IN FEBRUARY 1943, two students walked into the atrium of the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich (LMU), and deposited piles of home-made leaflets that urged readers to “fight against the [Nazi] party”.
The pair, a brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl, climbed to the highest point of the gallery, and one — maybe both — of them pushed copies over a balustrade as students criss-crossed below. But they had been spotted, and in minutes were apprehended and handed over to the Gestapo.
Two of their collaborators were also arrested that day: Willi Graf and his sister Anneliese. Three more were arrested in the days that followed: Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, and Professor Kurt Huber. In the coming months, others, including members of their families, joined their number. Hans and Schmorell had previously painted “Freedom” and “Down with Hitler” on the university walls, and the Gestapo had no time for such acts of defiance.
On 22 February, at a sham trial, the Scholls and Probst were convicted of high treason, and they were guillotined that afternoon. Schmorell, Huber, and Willi Graf were executed later that year.
THE students and lecturer were members of the White Rose group, who secretly wrote, reproduced, and distributed six leaflets between 1942 and 1943, which they posted to cities across Germany and Austria. Whereas some resistance groups were rooted in Communism, a key influence on the White Rose was Christian spirituality. This small group were armed with a few typewriters, a duplicating machine, paint, and a tiny network in other German cities.
A copy of the sixth leaflet was smuggled out of Nazi territory and reached the Allies, who broadcast it over the BBC and airdropped copies over Germany. But otherwise its message was extinguished, and the group’s members were put to death or imprisoned.
Yet, thanks to the persistence of surviving relatives, authors, and Holocaust educators, the White Rose activists have risen from the status of “traitor” to be hailed as the embodiment of the highest virtue of Germany’s hard-won democracy: civil courage.
Hundreds of schools, streets, and squares have been named after White Rose members; and the LMU hosts a permanent exhibition about the group, and displays a bust of Sophie. In 2003, another bust of her was placed in the Walhalla, a mausoleum to notable Germans, to commemorate all members of anti-Nazi resistance.
Opera composers and filmmakers have retold the group’s story, most notably in the 2005 Oscar-nominated film Sophie Scholl: The final days, directed by Marc Rothemund. Pupils are taught the story when they learn about the Holocaust in their first year of secondary school. Winners of a literary prize named after the Scholl siblings include Joachim Gauck, later President of Germany.
In this 75th-anniversary year of the White Rose executions, political and religious leaders’ commemorations have praised the group’s example of non-violent resistance and their rejection of far-right ideology, which is today gaining ground through the Alternative für Deutschland, now the main opposition party.
“The White Rose were one of the rare examples of resistance by young people against the Nazi dictatorship, and one of the most important resistance groups,” Professor Johannes Tuchel, director of the German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin, says. “At this time, the universities were full of Nazis and not full of resistance fighters. They were a very small group, [and] they show us that you could act in an alternative way to the Nazi dictatorship.”
The Rt Revd Susanne Breit-Keßler, a Lutheran Bishop of Bavaria, says that the Scholl siblings set an example when the Church failed: “The Church did not stand in the way of the Nazi terror. It worried principally about itself. The memory of the White Rose helps us to learn from this sin.”
For Bishop Breit-Keßler, the siblings, who were Lutheran, demonstrate that “it is our responsibility to contribute to the political culture and the preservation of the democratic constitutional state. If those in power take advantage of their position and face others with hatred and violence . . . one must obey God rather than man [Acts 5.29].”
Another lesson, she says, is that the Church must concern itself with the social and economic problems that were exploited by the Nazis, and are being exploited again today, to help people who might be seduced by such ideology to “come to their senses”.
This year, the RC Archbishop of Munich & Freising, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, made the White Rose movement the focus of a service on Ash Wednesday. He brought to the sanctuary a crucifix from the prison where the Scholls, Probst, Schmorell, Huber, and Willi Graf were incarcerated and executed, and summed up their example as “repentance and resistance”.
ASPECTS of the legacy of the White Rose are still being contested, however. The first biography came from the pen of Hans and Sophie’s sister Inge, in 1952. Her book The White Rose: Munich 1942-43 “contributed to the somewhat one-sided focus on Hans and Sophie”, Dr Jürgen Zarusky, the chief editor of the Contemporary History Quarterly and a researcher at the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, says.
Dr Jud Newborn, a co-author of the book Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, says that Inge’s account was “sentimentalised”, and that descendants of other White Rose members resented Hans and Sophie for carrying out the act that led to their relatives’ executions. Sophie, in particular, became a symbol of the group: the fearless 21-year-old civilian woman cut down by the merciless guillotine.
“Misleading interpretations” of the group sprang up quickly, Professor Tuchel notes. “Sometimes, you had people who said they only acted as brave heroes but didn’t mention the political goals. . . Sometimes, you have people who say the White Rose movement was only a Catholic movement.”
The sixth leaflet was written just after the Nazis’ defeat at Stalingrad, and articulated the group’s hopes in political as well as philosophical and spiritual terms. “Hans Scholl hoped for the Allied forces, the British forces [to] liberate the German people,” Professor Tuchel says.
“The history of the White Rose has always been examined and presented under the prevailing political and social conditions,” Dr Michael Kißener, Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Mainz, says. A biography published this year by the theologian Robert Zoske, posits that Hans was bisexual, and his less well-known 1937-38 trial, for “unnatural relations” after a teenage encounter with another boy, began his rejection of the ideology on which Nazi-era youth were raised.
This is likely to prompt fresh controversies, especially among church figures. The RC chaplain at LMU, Dr Maria Anna Möst, rejects this idea of a “private sexualisation of political resistance”. But Dr Newborn says that research for a 2005 essay he wrote led him to conclude that Hans’s encounters with women were overstated, and he was probably gay.
The second leaflet made a point that Dr Zarusky believes has not been researched widely enough: it refers to the regime’s having killed 300,000 Polish Jews. This “was difficult to reconcile with the statement that was heard everywhere in Germany after the war: that one knew nothing about the Holocaust”, Dr Zarusky observes. The leaflets are striking in their clear-sighted view of the evil of the Nazi regime.
IT IS thought that the White Rose were not able to develop links with other resistance figures, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor hanged for his links to the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. But the students read widely and discussed passionately, disquieted by the Nazi ambitions that they saw during their compulsory military service.
Steered by Carl Muth, the editor of a banned Catholic journal, the Scholls met Theodor Haecker, a scholar of Kierkegaard and Cardinal Newman, both of whom wrote extensively on the part played by conscience. Some Lutheran, some Catholic, one Orthodox, the members found in their Christian reading permission and ability to reject the prevailing totalitarianism. “They sought solace in their faith, as well as justification for their rejection of Nazism and their radical humanitarianism,” Mr Newborn says, adding that Sophie’s favourite Bible verse was “Be ye doers of the word and not just hearers” (James 1.22).
The Scholls also had an example of conscientious objection in their home: their father, Robert, was “a pacifist and a sincere Christian”, who challenged his children’s acceptance of Nazism, a family friend has recalled. The group’s cryptic name is thought to reflect this idea of purity, and may refer to a work of literature.
The group’s ecumenical make-up was highlighted at a service in the university church on 18 February, the anniversary of the siblings’ arrest. The Greek Orthodox Archpriest Apostolos Malamousis said that the students did not see their different denominations as a dividing line, suggesting that their example called for a path together “guided by the direction of God, even where it is uncomfortable”.
Some commemorations are linked to a church tradition, such as an Orthodox procession to the tomb of (now canonised) Schmorell, and the beatification of Graf being considered by the archdiocese of Munich. But people who were interviewed did not believe that they should be divisive. “Someone who does the right thing should be remembered because they do the right thing, and not because they’re from certain religion,” Mia Rossmanith, a student at LMU and a Roman Catholic, says. She thinks that she relates to Sophie “because she’s a girl, and you hear most about her”.
The students’ writings have found a new audience since the election of President Donald Trump in the United States, where an anti-racism White Rose Society on Facebook has more than 4000 members.
Were Hans and Sophie Scholl and their collaborators wise or foolish, weak or strong? The White Rose’s attempts to overthrow one of the most powerful regimes of the 20th century failed. History has judged that their merit did not lie in achieving their goal, however, but in the determined act of trying.