Helen Keller Vs. the Nazis

by Rafael Medoff 

One of Adolf Hitler’s top priorities when he became chancellor of Germany in 1933 was to prevent schools from using books that the Nazis regarded as “degenerate.” Eighty years ago this week, Germany was transformed into one huge funeral pyre for any books that differed from the Nazis’ perspective on political, social, or cultural matters, as well as all books by Jewish authors.

The Hitler regime chose May 10, 1933 as the date for a nationwide “Action Against the Un-German Spirit,” a series of public burnings of the banned books. The gatherings were organized by pro-Nazi student groups under the supervision of the Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.

The largest of the 34 book-burning rallies, held in Berlin, was attended by an estimated 40,000 people. Books by German Jews such as Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freund were burned, as well as books by the British science fiction writer H.G. Wells (author of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds) and many American writers, including Ernest Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls), Jack London (Call of the Wild), and even disabilities activist Helen Keller.

“No to decadence and moral corruption!,” Goebbels declared in his remarks at the rally. “Yes to decency and morality and state!…The soul of the German people can again express itself. These flames not only illuminate the final end of an old era; they also light up the new.”

A New York Times editorial sarcastically suggested that the Nazis might next begin “burning microphones” to stamp out free speech. Time called the Nazis’ action “a bibliocaust,” and Newsweek described it as “a holocaust of books.” This was one of the first instances in which the term “holocaust” (an ancient Greek word meaning a burnt offering to a deity) was used in connection with the Nazis.

Newsweek called the Nazis’ action “a holocaust of books,” while Time described it as “a bibliocaust.”

The outcry around the world included this moving letter from Helen Keller, addressed 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 to the soldiers blinded in the World War with no thought in my heart but love and compassion for the Germany people. 

“Do not imagine your barbarities to the Jews are unknown here,” Ms. Keller concluded. “God sleepeth not, and He will visit his Judgment upon you. Better were it for you to have a mill-stone hung round your neck and sink into the sea than to be hated and despised of all men.”  

Various foreign leaders also criticized the book-burnings.  But the Hitler regime ignored such protests.  Perhaps if the words of condemnation had been accompanied by diplomatic or economic consequences, the Nazis would have had to reconsider.

Five years later, protests by American college students helped prevent another mass book-burning by the Nazis, this time in Austria. Shortly after Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938, the Nazis gave the Austrian National Library a long list of books to be removed and burned.

Students at Williams College, in Boston, sent a telegram to the Austrian library, offering to buy the books. Riots broke out on the Williams campus when anti-Nazi students tried to burn Hitler in effigy, and pro-Nazi students used fire hoses to stop them.

At Yale University, an editorial in the student newspaper, the Yale Daily News, urged the school administration to purchase the Austrian books, an action which it said would both add to Yale’s “intellectual equipment” and at the same time “administer a well-justified backhanded slap” at the Nazis. Prof. Andrew Keogh, Yale’s chief librarian, disagreed. “I must stay clear of politics,” he declared, adding that  “European bonfires are never so serious as the newspapers would make them.” He said the book-burnings in Germany were just “students letting off steam.”

Nevertheless, the protests by students  at Williams, Yale, and other universities appear to have had an impact: the Austrian National Library announced that it the books in question would be locked away rather than burned.

References to the Nazi book burnings have appeared frequently in American culture, sometimes in an unexpected ways. In a 1976 episode of the popular television series The Waltons, the family’s eldest son, John-Boy, hears on the radio about book-burnings in Germany, and exclaims, “Burning books is like burning people! Why would people do such craziness?” A local clergyman then attempts to organize a public burning of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and other German-language books, which John-Boy forestalls at the last  moment when he points out that one of the books erroneously included is a German Bible.

Ray Bradbury’s famous science fiction novel, Fahrenheit 451, depicts a futuristic society in which all books are illegal and “firemen” armed with flamethrowers hunt them down. (The book’s title refers to the temperature at which paper ignites without a match.) In his introduction, Bradbury recalled: “[W]hen Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one and the same flesh. Mind or body, put to the oven, it is a sinful practice, and I carried that with me.”

May 2013