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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Helen Keller says, and what's in a swastika?

Helen Keller Writes a Letter to Nazi Students Before They Burn Her Book: “History Has Taught You Nothing If You Think You Can Kill Ideas” (1933)

A thought provoking article, link here.

Here's what she said:
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.
The article I've linked to above shows a snippet of film also of the 1933 burning of books by Nazis in Germany.

What about Nazis has closer meaning to my family?  I don't believe any of my parents' or their parents were interested in the ideology of Nazism...but I don't really know. The 1933-34 era had a lot of nationalism, militarism, and racism going around. So this post is my attempt to figure out some way my parents might have been thinking before the onset of the Nazi atrocities in Europe, which eventually led to the US getting into WW II.

I looked back at my mother's yearbook photo from when she was in a women's marching ROTC group in a Texas high school, that wore a hat with a swastika image on it.  I kind of thought about it before, but when I posted her picture for Mother's Day last week, I thought more about it.

I covered some of her year book photos on this blog HERE.

An organization in 1933 and the US. In San Antonio, Texas!

Why would military groups of high school students choose the emblem of those people's views? Wait wait, the Nazis had just started! See the book burning clip above.  My mother probably didn't see that at the time in newsreels on Saturday matinee's, or did she?

It was before many of the horrible Nazi atrocities, most of which were not part of the news for Americans, at least for maybe eight more years. There were many politicians against America becoming involved in another European war after The Great War.

It was a time of nationalism in the US which included (shudder) many ideologies of purity of race, religion and anything that divided people from each other.  The Great War had been fought back before 1920, and these young people had just been born during that war, and their teachers may have survived it. But it was fought for different reasons than the European conflicts that were soon to come from Nazis.

The Great War was probably being taught as modern history in the high schools, and my guess is that it would have focused upon the battles in which any Americans might have fared well, as well as some mention of the thousands who died in trenches.

More ideas as to why the swastika was used, even if they did know of a Nazi connection... the fact that my mother's grandfather was of German stock...and many people in San Antonio had been early settlers from Germany when Texas was first settled in the mid nineteenth century.  In case you didn't know that...
German immigrants started to arrive [in Texas] in the early 1840s because of negative economic, social and political pressures in Germany. In 1842, German nobles organized the Adelsverein, banding together to buy land in central Texas to enable German settlement. The Revolutions of 1848 acted as a catalyst for so many immigrants that they became known as the "Forty-Eighters." Many were educated artisans and businessmen. Germans continued to arrive in considerable numbers until 1890.[120][121]Source;
  1.  Jordan, Terry G. (1966). German Seed in Texas Soil: Immigrant Farmers in Nineteenth-century Texas. University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-72707-0.
  1.  Gish, Theodore G.; Spuler, Richard, eds. (1986). Eagle in the New World: German Immigration to Texas and America. Texas A & M University Press. ISBN 978-0-8909-6260-2.

Jefferson High School moved into a new building just before my mother's last two years of a three year high school. (My dad was in that same ROTC as well, I just don't have any photos of him in uniform.)  She went to a college for a year, I remember her saying.   I imagine the German families of San Antonio belonged to German social groups, just like the Hispanic ones did.  But perhaps they also wanted to forget that they were German after the Great War.

And don't forget, before the Nazis used the swastika as their emblem, it was called the running cross and had been used for millennia as a design by both Native Americans, eastern religions and many other designers, including many Christian churches.

Called svastika in Sanskrit, it is an ancient symbol of auspiciousness in HinduismBuddhism, and Jainism.

In the Western world, the symbol experienced a resurgence following the archaeological work in the late 19th century of Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered the symbol in the site of ancient Troy and associated it with the ancient migrations of Proto-Indo-Europeans... He connected it with similar shapes found on ancient pots in Germany, and theorized that the swastika was a "significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors", linking Germanic, Greek and Indo-Iranian cultures.[85][86] By the early 20th century, it was used worldwide and was regarded as a symbol of good luck and success.
The work of Schliemann soon became intertwined with the völkisch movements, for which the swastika was a symbol of the "Aryan race", a concept that came to be equated by theorists such as Alfred Rosenberg with a Nordic master race originating in northern Europe. Since its adoption by the Nazi Party of Adolf Hitler, the swastika has been associated with Nazism, fascism, racism in its (white supremacy) form, the Axis powers in World War II, and the Holocaust in much of the West. The swastika remains a core symbol of Neo-Nazi groups.
  1.  Schliemann, H, Troy and its remains, London: Murray, 1875, pp. 102, 119-20.
  2. Jump up ^ Boxer, Sarah (2000-06-29). "One of the World's Great Symbols Strives for a Comeback"Think TankThe New York Times. Retrieved 7 May 2012.

So that's the update on my mother's group of women ROTC marchers, and a bit of the Swastika history.  Wikipedia has a lot more interesting history over HERE.

And in case you haven't ever read my blog before, I am about as far removed from being a neo-Nazi as anyone can be, so don't get confused by my mom's uniform! I'm imagining that high school students were ok to use a symbol for good luck and success, and that they could not have had fore-knowledge of what was to come.

EDITORS NOTE: I just had a comment (May 17 evening) from another Sepia Saturday blogger, who gave me a great link to articles about the San Antonio high school's use of the swastika, and a US Army Division in Oklahoma which used it as well.  Thanks Mike!  Here's one of the links (and his comment is also published on the blog as well!) Other link including the San Antonio High Schools here.

Adding this to Sepia Saturday, a bit early this week...HERE.
The real reason is that I've spent several hours looking things up, and I usually do that for my Saturday even though I'm far from on topic, here it is.  Looking at the topic, can you blame me?


  1. I've found your answer! In the 1920s the swastika was used as the emblem of the 45th Infantry Division of the US Army which also included the Oklahoma National Guard. Originally the symbol was associated with designs used by Native Americans of the Southwest. When the Nazi party came to power, the USA patch was changed to a thunderbird symbol in 1939. The story of the division and its patch is here:
    And here is an explanation of how it was used in San Antonio high schools.

    1. Thanks so much Mike! I edited the post and added a paragraph about your work. I also added the actual text of Helen Keller addressing the students of Germany when they burned her books. Super sleuth you are for sure!

    2. I'm very glad there was a good explanation. Ever since the horror of WW2, the swastika retains a special evil power that transcends its ancient roots of benign symbolism. Here in the US it once appeared on good luck coins from the 1920s, the sort given away as prizes at carnivals. The swastika's running cross can rotate left or right. But the Nazis used the one that marches left, just like your mother's high school ROTC cap patch, so understandably it has an alarming aspect on an American family photo from the prewar years. I expect your mother's school community had a vigorous debate about its use on school uniforms when Hitler assumed power in 1933.

  2. Time changes even the most benign things. In this case, a positive symbol was forever changed when the Nazis took it for their own. Another example - not quite as bad as 'highjacking' the swastika symbol for evil purposes, but showing how easy innocent meanings can change - in an upcoming choral concert the group I'm with is singing an opera piece about being gay at a party. "For today, let's be gay, let's be gay." meaning, of course, 'let's be happy, let's be joyous.' ("We'll dance and sing the night away.") But of course today that word has another meaning and many youth today don't know that is once meant something else entirely.

    1. Laughing out loud, Gail! When I lived in Knoxville, TN in the 90s, I wondered if they would change the name of one of the main streets, named after some big historic figure, Gay Street. I wonder why homosexuals became the people of gay-ness. there are sure a lot of heteros who have fun too!

  3. A little unsettling to see one's mother sporting a swastika -- good for Mike for solving the mystery! And thanks for all your research!

  4. Pardon my ignorance, but what is ROTC?

    1. Reserve Officer Training Corps. High schools in the US often have these marching/drill groups. I don't know that the kids get any credit when and if they join the army, but they do know how to march.

  5. Fascinating history! As attitudes change with every event that challenges our ideas and values, we reevaluate symbols, not just the swastika but also flags and statues. Interesting post and discussion.

    1. Yes, and I wonder how these electronic times will change that as it happens...already the slogans of a few years ago have faded into the past, who wants a t-shirt that says "Occupy" these days?

  6. A very thought provoking post, Barbara, linking personal history with international affairs.

    1. Thanks Sue, I was glad to have Mike asking me about the symbol, and then giving me his own research...we sure did get a lot of info about this!

  7. Great research (and additional material from Mike as a bonus), makes this an absorbing read.

    1. Thanks Nell...yes, Mike was the catalyst for all of this, I'd just figured it belonged to that era and never gone any further!

  8. In Bali recently we rented a place which had a swastika engraved in stone over the front see it wherever there are Hindus and I understand it's meaning in their culture. Still it makes me shudder. Very informative post.

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