Hitler and his Nazi Party were well aware of the power of propaganda and the ways that skillful manipulation of information could be used to control an entire population. And the Nazis were not prepared to countenance dissent of any kind. So as one young German, Helmuth Hübener, discovered, the price of resistance was high indeed.
Hitler’s ruthless sidekick Joseph Goebbels was appointed Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in 1933. In a Life article about Goebbels, a reporter captured the measure of the man when he wrote that “personally he likes nobody, is liked by nobody and runs the most efficient Nazi department.”
One of Goebbels responsibilities was radio, the most powerful propaganda weapon available in an era before televisions were widely owned. At the post-war Nuremberg Trials, Hitler’ war production minister, Albert Speer, said, “Through technical devices like the radio and loudspeaker, 80 million people were deprived of independent thought. It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man.”
Goebbels personally controlled all radio output in Germany and initiated the Volksempfänger (people’s receiver) program to manufacture cheap radios. So strong was his desire to ensure that all Germans would be immersed in Nazi propaganda, in fact, that he even distributed free radios on the occasion of his birthday in 1938.
And the flipside of the Nazis’ determination to have their perverted doctrine blasting out of every radio set in every home in Germany was their attitude to foreign broadcasts. When World War Two started in 1939, the Nazis declared that listening to foreign stations was forbidden, under pain of imprisonment.
Radio broadcasts were nonetheless to play a crucial part in the fate of the young German dissenter mentioned earlier, Helmuth Hübener. He was born in January 1925 in the German port city of Hamburg. His mother and grandparents were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as Mormons. His step-father, though, was a Nazi supporter.
Helmuth had been a keen Boy Scout from an early age but in 1935 the Nazis, by now firmly in control of Germany, closed down the Scouts. Henceforth, young Germans would have only one choice of youth group, the sinister Hitler Youth. In fact, membership was compulsory, and this requirement seems to have inspired Hübener’s first doubts about the Nazi regime.
Hübener’s view of the Nazis took another downturn when members of the Hitler Youth organization, which he’d been forced to join, took part in Kristallnacht. This was a savage, Nazi-organized mass attack on Jewish shops, synagogues and properties in 1938, resulting in the deaths of many Jews.
Hübener left school in 1941 and joined the Hamburg Social Authority, training to become an administrator. At his new workplace, he encountered others who shared his jaundiced view of the Nazis. One of these colleagues, Gerhard Düwer, was later to join with him in forming a secret dissident’s group. And around the same time, Hübener found his brother’s broken shortwave radio set stashed in a closet at their grandparent’s home.
Hübener subsequently managed to fix the radio, and he began to tune into the BBC’s German news service. Almost immediately, he noticed the stark differences between the news that Goebbels thought the German people should hear about the war, and the information that was broadcast to Germany by the BBC.
In fact, Hübener now heard a completely different account of how World War Two was unfolding. For example, Nazi propaganda claimed that Pearl Harbor had finished off any prospect of U.S. military intervention in Europe. The BBC said different. Also, Hitler had proclaimed complete victory in Russia. Why then, as reported by the BBC, did fierce fighting continue there?
And it was these broadcasts that prompted Hübener to take action. He started by typing up short leaflets with a typewriter, which the Mormons had given him to write messages to soldiers away at the battlefront. He wrote simple but inflammatory slogans such as “Down with Hitler,” as well as longer pieces challenging the Nazi version of wartime events.
From late 1941 onwards Hübener produced 60 different leaflets. In order to distribute this counter-propaganda more widely, he recruited three friends. They included Düwer, whom we met earlier, along with Karl Heinz Schnibbe and Rudolf Wobbe. As well as pointing out the deceptions in Nazi propaganda, the leaflets highlighted the criminality of the likes of Hitler and Goebbels and predicted defeat for Germany.
This tight-knit group of youthful Nazi opponents and disgruntled Hitler Youth members distributed their leaflets by clandestine means. They would pin them to notice boards, leave them in the foyers of apartment blocks and even surreptitiously slip them into strangers’ pockets. And it seems very unlikely that they wouldn’t have known that their actions were putting them in great danger.
They distributed leaflets with titles such as “Hitler the Murderer,” “Don’t Believe the Nazi Party” and “Hitler Is the Guilty One.” And it was inevitable that the police would begin to take an interest in this mysterious group that was undermining the Nazi narrative.
Then, in February 1942 a colleague of Hübener’s at the Hamburg Social Authority, a loyal Nazi called Heinrich Mohn, noticed something suspicious. Hübener was in the process of translating some of his leaflets into French so that he could distribute them to prisoners of war. The co-worker reported his suspicions to the Gestapo, and Hübener was arrested.
Hübener was badly beaten by the Gestapo goons, and eventually they forced the names of his comrades – Wobbe and Schnibbe – out of him. They too were arrested and the three young men were subsequently taken to Berlin. There they were tried before the feared Volksgerichtshof, the People’s Court, infamous for the death sentences that it freely imposed.
Schnibbe was sentenced to five years, while Wobbe was given ten. Hübener, though, was regarded by the court as a special case, despite his youthful years. As a result, he was sentenced to be executed by guillotine. After being told his fate, Hübener said to the court, “All I did was tell the truth and you have sentenced me to die. Now is my time, but your time will come.”
Executing a German who was so young was an unusual step, though, even for the Nazis. But the court’s position was that Hübener was highly intelligent and politically aware, making the death sentence essential. On October 27, 1942, Hübener was duly decapitated by guillotine. And the Mormon Church then excommunicated him – a move that it reversed after the war.
Today, the room where Helmuth Hübener was executed at Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison houses a commemorative exhibition in honor of the heroic young man and other victims of the Nazi terror. And, of course, Hübener was ultimately proved to be right about the moral bankruptcy of Nazism – and about its final, crushing defeat.