Monday, February 21, 2011

Remembering the White Rose

In an urban area just south of Munich, there is one of the city's chief cemeteries, a heavily wooded, beautifully kept area, which lies in the shadow of one of Bavaria's largest prisons. In Perlach cemetery lie the remains of Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans, as well as their friend, Christoph Probst – all three members of the student group, the White Rose; all three executed at Stadelheim prison on the 22nd of February in 1943, for subversion against the Third Reich.

          Sophie Scholl was born on May 9, 1921 (exactly one day before my own father, it occurs to me) the daughter of Robert Scholl, the mayor of Forchtenberg, a town in western Bavaria. A few years later, her family moved to Ulm and in 1933 Sophie, like so many German young people,  joined the Hitler Youth. At first she was enthusiastic about Germany’s new regime, but, influenced by the views of her father, a political opponent of the Nazis, she became increasingly critical of  Hitler and his government. Sophie's brother, Hans Scholl, became even more outspoken in his opposition to the Nazis, and soon started meeting clandestinely with other students opposed to the government.  

          After graduating from the equivalent of our high school in 1940, Sophie became a teacher at a nursery school in the outskirts of Ulm. In May 1942, she entered the Kudwig Maximilian University in Munich, studying biology and philosophy. Later that year, in the aftermath of the German defeat at Stalingrad, her father was imprisoned for making critical comments about  Hitler to one of his employees. "This Hitler is God's scourge on mankind,” the Herr Scholl had said, “and if this war doesn't end soon the Russians will be sitting in Berlin."

          Around this time, too, Hans Scholl, also a student at the University in Munich, had formed the White Rose resistance group, committed to opposing the government of Nazi Germany and its policies. Eventually the group in Munich numbered seven members: six students-- the Scholls, plus their friends,  Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, and Jugen Wittenstein—and one teacher, Kurt Huber, a professor of philosophy.  

          The group decided to adopt a strategy of passive resistance against the Nazi regime, and published leaflets calling for the restoration of democracy and civil liberties in their country. These were anonymously distributed throughout central Germany, at first by simply taking names at random from the telephone book. Later, the group decided to focus on university lecturers and bar owners as a more efficient means of disseminating their limited resources. It was not long before the Gestapo became aware of the group's activities.

          In its pamphlet Passive Resistance to National Socialism, published in 1943, the group explained the reasons why they had formed the White Rose organization:

          “We want to try and show that everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of the system. It can be done only by the cooperation of many convinced, energetic people - people who are agreed as to the means they must use. We have no great number of choices as to the means. The meaning and goal of passive resistance is to topple National Socialism, and in this struggle we must not recoil from our course, any action, whatever its nature. A victory of fascist Germany in this war  would have immeasurable, frightful consequences... The name of Germany is dishonoured for all time if German's youth does not finally rise, take revenge, smash its tormentors."

          The members of the White Rose also began painting anti-Nazi slogans on the sides of buildings around Munich. These included "Down With Hitler", "Hitler Mass Murderer" and the simple German word "Freiheit"-- "Freedom". They also painted crossed-out swastikas along the sidewalks of Munich's busy streets. Their writings would often end with the sentence: “People of Germany! We are the White Rose! We are your guilty conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.”

          Soon, members of the group had begun  leaving piles of leaflets in public places. It was during one of these leaflet drops, in February of 1943, that Sophie and Hans Scholl were discovered, when Jakob Schmidt, a member of the Nazi Party, saw them throwing leaflets from a balcony of the third floor of a classroom building at the university into the courtyard below. Schmidt immediately informed the Gestapo and both of the Scholls were arrested. Soon, Christoph Probst, too, was implicated  in the writing of the leaflets.

          The three members of the White Rose group appeared before the High Judge of the People's Court, Roland Friesler—brought in from Berlin especially for the occasion-- on February 22, 1943. They were, of course, found guilty of sedition, and they were executed by guillotine just a few hours later. Just before he was executed Hans Scholl shouted out: "Long live freedom!"

          In her speech before the court, Sophie Scholl had said: “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don't dare express themselves as we did.” Within a few years, she told the judge and jury, "It will be you who will be standing trial. It is you who will be judged by history."

          Then, as she was being led away to her execution, Sophie told her cellmate, Else Gebel: 

          “It is such a splendid sunny day, Else, and I have to go. But how many have to die on the battlefield in these days, how many young, promising lives. What does my death matter if by our acts thousands are warned and alerted. Among the student body there will certainly be a revolt.”

          May that revolt happen now, in our own hearts, when we hear of heroes like the Scholls, and Cristoph Probst, and the  other members of the White Rose: A revolt against tyranny in all its forms. A revolt against any leaders—or ideologies—or religious institutions—or prejudice or narrow-mindedness—which exalt one group of people above another. A revolt against all ideas that say we human ones are bound to sin and shame and war and conflict.

          These blessed saints of peace and understanding—and hope and courage—speak to us still. May we remember them always, and take up their struggle, and create at last a world which reflects the love and justice for which they lived and died.



  1. Thanks...I learned something and look forward to more.

    Tom W

  2. Thank you Jeffrey! This is beautifully written and informative. Would you mind, if I shared it? Best regards from Munich, Angie

  3. Angie-- I am flattered! By all means, share as you wish!