June 15, 2014 by Tariq Khan
In 1937 LDS President Heber J. Grant visited Germany. He instructed the members of the Church there to stay in Germany, not stir up trouble, and to be loyal and obedient citizens of their country, which at the time was under the rule of the Nazis. Many German Mormons took this advice to heart. Some were enthusiastic members of the Nazi Party. Branch President Arthur Zander for example had church members listen to Hitler’s speeches on the radio in church, and he placed a sign on the entrance to the Church that said, “Jews Are Not Allowed To Enter!” The irony was that under such a rule, Jesus himself would not be allowed in, as Jesus was a Jew. Church authorities enforced this rule. In 1939 Salomon Schwarz, a young man who was a member of the Church in good standing, showed up for a Church conference only to be denied entry on account of the fact that he was of Jewish descent (his mother was a Hungarian Jew). The mission president, who was inside the building, had his secretary take a note out to Schwarz to reiterate that Schwartz was not allowed in.
A few German Mormons however were more skeptical of their priesthood leaders’ advice to be loyal Nazis. Three LDS youth – Helmuth Huebener, Ruddi Wobbe, and Karl Schnibbe – believed that Church leaders who instructed them to be obedient citizens were wrong. The boys were troubled by the racist, authoritarian, and outright mean attitudes of not just the Nazi Party, but their own LDS church community, which they believed were behaving in un-Christlike ways. They secretly produced and distributed several anti-Nazi leaflets. They were caught, arrested, put on trial, and punished severely. Huebener, who the State considered to be the ringleader, was executed: beheaded by the Nazis at the age of seventeen. In between Huebener’s arrest and execution, his branch president obeyed Heber J. Grant’s instruction to be a loyal citizen, and he excommunicated Helmuth Huebener from the Church. Huebener was excommunicated because he defied the instructions of Church authority, and instead acted on his own conscience. He was excommunicated because he was intelligent enough, moral enough, and courageous enough to know that his LDS Church leaders were wrong to teach obedience in that situation, and that what morality required was disobedience to authority.
This might be a surprising story for many Mormons today because nowadays in LDS culture, Helmuth Huebener is widely thought of as a hero. His story has been whitewashed by the Church which claims that Church teachings are what led Huebener to resist the Nazis. The reality is quite the opposite. Huebener resisted Nazism not because of the Church, but in spite of the Church. If he were an obedient Mormon, if he had instead chosen to obey his priesthood leaders, then he would have done nothing. He would have been a good, loyal citizen. After the Nazis lost the war, the Church reinstated Huebener and called his excommunication a “mistake.” When it did not matter anymore, When it was a safe position to take, when it required no courage to agree with Huebener, only then did the Church institution reinstate his membership; when Huebener was long dead. But when it mattered, when it would have made a difference, when resistance and solidarity were most needed, the Church instead instructed obedience and good citizenship. It instructed members not to make waves at a time when waves were urgently required by those most harmed, most marginalized, and most denigrated by mainstream society.
History has vindicated the disobedient Mormons like Huebener and condemned the good mainstream Mormons like President Zander. History has vindicated disobedient Mormon anti-racist activists like John Fitzgerald and C.D. McBride and condemned good Mormons like Ezra Taft Benson who opposed the Civil Rights Movement as a “communist conspiracy.” What Mormon today can read Benson’s infamous anti-civil rights talk and not cringe? And what Mormon today would not publicly agree that banning blacks from the priesthood and the temple is wrong? A position that Mormons were once excommunicated for is now a position that most mainstream Mormons fully agree with. It’s easy to take these positions now. It costs nothing to do so. But it wasn’t easy to take these positions when it mattered. To take such a position then was to be labeled by the Church as an “apostate,” a person “under the influence of Satan,” a person who strayed from the safety of the council of priesthood authority, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a person other members should be careful of, a person that Church leaders need to “correct.”
We are in a moment right now when a few good Latter-day Saints, in spite of Church authority and in spite of the orthodox attitudes of many mainstream Mormons, are articulating dissenting ideas, and because of that, they are being targeted by authority for “Church discipline” and even possible excommunication. Kate Kelly, John Dehlin, and Alan Rock Waterman, among others, are being targeted by Church authorities because they dare to stand against inequality within the Church, because they dare to make waves, because they dare to ask unorthodox questions, and because they dare to stand up for themselves and for others who are marginalized or denigrated by the Church. Now is that moment when it matters to take a provocative stand. Now is that moment when it can make a difference to be that one voice in the branch, ward, or stake who speaks in defense of these targeted heretics. What are we going to do? Be good obedient citizens? Or will we be courageous enough to toss aside deference for authority and take the moral stand when it really matters?