Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Moral Dilemmas

As I was writing the last post, on being good citizens even in difficult times, I recalled a book I read some years ago, for a homeschool book club. I’m uncertain of the name, but I can give you the basic story, and several books that tell it.
Back in WWII Germany there were three teenage Mormon boys, approaching the age when they were required to join the Hitler Youth. Their religion had taught them about the value of freedom, which became at odds with their nation and the tyrannical pressure there during the war. They also found that what the government was telling them wasn’t true.
The boys learned from BBC radio—which was forbidden to listen to, but they heard it nevertheless, over a short-wave radio—that the war wasn’t going the way the government was telling the people. There were a lot of things the German news was saying that the outside world knew wasn’t true. The boys were troubled by the dissonance between their beliefs and the laws and actions of their country.
Helmuth Hübener, center, with Rudolf Wobbe, left,
and Karl Schnibbe, right
photo from Wikipedia
It was not policy for Mormons to be encouraged to rebel against their government, even under tyranny. But still they were taught the value of freedom and God-given rights. So it was a dilemma.
German Mormons were not condemned for fighting in the war, even if they believed their country was in the wrong; they were obliged to do as directed, and the blame would be on the hands of the nation’s leaders. However, if they could find ways to do good to their fellow man, or to find nonviolent ways to seek freedom, they were not forbidden by the Church. In other words, they were taught the principles and allowed to make their best decisions—just the same as today. (A similar situation comes up in the movie Saints and Soldiers, when Mormons fighting on opposite sides find their common religion important enough to help one another. Also, I told my Dad’s story of an encounter with a German Mormon soldier here. )
So here were three boys, in a Mormon congregation in Nazi Germany. Their congregation’s leader was strictly obedient to Hitler and insisted that was the right choice. But the boys felt directed to act differently. They listened in to the BBC, copied what they heard, typed it up, and distributed flyers to let the German people know the truth.
It was dangerous—and illegal. But it wasn’t violent. It was definitely brave. The boys were eventually caught. The main leader of the three, Helmuth Hübener, was tortured and beheaded, even though execution of youth for such crimes was rare. He wrote from prison: "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!"
Here’s a quote from one of his treasonous pamphlets:
German boys! Do you know the country without freedom, the country of terror and tyranny? Yes, you know it well, but are afraid to talk about it. They have intimidated you to such an extent that you don't dare talk for fear of reprisals. Yes you are right; it is Germany—Hitler Germany! Through their unscrupulous terror tactics against young and old, men and women, they have succeeded in making you spineless puppets to do their bidding.
The other two friends, Rudi Wobbe and Karl Schnibbe, survived, with 5-10-year prison sentences. Wobbe told his personal account in Before the Blood Tribunal, published in 1989, and Three against Hitler, with Jerry Borrowman, 2002. Schnibbe wrote his version of events in When Truth Was Treason, published in 1995. Other book versions include the biography Hübener vs. Hitler, by Richard Lloyd Dewey, 2003; Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow, 2005, and The Boy Who Dared, 2008, both by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. Her first one, a Newbery Honor book, includes Hübener’s story among others, while the later one is a fictionalized novel of the boys.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell which one I encountered. I think it might be The Boy Who Dared, but the date on that makes it barely fit as a possibility, so I’m uncertain. I only know that the remarkable story of these boys is something that sticks.
What is my conclusion about the dilemma? The boys were right, and heroic, to act as they did, because the tyranny surrounding them was wrong. Nevertheless, they did commit treason in the eyes of the law, such as it was, and they acted with the full knowledge that they would face punishment if caught. It would not have been sinful for them to have followed their adult leaders’ advice, keep their heads down, and make no waves. But it would not be a dilemma if there weren’t two competing positions. Since they were old enough to know their own conscience, and know what God was personally leading them to do, it was right for them to act.  
When Sir Thomas More faced the dilemma between supporting King Henry VIII and remaining loyal to the Catholic Church, he scrupulously remained silent. Nevertheless, his silence was interpreted as treason, and he was convicted. Before execution, he went ahead and voiced his true beliefs. (The story is beautifully told in the movie AMan for All Seasons.)
Most of us will not be in a position where we face death if we act according to conscience. But it’s something to think about ahead of time, to know ourselves well enough to know what is most important—eternally important, beyond comfort and life. Because if we don’t stand up for the important things while we are able, freedoms slip away, leaving us at greater risk when we do stand up to stronger tyranny.

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