Sunday, May 23, 2010

Karl-Heinz Schnibbe: Mourning the Passing of Hero

Upon returning from my trip abroad, I was saddened to hear that Karl-Heinz Schnibbe had died on Sunday, May 9, in Salt Lake City--65 years plus one day after the Third Reich surrendered. I never personally met Mr. Schnibbe, but the story of him and the other members of the Hübener Group has inspired me for years. He was the last surviving member of the Hübener Group.
My interest began with the book The Price, Schnibbe's autobiography of his experiences in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The book was a gift from my parents when I was a teenager. It continued with Huebner, a play in God's Fools, a book of plays by Thomas Rogers, which was a birthday gift from my brother. Huebner probably had the greatest effect on me because in it Dr. Rogers, later a professor of mine at BYU, brought to life the dilemmas of conscience that Helmet Hübener, Karl Schnibbe, and Ruddi Wobbe--among others--faced as Mormons trying to live their religion in Nazi Germany. Some years ago, I had the privilege of seeing Huebner performed at BYU, and Schnibbe was present and was introduced to the audience at that showing.

The more I have learned about the Hübener Group, the more their story has fascinated and inspired me, both for their bravery and for their willingness to act on their beliefs in standing up to a ruthless totalitarian regime.

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State. [emphasis added]
—Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda, 1933-1945

The Hübener Group
The story began in Hamburg in 1941, when one of Helmuth's half-brothers brought home a radio from National Labor Service. When the brother was drafted into the military, he left his radio behind, and Helmuth began listening to BBC broadcasts after his grandparents had gone to sleep. (Listening to foreign radio broadcasts was a treasonable offense in Nazi Germany, punishable by death.)

Already deeply disturbed by the injustices he had witnessed under Nazi rule, the BBC broadcasts gave Helmuth the facts he needed to counter Nazi propaganda. He began small, typing flyers that declared: "Hitler is a murderer! He is the guilty one!" and that backed those charges with facts. He distributed them secretly, tacking them to bulletin boards, putting them in mailboxes, and even into the pockets of overcoats. He latter recruited his friends Karl and Ruddi, two other teenagers in the LDS branch (congregation) in Hamburg, to help him distribute the fliers.

Helmuth's fliers became more sophisticated as he expanded their distribution system. Amazingly, only a few of the flyers were apparently turned into to Nazis, but enough to cause them great concern. The Hübener Group's downfall came when Helmuth approached a colleague at work to translate the fliers so they could reach foreign workers in the city. The colleague reported him, and Gestapo promptly arrested Helmuth and soon arrested his co-conspirators. At first, the Gestapo refused believe that a mere teenager had masterminded such as sophisticated operation, but eventually Helmuth persuaded them that he was primarily responsible, and he was executed for this efforts. Schnibbe and Wobbe were sentenced to 5 and 10 years, respectively, in a labor camp. Near the end of the war, Schnibbe was sent to Czechoslovakia to be trained as a soldier, where he was captured by the Soviet Army. He spent the next seven years in a Soviet work camp.

Moral Dilemmas
In the play, Dr. Rogers nicely portrays the moral dilemma Helmuth faced between his religious obligation to be "subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law" (Article of Faith 12) and his obligation to oppose evil and lies of the Nazi regime, which were becoming increasingly evident.

The play less overtly presents the same moral dilemma in the character of Arnold Zoellner, the branch president of the LDS branch in Hamburg, who was trying to protect the members of his congregation. He joined the Nazi Party, presumably to help the church and its members. He also summarily excommunicated Helmuth after he was arrested by the Gestapo, probably to protect the German Mormons by trying to distance the church from Helmuth, who had used the branch's typewriter to type the flyers, thereby implicating the church.

Zoellner has often been condemned for abandoning Helmuth and collaborating with the Nazis, but I wonder if he did far more than could reasonably be expected in the circumstances. Helmuth's excommunication was reversed after the war because of rather flagrant procedural mistakes. (It almost certainly would have been reversed anyway, but the procedural mistakes made it all but automatic.) I wonder if President Zoellner deliberately made these mistakes. He needed an excommunication to have any chance of persuading the Nazis that the Mormons did not not pose a threat, possibly saving them from the death camps. But he also knew that the deeply flawed excommunication would not survive a review by church leaders, which hopefully would happen after the war.

I don't have the answer, but I'm reluctant to condemn most people who must live under a totalitarian regime because simply in managing to survive day to day they cannot avoid becoming tarnished by the lies the regime must perpetuate to maintain its power--a point that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has established in detail. No one can come out of totalitarian regime alive and untarnished, which is one of reasons totalitarian regimes are inherently and unavoidably evil.

I, one of many, mourn the passing of a quiet hero who survived and outlived two totalitarian regimes.

Picture: Rudolf Wobbe, Helmuth Hübener, Karl Heinz Schnibbe, ca. 1941. Courtesy of Wikepedia.

Upcoming Movie
With some pleasure, I have discovered that Truth and Treason, a film about the Hübener Group is in production, due out in 2011.

Further Reading
"German Mormon Karl-Heinz Schnibbe, who resisted Nazis with teenage friends, dies in Salt Lake City at 86," Deseret News
"Mormon who defied Hitler dies in Utah," Salt Lake Tribune

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