My recent visit to the American invasion beaches of Normandy was unbelievably moving. I'd recently finished Stephen Ambrose's best-seller D-Day to try and be ready for the experience. Despite almost 600 pages of minute by minute detail about the invasion, I wasn't remotely prepared. Our guide was simply fantastic and I can't imagine trying to do this without someone like him (Eric Le Deux-Turnbull) to put it into perspective (more on this another day).
A haunting picture of SS-Panzergrenadiers Sepp Bund, Klaus Schuh and Günther Hamel of Regiment 25 (12 SS-Panzerdivision “Hitlerjugend”) on June 12, 1944 in the orchard of the Abbaye d'Ardenne near Caen, Normandy. They had just been awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class for destruction of a British tank using only their MG42 on June 9, 1944. Only Hamel survived the War. (Sources: i & ii).
While in France, I was also doing some reading the closing chapters of Alma in anticipation of my Sunday School lesson on Helaman's Army. This morning at 4:00 AM (still on French time . . . ) I was struck with the contrasts between two stripling armies.
In June 1943, Adolf Hitler exulted with the formation of the 12th SS-Panzer Division Hilterjugende. By the fall of 1943, training of 16,000 recruits from the Hitler Youth movement was complete. Many of the recruits were so young that they were issued sweets rather than tobacco and alcohol as part of their regular rations. These striplings had grown up in the propaganda programs of Nazi Germany and were fanatically committed to the cause. From their mother's knees they were taught to trust their Fuhrer, and were prepared to die for the Fatherland. The division had been equipped with the finest weaponry that Nazi Germany had to offer and had been extensively trained with innovative techniques. The Hitlerjugende was led by officers and NCO's that had proven themselves on the eastern front; it enjoyed a camaraderie and morale that was unusually strong. Hitler moved 12th SS-Panzer Division Hilterjugende to Caen, Normandy in March 1944 to help defend the European continent from the coming Allied Invasion.
In June of 1944, the 12th SS-Panzer Division Hilterjugende played a critical role in the Battle of Normandy. They faced the Canadians and British after they landed on the beaches at Juno and Gold and then moved inland to take the rail and road hubs at Caen. Hitler's stripling division offered up fanatical resistance and a fight to the death mentality. They were without doubt the most effective German fighting force in France. Unfortunately, their war crimes against unarmed British and Canadian POWs is well-documented as well. Good soldiers are not always good people.
On the other hand was Helaman's army of two thousand and sixty young men. Their Ammonite parents were willing to sacrifice their lives instead of spilling the blood of their enemies; the sons made a seemingly polar opposite covenant to take up arms and sacrifice their lives in the defense of their country.
And they were all young men, and they were exceedingly valiant for courage, and also for strength and activity; but behold, this was not all—they were men who were true at all times in whatsoever thing they were entrusted. Alma 53:20
Now they had never fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives; yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them. And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it. Alma 56:47-48
And as the remainder of our army were about to give way before the Lamanites, behold, those two thousand and sixty were firm and undaunted. Yea, and they did obey and observe to perform every word of command with exactness; yea, and even according to their faith it was done unto them; and I did remember the words which they said unto me that their mothers had taught them. Alma 57:20-21
Both armies were very young and, on the surface, hardly intimidating as a fighting force. Yet both armies were committed, firm and fearless; they meted out death and destruction to their enemies with incredible effectiveness. Both had been taught to trust their leader and to obey with exactness and without hesitation.
The ultimate difference was who they chose to follow. The stripling Hilterjugende followed Adolf Hitler, one of the most evil men the world has ever known. They were committed to the principles of Nazism, which called for the conquest of it's neighbors and the utter destruction of Jew, Poles, Russians and others deemed racially inferior. By the end of July 1944, their ranks were decimated and numbered just over 2000. In contrast, the stripling Ammonites selected Helaman, the prophet of God, to be their General. They were committed to God and the principles of liberty for all men. They held firm not for several weeks, but for many months and in a variety of trials and hardships that included hard-fought battles, isolation and near starvation. Because of "their exceeding faith in what they were taught to believe", not one soul was lost on the field of battle.
But behold, they have received many wounds; nevertheless they stand fast in that liberty wherewith God has made them free; and they are strict to remember the Lord their God from day to day; yea, they do observe to keep his statues, and his judgments, and his commandments continually; and their faith is strong in the prophecies concerning that which is to come. Alma 58:40
We like to feel assured that we are not so vulnerable to be led astray as were the Germans under Hitler’s National Socialist German Worker’s Party. But Hitler, like so many of the forces that threaten our souls, was a master of misinformation, propaganda and praying on the weaknesses of others when they were most vulnerable. Furthermore, he was content to make his gains by degrees. The only way we can be confident in our ability to stand as firm as Helaman’s army is to be uncompromising in our commitment to God and follow his commandments with exactness. This is the stuff that ‘exceeding faith’ is made of, and the stuff that makes you invincible to your foes, no matter the odds.