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Column: Helen Keller, radical activist

In mid May 1933, Americans learned that students in German universities planned to burn a long list of books deemed "un-German." Helen Keller, whose How I Became a Socialist was on this list, wrote this open letter to the students a day before the burning took place.

Keller, who's now remembered as a gentle, uncomplicated symbol of persistence in the face of lifelong deafness and blindness, was a radical thinker and activist in her time. While Keller was born into an influential and wealthy Southern family, her activism on behalf of blind people, many of whom lived in poverty, caused her to turn to the writings of H.G. Wells and Karl Marx. She eventually became a socialist, a women's rights activist, an early supporter of the NAACP and the ACLU and an advocate for free availability of birth control.

This first draft carries handwritten annotations by Polly Thomson, who was, along with Anne Sullivan, one of Keller's primary aides. The paragraph added at the bottom of the page, which was eventually incorporated into the version sent to the Associated Press for publication, professes understanding for the causes of German discontent, while roundly condemning the response.

This letter is notable for its early concern for the "barbarities to the Jews," which Keller warned the students in no uncertain terms would cause God to "visit his judgment upon you."

Helen Keller's letter

Transcript of the letter, as it was published by the Associated Press on May 9, 1933:

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.

© 2013 Slate

Column: Helen Keller, radical activist 05/17/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 17, 2013 7:14pm]

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