"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

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 16 2014 11:46 PM The Scariest Campfire Story More horrifying than bears, snakes, or hook-handed killers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.