Op-Ed: Lessons today from Sophie Scholl’s anti-Nazi resistance
By Jud Newborn http://www.judnewborn.com February 18, 2013
NEW YORK (JTA) — Though Sophie Scholl and the students of the White Rose resistance were executed by the Nazis 70 years ago this month, the example they set of courage in the face of authoritarian repression is as relevant today as it was seven decades ago.
Their crime: Daring to rouse the consciousness of their countrymen in the face of Nazi Germany’s destruction of all civil rights and its mass murder of European Jews.
In 1933, when Sophie was 12 and her brother, Hans, was 15, the Scholl siblings rejected their Lutheran upbringing and their parents’ Christian humanism and instead embraced Hitler’s philosophy of racial superiority, becoming leaders in the Hitler Youth.
But when Hans was arrested and convicted in 1938 for a same-sex relationship he had had three years earlier, when he was 16, the Scholls’ admiration for Hitler quickly ended. Gradually they became activists against the Nazi cause. By 1942, the siblings were engaging in daring forms of nonviolent resistance.
In May 1942, they dubbed themselves the White Rose and joined with a handful of friends at the University of Munich to produce what became a staccato burst of six impassioned anti-Nazi leaflets. Reproducing thousands in their secret headquarters over a nine-month period — ages before the push-button efficiency of the Internet — they made dangerous train trips to distribute the leaflets throughout Germany. They mailed them to 16 cities — Stuttgart, Vienna, Frankfurt, Berlin and Hamburg among them — in a bid to mislead the Gestapo into thinking theirs was a broad-based movement and not just a handful of students.
“Since the beginning of the war,” they declared in their second leaflet in June 1942, “300,000 Jews have been murdered in the most bestial manner. This is a crime unparalleled in human history — a crime against the dignity of Man. But why do we tell you these things when you already know them? Everyone wants to be exonerated, but you cannot be, because everyone is guilty, guilty, guilty.”
In their fourth leaflet, they wrote: “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!”
On Feb. 18, 1943, Sophie and Hans climbed a high gallery at the University of Munich’s vast atrium. From there they scattered hundreds of their sixth leaflet down upon the heads of astonished students below in what was called the only public protest by Germans against Nazism ever to be staged.
Spotted almost immediately, they were arrested by the Gestapo and subjected to grueling interrogation. Sophie, Hans and their comrade Christoph Probst were tried in a show trial in Munich by Hitler’s “hanging judge,” Roland Freisler. They were condemned to death. Just four days after their arrest, the three were beheaded by guillotine. Hans was 24, Sophie 21.
But their message lived on. Their last leaflet, smuggled out to the West, was dropped by the tons over Germany. Nobel laureate Thomas Mann broadcast back to Germany from American exile, praising the “splendid young people” who “at the time when Germany and Europe were still enveloped in the dark of night, knew and publicly declared” the ugly truth about Nazism in an attempt to bring about the “dawning” of a “new faith in freedom and honor.”
Today, the White Rose students are icons in Germany. In a nationwide TV competition to choose the Top 10 most important Germans of all time, German voters chose Sophie and Hans Scholl for fourth place — beating out Goethe, Gutenberg, Bach, Bismarck, Willy Brandt and Albert Einstein.
A German film, “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” was nominated for an Academy Award in 2006, the same time that “Sophie Scholl and the White Rose” was published. Its Hebrew edition just appeared in Israel in time for the 70th anniversary of their extraordinary protest and executions.
Despite all this, the story of the White Rose resistance remains barely known by the general public outside Germany.
But heroism like theirs is being replicated in countries around the world. There is Malala Yousafazai, the now-13-year-old Pakistani children’s rights activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban last October and now says she’s ready to fight on. There are the gays who struggle for equal rights in countries where they are despised and even put to death. There are Chinese dissidents like Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010 but is languishing in a Chinese prison.
Given the oppression, violence and threats such men and women face — and the costs they often are forced to pay – we who live in democracies owe it to them not to stay silent.
“Somebody had to make a start,” Sophie Scholl told Freisler, looking the judge straight in the eye on that fateful day in February 1943.
Seventy years on, we are still that somebody.
(Jud Newborn is co-author of “Sophie Scholl and the White Rose,” just published in Hebrew by Penn Publications. He also served as founding historian at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. His website is <http://www.judnewborn.com> .)
LEARNING GUIDE TO:
In German with English Subtitles
SUBJECTS — World/Germany & WWII;Age: 13+; No MPAA Rating; Drama; 1982; 108 minutes; Color; Available from Amazon.com.
Description: This is the true story of a group of German university students who, in 1942 and 1943, published leaflets critical of the Nazi regime. They gained a following among their fellow students but they took too many risks. They were caught and summarily executed.
Benefits of the Movie: "The White Rose" will acquaint children with two extraordinary people, Hans and Sophie Scholl, and their small group of like-minded friends. It describes World War II on the German home front and Nazi police state tactics. This film is an excellent beginning for in-depth study of these topics.
Possible Problems: MODERATE. This is a tragic story. We are shown the heroine being strapped into the guillotine and hear, but do not see, the blade coming down on her neck. There is one brief glimpse of the breasts of one of the girls after making love to her boyfriend.
Parenting Points: Before watching the film, make sure that children understand the nature of repression in Germany before and during WWII. For a very brief description see the first paragraph of the Helpful Background section. After the movie, show children the photographs of Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friends contained in the Learning Guide. The major part of your work with this film will be to review with your children the substance of the Helpful Background section and have them read the excerpts of the writings of Hans Scholl contained in that section. Finally, ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question and as many of the Discussion Questions as possible.
WORKSHEETS: TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students' minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film. Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM's Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.
Nazi Germany (along with Stalin's Russia) developed the modern police state. Freedom of belief, freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of the press were eliminated. The only acceptable beliefs were those sanctioned by the ruling party (Nazi or Communist, depending upon which country you were in.) The secret police apparatus was very large and had informants everywhere. Citizen spied upon citizen; co-worker spied upon co-worker; friend spied upon friend; family members spied upon other family members. Punishment for believing something different than permitted by the ruling party or taking action against the ruling party was swift and applied without due process of law. The secret police used summary detentions, often for long periods, corruption and torture. They were universally feared. Membership in officially sanctioned youth organizations was required for young people to get ahead. Adults who wanted to advance in their professions had to join the Nazi party (the Communist Party in Russia).
For reasons still debated by historians and sociologists, the German people did not mount mass protests against the atrocities committed in their name by the Nazis. In this "dark German night", the actions of The White Rose stand out as one of the few organized groups that sought to oppose the Nazi police state. In 1942, a few students, one professor and their supporters moved from silent disagreement to distributing leaflets strongly critical of the Nazi regime. Led by Hans Scholl and Alexander Schmorell, two medical students in Munich, they also painted "Down With Hitler" on the walls of public buildings. They planned further resistance. All the while they knew that death awaited them if they were caught. Their actions led to additional, but minimal, resistance activities in Hamburg, Berlin and Freiburg.
Hans and Sophie Scholl grew up in a household in which their father reviled Hitler, books that had been banned by the Nazis continued to be read, and anti-semitism was not accepted. From 1933 - 1936 Hans, against his father's wishes, was actively involved in the Hitler Youth. Identified as a leader by the Nazis, he was appointed to command a squad of 150 boys. His younger sister Sophie was an active member of the BDM, the parallel Nazi youth organization for girls. But there were incidents that caused Hans to become disillusioned with the Hitler Youth. We know of only a few of them. One day when Hans was reading a book that was on the banned list his company leader saw him and ripped the book out of his hands. Hans lost his position as squad leader when a senior Hitler Youth official, an adult, demanded that a 12 year-old member of Hans' squad give up a banner which the squad had made but which did not conform to the approved banners. As the official tried to forcibly take the banner from the frightened boy, Hans hit the man and knocked him down. Hans was then summarily stripped of his leadership position.
Hans and Sophie's views about National Socialism came to parallel those of their father. In 1937 Hans joined an anti-Nazi underground youth group. When the Gestapo mounted a crackdown on all youth groups not associated with the Hitler Youth, Hans, his brother and his sisters were arrested. Sophie was released the next day, the two other siblings, Inge and Werner, were kept a week. Hans was imprisoned for three weeks while being questioned by the Gestapo.
After a period of compulsory military service, Hans was admitted to medical school in Munich. There he met Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst and several other like minded students. In their long discussions, and watching as the crimes of the Nazis mounted, they finally came to realize that failing to act against the system was, in fact, supporting it. In another development, Robert Scholl, the father of Hans and Sophie, was sentenced to four months in prison for remarks overheard by his secretary. He had called Hitler a "divine scourge" and predicted that, unless the war was stopped, the Russians would be in Berlin in two years.
Hans and his friends printed and distributed six leaflets. They were left at various locations in public places and sent in the mail to random names picked from the phone book. The leaflets were uncompromising in their denunciation of Hitler and the Nazi regime: The first leaflet stated:
Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be "governed" without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes -- crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure -- reach the light of day... [B]y means of gradual, treacherous, systematic abuse the system has put every man into a spiritual prison. Only now, finding himself lying in feters, has he become aware of his fate. Only a few recognized the threat of ruin, and the reward for their heroic warning was death. ... If everyone waits until the other man makes a start, the messengers of avenging Nemesis will come steadily closer; then even the last victim will have been cast senselessly into the maw of the insatiable demon. Therefore every individual, conscious of his responsibility as a member of Christian and Western civilization must defend himself as best he can at this late hour, he must work against the scourges of mankind, against fascism and any similar system of totalitarianism. Offer passive resistance -- resistance -- wherever you may be, forestall the spread of this atheistic war machine before it is too late, before the last cities, like Cologne [recently heavily bombed by the Allies], have been reduced to rubble, and before the nation's last young man has given his blood on some battlefield for the hubris of the sub-human....The second leaflet read, in part:
We do not want to discuss here the question of the Jews, nor do we want in this leaflet to compose a defense or apology. No, only by way of example do we want to cite the fact that since the conquest of Poland three hundred thousand Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way. Here we see the most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of history. For Jews, too, are human beings -- no matter what position we take with respect to the Jewish question -- and a crime of this dimension has been perpetrated against human beings. Someone may say that the Jews deserved their fate. This assertion would be a monstrous impertinence; but let us assume that someone said this -- what position has he then taken toward the fact that the entire Polish aristocratic youth is being annihilated? (May God grant that this program has not fully achieved its aim as yet!) All male offspring of the houses of the nobility between the ages of fifteen and twenty were transported to concentration camps in Germany and sentenced to forced labor, and all the girls of this group were sent to Norway, into the bordellos of the SS! Why tell you these things, since you are fully aware of them -- or if not of these, then of other equally grave crimes committed by this frightful sub-humanity? Because here we touch on a problem which involves us deeply and forces us all to take thought. Why do the German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes, crimes so unworthy of the human race? ...The last leaflet was entitled "Fellow Fighters in the Resistance":
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. Führer, we thank you....The last leaflet was intended for students at the University and was written by a popular philosophy professor, Dr. Kurt Huber. On February 18, 1943, a Thursday, Hans, age 24, and Sophie, age 21, were seen by a janitor distributing the leaflet. He summoned the Gestapo. In an effort to protect their friends, Hans and Sophie claimed responsibility for all of the actions of the group. They were unable to protect Christoph Probst, another member of The White Rose, from immediate arrest. On the next Monday the three were tried by a "People's Court," convicted and summarily beheaded. Hans and Sophie maintained their dignity to their deaths. Hans' last words "Long Live Freedom!" were shouted just before the knife of the guillotine fell on his neck. Later, the Gestapo was able to pierce Hans and Sophie's efforts to protect the other members of The White Rose. They were caught and executed or imprisoned. A small group in Hamburg, inspired by the leaflets of The White Rose was also destroyed and its ringleader was executed.
While the film is excellent, the books written about this incident are inspirational. They show the intellectual process by which Hans and Sophie moved from being active in the Hitler Youth organizations to opponents of the regime. See the Bridges to Reading Section below.
Hans and Sophie's younger brother Werner was in the German Army and died on the Russian Front. The Scholl family lost three of five children during WWII.
Hans Scholl was in a "student company" of the German Army. They were sent to the Russian Front during the summer of 1942 for a "combat internship" to work in hospitals and perform low level medical tasks. This occurred after four of The White Rose leaflets had been distributed. Here are excerpts of several letters and diary entries that Hans wrote while on this trip.
July 27, 1942: Dear Parents, We arrived here [in Warsaw] after a long journey through Germany and Poland. The journey itself was pleasant enough. My friends [including Alex Schmorell] and I had a section to ourselves, and whenever we weren't asleep, we passed the time conversing intelligently or playing games. We often gazed out of the window for hours on end at the passing countryside -- the more so because the endless plains of the East cast their spell over us. There are two salient features here: trees and sky. The farmhouses are thatched with straw, and the farmsteads nestle picturesquely in little birch woods. The sunsets are indescribably beautiful and when the moon comes up and bathes the trees and fields in its magical, silvery glow, one thinks of the Polish prisoners in Germany and understands their boundless love of country.That fall, Hans and Alexander returned to Munich where they again took up their studies and the work of The White Rose. The beauty of their souls was snuffed out by the dictator's guillotine.
|QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION: Were the young people of The White Rose courageous or simply foolhardy? Remember when you answer to put yourself back into the Germany of World War II, in which millions were dying in the war and in the concentration camps. |
Suggested Response: There is no one right answer to this question. The White Rose didn't mount any effective resistance to Hitler. A few painted signs and some leaflets didn't amount to much. But then, at some point, someone had to do something. At least this was a start. If others had taken up where The White Rose had left off, perhaps an effective resistance could have arisen.
BUILDING VOCABULARY: Gestapo, SS, Hitler Youth.
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Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl
and Christoph Probst
Sophie Scholl and Soldiers
After WWII, many German citizens claimed that they had no knowledge of the mass killings of Jews and other groups in the concentration camps. However, the leaflets of The White Rose which were distributed in Munich and Hamburg and mailed throughout Germany, show otherwise. See also the interview of Elisabeth Hartnagel, a special feature of "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days" in which she recalls that her mother was told by friends that children and the elderly were being taken away and killed. Willi Mohr, the son of Sophie's Gestapo interrogator, recalls that it was known that Dachau was a concentration camp. He recalls children being told that if they were bad they would be sent to Dachau. Ibid. Interview with Will Mohr.
Why did they do it? "It was sympathy in the best sense of the word. Sympathy for the oppressed and reaching a point where you cannot stand by and watch ... others suffer. And that had nothing to do with religion or other motives. It was the human thing to do." Elisabeth Hartnagel, younger sister of Hans and Sophie Scholl, A special feature of the movie "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days"
"The situation we were in was not one of heroism, subjectively speaking. It was about the duty of every German that mattered. And that doesn't include the concept of hero. If an 18 year old knew that the whole thing would fail, and had to fail under the circumstances, ... then a nation of experienced and older people would have to realize sooner or later that we were headed off a cliff. You didn't need to be a hero for that. We discussed it once. Helping someone in need is a duty under the law, when you help someone without risking your own life. If you fail to do that you could be punished. Essentially, that was our way of thinking." Franz Müller, a member of The White Rose, arrested and tried at the age of 18 for distributing leaflets. His interview appears on the special features of the movie "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days".
Sophie Scholl was involved in The White Rose before she came to Munich. On her way there, she asked her fiance Fritz Hartnagel for money and to get a stamp of approval from his military unit to purchase a duplicating machine. When he warned her that her activities were illegal and she could be executed, she told him that she was fully aware of it. Source: Elisabeth Hartnagel, younger sister of Hans and Sophie Scholl (who later married Sophie's fiance). Her interview appears on the special features of the movie "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days".
Sophie and Hans' sister, Elisabeth Hartnagel, said it would be wrong to describe Sophie and Hans as heroes. "Anyone can say I'm not a hero, I couldn't have done anything. Even in the Third Reich something could have been done if enough people had gotten together. But everyone held back and didn't want to take the risk. If they hadn't pulled back, it wouldn't have happened. The Germans were such cowards." Elisabeth Hartnagel, younger sister of Hans and Sophie Scholl (who later married Sophie's fiance). Her interview appears on the special features of the movie "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days".
MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS: "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days" was Germany's 2006 nominee for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The movie is based on interviews and the original minutes of Sophie's interrogation. The interrogation minutes had been kept secret in Communist East Germany after WWII and were made available only in 1990. The screenwriter and the director tried to keep the story accurate and, while we have not thoroughly researched the film, it appears that they have been successful. For example, the trial scene in which Chief Judge Frieslers berates and screams at the defendants is consistent with archival footage showing Frieslers berating defendants in other trials and with eye witness accounts of his misbehavior during the trials of other White Rose defendants. If children become very interested in the resistance of The White Rose, this film is a great follow-up. The movie is not rated by the MPAA but we saw nothing that would prevent it from being shown to children 13 and older. The second side of the DVD contains excerpts of interviews with Elisabeth Hartnagel (Sophie's younger sister), Willi Mohr (the son of Sophie's interrogator), and Franz Müller (a surviving member of The White Rose). The movie is available for purchase from Zeitgeist Films, 800-509-0448.
See the Germany and Second World War sections of the Subject Matter Index.
1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
2. Both Napoleon and Hitler lost vast armies attempting to conquer Russia. Neither was able to recover and both were eventually overthrown in large part because of their losses in Russia. Can you describe why Russia is so difficult to conquer?
3. Should Hans have permitted his sister Sophie to become involved in The White Rose? Both he and Sophie knew the risks. Should they have thought of the grief their parents would have felt if they were both caught? Shouldn't Sophie have been kept insulated from activity in The White Rose so that their parents would have lost only one child and not two if the resistance group was discovered?
4. What did the characters in the film mean when they referred to the fact that the paint that they used to write "Down with Hitler" on public buildings was "pre-war" paint and therefore difficult to scrub off the walls?
5. What does the Second Leaflet tell us about the claims of individual Germans after the war that they had not known about the concentration camps and the attempt to exterminate the Jews, political opponents of the Nazis, the Roma and others?
Select questions that are appropriate for your students.
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For suggested answers: click here.
1. If you had lived in Germany during the Second World War would you have had an obligation to resist the Nazis? Would you have complied with it like Oskar Schindler and the Scholl's or would you have kept quiet?
2. What is the obligation of a citizen in a country which is prosecuting a war that he or she feels to be bad policy? For example, there were many Americans who opposed our entry into World War I. But once war had been declared, they supported the war effort because they felt that it was the right of the majority to decide to go to war and that once the decision was made, as members of society, they were bound to support the war effort. [If students are interested in the question, read to them the description of the position of William Jennings Bryan on WWI in the Learning Guide to "Inherit The Wind".] What about the millions of Americans who protested against the Vietnam War while it was going on? Was that position justified?
3. Please see the Quick Discussion Question.
For suggested answers: click here.
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Bridges to Reading:
The best book about The White Rose was written by Inge Scholl, the sister of Hans and Sophie Scholl. Published in 1947, it was designed for German school children. It has been translated and is still in print. It includes the text of the leaflets, the indictments and a narrative. It is suitable for good readers from approximately age 12 and up. The book is entitled The White Rose, Munich 1942 - 1943. A full account of The White Rose by two historians is entitled Shattering the German Night, by Annette E. Dumbach and Jud Newborn. Excerpts of the letters and the diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl are collected in At the Heart of the White Rose, edited by Inge Jens.
Selected Awards, Cast and Director:
Selected Awards: Nominated for the 1989 Special Film Award: 40th Anniversary of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Featured Actors: Leno Stolze, Wolf Kessler, Oliver Siebert, Ulrich Tucker, Werner Stocker, Martin Benrath and Anja Kruse.
Director: Michael Verhoeven.
Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.
Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.
Bibliography:In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
Last updated December 18, 2009.
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