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 1 for a breakdown of the White Rose’s curious case.
Reading Time: 5 Minutes
While there is a growing sport of defending and even justifying white supremacists, mainstream Western education still emphasizes a strong denunciation of Nazi Germany.
Living in a Southern US state just over a decade ago, I was often asked about my country’s past and my potential associations. Those questions stemmed from a gap in history education, yes – but mostly came from a place of distinct moral beliefs: Nazi Germany did horrible things and Nazis are the world’s worst thing.
In fact, as the world’s absolute Supervillain, the term ‘Nazi’ has become ubiquitous long ago. Everybody might be called a Nazi – especially for good humor: Grammar Nazi. Nazi Zombies. Nazis as Indiana Jones’ worst enemy. Nazis on the moon. Their evilness so unique that only they can think of superhuman ways of stretching their Reich beyond Earth; so universally denounced that their evilness has become an integral part of pop culture humor: ridiculously unrealistic.
Yet such indirect and direct denunciation can’t deny the ease and normalcy with which past Nazi ideology metastasized – with which it festered even in rebellious minds like Sophie Scholl’s.
When we think ‘Nazi’, we have learned to immediately think of the consequences of their power: concentration camps, a divided society, persecution of isolated groups, a brutal war, invasions, inhumanity, bystanderism and mass appeal.
We learn significantly less about the in-betweens: The dictator who would get into fits of raging speeches but also take his time to shake hands, be friendly, listen to and speak with individuals on the street during ceremonies. About the complex, rationally-argued and scientifically-based reasoning behind ostracizing selected groups of people. About the ensuing effortlessness of becoming a bystander – or a gushing supporter in denial, like Sophie Scholl’s sister Inge.
We have learned to paint Nazis as unique Supervillains rather than members of a replicable, villainous system. The result: neglecting past normalcy to the point of being unable to detect present parallels.
2019: What Would Sophie Do?
Resistance against the Nazis also didn’t come immediately for Sophie and Hans Scholl, founding members of the White Rose, a German underground anti-Nazi group. Their road was one marked by mental distress and guilt-ridden back-and-forths, but ultimately iron-clad commitment to the cause, even in the face of the death penalty.
But long before their moments of change, the Scholl siblings had already carried a distinct sense of self-reflection. One that allowed them to abandon their religious beliefs for the Nazi’s ideology in the first place. This essential lesson was, in fact, part of their upbringing, as individuality and disagreement within the family were encouraged in the Scholl household.
Their paths, reflections, learned lessons and suggested signs of cognitive dissonance are almost as important as the stories of those who rebelled early, like White Rose collaborator Will Graf, who had refused to join the Hitler Youth from the start. It’s almost as if the exception proves the rule: we can detect the intricacies of creeping genocidal systems because change is possible. The founder of non-profit organization Genocide Watch, Professor Gregory H. Stanton, famously conceptualized this in the 10 stages of Genocide.
Nothing speaks more to that than Sophie’s and Hans’ emotional struggle while coming to terms with being bystanders to the Nazi regime. They reveal the dangerous detriment of unquestioned following; about the need for healthy suspicion towards congenial authority figures; about the importance of a well-developed sense of empathy, compassion and self-reflection.
What sets Sophie’s story apart from others is that until the very end, she remained her own biggest critic. She applied twice the standards to herself that she applied to others. This ability to reflect upon past responsibility seemingly enabled her to appear almost fearless on the day of her execution. She was out of arguments to justify backing down.
“Don’t Say It’s For The Country“
German education about the Holocaust in particular misses the essential lesson the Scholl siblings found out the hard way: While we learn about the horrors of the Holocaust, we barely receive explicit lessons on preventing and recognizing genocidal structures in its baby shoes.
Starting with non-physical acts to marginalize selected groups, Genocide is barely detectable when you’re not reading about it in a history book.
Today, Germany’s popular right-wing party AfD often calls for the exclusion of selected groups of immigrants. They’re also one Germany’s highest-polling parties. But, paradoxically, several high-profile members have referenced anti-Nazi activism in the 1930s and 1940s in their support – including the White Rose.
A local fraction’s slogan “Sophie Scholl would have voted AfD” was met with a clear response by Sophie’s and Hans’ descendants, Manuel and Julian Aicher, Martin and Thomas Hartnagel:
“Sophie Scholl can’t vote or speak for any party. Because Sophie Scholl has been dead since 1943. Executed by the same people imitated today by AfD members. In other words, mandated by the radical Right.”
In striking similarity to today’s right-wing discourse, White Rose leaflets included references to the importance of Judeo-Christian occidental culture. But in striking contrast to today’s discourse, their reference served the opposite purpose. The White Rose emphasized Europe’s Judeo-Christian heritage to urge people to “become aware of their responsibilities as a member and fight all forms of Fascism and ostracization.”
Where the AfD rests heavily on patriotism in and of itself, Sophie and Hans couldn’t be convinced to believe that all governmental actions would consistently serve their country. Sophie maintained:
„I cannot fathom that human lives are constantly being risked at the hands of others. (…) Don’t say it’s for the country.”
We should never forget that in their younger years, Sophie and Hans Scholl bear a share of responsibility for supporting a murderous dictatorship. But their paths also reveal the tools that created the mantra “Never Again”: a combination of self-reflection, critical thinking and compassion. And at the core of it all: To have a strong mind and a soft heart.
Because, as Sophie maintained: “The law changes; conscience doesn’t.”