On this day in 1943, Nazis beheaded three young Germans — Christoph Probst and siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl — for their part in writing, printing, and distributing six leaflets urging nonviolent resistance to the fascist regime.
The leaflets were produced by the White Rose — the name chosen by a group of mostly young people attending or connected to the University of Munich, but also 49-year-old philosophy professor Kurt Huber. The youthful White Rose members had grown up under Hitler’s rule and, as teenagers, had embraced their mandatory participation in Nazi organizations like the Hitler Youth and the Union of German Girls. The excursions and bonding were exciting. And the ideology was compelling for all five of the Scholl siblings who survived childhood (one girl died in infancy) — even though their parents were outspoken critics of Hitler. As sister Inge wrote later, “Hitler – so we heard on all sides – Hitler would help this fatherland to achieve greatness, fortune, and prosperity. He would see to it that everyone had work and bread. He would not rest until every German was independent, free, and happy in his fatherland. We found this good, and we were willing to do all we could to contribute to the common effort.”
Elisabeth — by 2014, the last survivor of the Scholl siblings — did an interview with the Daily Mail in which she said there were a number of reasons for the siblings’ disillusionment with Hitler. “First, we saw that one could no longer read what one wanted to, or sing certain songs. Then came the racial legislation. Jewish classmates had to leave school.” In 1937, she said, some of the siblings, including Hans, were arrested for continuing their work with a Catholic youth group that the Nazis saw as a threat to their propaganda efforts. But even that didn’t launch them into action. According to George Wittenstein, one of the few White Rose members to survive, the group of school friends who became the White Rose were initially just socializing with like-minded people. He wrote that all “were of the same political conviction: against Hitler and the Nazi Regime. But, in a way typical for millions of Germans at the time, we withdrew into our own private sphere, in our case the arts, philosophy, our circle of friends. This was a course taken by many, who were unable to emigrate and it was aptly called ‘innere Emigration‘ (inner emigration).”
But eventually, the group could no longer turn a blind eye. Sophie’s boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel, was an ardent German patriot and soldier, but he nevertheless described atrocities in some of the hundreds of letters they exchanged, including the murder of protestors in 1941.
“Amsterdam civilians just demonstrated against recent Jewish arrests. Street cars and many shops went on strike. The SS shot at a group of protestors. They supposedly killed twenty. The people are extremely angry.”
Decades later, George Wittenstein set down his memories of the turning point:
“… as the brutality of the regime became more and more apparent, when deportations of Jews began, and the remaining ones were forced to wear the yellow Star of David, when German atrocities in occupied Poland and Russia became known, and when the copies of Bishop Galen’s sermon, condemning the killing of inmates in insane asylums, were circulated in secret, for us this detachment gave way to the conviction that something had to be done; that it was not good enough to keep to oneself, one’s beliefs, and ethical standards, but that the time had come to act.”
“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?”
Four leaflets were published before Hans Scholl and fellow medical students Willi Graf and Alexander Schmorell were conscripted into the Germany army as medics along the Russian front, where they witnessed the abuse of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto firsthand. The fourth leaflet ended with the words:
“We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!”
These days, we can broadcast to the world with a fully charged phone and an Internet connection. In Germany, during World War II, putting together a leaflet was a major task. The group had to obtain rationed paper and envelopes, a heavy typewriter, an inexpensive duplicating machine, and postage, among other supplies. Thousands of leaflets were scattered in public or sent to names picked out of the phone book. Group members took trains to other cities to mail leaflets, hoping to throw authorities off the scent. They knew they were taking their lives in their hands. According to her sister Elisabeth’s 2014 interview, Sophie’s boyfriend Fritz was suspicious when she asked him for money without telling him what it was for, warning Sophie that “resistance could cost both head and neck.” “I’m aware of that,” she replied. But Liselotte Furst-Ramdohr, a friend of Schmorell’s, said in a 2013 BBC interview that despite Sophie’s bravado, she was so scared she used to sleep in her brothers bed.
Then, in early February 1943, three members went out to graffiti “Down with Hitler!” “Freedom,” and “Hitler the Mass Murderer” in huge print in over 70 locations, infuriating the Gestapo, which was closely tracking any anti-Nazi speech and writing. On February 18, when a janitor named Jakob Schmid reported Hans and Sophie for throwing leaflets from a balcony into a courtyard at the university, the Gestapo swooped in and arrested them, along with Probst, who was implicated because Hans had Probst’s handwritten draft of a seventh leaflet.
Four days later, the three activists were brought in front of Nazi judge Roland Freisler — known as the “hanging judge.” Sophie was defiant, saying to the judge: “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare to express themselves as we did.” The trio was convicted of treason and executed at 5 p.m. the same day, by guillotine. Hans went last and is said to have shouted, “Long live freedom!” before the blade came down. Hans Scholl was the oldest at 24. Probst was 23 and Sophie Scholl was 21. After the execution, other university students held a pro-Nazi rally, at which Schmid was applauded.
At least 11 other White Rose members died by guillotine, including White Rose founders students Willi Graf and Alexander Schmorell, both 25, and Professor Kurt Huber. Hitler ordered the beheading of more than 5,000 people in all, according to a 2014 New York Times story about the discovery of the White Rose guillotine in a storage area of the Bavarian National Museum.
The third White Rose leaflet has two paragraphs that might resonate with you now, in the U.S., particularly if you’ve been feeling helpless or hopeless:
“But our present ‘state’ is the dictatorship of evil. “Oh, we’ve known that for a long time,” I hear you object, “and it isn’t necessary to bring that to our attention again.” But, I ask you, if you know that, why do you not bestir yourselves, why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanized state system presided over by criminals and drunks? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right – or rather, your moral duty – to eliminate this system? But if a man no longer can summon the strength to demand his right, then it is absolutely certain that he will perish. We would deserve to be dispersed through the earth like dust before the wind if we do not muster our powers at this late hour and finally find the courage which up to now we have lacked. Do not hide your cowardice behind a cloak of expediency, for with every new day that you hesitate, failing to oppose this offspring of Hell, your guilt, as in a parabolic curve, grows higher and higher.
Many, perhaps most, of the readers of these leaflets do not see clearly how they can practice an effective opposition. They do not see any avenues open to them. We want to try to show them that everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of this system. It is not possible through solitary withdrawal, in the manner of embittered hermits, to prepare the ground for the overturn of this “government” or bring about the revolution at the earliest possible moment. No, it can be done only by the cooperation of many convinced, energetic people – people who are agreed as to the means they must use to attain their goal. We have no great number of choices as to these means. The only one available is passive resistance.”
Fortunately, for the moment, we do have choice about our ways of dissent and everyone is, indeed, in a position to contribute in some way, whether that’s lobbying your elected officials; running/campaigning at the local level; writing postcards and letters to voters; or nonviolent physical protest. I highly recommend you do it while it’s still legal, though. Any of these grass-roots organizations are a good place to start:
- Refuse Fascism
- Never Again Action
- Movimiento Cosecha
- Make the Road
- By the People
- Rise and Resist
- Poor People’s Campaign
- Flip the Senate
- Vote Forward
If you’re in New York City, you can get my weekly action newsletters. I pull from all of the above sources and many more. Check out the most recent one here and hit subscribe. I’ve written about 150 of these so I know there’s a ton of stuff going on. One action I often mention that’s not NYC-specific is so easy that you should hang your head in shame if you don’t take advantage of it: Use Resistbot to email your federal and local officials by texting RESIST to 50409. It’s free, it works 24/7, you can use it anywhere in the country. Once you get an account set up, you can whip off an email to your senator in two minutes. While walking the dog. After drinking a bottle of wine. It’s really that simple. Resistbot works via Facebook Messenger, Twitter DM, and Telegram too, and you can even use it to connect by phone to your official of choice if you’re not phone-shy and can make a short call during business hours.
For those of you who love making a fashion statement, like me …
… We Will Not Be Silent is an art/fashion/activism project that started in 2006, directly inspired by the White Rose activists. You can embody powerful messages like “White Supremacy Is Terrorism.” I want to point out two policies on the project’s donation page:
- “First, is to never turn anyone away for lack of funds who wants to wear one of the shirts, to embody the message. We always offer a pay-what-you-wish option, with a consideration to sustainability for the project, not for profit.
- Second, is to never brand our shirts or signs with our website or other identifying information, so that when people participate in the project the language becomes their own.”
I think that’s very beautiful, which is one of the reasons you might notice that my wardrobe incorporating more and more message t-shirts. The other reason, of course, is that a statement of resistance is a much better look than the “cloak of expediency” mentioned in leaflet 3. Hiding from the truth isn’t smart OR chic.
For more inspiration, here is related White Rose reading:
- Translations of the leaflets.
- White Rose History website
- White Rose Studies website
- George Wittenstein’s White Rose memories and obituary.
- Translation of a letter written by another prisoner about the Scholls’ last days.
- Spartacus Educational pages have many links to source material. Scroll down.
- With You There Is Light, a book by Alexandra Lehmann about Sophie Scholl and Fritz Hartnagel
INTERESTING FAMILY FACTS: The Scholls’ parents and sisters Elisabeth and Inge were arrested a few days after the execution of Hans and Sophie — just because they were family — and thrown into solitary confinement. The women were eventually released but the father, Robert, got a two-year sentence. Elisabeth said in her Daily Mail interview that they were treated as pariahs afterwards, in case you’re wondering which side of history the neighborhood came out on. Elisabeth went on to marry Sophie’s soldier boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel.