Helen Keller has gained notoriety not only as an individual success story, but also as a prolific essayist, activist and outspoken advocate for poor and marginalized people. She “has been a radical all her life,” 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 the ACLU, and strongly protested condescending calls for him to “limit my activities to social service and the blind”. Her critics, she writes, erroneously characterized her ideas as “a utopian dream, and one who seriously contemplates its realization must indeed be deaf, dumb and blind”.
Twenty years later, she found a different group of readers treating her ideas with contempt. This time, however, the critics were in Nazi Germany, and instead of just disagreeing with her, they added her collection of essays, How I became a socialistto a list of “degenerate” books to be burned on May 10, 1933. This was the date chosen by Hitler for “a ‘national action against the non-German spirit,'” writes Rafael Medoff, which was to take place in German universities. – “a series of public burnings of banned books” which “differed from the Nazi perspective on political, social or cultural issues, as well as from all books by Jewish authors”.
Books burned included works by Einstein and Freud, HG Wells, Hemingway and Jack London. The students pulled out books from the libraries as part of the show. “The largest of 34 book burning rallies, held in Berlin,” Medoff notes, “was attended by around 40,000 people.”
Not only these manifestations of anti-Semitism, but their disregard for ideas largely appealed 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 express itself again,” Joseph Goebbels said ominously at the Berlin rally. “These flames not only illuminate the final end of an ancient era; they also illuminate the new.
“Some American editorial responses” before and after the fires “shed light on the event,” notes the United States Holocaust Museum, calling it “stupid” and “childish.” Others predicted much worse to come. In a very explicit expression of the dire possibilities, artist and political cartoonist Jacob Burck drew the image above, evoking the observation of 19th century German writer Heinrich Heine: “Where books are burned , we will soon be burning 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 holocaust to a deity) was used in connection with the Nazis.”
The day before the fires, Keller also displayed a keen sense of the seriousness of the book fires, as well as a “notable…early concern,” Rebecca Onion notes at Slate– outside the Jewish community, that is – for what she called the “barbarities towards the Jews”. On May 9, 1933, Keller published a short but pointed open letter to Nazi students in THE New York Times and elsewhere, recanting them to stop the proposed fires. She wrote in a religious idiom, invoking God’s “judgment” 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 main 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 often tried to do this before, and ideas have arisen in their power and destroyed them.
You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas they contain have seeped through a million channels and will continue to stimulate other minds. I gave away all copyrights of my books forever to German soldiers blinded in the World War with no other thought in my heart than love and compassion for the German people.
I recognize the serious complications that led to your intolerance; I deplore all the more the injustice and the imprudence of passing on to future generations the stigma of your acts.
Do not imagine that your cruelties towards the Jews are unknown here. God does not sleep, and He will visit His judgment on you. Better to have a millstone around your neck and sink into the sea than to be hated and despised by all men.
Keller added the penultimate paragraph of the text published later. (See the handwritten addition at the bottom of the typed draft.) His concern for the “serious complications” of the German people was certainly sincere. The phrase also comes across as a targeted rhetorical gesture for a student audience, conceding the situation as “complex” and appealing in more philosophical language to “justice” and “wisdom”. The Nazis ignored his protest, as did the “massive street demonstrations” that took place on the 10th “in dozens of American cities”, writes the Holocaust Museum, “skillfully organized by the American Jewish Congress” and sparking “the largest protest in New York City history to date.
Five years later, however, another book burning project – this time in Austria before its annexation – was prevented by students from Williams College, Yale and other American universities, where pro and anti-Nazi supporters clashed on several American sites. campus. American students were able to push the Austrian National Library to lock up the books rather than burn them. Keller “is not known to have commented specifically on ‘these student protests,’ Medoff writes, ‘but presumably she was deeply proud that at a time when too many Americans did not want to be bothered by the problems of the ‘Europe, these young men and women understood the message of his 1933 letter – that the principles attacked by the Nazis were something that should matter to all mankind.
Note: This post was originally posted on our site in 2017.
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