The White Rose: German heroes

In a recent conversation, I brought up the White Rose–die Weiße Rose–and was reminded that most of you (being Anglophone) have probably never heard of them. But you must know them. Now you will.

They were a smallish group of students and one professor at the University of Munich during the Nazi era who defied and spoke out against the Nazi horrors. The middle petals of the Rose were Hans Scholl (above left) and his sister Sophie (middle) and their friend Christoph Probst (right). The group lasted less than a year until, in 1943, they were caught, “tried” and beheaded.

This summary does not do justice to them, however. They are, to me and to all post-war Germans, synonyms for goodness, courage, humanity. They are romantic, having lived Bohemian lives of pipes and poetry. They saw crimes against humanity and resisted, knowing that this would cost them their lives. At a time when conformity turned an entire nation into a murderous mob, they remained individualists, becoming heroes of all mankind.

The Leaflets

Alexander Schmorell

The Geschwister Scholl (siblings Scholl) and their friends watched with increasing horror what the Nazis said and did in the 1930s and early 40s. Then Hans Scholl and his friends Alexander Schmorell und Willi Graf were sent (nobody had a choice) to the eastern front in 1942 where they witnessed German atrocities in Poland and either saw or heard about the Warsaw Ghetto. Many Germans soldiers did, but these three were different: They decided not to stay silent but to fight the evil, which was their own regime.

Hans Scholl

They returned to Munich, where Sophie, Hans’ younger sister had moved to study biology and philosophy. She became friends with Hans’ friends. Never knowing whom they could trust, they formed their group, printing leaflets in secret back rooms and sending them by mail all over Germany.

They managed to print only about 100 copies of the first leaflet. (You can read an English translation of all six leaflets here, but I’ve chosen excerpts from the German and translated them in my words. Pictures courtesy of the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand):

Willi Graf

… Is it not true that every honest German today is ashamed of his government? And who among us can even guess the extent …?

… If the Germans, without any remaining individuality, have indeed become a heartless and cowardly mob, yes, then they deserve to perish…

Goethe talks about the Germans as a tragic people, like the Jews and Greeks, but today it seems that the Germans are a shallow, mindless herd of followers (Mitläufern) whose marrow has been sucked out and who, bereft of their core, allow themselves to be led into their extinction. It seems so, but it is not so; instead, each individual–after slow, insidious, and systematic rape–has been put into a moral prison, and only once he was captive did he become aware of his dilemma. Few understood the the menace, and their reward was death….

Each individual, as a member of Christian and Western civilization, must therefore rise up in this final hour and resist, as much as he can, against this scourge on humanity, against Fascism and every system like it. Resist passively, resist, resist wherever you are … Never forget that each people gets the government it deserves…

Christoph Probst

They then quoted Friedrich Schiller talking about Lycurgus and Solon (ie, ancient Greece) and Goethe, clearly reminding their readers of the previous heights of their civilization, the starker to contrast it with its present lows.

In the second leaflet, they begin to inform the Germans of what they had seen on the eastern front, so that none might later say (as many would) that they “didn’t know”:

… the fact that, since the conquest of Poland, three-hundred-thousand Jews have been murdered in a bestial way. Here we see the most dreadful crime against the dignity of man, a crime that compares to no other in the entire history of mankind…

… Nobody can pretend he was not guilty. Everyone is guilty, guilty, guilty! But it is not yet too late to wipe this ugliest monstrosity of a government off the face of the earth, in order not to become even more guilty….

.. the only and highest duty, indeed the holiest duty, of each German is to eradicate these [Nazi] beasts….

They then quoted Laozi and closed with an exhortation to copy the flyer as many times as possible and to distribute it (in effect, demanding martyrdom from each reader).

In the third leaflet, they exhort:

… The foremost concern of every German must not be the military victory over Bolshevism but the defeat of the National Socialists ….

before describing how people should resist:

… Sabotage of the military-industrial complex; sabotage in all Nazi gatherings, rallies, festivities, organizations…. Sabotage of all scientific pursuits to further the war, whether in universities, laboratories, research institutes … Sabotage of all Fascist cultural events…. Sabotage of all the arts that serve National Socialism. Sabotage of all writings and newspapers in league with National Socialism….

They ended by quoting Aristotle on the subject of tyranny and again exhorted readers to copy and distribute.

Sophie Scholl

From the fourth leaflet:

… Every word that comes out of Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace he means war, when he says the name of the almighty he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the stinking throat of hell…

They also assured readers that they took addresses randomly from phone books and did not write them down anywhere, then ended with:

… We will not be silent, we are your bad conscience; the White Rose will not leave you alone! Please copy and spread.

In the fifth leaflet:

… Are we to be a people forever hated and outcast by the world? No! Therefore resist these Nazi subhumans! Prove with your deeds that you think different!

They end with an amazingly prescient vision of post-war Germany and Europe, predicting a federalist Germany, a unified and peaceful Europe, and freedoms of association, speech and press.

In early 1943, after the German army was wiped out at Stalingrad, they produced their sixth and final leaflet, with their biggest print run yet–about 3,000 copies. They again mailed it all over Germany.

… Freedom and Honor! For ten years, Hitler and his thugs have twisted, raped, perverted these two beautiful German words…. They have shown what freedom and honor mean to them by destroying, throughout the past ten years, all material and spiritual freedom, all morality in the German people….

This time they went further. For three nights, they stealthily went out and painted the walls of the university quarter: “Down with Hitler!” “Freedom!”

Then Hans and Sophie (whom Hans had tried to keep out of the group in order to protect her but who had become passionately involved) decided to carry stacks of leaflets into the university to distribute them while lectures were in progress. This was reckless and the other members did not know about it.

Hans and Sophie stuffed a big suitcase full of leaflets, took it to the university and put stacks on window sills and in front of lecture halls. Just as the bell rang and students were about to spill out, they threw a big pile from the very top of a staircase into the light-filled atrium (where they are immortalized today, see left). A janitor saw them and alerted the Gestapo.

The guillotine

Four days later, Hans, Sophie and Christoph were “tried”. Hans and Sophie asked that Christoph be spared because he was married. The request was denied. On the same day the guillotine fell on their young necks.

Hans was 24 years old; Christoph 23; Sophie 21.

Their houses were searched and letters and addresses discovered. Soon after, Alexander Schmorell and Willi Graf, as well as their professor, Kurt Huber, were also caught and beheaded. Alexander and Willi were 25; Professor Huber almost 50.

Just before Hans was brought to the guillotine, he yelled out of his cell, echoing through the walls of the prison:

Long live freedom!

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51 thoughts on “The White Rose: German heroes

  1. It is by far the greatest tragedy, and mystery, of the twentieth century that those fine people , the Germans, and their culture, should have been so dessicated by this monster that lurks in all human hearts.

    It is a burden that Germans do not deserve to carry since no people can be assured that they would have reacted differently, or worse, as a people, under the same circumstances. Nor can they be assured that in their midst would appear individuals of surpassing bravery, prepared to lay down their lives in the cause of freedom and justice. The White Swan is a beacon to us all and a constant reminder of the need for untiring vigilance against encroachment of those fundamentals. I am quite certain that I would not have had the tiniest part of their courage. Indeed, I would probably have been one of those who played along with the atrocities through sheer weakness.

    Let the memory of The White Swan spread far and wide and as to Germany’s tragedy, let us all declare: There, but for the grace of God go we.

    • “…I would not have had the tiniest part of their courage. Indeed, I would probably have been one of those who played along with the atrocities through sheer weakness..”

      It takes courage and nobility to say that.

  2. A great posting about something which has implications for all of us. And I found myself saying Amen to all of what Richard said in his comment

    Incidentally, a film called, “Sophie Scholl”, was shown in North American theatres two or three years ago. It was also, as far as I know, reviewed widely in the North American media. So the story of the White Rose may be more widely known here than at first supposed.

    I recommend another film, called “The “Wannsee Conference”, made in the early 1980s, and based on a transcript of a 90 minute meeting of bureaucrats, at which the plans for carrying out the Final Solution were agreed to. It was all very impersonal, and layered over with bureaucratic jargon. The people at the meeting were the sorts of ordinary people you meet at any business or government meeting, and otherwise meet anywhere. The only difference was that at the Wannsee meeting, they wore uniforms, not business suits.

    The White Rose reminds us that it is the dissenters and conscientious objectors, who are ostracised, jailed, tortured, and killed for their principled stands against war and tyranny, who are the real heroes in any society. They are the ones with true courage.

    • I watched both films, the latter for a history class once. Very good indeed.

      “…the real heroes in any society. They are the ones with true courage….”
      I reckon they had a bit of that unbending individualism of Socrates, no?

  3. Andreas,
    Thank you for writing this post and piecing together and translating key excerpts from the leaflets.

    I find their story pure, a distillation of the best of humanity.

    • Andreas – I assure you that it takes no courage at all to recognise my own weaknesses, merely an awareness of inadequacy, but thank you for your typical kindness.

      This posting is firmly within the theme of your blog: the imperceptible shifting from the disaster of evil to the triumph of good. “If” is an anodyne for inadequates like myself, but of no relevance in the case of the White Rose. Indeed, worked to their ultimate, triumph and disaster may provide that elusive understanding of what is good and what is evil and a means to examine our own hearts.

    • Sadly, it was not the courage of these few which drowned evil. It was the courage and sacrifice of hundreds of thousands who fought in the militaries which eventually defeated Germany and Japan. Though these young people of principle give us hope and make us realize that not all people of a country will be supportive of a nation’s policies, they had no effect on the psyche of Nazi Germany and were likely seen as traitors by the vast majority of Germans until after Germany was defeated and the German nation was forced to take responsibility for its behavior.
      The story of the White Rose is quite a romantic one but one of futility in the face of willingness of so many to follow whatever path leaders offer.

    • Which is interesting in light of my new thread on heroes and heroism:

      Perhaps what we find heroic about them was precisely the futility of it, the way they did what was right despite having no hope of making a difference.

      very different from the ancient views of heroism….

    • It’s the romantic view, the hero who sacrifices all for a noble principle*. I saw a movie just the other day on TCM called “This Land Is Mine” with Charles Laughton as a timid (abject coward, actually) school teacher in some unnamed occupied country. In the end, he goes to his death at the hands of the Nazis with a smile on his lips. It was a story which mirrored the White Rose in many ways. Including the leaflets exhorting others to join in sabotage and resistance. The film was made in 1943.

      I do not know if it is so very different from ancient views on heroism. Were they not also tales of sacrifice for the greater good?

      I am still trying to grasp the concept of freedom as it was held in ancient times.

      *see also A Tale of Two Cities.

    • What struck me was that The White Rose never tried to hide what they were doing from the authorities. Had they tried to lead an underground resistance movement, for instance, they might have been able to live longer and perhaps organise their movement into something more widespread and effective. It isn’t clear from what I’ve read about them, here and elsewhere, whether this was their strategy from the beginning or whether they got carried away by the recklessness and romanticism of it all (it seems more of the latter to me, judging from what you say about Hans and Sophie distributing the leaflets in the university without the others knowing).

      This is not to belittle their courage and nobility, which is truly inspiring. But would we look at their heroism in a different way had their methods been different, they not marched towards their early deaths seemingly aware of how futile they were? Would it have made a difference had they worked for their cause and delayed or avoided the ultimate sacrifice, or was this sacrifice and its timing necessary to bring attention to all that they stood for?

  4. A:
    You post reassures me in a general way that there are scholars in our generation who cherish history and write so eloquently about it. I don’t find too many people these days who know anything about recent history.

    Thw White Rose is a very important chapter like many other examples of courage and perseverence-Raul Wallenberg comes to mind.

    Thank you for the excellent post. Their story evokes a lot of emotion for me.


  5. For any readers of German, here’s a piece I uncovered in Der Spiegel, about a youth movement which had members throughout Hitler’s Germany.

    As far as I can make out, they were called the Edelweißpiraten (Edelweis Pirates), and might have been the precursors of the hippies of the ‘sixties, for they dressed in colourful clothes which were the antithesis of the drab uniforms of the omnipresent Hitler Youth, whose brainwashed conformity the Edelweis Pirates were in rebellion against. Their emblem was the Edelweis, which they wore so to recognise, and be recognised by fellow members.

    They (the Edelweis Pirates) spent whatever free time they had, going on hikes in the forests, and singing songs, playing guitars and whatnot, and otherwise strove to be spiritually free. They eventually had to live as outlaws.

    When caught by the Gestapo they were thrown into youth concentration camps. The Spiegel piece describes the hanging by the Gestapo of 13 Edelweis Pirates in late 1944, which took place without trial. Some of those hanged were as young as sixteen.

    I hadn’t before heard of the Edelweis Pirates, and I would guess that they are even lesser known outside Germany than the White Rose.

  6. Hi Phil,

    Since I am looking/waiting for the right topic to nudge me (for my book), thanks for this link. I don’t think I can write about a story from France or Germany because I don’t speak either language.

    Now, what happened in South America?

    • “…I don’t think I can write about a story from France or Germany because I don’t speak either language…”

      Er, I’ve written a story about Hannibal of Carthage, and I don’t speak Punic.

  7. Another great movie about the Dutch underground is “Black Book”. One comes away with a similiar exposure to some unlikely heroes and illumination of the potential all men have for goodness. A must see.

  8. A terrible tragedy wonderfully written. I am speechless. I agree episodes like this have traits that make them particularly suitable for educating the young, lest we come again to these horrors.

    Having great admiration for the German culture this whole Nazi thing is so horrifying it pains me deeply. I have entertained a lot of discussions with my South-German friends, who were so deep and honest in dealing with their past (more than the Italians or the French ever did.)

    Off-topic, I both love and envy your style of writing. Being Italian mother-tongue, the English I know I have learned toiling on books.

    My best regards

    • Welcome to The Hannibal Blog, Man of Roma, and what a wonderful theme you have on your own!

      As you may gather, I’ve become quite the fan of Rome (the older version of it, mainly) in the course of reasearching my book.

      Will be perusing your posts.

    • Thank you Andreas.

      By the way, have you got any German ancestors? It is just curiosity. German has sort of defeated me, but I have a passive knowledge of it, can understand and read it a bit and I adore the culture.

    • As an Italian adoring German culture, you’re reversing the trend. 😉 As you know, they call Munich (Monaco) the northernmost town in Italy.

      Ancestors: yes, all German. Me: German parents, born in US, raised in Germany, US, then UK etc….

      Nationality: Confused.

    • There are many more Italians who love the Germans than you think, and not only in Northern Italy.

      I went to Regensburg (Castra Regina) 2 years ago, in Oberpfalz, north-eastern Bavaria, on a sort of pilgrimage along the Roman Limes. The population though Protestant has inherited this sort of Italian merry character, with people sitting in open-air cafés etc.“We are the last Italian city”, they also say, which angered our Munich friends who objected *they* were the real last Italians, for their Catholic faith but also for their even merrier festas with people dancing on tables in Oktober Fest.

      They certainly said this to please us, but there is some truth I believe: their elegance, their incredible love for Opera (more than us) and good wine (like us.)

  9. Sophie Scholl was on the tele in the UK a few months ago. Good film about the White Rose, if a bit predictably depressing.
    If you are interested in the White Rose, there’s another film set in post war Germany called The Nasty Girl – Die Schrecklicher Madchen (not sure of the spelling in German sorry). The nasty girl in question wins a national essay competition about what people in her small town did during the Nazi era. She is alternately lionized and vilified. Another interesting approach to resistance and remembrance.

  10. Yesterday, I randomly chose the “Sophie Scholl – ….” movie from the Flix Web site. Today I watched it again.

    I am Polish, living for the past 30 years in the US. Up until yesterday I had a lot of anger towards German people and the German nation. I know that such anger is irrational, but it was sitting very deep inside of me, and until last night I could not do anything about it. My family and my wife’s family had suffered tremendously in their lives in the hand of German Nazis, and now myself, my wife, and our kids are tainted with that hate, and unwanted chip on our shoulders.

    I do have to admit, that this movie has made me think a lot about that anger. It made me closer to German people. For the first time I was listening to the German language without disgust or unexplained fear. I though that Sophie’s words were flowing very beautifully. She was almost like a saint, a super-human, a goddess that died for all German sins. I felt so strange, for I fell in love with her courage, strong committment to the right cause. I cried at the end, marking the end of my hate for her nation. I recognized there are wonderful, courages, heroic and beautiful Germans.

    I do hope there are more Sophies in today’s Germany than 67 years ago. She, her brother, the professor and the White Rose gang are my heros.

    Thank you!

  11. Thank you Michael. I had the same epiphany a number of years ago. It is healthy, hopeful and positive.

    Thanks again for the post Andreas. Hope you’re well.

  12. Thank You very much, I need to see this movie, I am a Canadian, but have family still in Germany. And have listen to my Dad the last few years telling me stories about the war. And I do know that there where Germans around that felt like this group did. Not to change the tpic but I have been reading about Erist Junger and read his 1st book Storms of Steel. This is the kind of stuff I have been serching for to prove to me that not all Germans were monsters. anyways thank you

  13. I have German blood, and I have to say that these three students have the biggest hearts and courage, I ever heard of. I can only compare their courage to one word that describes it….. “Heroes”

    I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m very eager to read it.

    • Thanks, Michael.

      BTW, just to be clear, the White Rose are NOT in my current (first) book, although I do hope you’ll still be interested in that book.

      But I’ve got another surprising follow-up post on the White Rose in the works. So stay tuned.

      All best.

  14. Hi,im German And the reall Heros in Germany
    Are they from the Deutscher Wiederstand in
    The Operation Walküre!

  15. Most people who commented here are in awe of the courage of the members of the White Rose and so am I. There seem to be a lot of comments about them getting caught up in the romanticism of what they are doing and, while I understand where people are coming from, I think it could be unfair. Being young, they were prone to be a bit reckless and in the middle of an oppressive tyranny, they wouldn’t have felt any respite from the mind control and so on. So this would fuel their determination. However, the people who fought in the French Resistance, for example, would have been reminded of the freedoms they were maintaining all the time. Some hid in the countryside of France and would have had a difficult experience but one with a relative sense of freedom.

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