"God Sleepeth Not": Helen Keller's Blistering Letter to Book-Burning German Students

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
May 16 2013 11:35 AM

"God Sleepeth Not": Helen Keller's Blistering Letter to Book-Burning German Students

The Vault is Slate's new history blog. Like us on Facebook; follow us on Twitter @slatevault; find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

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.

Advertisement

This first draft carries hand-written 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.”

A transcript follows the image. Thanks to John Mackin and Helen Selsdon of the American Foundation for the Blind.

Helen Keller letter

Image courtesy of the American Foundation for the Blind.

Transcript of 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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 21 2014 2:00 PM Colin Farrell Will Star in True Detective’s Second Season
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.