On December 21, 1936, 20-year-old Helmut Hirsch, a German Jew, was arrested in Stuttgart, Germany, on suspicion of involvement in an apparent plot to blow up Nazi party headquarters in Nuremberg. At his trial several months later, Hirsch said that, given the chance, he would have killed Adolf Hitler. As a result, it was widely reported that he had actually attempted to do so, though that does not seem to be the case.
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Hirsch was born on January 17, 1916, in Stuttgart. Because both his paternal grandfather and his father had, at different times, immigrated to the United States and become naturalized citizens, Helmut was eligible for American citizenship too, and in fact his parents registered him at an American consulate when he was born. This all became relevant after his arrest, when significant efforts were made by the U.S. government to have him released.
Helmut spent most of his youth in Stuttgart, where his family moved from Alsace after World War I. Highly creative, he drew, painted, wrote and was deeply involved in the Deutsche Jungenschaft, a youth movement that combined camping and outdoors activities with serious engagement with culture and politics. The movement was outlawed by the Nazis when they came to power.
In 1935, when Jewish students were forbidden from studying at German universities, Helmut moved to Prague, where he enrolled as an architecture student at the German Institute of Technology. His family joined him there the following year when his sister graduated high school. By then, Helmut’s former counselor from the Deutsche Jungenschaft had introduced him to the leader of the Black Front, a group of German expatriates in Prague, some of whom were former colleagues of Hitler, but all of whom were now dedicated to overthrowing the Fuehrer.
The leaders of the Black Front worked to convince Helmut Hirsch that he should play a key role in a dramatic anti-Nazi action, telling him that the participation of a Jew in such a plot would serve as inspiration for other German Jews. He agreed to venture back into Germany to set off two bombs in Nuremberg, one in the Nazi Party headquarters there and possibly at the offices or the press of the Nazi weekly Der Stuermer.
Hirsch applied for a visa to reenter Germany, stating that he was going to visit his sick mother. By 1936, however, his entire family was living in Czechoslovakia, a fact that was known to German authorities. This may have been what raised suspicion against him, although it’s also possible that the Black Front had been infiltrated by an informer; in any event, by the time Hirsch crossed into Germany, he was under surveillance.
Letters he wrote to his family after his arrest suggested that Helmut was not sure he was ready to go through with the plan. And in fact, when he arrived in Germany, on December 20, 1936, instead of heading to Nuremberg, per his instructions, he went to Stuttgart to meet an old friend whom he apparently hoped would talk him out of being involved. When the friend didn’t show up at the train station, he checked into a hotel, where early on December 21, Gestapo agents arrested him. He was charged with conspiracy to commit treason and with possession of explosives with criminal intent, even though he had never picked up the explosives he was supposed to detonate.
At his trial, held in camera before the People’s Court, in March 1937, Hirsch freely admitted his involvement in the plot, and although the public defender assigned to him argued that he should be acquitted since he had never begun to carry the plan out, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.
At that point, Helmut’s family and friends began to lobby various international human-rights organizations to petition the German government to commute his sentence, if not to free him. At the same time, a cousin in the United States campaigned to have the government there reinstate Helmut’s father’s American citizenship. It did, and as a result, Helmut too was declared a U.S. citizen in April 1937. At that point, the American ambassador to Berlin, William Dodd, became involved in his case and met with both the German foreign minister and a key Hitler aide, in the hope of having Hirsch’s life spared.
The efforts were for naught, and Helmut Hirsch was executed by decapitation on June 4, 1937.