The Helmuth Hübener Group has become somewhat famous in Mormon culture as a group of teenage boys who took it upon themselves to resist the Nazi regime. While they did do this, a personal account from the last-surviving member of the group, Karl-Heinz Schnibbe, brings to light the heroism as well as the innocence and naivety of these boys as well as the price each of them paid.
Schnibbe recalls how the rise of the Nazi regime was viewed by most as a good thing in the beginning. Though not everyone liked them, they did vastly improve the economy and morale of the country. Growing up in Hamburg, Schnibbe was aware of the intense, of later hidden, dislike of the new regime. However, along with this, Schnibbe remembers how the regime went after the youth immediately, filling them with propaganda and having them do military drills, though the children did not all realize at the time what was going on.
Karl-Heinz credits his father’s sarcastic comments about the Nazis for his own cynicism and dislike of them. He was encouraged to think, judge, and act for himself. Karl-Heinz had many experiences which warned him of the way things were going. One such experience involved seeing a group of Jews being herded onto a train. They were surrounded by SS (Schutzstaffel, German for “Protective Squadron,” and Hitler’s police)men who were jeering at them as well as spitting on them. He was very disturbed by this, but this was nothing to his experience after Krystallnacht, or “The Night of Broken Glass,” which was an organized ransacking of Jewish communities all across Germany. Thousands of Jews were arrested and countless businesses were destroyed. Karl-Heinz had to walk through this area on his way to work and witnessing the effects of such hatred influenced him greatly in his decision to join Helmuth Hübener in his underground movement.
Interestingly, none of the three boys (Karl-Heinz, Helmuth, and Rudi Wobbe) saw themselves as heroes at this time. Helmuth was the mastermind behind the project. He had a short-wave radio that one of his brothers had brought home from the war. Most radios at this time in Germany were government issued and could only pick up government stations. With the short-wave radio, though, Helmuth could pick up the BBC broadcasts. After listening for some time, Helmuth became convinced that everything the Nazi regime was telling its people was propaganda and lies. The BBC broadcasts told all fatalities, including their own, and the German casualties were much higher than the regime had been reporting. Helmuth was a very intelligent boy and quickly became convinced there was no way Hitler could win the war he had started. He then felt an intense need to share the truth with those around him.
Helmuth, Karl-Heinz, and Rudi were three friends whose parents attended the same branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and they spent a lot of time together. Helmuth was very cautious in his maneuvers and initially invited his two friends separately to get a feeling for where they stood on the matter. Karl-Heinz remembered Helmuth saying he needed to educate them politically and posed questions that made them think and reevaluate what they were being told. Karl-Heinz became convinced after his first time listening to the BBC broadcast that Germany was lying to its people. He went back again and again, whenever he got the chance, to listen. It was illegal to listen to these broadcasts, and in some cases the death penalty was the consequence for listeners, so they had to be very careful. They only listened at night when Helmuth’s grandparents had already gone to bed.
Because Karl-Heinz could not listen every night, he asked Helmuth, who was adept at shorthand, to record some of the broadcasts. In some ways, this led to the flyers that Helmuth later produced. The first flyers he gave to Karl-Heinz to distribute were small and said things like, “Down with Hitler!” along with a short message to pass the flyer on. When Helmuth first asked Karl-Heinz to distribute some of the flyers, Karl-Heinz was so disturbed and upset by the possible consequences of what they were doing that he came down with diarrhea. Helmuth encouraged him to distribute the flyers in telephone booths, mailboxes, etc. Soon after this first distribution, Karl-Heinz found out that their friend Rudi was in on the plan as well. Helmuth had already decided to put more information in his pamphlets and carry on a resistance by spreading the truth. Neither Karl-Heinz, nor Rudi, was immediately up for this undertaking, but eventually both became involved. Their efforts must have paid off somewhat, because the number of flyers turned into the SS was remarkably small for how many flyers were distributed.
One thing pushing Helmuth was that he had been raised to tell the truth. He knew most people did not even have the opportunity to listen to the broadcasts, but if he got the information out there, people could decide for themselves what to do with it. In the beginning, the boys made a pact that if one of them were to get caught, he would take the blame for all of them and not tell the authorities about the other two. They knew what they were doing was dangerous, but they were still naive in many ways. As the war continued and blackouts and air-raids became common, the boys had ample time to think about the state of the country, which certainly pushed them to get the truth out to more people. They knew they would never overthrow the government, but Helmuth said, “What we can do is to warn the people. We can wake them up, we can bring them to the point of asking questions and saying: ‘Wait a minute, something is not right. I want to hear that myself.’ And when enough people hear the truth or are interested in the truth, then who knows?” (When Truth Was Treason: German Youth against Hitler, p43.)
Despite Helmuth’s caution, he was overheard by an informant at work urging a French-speaking coworker to translate one of his pamphlets. After a brief investigation, Helmuth was arrested on February 5, 1942. Helmuth had been active outside of his group with Karl-Heinz and Rudi, but, in order to protect them, he had told them nothing of his other activities. The first Karl-Heinz and Rudi heard of the arrest was at church on the following Sunday. They were both immediately sick with fear, not knowing if Helmuth would break down and tell the SS about them. After waiting in suspense for two days, Karl-Heinz was arrested at his work. He was brought home, where his escorts searched his home, but found nothing. He was then taken to Gestapo (German secret police) headquarters, where he remained for several days being mentally tortured, physically beaten, and constantly interrogated. His parents did not find out until the next day what had happened to Karl-Heinz, after they contacted his boss and explained Karl-Heinz had not come home the night before.
Karl-Heinz still did not know how much Helmuth had told the police about his involvement, so he said as little as he could. He eventually passed Helmuth in a hallway after being interrogated and Helmuth gave him a small smile and winked at him, letting him know that he had kept the agreement to accept full responsibility. It was only after two days of torture that Helmuth had mentioned their names in passing, along with his colleague’s, Gerhard Düwer. He told police that these boys had listened or read a flyer once, but that was all. They were each still severely punished, but after months of questioning and torture, Helmuth was sentenced to death. He was only seventeen years old, as was Düwer. Rudi was sixteen, and Karl-Heinz eighteen. Karl-Heinz was sentenced to five years of imprisonment, Rudi to ten, and Düwer four, though their sentences proved to be much worse than that.
Karl-Heinz recalled the trial and how “cool, clear, and clever Helmuth was” (When Truth Was Treason: German Youth against Hitler, p69). Later, Karl-Heinz realized Helmuth knew long before the verdict that he would be put to death. Helmuth wanted to show his superiority to the jury and judge and to “conduct himself with courage and dignity.” After several more months in prison, Helmuth was beheaded at 8:13 p.m. on October 28, 1942.
In the beginning, the boys were transferred to Glasmoor, a prison labor camp. During their imprisonment, the boys met some officials who were sympathetic and kind to them, in some instances even saving their lives. In other instances, they were treated brutally and nearly starved to death multiple times. From Glasmoor, they were transferred to an aircraft factory in Poland. In January of 1944, when they could all tell that it would only be a matter of time before Germany lost the war, they left Poland to return to Germany on foot. Gerhard nearly died from frostbite and freezing to death, but they all made it back. Then a recruiting group came through and drafted Karl-Heinz into the army just four weeks before the end of the war. Gerhard and Rudi were spared due to frostbite and a longer sentence, respectively. Though it was a blessing that Karl-Heinz never had to fight, his group was soon captured by the Russians and brought by train to Russia to serve in labor camps there. Conditions were worse than imaginable and many of the POWs died from the cold and lack of food.
Even in Russia, however, Karl-Heinz found friends. His heart was softened toward the people despite their hatred of the Germans, because he saw firsthand the suffering the war had caused them. Even so, he found much friendship among many of the Russians, and friends took care of him and helped him survive. Day after day, month after month, year after year, the prisoners were told they would soon go home, but they were only transferred to other work camps. Finally, in 1944, Karl-Heinz was informed he would be going back to Germany, but the trip took several months, and he was still very sick from malaria and malnutrition. After nearly getting stuck in East Germany due to an infection he contracted on the train home from a sliver, Karl-Heinz arrived in Göttingen where he had to stay at a university hospital for eight weeks to be treated. He left for a week to attend his brother’s wedding, and the strain nearly killed him. For his journey back to the hospital to complete his recovery, he was showered with goods obtained from the relief efforts of the Church, which he brought back to the hospital to share with those who were still in such dire straits.
Though Karl-Heinz survived his imprisonment, it took him several years to heal both physically and spiritually, but he still had to develop psychologically. He had been imprisoned when he was still a boy and had then become hardened in the prison system in order to survive. He still had many more trials to face. In Karl-Heinz’s words, “It was a prison psychosis. . . . I did not know what to do with my freedom . . . I went into the penal institution as a teenager and remained a teenager. I never grew up; in that time I never developed as a person. I lived entirely for myself and was totally egoistic. I was lewd, crude, and rude. I feared that my soul was crippled for life, that I actually would never be able to become fully human again. . . . People think, when they come home, everything will be well again, but nothing is well again. It is a terrible struggle. When I was a child and was torn away from home, the world was a completely different place, there was a dictator and a war. Now, when I came home, there was peace and a democratic society. In the meantime seven years had passed. People were different; times had changed. I could not fit into the pace of modern postwar life” (When Truth Was Treason: German Youth against Hitler, p136–137).
After a few more years, Karl-Heinz immigrated to the United States and is much happier. The story that he has preserved and shared of the courageousness of four boys who risked their lives to spread the truth is more than inspiring. Karl-Heinz said, “I very often think about Helmuth and our resistance work. The longer I live, the more I see in the world around me, the more I recognize how right Helmuth was to do what he did, and the more I admire him. Because I survived, I consider it my duty not to let Helmuth’s life and death fall into oblivion” (When Truth Was Treason: German Youth against Hitler, p141).