by Joyce Lynn
On a beautiful sunny day, I brought a child in a long white dress to be baptized. The way to the church was up a steep mountain, but I carried the child safely and firmly. Unexpectedly, there opened up before me a crevasse on the glacier. I had just time enough to lay the child safely on the other side before I plunged into the abyss.
— Nazi resistance fighter Sophie Scholl, February 21, 1943
The day after her dream, the 21-year old University of Munich student was tried, convicted of treason, and executed by Nazi Germany’s secret “military-justice” court.
Sophie Scholl’s crime: distributing anti-war leaflets.
Scholl’s cellmate said Sophie interpreted her visionary dream like this: “The child in the white dress is our idea. The idea will prevail in spite of all obstacles. We were permitted to be pioneers, but we must die early for the sake of that idea.”
The idea immortalized in leaflets and sprawled in graffiti on buildings throughout Munich: freedom, freedom of speech, yes; freedom to be human, especially.
Like the biblical Moses and the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Scholl envisioned the promised land of milk and honey, of freedom and justice, but would die before she could enter.
The Gestapo arrested Scholl, her brother Hans, 25, a medical student at the University of Munich, and their friend Christoph Probst, 23, on February 18, 1943. Four days later, they were tried and sentenced by the hyperbolically named German People’s Court and within hours the young Germans were beheaded by guillotine at the hands of their own countrymen. Within days, a professor and other students in their cabal suffered the same fate.
The White Rose
The White Rose, the self-anointed name of the student-led passive resistance movement, attempted to mobilize “slumbering” German citizens to rise up against Nazi tyranny and “fascist criminals.”
“You can see how life and death and how we live is a long game. You do the right thing and 60 years later some one who was unable to do the right thing at the same time is transformed by your example,” explains Deborah Ravetz, artist and curator of The Search for the Deep Self, a social sculpture project featuring Scholl and other historic figures.
“When Sophie and her brother and friend died everyone was astonished at their equanimity. Something profound held them together, and the dream is the mythology in its true sense. The deep story describes the meaning of their life and death.”
Hans and two friends secretly wrote the leaflets in mid-1942. In July, they were sent for military service as medics to the Eastern front where they learned of and witnessed the Germans’ inhumanity to Jews, Poles, gypsies, and others. After returning to Munich in the fall, they intensified their efforts.
Sophie learned of their endeavors and insisted on joining them to stop fascism by passively resisting the Nazis. The White Rose distributed six leaflets before their tragic end. During their brief eight months, the White Rose galvanized students throughout and outside of Germany with a message of principles and individual responsibility.
“The state should exist as a parallel to the divine order, and the highest of all utopias . . .But our present ‘state’ is the dictatorship of evil. . . . Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right — or rather, your moral duty — to eliminate this system,“ the third leaflet exhorted.
Truth to Power
Sophie and friends knew the potentially fatal consequences of their actions in a nation where even criticizing Adolph Hitler was punishable by death. The White Rose was careful to surreptitiously mail the flyers or travel with the leaflets secreted in valises.
When Sophie was born, the fourth of five children, her father was the liberal mayor of a nearby town. In 1934 at the age of 12 like her peers, she joined the Hitler youth. Unlike many other German youth, however, she became disillusioned with Nazi militarism. The Scholl siblings, raised as Lutherans, were encouraged by their parents to voice their own opinions and read books the Gestapo banned. Their father was arrested briefly for anti-Nazi activity. Sophie studied biology and philosophy at the University.
Hans wrote in his diary while serving on the Russian front his sister was inspired by the teachings of Christianity and by the belief intellectuals have a responsibility to better the world by speaking the truth.
Excerpts from the leaflets reflect their religious and ethical underpinnings:
“It must be the sole and first duty, the holiest duty of every German, to destroy these beasts.”
“We must soon bring this monster of a state to an end. A victory of fascist Germany in this war would have immeasurable, frightful consequences.”
“Try to convince all your acquaintances, including those in the lower social classes, of the senselessness of continuing, of the hopelessness of this war; of our spiritual and economic enslavement at the hands of the National Socialists; of the destruction of all moral and religious values; and urge them to passive resistance!”
Sophie’s story is told in films like Sophie Scholl –- The Final Days, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2006, and in books, including The White Rose, Munich 1942-1943, the source of the story of Sophie’s dream, authored by her sister Inge Scholl.
The plaza where the leaflets fell and the Institute for Political Science at the University of Munich and hundreds of schools and streets in Germany are named after the Scholls. They have ranked in the top ten most important Germans. Stamps, like the cover art, commemorate the young resistance fighter considered by many Germany’s greatest heroine of the twentieth century.
The ripple effect of the White Rose and their passive resistance manifested in the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the enactment of the repressive U.S. Patriot Act, and the rise of anti-Muslim hate around the world. Emails with the story of the White Rose and the texts of their leaflets blanketed the globe. The numbers were far beyond what the small group could have imagined during World War 2 using a secret printing press to imprint their message against the Third Reich.
The Final Leaflet
Sophie and fellow students were arrested at the University of Munich scattering leaflet six from a terrace of the central hall into the courtyard. Months later, the Allies would drop over Germany millions of copies of the sixth leaflet, renamed The Manifesto of the Students of Munich.
The passion and commitment and grasp of political realities is manifest in the text of the sixth White Rose Society leaflet:
Shaken and broken, our people behold the loss of the men of Stalingrad. Three hundred and thirty thousand German men have been senselessly and irresponsibly driven to death and destruction by the inspired strategy of our World War I Private First Class. Fuhrer, we thank you!
The German people are in ferment. Will we continue to entrust the fate of our armies to a dilettante? Do we want to sacrifice the rest of German youth to the base ambitions of a Party clique? No, never! The day of reckoning has come — the reckoning of German youth with the most abominable tyrant our people have ever been forced to endure. In the name of German youth we demand restitution by Adolf Hitler’s state of our personal freedom, the most precious treasure we have, out of which he has swindled us in the most miserable way.
We grew up in a state in which all free expression of opinion is unscrupulously suppressed. The Hitler Youth, the SA, the SS have tried to drug us, to revolutionize us, to regiment us in the most promising young years of our lives. “Philosophical training” is the name given to the despicable method by which our budding intellectual development is muffled in a fog of empty phrases.
A system of selection of leaders at once unimaginably devilish and narrow-minded trains up its future party bigwigs in the “Castles of the Knightly Order” to become Godless, impudent, and conscienceless exploiters and executioners — blind, stupid hangers-on of the Fuhrer.
We “Intellectual Workers” are the ones who should put obstacles in the path of this caste of overlords. Soldiers at the front are regimented like schoolboys by student leaders and trainees for the post of Gauleiter, and the lewd jokes of the Gauleiters insult the honor of the women students.
German women students at the university in Munich have given a dignified reply to the besmirching of their honor, and German students have defended the women in the universities and have stood firm…. That is a beginning of the struggle for our free self-determination — without which intellectual and spiritual values cannot be created. We thank the brave comrades, both men and women, who have set us brilliant examples.
For us there is but one slogan: fight against the party! Get out of the party organization, which are used to keep our mouths sealed and hold us in political bondage! Get out of the lecture rooms of the SS corporals and sergeants and the party bootlickers! We want genuine learning and real freedom of opinion. No threat can terrorize us, not even the shutting down of the institutions of higher learning. This is the struggle of each and every one of us for our future, our freedom, and our honor under a regime conscious of its moral responsibility.
Freedom and honor! For ten long years Hitler and his coadjutor have manhandled, squeezed, twisted, and debased these two splendid German words to the point of nausea, as only dilettantes can, casting the highest values of a nation before swine. They have sufficiently demonstrated in the ten years of destruction of all material and intellectual freedom, of all moral substance among the German people, what they understand by freedom and honor. The frightful bloodbath has opened the eyes of even the stupidest German – it is a slaughter which they arranged in the name of freedom and honor of the German nation” throughout Europe, and which they daily start anew.
The name of Germany is dishonored for all time if German youth does not finally rise, take revenge, and atone, smash its tormentors, and set up a new Europe of the spirit. Students! The German people look to us. As in 1813 the people expected us to shake off the Napoleonic yoke, so in 1943 they look to us to break the National Socialist terror through the power of the spirit. Beresina and Stalingrad are burning in the East. The dead of Stalingrad implore us to take action. “Up, up, my people, let smoke and flame be our sign!”
Our people stand ready to rebel against the Nationals Socialist enslavement of Europe in a fervent new breakthrough of freedom and honor.