Theo Hespers (1903 – 1943)

12 December 1903 – 9 September 1943

[Theo Hespers was born into a middle-class German Catholic family in 1903. He was a member of the “Quickborn” Catholic Youth Movement. Later on, in 1926, he was (unofficially) a member of the KPD (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands) and in 1927 he became deputy chairman of the Internationale Arbeiterhilfe and traveled with its third delegation to the USSR for eight weeks. From 1928 to 1930, he worked with the communist Catholic Vitus Heller, and joined Heller’s Catholic CSRP (Christlich-Soziale Reichspartei). Yet, he left (though it seems as if he later on rejoined) the CSRP because he did not believe it put him sufficiently in opposition to National Socialism. At the same time, the the CSRP became increasingly radicalized “and came closer and closer to the KPD, which was documented not least in its propaganda, which took up more and more communist slogans” until eventually it renamed itself the Arbeiter- und Bauernpartei Deutschlands (Christlich-radikale Volksfront).]

[The biography can be found in Conscience in Revolt: Sixty-four Stories of Resistance in Germany, 1933-45 by Annedore Leber (1957), pp. 220-223.]

Theo Hespers life led him from the peaceful security of a middle-class Catholic family on the Lower Rhine into the glare of the political arena, by way of the youth movement, and on to an early death. In his schooldays he was a member of the ‘Quickborn’ Catholic youth organisation and was an enthusiastic hiker. He passed his lower school-leaving certificate and then became a business apprentice. But the problems of the post-war generation caught and held his attention, so that his work with the youth organisation rather than his actual profession became his prime interest in life.

At the age of nineteen, out of youthful enthusiasm and patriotic sentiment, Hespers joined in the fight against the Separatists in the Ruhr and on the Rhine, and was arrested by the Belgians. Three years later he joined both the Westmark Boy Scouts and the Christian-Social movement, and his intense interest in fundamental social and human problems came to the fore. As a left-wing Catholic he was involved in violent disputes with the Nazis even before the seizure of power, and in 1933 he was forced to emigrate to Holland. His political work on the frontier at Roermond led to a complaint from the German authorities, and as a result he had to move to North Brabant.

The trial in Essen of the Jungnationalen Bund of the Youth Federation, in June 1937, caused great excitement among Netherlands youth organisations, and the climax came when Hans Bockling was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment. This trial led to a widespread demand for support for German’ youth in their struggle against dictatorship, and also to the founding in Brussels and Amsterdam of the magazine Kameradschaft, of which Theo Hespers and Hans Ebeling were the publishers.

”Catholic youth has too high a conception of national unity and freedom to sacrifice itself and its ideas to Nazi demagogy. For them such unity does not lie in the destruction of the individuality of Churches, races and classes, but in active co-operation and in mobilising all available forces for the common task: of reviving the life of the people on a truly ethical and social basis. It is quite clear that free-will and not force is the pre-requisite of freedom’ was Theo Hespers’ message to German youth in 1938, in Kameradschaft. ‘We shall never do what is required of us if we throw in our hand and retire into the ghetto! Terror, or fear of breaking the law, must never deter us from our duty as Christians.’

Hespers’ attitude rested on his Catholic faith, on his belief in federation, and he explains it further:

In the German youth movement we have always been very critical of the old parties, the cultural and religious bodies. In some respects this attitude is open to criticism. Whenever we took it upon ourselves to infuse some life into the existing system, we insisted on keeping our distance, so that our personal attitude should not be compromised. It may be worth while to explain once more why we criticised and repudiated so many organisations whose aims and aspirations were probably admirable: at whom, then, was our Christianity directed? Was it the ideas or the people? We can answer unequivocally that it was both the people and the half-hearted manner in which the ideas were put into practice. We observed that socialists took no decisive action for social reform, that nationalists had before their eyes not the welfare of the nation, but personal goals, that Catholics lacked the broad view expected of the universal Church, that the representatives of Christianity were not bound by the doctrine of brotherly love. . . .

None of the leading cultural and political groups which existed in 1933 found the strength to prevent the seizure of power by this despotic regime, or was itself able to survive. What was the fundamental reason why there was no adequate resistance to prevent the onslaught of total barbarism? Were the German people too immature, or unwilling to fight for freedom? Were too few of the right people in positions of power? No, those were not the decisive factors. What was lacking among the leaders in every sphere was conviction, the sense of responsibility and readiness to make sacrifices for their own cause. . . .

The German people, too often deceived and betrayed and now caught up in a system of organised mistrust, are too thoroughly disillusioned to rally again from one day to the next, to some cheap slogan. So the most important and the most difficult job will be to re-establish mutual trust among Germans. But this work can be done only by people and groups who carry no guilt, past or present, and who can evoke confidence by their personal conduct and reputation. . . .

After German troops marched into Holland in May 1940, Hespers managed to reach Dunkirk. The British were prepared to take him with them, but not to accept responsibility for his wife and child during a military retreat. So he stayed in Belgium with his family and lived quietly in the country, under an assumed name, helped by friends in the Belgian youth movement. But in February 1942 he was recognised, arrested and taken to the Central Security Office of the Reich in Berlin. Soon afterwards, he was condemned to death.

Theo Hespers was hanged on 9 September 1943, after an air-raid on Plotzensee prison. Two hundred and fifty other condemned prisoners were put to death at the same time, as there was a shortage of space for new admissions.