Alice Herz

Alice Herz
Alice Herz, the first person to self-immolate in the United States

“Phoenix”

(May 25, 1882 – March 27, 1965)

Detroit Women for Peace activist Alice Herz remains a relatively unknown figure among both the public and historians, a status that belies her significant place in the history of peace activism.

Herz displayed a lifelong commitment to pacifism and social justice. Active in the German peace movement from an early age, she left her home country in the early 1930s after her daughter, Helga, enrolled at the University of Grenoble. When World War II broke out both Alice and Helga were detained in a French internment camp for German nationals. The two eventually fled to the United States and settled in Detroit in 1943.

Herz was an archetypal peace activist with a devoted belief in internationalism and education that shone through her life. She exhibited considerable proficiency in language, speaking fluent English, German, and Esperanto, the artificially-created auxiliary language designed to promote relationships across borders. She taught braille to young schoolchildren and was an adjunct lecturer in German at Wayne State University, Detroit. During the 1950s Herz contributed to the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and the US section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) before helping to found Detroit Women for Peace on its formation in the fall of 1961. She remains a committed and enthusiastic member of WFP for the rest of her life.

The site of Alice Herz's self-immolation, Federal Department Store at the corner of Oakman and Grand River, Detroit.
The site of Alice Herz’s self-immolation, Federal Department Store at the corner of Oakman and Grand River, Detroit.

On March 16, 1965, Alice Herz committed an act of self-immolation to protest the commencement of Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam. Although immolation had occurred frequently in Vietnam over the previous 2 years, hers was unprecedented in taking place within the United States. In her suicide note, Herz encapsulated WSP’s founding principles; appealing to the United Nation’s to prevent further conflict; railing against a succession of US presidents; and urging the public to become educated over the issues. A letter sent to her daughter affirmed that she “did this not out of despair, but out of hope for mankind.” Although surviving the initial act, Alice Herz died from her burns 11 days later, the first to self-immolate in the US.

Despite her unprecedented actions, contemporary reaction and historical interest has overlooked Alice Herz in favor of focusing on a second instance of immolation that occured 8 months later. On November 2, 1965, Quaker seminarian Norman Morrison immolated himself outside of the Pentagon. Owing to his age, gender, and family status, as well as the location and timing of his death, Morrison received greater media coverage and public attention than the first act of immolation. Even among certain WSP circles Alice Herz remained an overlooked figure.

Awareness of Alice Herz’s life and death has increased, especially in recent years. A public park in Berlin was named in her honor in 2003 and a book published by close friend Prof Shingo Shibata in 1972, fittingly titled Phoenix, contains significant correspondence and writings related to her life and death. Still, more can always be done to fulfil Herz’s desire to “make myself heard.”

 

Archives

  • A small archive [5 inches] held at Swarthmore College Peace Collection contains papers on both Alice and Helga Herz. This includes biographical information, relevant Detroit WFP records, and reference materials. Two videotapes are also available.
  • Correspondence and other related materials can also be found within larger Women Strike for Peace collection at Swarthmore College Peace Collection. The collection has two files dedicated to Alice Herz which includes letters sent during her time in WSP, Detroit WFP press releases following her death, and an extensive article on the immolation written by Hayes B. Jacobs in 1965.
  • The Bancroft Library of University of California, Berkeley records of San Francisco and East Bay Women for Peace also contain a limited amount of material concerning Alice Herz.

 

Books and Articles

  • Coburn, Jon. “Making a Difference: The History and Memory of Women Strike for Peace, 1961-1990.” Ph.D. diss., Northumbria University, 2015.
  • Ryan, Cheyney. “The One Who Burns Herself for Peace.” In Bringing Peace Home: Feminism, Violence and Nature. Eds. Karren J. Warren and Duane L. Cady , Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996, pp. 16-32.
  • Estepa, Andrea. “Taking the White Gloves Off: Women Strike for Peace and the Transformation of Women’s Activist Identities in the United States, 1961-1980.” Ph.D. diss., Rutgers University, 2012.
  • Hershberger, Mary. Traveling to Vietnam: American Peace Activists and the War. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998.
  • Shibata, Shingo. Phoenix: Letters and Documents of Alice Herz – The Thought and Practice of a Modern-Day Martyr. Amsterdam: Gruner, 1976.
  • Swerdlow, Amy. Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1993.