Recalling an Era when the Freedom to Speak Meant Life or Death
In 1944 my great-uncle, Helmut Ahrens, was executed at age 25 for criticizing the Nazi war effort.
Photo: Courtesy of the Bennett-Rilling family
My great uncle, Helmut Ahrens, was born on October 3, 1919 in Trittau, Germany (about an hour outside of Hamburg). Just after graduating high school, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. In 1943 his shoulder was so badly wounded that he was given a convalescent work leave. Returning home to Trittau, Ahrens worked for his future father-in-law, a Mr. Clausen, who owned a bicycle business in Hamburg. Witnessing the great Allied bombing raids on Hamburg during this time, Ahrens aided people whose houses were fire-bombed, witnessing at first hand the destruction of total war. He spoke to many civilian survivors who had been traumatized by the air war, and felt the need to speak out about the terrors and tragedies they had experienced.
After finishing his leave, Ahrens returned to his reserve troop formation in Hamburg-Wandsbek, where he had several conversations with his Wehrmacht comrades about the horrific fire-bombings. He repeated many of the criticisms he had heard from survivors. “Thanks to Hitler,” he was later quoted as saying, “Germany cannot win this war because we don’t have the material needs. We cannot recover from the loss in Stalingrad. If England invades Germany, it will be better for Germany than what it’s like now.”
One of his so-called comrades wrote down all of what Ahrens said and reported it to a Lieutenant Bindhein in hopes of advancing his own career. Shortly after Ahrens’ unit had been seconded to an ensign’s course in Wischau, Ahrens was called to see Lieutenant Bindhein, who decided to investigate his politics. All of the observations and critiques that he had expressed to his fellow soldiers were collated into a bill of indictment, and Helmut Ahrens was arrested immediately.
Commander Lieutenant Colonel Von Naef was given the case, and could have given him a light punishment or a mere reprimand. However, Lieutenant Bindhein wanted to use Ahrens as an example, and greatly influenced the court and all further negotiations. Ahrens had support from many civilian lawyers, one of whom was a well-known industrialist who had helped gain the release of seven prisoners from Nazi concentration camps. All were devoted to helping with his case. However, one of these lawyers was himself threatened with deportation to a concentration camp. In the end, Helmut Ahrens stood no chance. Any jury that refused to sentence him to death would be supplanted by a jury that would.
The last time my great-uncle got to see his family was two days after the final verdict was handed down. Although guards were present for the majority of the meeting, every once in a while they would wander far enough down the hall that Helmut could speak freely with his family. Helmut told his father how he heard screams of people being tortured through the night. He observed that “it was like the Middle Ages!”
In the final letter my great uncle wrote to his family, he insisted: “Up to the last minute, I still believe that I have done my duty for my country, our fatherland. I would like to have done something to atone for whatever I was accused of doing but it was not to be.”
On December 10, 1944 Helmut Ahrens was executed by a firing squad at the age of 25. His lawyers fought to get his remains released to his family, a small victory interpreted as a “great grace” by the courts. His remains were buried at Central Cemetery, Vienna. He left behind his new wife, Marianne, and his seven-month-old baby, Klaus. After his execution, my grandmother Irmgard (Helmut’s sister) was warned by the Gestapo not to say anything about it over the phone or in letters. The tiniest infraction would result in her immediate deportation to a concentration camp.
Shortly after the war, my grandmother moved to Canada with her new husband, Karl. Two of them were looking to put the horrors of the past behind them. However, as my grandmother later wrote, “Many years have passed since December of 1944 but I will never forget that day. I relive it every year, again and again and the pain doesn't go away, it simply grows.”
The scars of war can never be fully healed, but over 70 years later Helmut’s memory is cherished among those who knew his story. In 2007 the city of Trittau named a street after Helmut, which was met by both surprise and delight by his son Klaus. His story continues to live on within my family, and it is my hope that his story will touch the lives of others.
Helmut Ahrens was a conscientious young man who stood up courageously for what he believed in—in a world where state-sanctioned prohibitions on such statements were enforced by violence. He stood up against tyranny in the darkest hours and, tragically, paid for it with his life.
My great-uncle grew up in a world that is unimaginable to us today. Yet in recent years we have become increasingly polarized and less tolerant of those who disagree with us. During this pandemic, I have witnessed beliefs, ideologies and political allegiances tear family and friends apart.
In sharing Helmut’s story, I hope that we remember to listen to opinions that differ from our own, to remain open-minded, and to never take for granted freedom of speech and other fundamental rights in defence of which others have paid so dearly.