If I were to use the phrase “When Truth Was Treason,” you might think that I was referring to the cases of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. Your assumption, of course, would be entirely reasonable given that that’s what they did — they disclosed the truth about the U.S. national-security state’s lies, crimes, and secret surveillance schemes, for which they have been labeled as criminals and traitors.
But actually the phrase is the title of a fascinating book about a group of teenagers in Hamburg, Germany, who disclosed the truth about the operations of their government during the midst of World War II and who were labeled criminal and traitors for having done so.
The group was led by a 16-year-old boy named Helmuth Hubener, who had achieved the same type of “breakthrough” that characterizes American libertarians today. Possessing an independent, analytical mind, he refused to defer to authority and to comply with what he considered to be wrongful laws enacted by the government. (Click here for a photograph of Hubener and an article about him.)
Among the many laws that governed the Nazi state was one that made it a grave criminal offense to reveal to the German people what was being broadcast by the BBC. In fact, it was a criminal offense to even listen to BBC broadcasts. The German people were expected to get their information about the war was going only from their own government officials, who could be trusted to tell them the truth as to the progress of the war.
Hubener decided that such laws were immoral and ridiculous and, therefore, declined to comply with them. He began secretly listening to BBC broadcasts and concluded that Hitler and his cohorts were lying to the German people about the progress of the war. They also began questioning the moral legitimacy of the Nazi regime itself.
So, Hubener began preparing fliers that disclosed the truth to the German people. He and his friends began surreptitiously distributing the fliers at various locations in Hamburg.
Make no mistake about it: Hubener and his friends knew the risk they were taking in revealing the truth to the German people. They fully understood that if they got caught, they would be condemned as criminals and traitors and that they would be facing long prison terms at best and a death sentence at worst.
It’s not difficult to understand the reaction of German officials to Hubener’s fliers. Consider, for example, the following excerpt from one of them:
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.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book was the similarity of the mindsets of the Germans who criticized and condemned Hubener and those Americans who condemn Manning and Snowden. No, I’m not equating Nazi Germany and the United States. What I am equating is the mindsets of those Germans who condemned Hubener with the mindsets of those Americans who condemn Manning and Snowden. There really isn’t any difference between the two mindsets.
German officials, and their supporters, took the position that the law was the law and, therefore, Hubener should have followed the law, whether he agreed with it or not. Releasing information that indicated that German officials were lying about the progress of the war or that questioned the policies and practices of the government, especially during war, were reprehensible acts, according to Nazi officials. Hubener needed to be punished severely, they said, in order to send a message that would discourage others from blowing the whistle on the German government by revealing the truth to the German people. Hubener was a traitor, they said, because he turned against the German government by revealing its lies and crimes to the German people.
Does that not describe precisely the mindset of those who criticize Manning and Snowden? Don’t U.S. officials and their supporters condemn and vilify Manning and Snowden for revealing the truth about U.S. government operations to the American people? Don’t they say that they are traitors who are helping America’s enemies by disclosing the truth to the American people about the lies and crimes of the U.S. national-security state? Don’t they say that the law is the law and, therefore, must be obeyed even when it’s wrong? Don’t they say that Manning and Snowden need to be punished severely in order to discourage others from doing the same thing? In their minds, doesn’t the truth that Manning and Snowden revealed constitute treason?
Why was it so important to German officials to go after people like Hubener? The answer lies in the words of Dr. Joseph M. Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister:
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 becomes the greatest ENEMY OF THE STATE.
Hubener and his friends were caught, arrested, prosecuted, and convicted. Interestingly, they were caught as a result of the Nazi regime’s massive surveillance scheme on the German people. No, it wasn’t a super-technological marvel, like the NSA’s surveillance scheme on the American people, but it was extensive nonetheless. It relied on an informal army of good little German citizens — those who deferred to authority — whose job it was to report suspicious activity by other German citizens to the Gestapo.
One of these good little citizens noticed a member of the Hubener group engaged in suspicious activity. He reported it to the Gestapo, which quickly unraveled the entire scheme.
Two of Hubener’s friends, aged 18 and 16, were sentenced to 4 and 5 years in jail. Hubener, as the leader of the group, received the death penalty. The boy was guillotined within a couple of months after the verdict. Shortly before they killed him, Hubener stated, “My Father in heaven knows that I have done nothing wrong. I know that God lives and He will be the proper judge of this matter.”
Of course, Hubener and his friends weren’t the only Germans who paid a high price for speaking the truth about the Nazi regime. Around a year later, the White Rose group, headed by siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, would be arrested, convicted, and sentenced for distributing leaflets exhorting Germans to oppose their own government, even in the middle of war. Like Hubener, they were considered criminals and traitors. (See my article, “The White Rose: A Lesson in Dissent.)
It is stories like these that inspire and provide courage to others. I can’t help but wonder whether Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden were familiar with the stories of Helmuth Hubener and the White Rose when they decided to reveal the truth about the U.S. national-security state to the American people and the people of the world.