The letter served as a warning against the burning of books, including her own, which the Nazis were openly carrying out.
Helen Keller, a prominent writer, socialist, and suffragette, dedicated her activism not only to the deafblind community but also to numerous national and international causes. She wrote a powerful open letter in The New York Times in 1933, warning Nazi students who were openly burning books, including her own, reports My Modern Met.
On May 10, 1933, university Nazi students across Germany took part in burnings. The 25,000 books burned ranged from socialist works like Keller's to Freud and science fiction like H.G. Wells. Anything perceived as "un-German" or antithetical to the Nazi regime was under fire. The works of Jewish authors were mainly targeted.
The open letter, originally addressed to Adolf Hitler and later to Nazi students, bears witness to the tenacity of Helen Keller's activism. Dated May 9, 1933, a typed draft of the letter prominently displays Keller's handwritten additions, aided by her assistant Polly Thompson. The inclusion of Keller's book, "How I Became a Socialist," on the Nazi party's list for the notorious book-burning event, highlighted the deeply anti-Semitic nature of the attack. In her letter, Keller eloquently delved into the profound significance of ideas and shed light on the fascist response of destruction and suppression.
While these dangerous reactions aimed to suppress dissent, they ultimately fail to extinguish ideas that have already permeated society. Remarkably, even after almost a century has passed, Keller's words retain their power and continue to resonate in the present era, reminding us of the ongoing relevance and importance of her message.
Her letter read, "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."
She further added, "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 millstone hung around your neck and sink into the sea than to be hated and despised of all men."
Later, Keller added the penultimate paragraph to the published text, i.e., the handwritten addition at the bottom of the typed draft. Her concern for the German people's "grievous complications" was undeniably genuine. The expression appears to be a targeted rhetorical move towards a student audience, admitting the situation is "complex" and appealing to "justice" and "wisdom," according to Open Culture.
The Nazis ignored her protest, as they did the "massive street demonstrations in dozens of American cities" on October 10. A day before the burnings, Keller expressed a keen sense of the gravity of book burnings, as well as a "notable... early concern"—outside the Jewish community, that is—for what she called the "barbarities to the Jews," writes Rebecca Onion at Slate.