“Your Life is Null and Void”: Thoughts on Futility

ukraine

Washington DC, February 2014

On 27 October 1942 Nazi guards at Plötzensee Prison brought Helmuth Hübener into a darkened room bisected by a black curtain. A pastor whispered the words “Your life is null and void,” one guard drew back the curtain and the others led Hübener to the guillotine where they executed him. He was seventeen years old—the youngest person condemned for organized resistance against the Nazi regime.[1]

One of my professors once led a class discussion about Helmuth Hübener. He chose to focus the conversation on one question: Was it worth it? Did Helmuth’s death have meaning? Or, more important still, did his life and his actions have meaning?

Helmuth had been the ringleader of a tiny resistance movement in the north-Germany port city Hamburg. His brother had gifted him an illegal short-wave radio, which Helmuth had used to listen to BBC broadcasts that contradicted German propaganda. Using the typewriter he’d been permitted access to for ecclesiastical duties in his local church group, Helmuth began writing leaflets that he and two friends distributed throughout the town. Eventually one other friend joined the group. The four teenage boys continued their work until Helmuth made one fatal slip that led the Gestapo to arrest the participants. Three of the boys received sentences to hard labor in the Third Reich’s notorious prison camps. Helmuth Hübener received condemnation—and the Führer himself denied pleas to have the sentence commuted.

More than seventy years later, what does all of this mean? Sure, the Hübener Gruppe was one of the earliest organized movements opposed to the Nazis, so kudos to them. But did anyone actually read what Helmuth wrote? And if they did, then why didn’t they do anything about it? The war and the horrors of Hitler’s empire went on for years following Hübener’s death. Was that worth dying for—especially at such a young age?

Perhaps Helmuth Hübener could have been of more use to Germany if he’d kept quiet, held back, and not risked his neck on a movement that yielded no measurable success. Maybe he could have contributed to rebuilding his nation after the war. He was bright. He was talented. And post-Hitler Germany needed all the brightness and talent it could get to pull through the Cold War and the efforts to construct a new life in a battered, bombed-out shell of a historic land. Maybe he should have waited a bit. Maybe then he could have made a difference.

— At least, that’s what most of my classmates had to say.

And I guess I can understand their logic. After all, we come from a generation infused with a sense of futility.

We have access to information from all over the world—twenty-four-hour news coverage, Internet contacts, Pinterest and YouTube and probably a slew of new trinkets Google is cooking up out in Silicon Valley. It’s exciting to see, learn, and know so much. But the most poignant side-effect of this broad range of information is the smallness we feel when we realize how vast the whole world is. And in such a big place, surrounded by such big-name players with power and actual influence—well, what could I possibly do to make so much as a ripple beyond my own family, my intimate circle of friends?

If you’ll allow for a personal example: I was living in Washington DC during Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. I followed the issue closely since I had lived in Crimea’s capital city for a year-and-a-half and had many friends still living there. Glued to my laptop, I sat for hours reading news from Moscow, Kyiv, Simferopol, London, New York, and any other location that ran stories about the fate of my second home. For the first time in my life I became addicted to Facebook, since that proved my one forum to receive direct information from eyewitnesses—all my Crimean friends who wrote about their experiences.

I wanted to do something. Caught up in the zingy excitement that courses through my veins whenever I read of important events, I made a flag out of blue and yellow construction paper, wrote “I PRAY FOR UKRAINE” on it, and pinned it to my backpack. I wore that flag proudly as I trekked to and from work along a path that took me past the White House every day.

Talk about futile efforts. Believe me, no earth-shattering political movement began as a result of my backpack campaign. Russian tanks still patrolled the streets of Crimea, the infamous referendum still took place in March, and the Ukrainian army was forced to flee to avoid all-out combat against the invaders. It seemed that Putin just couldn’t care less if a twenty-three-year-old unpaid intern in DC thought his actions were wrong and unjust. And no one else in DC seemed to care that much either.

One day near the end of my internship my paper flag got ruined in the rain. I unpinned it and threw it away, frustrated with my inability and powerlessness.

I know the hollow sense of futility. And so, I think, do most people today—which explains low voter turnout results at the polls, among other things. We recognize that there’s an awful lot that needs to be done in the world. And we recognize that we are not in positions to do it.

It’s enough to make you want to throw up your hands, to “curse God, and die” (Job 2:9), or to cancel your newspaper subscriptions.

Sometimes I feel like the butterfly I observed the other day in the library at Cambridge University. It had flown in somehow, but it desperately regretted the decision and struggled to get out. I heard it drive its exoskeleton against an enormous stained-glass window, beating its wings in a hopeless effort to reach beyond the glass to the sun, trees, and flowers in the courtyard two stories below. Again and again it attempted to breach the barrier. Thump, flutter flutter. Thump, flutter flutter.

And I knew it could never get out.

But I felt sort of proud of the poor thing for trying so hard. Every minute or two it would rest, then resume its battle for freedom. I put aside my homework as I watched the insect, and I thought back to my class’s discussion about Helmuth Hübener and a fruitless, fatal resistance. I recalled my professor’s voice choking as he insisted that the teenager’s death had not been in vain. The boy had spoken out for what’s right and true, Dr. C—- asserted with tears in his eyes. He had done it when no one else would, and that’s worth it. Truth is always worth it.

Helmuth’s leaflets didn’t bring down the Reich. My backpack didn’t stop an invasion. And that butterfly—which eventually flew to a different window outside of my vantage point—didn’t break through to freedom. Perhaps you could argue that our efforts were futile and vain.

But I think there’s something to be said for the actions themselves, independent of any potential results. After all, isn’t a poem still worth writing even if no one reads it? Isn’t a person worth loving even if the relationship might not work out? Aren’t there plans still worth making despite the confusion and changes that will spring up somewhere down the line? Isn’t life still worth living even though we’ll all die?

One woman expressed her thoughts on this matter shortly after the Nazis executed her husband and her brother for their work to organize an assassination to murder the Führer. “I have to go my way,” Emmi Bonhoeffer said in an interview. “But at least I feel, at least my children will never have to be ashamed of their father. That he had known about [all the horrible things going on] and hadn’t done anything.”

For the sake of our children, our examples, or at least for the sake of our consciences, we must not give in to the frustration of futility. After all, God made us “things to act [as well as] things to be acted upon” (2 Nephi 2:14). And by His power, according to His will, when the books are opened as we stand before Him to be “judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to [our] works,” then at last we may see the results of our actions (Revelation 20:12). Then at last we may see how we changed as we lived, learned, and loved.

Then at last we may realize that no life spent in the pursuit of righteousness can ever be pronounced “null and void.”

 

 

 


[1] I had the blessed privilege of meeting Karl-Heinz Schnibbe, the last surviving member of the Hübener Group (who has since passed away) in 2005.

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