Image: Ground Memorial at the Main Entrance of Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. (c) Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität. Weiße Rose Stiftung e.V. / Catherina Hess.
SERIES | The White Rose is one of Europe’s most lauded resistance groups active in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. But their most famous members followed an unusual path from young advocate to iron-clad adversary. Here’s what they teach us about resistance in the present.
This article is Part 1 of 2 exploring the treatment of Germany’s genocidal history as a standalone case. See Part 2 to understand more about the White Rose story.
In “I’d do it all again” – „Ich würde es genauso wieder machen“, author and historian Barbara Leisner describes the moment young Inge Scholl and her girlfriends from the Hitler Youth met Adolf Hitler for the first time during a vacation trip:
“They had looked into the bright blue eyes of the Führer. He had shaken their hands (…) he had noticed them, two ordinary, insignificant girls from the Hitler Youth, and spoken to them face-to-face on equal ground.”
Inge’s sister Sophie, a young pre-teen, had been deemed too young for the trip. Listening to Inge’s glowing report upon her return made Sophie jealous but excited. Meeting Hitler in person was the culmination of passionately living what they’d perceived as basic ideals of the Hitler Youth: Loyalty and friendship, bodily and mental health, a bond with nature and a fierce search for adventure.
Strong Mind, Soft Heart
Only 8 years later, on February 18th 1943, Sophie Scholl cemented her spot in history with her famous, unflinching quote „I would do it all again” when interrogated by the Nazis for throwing anti-war pamphlets down the halls of the University of Munich.
The same girl that had envied her sister for meeting the Führer a few years earlier was now sentenced to death for the crimes of high treason and aiding the enemy – at the age of 21.
Alongside brother Hans and collaborator-friend Christoph Probst, she was executed by guillotine just 4 days later.
Just the year before, in 1942, the three of them had founded a small underground group of students and friends organizing against the Nazi regime: The White Rose. They famously penned, mass-copied and distributed hundreds of pamphlets in secrecy by hand and letter – a hard task given the extreme surveillance measures. The leaflets described what the state had largely been able to conceal from the public: the reality on the war front, in concentration camps and of the ruthless persecution of anybody daring to speak up.
It took just one minor misstep to be uncovered.
Documents show that in an effort to protect each other, both Sophie and Hans confessed instantly during interrogations without giving up any information about their friends. But other White Rose members – Alexander Schmorell, Kurt Huber and Willi Graf – were found guilty, meeting their fate on the guillotine a short while later.
While incurring virtually no immediate large-scale effects, the White Rose became one of Europe’s best known resistance groups.
We applaud them for their symbolic actions: their iron wills, unshakable belief in the value of human life and unflinching acceptance of the brutal consequences that only few people could muster up to if push came to shove.
After all, Barbara Leisner reminds us, Sophie loved quoting her favorite French writer Jacques Maritain: “Il faut avoir l’esprit dur et le cœur tendre.“ – „You must have a strong mind and a soft heart.“
No Textbook Heroes
But the most stunning part of the White Rose’s short life is the radical change siblings Hans and Sophie underwent.
Because the Scholl siblings are no textbook heroes, their stories not straightforward. In fact, their pamphlets came from a sincere place of disillusionment – and reckoning with guilt.
Initially fervent albeit young supporters of the NSDAP – the National Socialist German Worker’s Party – when it gained momentum in the late 1920s, they both shot up as leadership figures in their respective segments of the Hitler Youth.
Their story is almost reminiscent of Oskar Schindler’s, the most famous Nazi-turned-guilt-ridden-rescuer: marked by active NSDAP support, moral crises, guilt, frustration, responsibility and ultimately redemption. And down to the detail, it reveals valuable parallels to our presence.
In their early days, the NSDAP – better known as the Nazi Party – was little more than a young party mastering the art of marketing, offering quickly adaptable ways out of unemployment, unrest and uncertainty.
And to the two young teenagers the Scholl siblings were at the time, the Hitler Youth seemed a rather personal experience. It allowed them to tap into the complexity of adolescence and an emerging demand for self-discovery – far from politics, far from supporting the exclusion of selected groups, far from instilling social tensions based on suspicion and fear.
Sophie often spoke and pondered about the kindness and good will she sought out in people around her, and saw them in the virtues she learned in the Hitler Youth. She took lessons of loyalty and trust in the Führer, applied them as a Girl Scouts leader and translated them into fairness and equal treatment – down to the sharing of every lunch meal.
While the Nazis ideology of Euthanasia aimed at preventing the ‘hereditary defective’ to procreate, Sophie simply felt sad for children with mental and physical disabilities – and there was a time when, in her mind, she deemed it correct to prevent such suffering. Undifferentiated and paternalistic, yes – but a result of her young empathic mind.
To Hans, the Hitler Youth tapped into his urge for progress, away from reactionary mindsets of the past. On occasion, he’d get into massive political arguments with his father, an explicit anti-Fascist, risking to tear the family apart.
Just like Sophie, Hans’ primary motivation wasn’t so much a core belief in a particular ideology as it was a personal conviction of universal virtues: Friendship, reliance, knowledge, mental and bodily health.
How Could You Distrust An Old Friend?
Germany is now a widely used example for bystanderism legitimizing genocide, but we forget how subtle this was. Because complacency goes alongside denial – especially about seemingly good people, neighbors and friends joining the NSDAP.
Good, kind people couldn’t possibly support such inhumane policies, it seems – they couldn’t possibly be the likeness of our image of what a Nazi is, or a member of the NSDAP.
In Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, taking stances against members of your familiar communities meant risking to uproot integral parts of your life. When an old family friend turned out to be a staunch National Socialist, Leisner writes, Sophie’s mother refused to see bad intentions. Instead, she made excuses. After all, she’d argue, how could you distrust an old friend?
Things the post-Nazi world still largely considers unfathomable were, back then, simply indicative of a creeping transition, such was the widespread complacent support for the NSDAP – and later the denial of deportations and work camps.
We are programmed to seek consistency. When our behaviors conflict with new information about it, we’ll seek to close this gap. Either by changing the behavior – or by denying the information. This is better known as cognitive dissonance.
When they began experiencing disproportionate consequences of minor missteps, Sophie and Hans seemed to have their first run-ins with cognitive dissonance.
The staunch uniformity Hans encountered at his first NSDAP party conference threw him first. This was followed by his out-of-the-blue arrest on suspicion of homosexual activity within the Hitler Youth: a shocking eye-opener.
He began shifting back and forth between giving up the life that meant the most to him, and realizing the harsh consequences of being marginalized. He was also tormented by growing rumors about concentration camps and the gruesome war front exploiting German lives for this same ideology.
Sophie documented many of her mental struggles and experiences in writing. There was her reprimand for stitching a self-created symbol on a Hitler Youth flag. As punishment, the teacher made her classmates circle her while reciting a traditional anthem – an effective way to shame outcasts back into submission. Previously, Leisner documents, Sophie would fiercely sing along – now she felt as if something inside her was dying.
The creeping ideology was all around her: the girls in Sophie’s class would casually blurt out Antisemitic slurs at school, before realizing they, too, had Jewish friends, only to then awkwardly backpaddle with the all-time classic: “Of course, this does not include you!”
Especially through her younger siblings she began realizing that the “goodness in people”, as she called it, was of higher importance than all those other virtues of physical and mental superiority she’d learned until then. And most importantly, she couldn’t come to terms with why her friends of same age and similar looks weren’t allowed to join the Hitler Youth – merely on the basis of their religious faith.
And just like Hans, Sophie’s confrontation with her beliefs came with a dire realization. Through diary entries, Leisner shows:
Now that Sophie had replaced her childhood religious faith with one in National Socialism that turned out to be fake – she had nothing left.
Coming Full Circle
In letters to her boyfriend on the warfront, Sophie began to express her discomfort, still uncertain. Soon enough she could no longer reconcile her complacency with her conscience. She quickly created an ultimatum for her boyfriend:
“You are either against National Socialism or you are for it.”
And so, until Sophie’s and Hans’ doubts consolidated, failing to reconcile silence and complacency with conscientiousness meant growing mental torment.
The Scholl siblings became anxious as a result of subconsciously juggling original values and learned reality. Did increasing feelings of personal responsibility and guilt lead them into depression? Records suggest so. We couldn’t say with certainty.
But what we can say with certainty is that while jumping on a bandwagon was easy, redirecting their courses by 180 degrees was possible, too. At the cost of mental distress, yes – but at the gain of spreading seeds and coming to terms with responsibility.
Continue with Part 2: The Rise of The Right: Too Evil For The Real Thing!
For further reading
- All references and quotes are taken from the Barbara Leisner’s biography “Ich würde es genauso wieder machen” (“Id do it all again”), published in 2000 by Econ Ullstein List Taschenbuch Verlag, as well as Hermann Vinke’s “Das kurze Leben der Sophie Scholl” (“The short life of Sophie Scholl”) published in 1980 by Otto Maier Verlag Ravensburg, which features original interviews with family members and friends.
- Read more about Barbara Leisner’s other biographies about strong female figures in history.
- Read up on the White Rose Foundation dedicated to the work and legacy of the White Rose.