Helmut Hirsch (January 27, 1916 in Stuttgart – June 4, 1937 in Berlin) was a German Jew who was executed for his part in a bombing plot intended to destabilize the German Reich. Although a full and accurate account of the plot is unknown, his targets were understood to be the Nazi party headquarters in Nuremberg, Germany, and/or the plant where the antisemitic weekly propaganda newspaper Der Stürmer was printed.
Hirsch was the elder of the two children of Marta Neuburger Hirsch and Siegfried Hirsch.
In 1935, after the newly introduced antisemitic Nuremberg Laws excluded the Jews from German universities, he moved to Prague, the capital of what was then Czechoslovakia. He was nineteen when he enrolled as a student of architecture at the Deutsche Technische Hochschule (German Institute of Technology) there.
The Black Front
Shortly after arriving in Prague, Hirsch became involved in the Black Front, a group of anti-Hitler German expatriates. He was encouraged to introduce himself to its head, Otto Strasser, by his mentor, Tusk (Eberhard Köbel). Tusk had been a leader of Deutsche Jungenschaft, a branch of the German youth movement (Bündische Jugend) to which Hirsch belonged. The Jungenschaft itself was outlawed in 1935 and Tusk escaped arrest by fleeing to London.
Hirsch's family joined him in Prague in 1936, after his sister, Kaete, graduated from gymnasium (high school) and, like him, was forbidden to attend a German university. By then, he was deeply enmeshed in clandestine Black Front activities, which he kept secret from his family.
On December 20, 1936, after telling his family he was going skiing with friends, he returned to Germany with a travel permit obtained on the false premise that he was visiting his mother, who he claimed was ill. In his naiveté, he did not realize German authorities knew his family had moved to Prague. It is likely that German agents in Prague had been watching him for some months, but were unable to arrest him while he remained on Czech soil.
Hirsch's handler was Strasser's right-hand man, Heinrich Grunov, who used the nom de guerre Dr. Beer. According to the plan, Hirsch was to place two suitcases containing explosives at one or two sites in Nuremberg. The suggested targets were the Nazi party headquarters and the office or printing plant of Der Stürmer.
Grunov instructed Hirsch to buy a round-trip ticket from Prague to his hometown, Stuttgart, but to travel only as far as Nuremberg. There he was to meet a contact, who would give him baggage claim tickets for the two suitcases, which had been smuggled into Germany. Instead, he went on to Stuttgart, where he had arranged to meet an old friend. According to letters he wrote to his family from prison, he was wavering in his commitment to the plot and hoped his friend would talk him out of it.
Arrest and imprisonment
Hirsch arrived in Stuttgart late in the evening of December 20. When his friend failed to meet him as arranged, he checked into the Hotel Pelikan, across the street from the railway station. In the early hours of the morning of December 21, agents of the Gestapo arrested him in his hotel room.
Hirsch was interrogated, first in Stuttgart, then after his transfer to Berlin's Plötzensee Prison. He was charged with conspiracy to commit high treason, and was indicted for possession of explosives with criminal intent, despite the fact that he had no explosives at the time of his arrest.
He was held in solitary confinement for 9 weeks while awaiting trial. He was permitted to communicate with his family or relatives who still lived in Germany. A letter he wrote to his uncle, in Stuttgart, was held back by censors.
Testimony at the trial made it clear that there was at least one double agent in the Black Front, who had informed on Hirsch. A witness for the prosecution described the plot in detail that no one but a trusted member of the Black Front could have known. Under questioning, Hirsch did not deny involvement in the plot, though the public defender assigned to his case argued that he should be acquitted since he had never carried it out. When asked whether he would, if given the chance, have attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Hirsch acknowledged he would.
Although Hitler was never a target of the plot, Hirsch's response gave rise to rumors printed in the international press that Hitler's assassination had been Hirsch's goal.
Hirsch was found guilty and condemned to death. His friend was acquitted. Although the proceedings of the trial remained secret, the verdict was made public. It was only upon hearing on the radio on March 20 that "the stateless Jew, Helmut Hirsch," had been condemned to death that his family learned what had become of him after he left home three months earlier.
International appeals for clemency
Hirsch's family and friends launched a campaign to free him, or at least have his sentence commuted to life in prison. The International Red Cross, the Society of Friends, and an international association of lawyers made appeals on his behalf. A human rights organization convinced the government of Norway to offer him asylum if the Germans would release him. An appeal was made to the League of Nations, and the case was brought up in the House of Commons in London.
Among the most promising avenues was the intervention of the United States. Hirsch's father, Siegfried, had lived in the United States for about ten years before his marriage in 1914. He became a naturalized American citizen before returning to Germany. During World War I, Siegfried lived with his wife and two children in the German state of Alsace. At the end of the war, when Alsace became part of France, the family moved to Stuttgart. Through a bureaucratic mix-up, the exact nature of which is unclear, Siegfried Hirsch's American citizenship was rescinded, rendering the entire family "stateless persons". Even though Hirsch was born in Germany and lived in Stuttgart for most of his life, he never held German citizenship.
Hirsch's cousin, George Neuburger, who had moved to New York, enlisted the aid of an American lawyer to petition to have Siegfried's citizenship reinstated. Their appeal was initially rejected, but a month later the decision was reversed. On April 22, 1937, by virtue of his father's newly restored citizenship, Helmut Hirsch was also declared an American citizen, although he had never set foot on American soil.
Hirsch's American citizenship immediately changed the situation. William E. Dodd, the American ambassador in Berlin, was instructed by Secretary of State Cordell Hull to intervene on Hirsch's behalf. Dodd chronicled his efforts in his diary. These included meetings with Konstantin von Neurath, the German Foreign Minister, and Otto Meissner, a key aide of Hitler.
Even with the force of American diplomacy, Hitler refused Duccis eleventh-hour request that Hirsch's life be spared. His execution by decapitation was carried out at 6:00 a.m., June 4, 1937. His sister, Katie Sugarman (Kaete Hirsch), survives him.
Notes and references
- The day after his execution, the New York Times put the story on its front page. The 2000-word article, datelined Berlin, June 4, gives a detailed summary of the case. "Germans Execute Hirsch, U. S. Citizen; Youth of 21 Guillotined Despite Repeated American Appeals to Hitler for Clemency." New York Times, June 5, 1937, page 1. In addition, William Shirer provides an account in Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934–1941 (New York: Knopf, 1941; pp. 74–76.) Many of the details reported by the Times and Shirer are at odds with other sources, including the dossier containing the "Case of Helmut Hirsch." (note 6) and the recollections of Hirsch's sister (note 2), as well as documents written by or related to Hirsch held in the Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections Department at Brandeis University.  No one reporting the story had access to these sources at the time. Nonetheless, the contemporary version of the events was for many years all that was available in English. In 2004, the German weekly magazine Stern ran a cover story about the von Stauffenberg plot and other attempts on Hitler's life. A timeline (page 66) of failed plots to kill or unseat Hitler begins with Hirsch: "December 1936: The Jewish student Helmut Hirsch plans to blow up the Nürnberg Party headquarters. He was executed on June 4, 1937." "20. Juli 1944: Das Attentat auf Hitler: Operation Walküre. " Stern. July 1, 2004, pages 47–68. 
- Details of Helmut Hirsch's family, his life prior to his arrest, and subsequent efforts to save his life were obtained from his sister, Kaete (Katie Sugarman), through a series of interviews and an account she wrote in 1962. Documents, including Hirsch's journal and letters he wrote before his arrest and, from prison, after he was sentenced to death, are in the Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections Department at Brandeis University. Most are in German; some have been translated into English. 
- Correspondence between Helmut Hirsch (in Prague) and Tusk (Eberhard Köbel; in London), July 1935. Helmut Hirsch Collection, Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections Department, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass.
- Letter from Helmut Hirsch, December 10, 1936. Helmut Hirsch Collection, Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections Department, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass.
- Hirsch wrote five letters to his family from Plötzensee Prison, dated March 20, April 10, May 3, May 22, and June 3, 1937. Helmut Hirsch Collection, Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections Department, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass.
- The indictment and details of the secret proceedings of the People's Court are contained in a dossier entitled Referat Deutschland: Case of Helmut Hirsch. Dated: 18 Mar 1937 to 16 Jul 1937. After the war, the dossier was found in the British sector of Berlin by the Document Field Team of the British Foreign Office. It contains papers headed Geheime Reichssache (Secret Affair of the Reich) and includes the indictment (Anklageschrift) and verdict (Urteil) rendered in the name of the German People (Im Namen des Deutschen Volkes), as well as a narrative of the trial and the investigation that preceded it. These documents were found by a researcher in the Wiener Library, London; a photocopy is in the Helmut Hirsch Collection, Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections Department, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass.
- Helmut Hirsch to Eugen Neuburger, March 9, 1937. Helmut Hirsch Collection, Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections Department, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass. (photocopy); original is thought to have been found in the Russian sector of Berlin and is currently held in an archive in Moscow.
- A sampling of headlines and leads from the New York press consistently features the assumption that Hitler's assassination was Hirsch's goal. Similar articles appeared in the Prager Tageblatt (German-language daily published in Prague), Pariser Tageszeitung (German-language daily published in Paris); and the Czech newspapers, Ranne noviny and Vecerni Ceske slovo. All were based on rumor and conjecture, and were full of errors, according to Hirsch's sister, who was interviewed by members of the press after the verdict (note 2). "U.S. Asks Reich to Spare Citizen from Headsman"; New York Evening Journal, April 24, 1937: "Young Hirsch was sentenced to decapitation by the headsman's axe for, it was broadly hinted in legal circles, plotting against Reichsfuehrer Hitler." "Plot to Murder Hitler Hinted as U.S. Strives to Save Berlin Suspect." New York World-Telegram, April 25, 1937. "Reich Guillotine Chops Off Head of U.S. Citizen." Daily News, June 5, 1937: "Previously there had been reports that Hirsch was alleged to have drafted a plan to kill Hitler. " "U.S. Citizen Guillotined." Daily Mirror, June 5, 1937; byline: William Shirer; dateline Berlin, June 4: "Helmuth Hirsch, young American citizen who never saw America, was beheaded here today for 'possessing explosives' allegedly in an attempt to assassinate Chancellor Hitler." "Reich Charges Bombing Plot Against Hitler." Associated Press, Berlin, June 4, 1937: "Helmuth Hirsch, twenty-one year-old Jewish citizen of the United States who has never been in America, was executed by a mechanical guillotine at dawn today for an alleged treasonable plot under the explosives law— presumably a plan to kill Adolf Hitler."
- The following day, March 21, 1937, the Prager Tageblatt printed the following: "It was officially announced that the stateless Jew Helmut Hirsch was condemned to death by the verdict of the Second Senate of the People's Court on March 8 because of conspiracy to commit high treason and violation of the explosives law."
- Statement by Siegfried Hirsch, nd. Helmut Hirsch Collection, Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections Department, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass. In this three-page statement (written in German, translated into English by Katie Sugarman (Kaete Hirsch)), Siegfried details how he obtained and lost his American citizenship. Although undated, internal evidence suggests it was written some time after his son's death but prior to the departure of surviving family members (Siegfried, Marta, and Kaete) for New York in April 1938. In the absence of U.S. government documents, this is the only written record of the complex sequence of events.
- "U. S. Citizenship Denied" New York Times, March 26, 1937, page 7. This article contains a shorter account of Siegfried Hirsch's citizenship situation, which differs in some of its details from his own statement (note 10).
- New York Times April 27, 1937: "U.S. Embassy Asks Mercy for Hirsch."
- Ambassador Dodd's Diary, 1933–1938, William E. Dodd, Jr., and Martha Dodd, eds. New York: 1941, Harcourt Brace; pp. 402, 403–404, 410–411, 412, 413, 414.
- "Helmut Hirsch Exhibit". Retrieved June 23, 2013.