Have you ever heard the name of Helen Niemeyer? Perhaps you would know her by her married name, Helen Hanfstaengl? Probably not. In the crowded pages of history books, there is scarcely room for any mention of her. Her name — and her story — is worth telling and remembering, however. Your life and the lives of every person on the planet are remarkably different because of something she did.
Helen was a native of New York. As a young woman, she met and fell in love with Harvard graduate Ernst ”Putzi” Hanfstaengl. Ernst had an impressive family history, including a grandfather who was a Civil War general and a pallbearer at the funeral of Abraham Lincoln.
It was Helen, however, who was destined to affect the fate of the world.
Shortly after their marriage, Helen and Ernst moved to Austria, establishing their home about an hour away from Munich. There, they developed a friendship with a young man. He seemed somewhat lonely and in need of a close friend. He ended up being a frequent guest to their home. Helen remembered how, “He was a constant visitor, enjoying the quiet, cozy home atmosphere, playing with my son at intervals, and talking over for hours his plans and hopes.” She said, “One thing was really quite touching: he evidently like children, or he made a good act of it.”
Less than two years after making his acquaintance, their new friend found himself in trouble. He showed up at Ernst and Helen’s home in obvious distress. He was in trouble with the law.
When Helen saw him, she barely recognized her friend. “There he stood, ghastly, pale, hatless; his face and clothing covered with mud, the left arm hanging down from a strangely slanting shoulder.” He had been injured in his escape from the law, and he needed shelter.
The next morning, their friend seemed even more desperate. When Helen went to check on him, she found him looking utterly devastated. As she searched for words to console him, to her utter horror, he snatched up a gun and said, “Now all is lost! No use going on!”
Helen reacted immediately. In his weakened condition, she was able to wrestle the gun from his hand and prevent him from shooting himself in the head. She scolded him, reminding him that he would be leaving a lot of people who were depending on him. “They’re looking for you to carry on,” she said.
While her friend sobbed with his head in his hands, Helen quickly hid the gun and continued to console him. It wasn’t long until the police arrived and took him into custody. Before being led away, her friend thanked Helen for helping him remember the important things.
Suicide is a terrible thing for anyone to consider. Helen’s quick thinking that day saved her friend’s life — for a while. He ultimately would die by his own hand in a self-inflicted gunshot, although it would be more than twenty years after her timely intervention.
Yes, suicide is a terrible thing, yet we report Helen’s actions that day with mixed emotions. Certainly, every life is precious, yet one can’t help but ponder how different the world would have been if Helen had acted a little less quickly. Her friend would have died a tragic death, but millions more would have been spared.
The life that was saved on that fateful day in 1923 was that of her young friend, Adolf Hitler.