- James Houser
February 22, 1943 - Sophie Scholl & the White Rose
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
February 22, 1943. Anti-Nazi activists and siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl prepare for their deaths by guillotine. Their sacrifice for the ideals demanded by their liberal ideology and their Christian faith stand in sharp contrast to the moral catastrophe of the 1940s. The central lesson is that there was always a choice - but the choice was not always easy.
Hans and Sophie Scholl grew up in a time when the youth, by and large, was pro-Nazi. It was the youth movement of its time; the "Gen Z" of Nazi Germany were far more radical than their parents and grandparents. Hans eagerly joined the Hitler Youth, and Sophie joined the League of German Girls - the feminine equivalent. Both, however, soon grew disillusioned with the ultra-nationalist and revolutionary ideals embodied by the organizations. Sophie, in particular, developed an interest in philosophy and theology.
In 1940, Sophie barely graduated from high school thanks to her newfound resistance to Nazi indoctrination. The Second World War was raging, but neither she nor her brother wanted to participate in the campaigns of aggression. They became students at the University of Munich, where they encountered fellow Germans of their age who also questioned and opposed Hitler's regime.
Sophie's boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel, was a German soldier deployed to the Eastern Front. He wrote Sophie multiple letters about the war crimes he witnessed: the mass killings of Jews, the murder of Soviet prisoners, the general depredations of the Nazi regime. Sophie shared these letters with her brother and their friends, which hardened their opposition to Nazism; Sophie sent Hartnagel multiple religious texts by John Henry Newman which advocated a "theology of conscience" uncoupled from authoritarian and hegemonic regimes and based on a natural and internal understanding of Jesus and God. Sophie encouraged her lover to seek his conscience, not the teachings of others, in these times of peril.
Convinced of the need to spread their ideals, the small cadre of students formed the White Rose, an anonymous organization devoted to ending the war. Sophie's inclusion in the group helped them hide their activities because the SS were unlikely to suspect a woman. They spread pamphlets across Munich that encouraged nonviolent resistance to the Nazi regime, resting on both Biblical and philosophical foundations to undermine the nihilist and brutalist philosophies of Hitler and his followers. Even as they distributed these tracts in secret, the White Rose knew that they placed their lives in jeopardy. Free speech was non-existent in the list of Nazi priorities, and the Gestapo was soon on their trail.
When Sophie and her fellow members of the White Rose were arrested, she initially attempted to claim full responsibility for the group's actions, but this fiction was quickly dispelled. They were hauled before the People's Court, a summary body with full powers of capital punishment over its victims. Sophie expressed herself simply and in full conviction with her ideals: "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."
Indeed they did not. The White Rose's actions were probably the most significant protest against Hitler that the German people ever exhibited during the war - and their achievement was leaflets on a college campus.
On February 22, Sophie and Hans were both condemned to die by the guillotine within a few hours. It is hard to imagine what they must have felt, with so little time to contemplate the sudden realization of their fates. Sophie, for her part, walked to the block with courage. Her last words: "Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go... What does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?"
Sophie's boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel, survived both Stalingrad and the war. His last communication with Sophie were her letters exhorting him to seek his conscience. After the war, he comforted her sister Elisabeth and they eventually married.
The White Rose's pamphlets made their way to Britain, where they were dropped on Germany from the sky. The White Rose failed in their aims. The German people did not rise against Hitler. They remained remarkably loyal to the Fuhrer until the final days of the war, sacrificing morality and ethics in doing so. For the tiny impact they made, the White Rose shines all the brighter. Sophie and her friends knew they were shouting into a sea of darkness, but sometimes the shout has to be made, whatever the consequences.
The White Rose should put the lie to those who claim that the Germans just followed orders. It was impossible to ignore the criminality of Nazism, the atrocities of its war, the ideology that deemed others subhuman. Sophie's choice was to die resisting, even when resistance was truly futile. The failure does not belong to her, or the White Rose. The failure belongs to the German nation as a whole for its moral cowardice and final slouching into absolute degradation.
Sophie and Hans Scholl showed us that, no matter what anyone may claim as an excuse, there is always a choice. The issue is that sometimes we are too weak to make the right one.
Book Recommendation: The best book on the White Rose in English is probably Annette Dumbach and Jud Newborn, Sophie Scholl and the White Rose (London: Oneworld Publications, 2006).