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 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.
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):
… 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…
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.
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.
… 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.
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!