man writer Hein­rich Heine: “Where one burns books, one will soon burn peo­ple.” Newsweek described the events as “’a holo­caust of books’… one of the first instances in which the term ‘holo­caust’ (an ancient Greek word mean­ing a burnt offer­ing to a deity) was used in con­nec­tion with the Nazis.”

The day before the burn­ings, Keller also dis­played a keen sense for the grav­i­ty of book burn­ings, as well as a “notable… ear­ly con­cern,” notes Rebec­ca Onion at Slate—out­side the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, that is—for what she called the “bar­bar­i­ties to the Jews.” On May 9, 1933, Keller pub­lished a short but point­ed open let­ter to the Nazi stu­dents in The New York Times and else­where, abjur­ing them to stop the pro­posed burn­ings. She wrote in a reli­gious idiom, invok­ing the “judg­ment” of God and para­phras­ing the Bible. (Not a tra­di­tion­al Chris­t­ian, she belonged to a mys­ti­cal sect called Swe­den­bor­gian­ism.) At the top of the post, you can see the type­script of her let­ter, with cor­rec­tions and anno­ta­tions by Pol­ly Thomp­son, one of her pri­ma­ry aides. Read the full tran­script below:

To the stu­dent body of Ger­many:

His­to­ry has taught you noth­ing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them.

You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a mil­lion chan­nels and will con­tin­ue to quick­en oth­er minds. I gave all the roy­al­ties of my books for all time to the Ger­man sol­diers blind­ed in the World War with no thought in my heart but love and com­pas­sion for the Ger­man peo­ple.

I acknowl­edge the griev­ous com­pli­ca­tions that have led to your intol­er­ance; all the more do I deplore the injus­tice and unwis­dom of pass­ing on to unborn gen­er­a­tions the stig­ma of your deeds.

Do not imag­ine that your bar­bar­i­ties to the Jews are unknown here. God sleep­eth not, and He will vis­it His judg­ment upon you. Bet­ter were it for you to have a mill-stone hung around your neck and sink into the sea than to be hat­ed and despised of all men.

Keller added the penul­ti­mate para­graph of the pub­lished text lat­er. (See the hand­writ­ten addi­tion at the bot­tom of the typed draft.) Her con­cern for the “griev­ous com­pli­ca­tions” of the Ger­man peo­ple was cer­tain­ly gen­uine. The expres­sion also seems like a tar­get­ed rhetor­i­cal move for a stu­dent audi­ence, con­ced­ing the sit­u­a­tion as “com­plex,” and appeal­ing in more philo­soph­i­cal lan­guage to “jus­tice” and “wis­dom.” The Nazis ignored her protest, as they did the “mas­sive street demon­stra­tions” that took place on the 10th “in dozens of Amer­i­can cities,” the Holo­caust Muse­um writes, “skill­ful­ly orga­nized by the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Con­gress” and spark­ing “the largest demon­stra­tion in New York City his­to­ry up to that date.”

Five years lat­er, how­ev­er, anoth­er planned book burning—this time in Aus­tria before its annexation—was pre­vent­ed by stu­dents at Williams Col­lege, Yale, and oth­er uni­ver­si­ties in the U.S., where pro- and anti-Nazi par­ti­sans fought each oth­er on sev­er­al Amer­i­can cam­pus­es. U.S. stu­dents were able to push the Aus­tri­an Nation­al Library to lock the books away rather than burn them. Keller “is not known to have com­ment­ed specif­i­cal­ly” on these stu­dent protests, writes Med­off, “but one may assume she was deeply proud that at a time when too many Amer­i­cans did not want to be both­ered with Europe’s prob­lems, these young men and women under­stood the mes­sage of her 1933 letter—that the prin­ci­ples under attack by the Nazis were some­thing that should mat­ter to all mankind.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Han­nah Arendt Explains How Pro­pa­gan­da Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Moral­i­ty: Insights from The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism

How Jazz-Lov­ing Teenagers–the Swingjugend–Fought the Hitler Youth and Resist­ed Con­for­mi­ty in Nazi Ger­many

Mark Twain & Helen Keller’s Spe­cial Friend­ship: He Treat­ed Me Not as a Freak, But as a Per­son Deal­ing with Great Dif­fi­cul­ties

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • George says:

    Amaz­ing, after study­ing a lit­tle about the peri­od, almost every event shocks me and teach­es me. This let­ter is beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten, even though I’m not reli­gious.
    This is a nice addi­tion to the book I recent­ly read “Beyond Belief” by Dr. Deb­o­rah Lip­stadt where it shows how apa­thet­ic US was about the killings of specif­i­cal­ly Jew in Nazi Ger­many.

  • Francois says:

    The Ad Choice down­load click bait embed­ded n these arti­cles makes this a more risky place every day. It is dis­gust­ing!

  • Zoe says:

    Hellen Keller achieved “noto­ri­ety”???? She most cer­tain­ly did not. The author would be well advised to con­sult a dic­tio­nary.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.