Yesterday was the birthday of a brave Latter-day Saint hero.
Helmuth Hübener was born on 8 January 1925 in Hamburg. He was third-generation LDS, part of a largely non-political family at a time and place where politics became an ever-increasingly urgent and potentially dangerous issue: interwar Germany. He was a Boy Scout until that organization was formally suppressed by the newly empowered Nazis. After middle school, during the height of WWII, while working for the Hamburg Social Authority, Hellmuth began, under the influence of some of his communist peers, to listen to enemy radio broadcasts, especially the BBC — an offense considered by the Nazis to be treasonous and punishable by execution. Based upon information gleaned from the radio programs, Hellmuth began to produce and secretly proliferate leaflets criticizing Nazi policies, calling into question the way the war was being reported in Berlin, and accusing Hitler, Goebbels and others of being, among other things, war criminals.
Hübener enlisted the help of a few close friends, Karl-Heinz Schnibbe, Rudolf Wobbe, and Gerhard Düwer, in typing and distributing his leaflets. They inconspicuously pinned the leaflets to bulletin boards, stuffed them into mailboxes, and slipped them into the coat pockets of unsuspecting passersby. In early 1942, as Hellmuth worked on French translations of his leaflets to distribute among POWs, he was denounced by a coworker and arrested by the Gestapo. He sat in prison until August, when he was tried and convicted of “conspiracy to commit high treason and treasonous furthering of the enemy’s cause.” He was sentenced to death and had his civil rights formally and permanently stripped. On 27 October 1942, Helmuth Hübener was beheaded at Plötzensee Prison. He was the youngest German national to be executed by the Volksgerichtshof.
This is a fascinating, provocative, and compelling story. It has been the subject of a number of literary, historical, dramatic, and even cinematic works, including a forthcoming feature film with Haley Joel Osment playing Helmuth Hübener. His was a fearless, morally outraged voice silenced by the violence concomitant with all forms of totalitarian rule. He denounced the “unscrupulous terror tactics” and “tyranny” then rampant in his homeland, warning his fellow Germans that the Nazis had succeeded in making regular citizens, “young and old, men and women” into “spineless puppets to do their bidding.”
But there is a more compelling, deeply unsettling part of this story for Latter-day Saints. You see, Hellmuth, as noted above, was a practicing and fervently believing Mormon. His suspicion of Nazis was catalyzed by, among other things, his LDS branch’s banning of Jews from attending worship services. His branch president, a well respected community member and Nazi supporter who played Hitler’s radio broadcasts during sacrament meetings when possible, excommunicated Hellmuth when his “crimes” were revealed by his arrest. For Hellmuth, doing what was manifestly right, obeying his conscience, meant not only risking arrest and execution but also defying priesthood authority. Hellmuth’s excommunication took place when local German Church leaders were out of contact with LDS authorities in the United States; nevertheless, his moral and mortal courage placed him at odds with and in defiance of his branch president (not to mention the majority of his fellow congregants).
Those LDS familiar with Hübener’s story are often quick to extol his courage in defying Hitler, but slow to remember his courage in disobeying his priesthood leaders. On the day of his execution he penned a letter to a fellow branch member that included the following passage:
“My Father in Heaven knows that I have done nothing wrong…. I know that God lives and He will be the Just Judge in this matter. I look forward to seeing you in a better world!”