Sophie Scholl and the White Rose
There is something so profoundly sad about the life and death of Sophie Scholl. To read or to tell her story is like watching a tragic movie over and over again, hoping against hope that this time she will escape. This time, the power of her testimony will shame her Nazi captors and they will let her go. Sadly, it does not end that way. It ends with a trial that were it presented as theater, we would recognize as farce: the red-faced taunts of Judge Roland Freisler of the People’s Court; the clarity of Sophie’s responses, at once both careful and careless.
Sophie had endured countless hours of psychological interrogation. The record clearly shows that her prison interrogator offered her numerous routes of escape, suggesting alternative explanations that might serve to mitigate the charge of pre-meditated treason.
In her 21 years leading up to that fateful day, Sophie had lived a lifetime. She was remembered as one full of life, unafraid and forward, speaking her mind, a mind conditioned by countless hours sitting behind the organ at church reading the Confessions of St. Augustine. Formally, a Lutheran, but with a mother an active adherent of a small Pietist group, Sophie’s education at university was bountifully supplemented with every manner of banned philosophy and theology. Along with her brother Hans and their small circle of friends, the group would become the first organized resistance to Nazism within the bounds of Germany itself.
Although a Protestant, Sophie and her friends imbibed deeply at the well of anti-totalitarian religious authors, both Protestant and Catholic. While most of the group were Protestant some, like Willi Graf, were Roman Catholic. Graf had joined the Grauer Orden (Grey Order) in 1934. The Grey Order was a Catholic youth organization that became a breeding ground for anti-Nazi sentiment. In particular, the writings of Cardinal John Henry Newman had a major impact on the group. Newman was a 19th Century English churchman who stated in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua (“Defense of One’s Life”) that he was converted at the age of 15 during his last year at school. It was “”more certain than that I have hands or feet”.1 Newman’s checkered ecclesiastical journey from Calvinist to Anglican to Roman Catholic was of little concern to the group of German resisters. What they found in Apologia was an articulation of living what one believes irrespective of the danger and risk.
While Willi Graf had begun to discern the incompatibility of Nazism with Christianity early on, Hans and Sophie had enthusiastically joined the Hitler Youth. Her father, mayor of their small town of Forchtenberg am Kocher, was arrested for calling Hitler “God’s Scourge,” an event that was to prove the turning point for young Sophie. Suddenly, she saw past the outdoor outings and hikes that comprised much of the Hitler Youth activities, and began to take note of the indoctrination. Before long, like her mother and father, she would recognize that her life had become a clash of worldviews, and she would act.
We cannot, and should not, expect a precise and coherent theology from a young girl growing up in Nazi Germany. What passed for Christianity was a hodgepodge of German Idealism salted with Hegelian unbelief. Her parents seem to have been the exception to the rule, speaking out loud a faith that increasingly was absent from both public and church life. After the “Brown Synod” when Nazis flooded into the pews at local church elections to sweep Nazi sympathizers into church office across Germany, fewer and fewer pastors were willing to speak out.
The fledgling White Rose resistance group met and debated, often asking what the Church’s duty should be when confronted with so monumental an evil. The Nazis had fully appropriated Martin Luther’s doctrine of “two kingdoms”, and even in the Confessing Church (the group of Reformed and Lutheran churches that refused to join with the Nazi-founded “German Christian” Church), many thought the battle was simply to gain toleration by the state. Reformed Church pastor Paul Schneider had already been arrested, sent to Buchenwald and murdered. Martin Niemöller, the re-nowned WWI U-boat captain, had been languishing in prison since 1937 for his anti-Nazi statements. Against this backdrop of intimidation and corrupt theology, Sophie Scholl and her friends were largely left to find their own way.
In their efforts, they were assisted by a single professor, Kurt Huber, a devoted National Socialist party member who, perhaps, due the vagaries of academic politics, had found his previous influence and celebrity as the “father of German folk music” waning, along with his standing at the university. The depth of Huber’s conversion to the anti-militarist views of the White Rose group is a matter of speculation. His authorship of the final flyer produced by the White Rose has left most observers reluctant to criticize the creator of such powerful and moving language. Was it possible that a person who could write such words be less than the person we had created in our imaginations?
The reality is that every single member of the White Rose was flawed, each finding their own pathway through life-and-death issues. Would it not be presumptuous to demand a full-orbed theology, or philosophy from a group of college young people thrown together in the midst of war, with precious little to light the way? Of all of them, it is Huber from whom we should expect the most, but there remains a suspicion of ambivalence, something not quite right. No, it is the clarity of passion which only the young possess that is most poignant in the story of the White Rose.
Sophie was pursued by a young love interest, a junior officer named Fritz Hartnagel who exchanged a series of letters with her in which she repeatedly challenged him to both examine and justify what he was doing. Remarkably, the correspondence survives, giving us a window into Sophie’s thinking. While Fritz was busy overrunning the Netherlands, she wrote:
“It’s so easy to become callous and indifferent. And I think that would be terrible”, she writes in April, 1940, followed a month later with “We all have inner standards of behavior within us, only we search them out too rarely. Perhaps, because they are the most difficult standards to live up to…..
“Sometimes I’m tempted to look on humanity as a skin disease on the earth’s surface. But only sometimes, when I’m very tired, and people who are worse than animals loom large in front of me. But basically all that matters is whether or not we can pull through, stand fast against the majority who are only after their own interests and who think any means justified to gain their own ends. This mass pressure is so overpowering that one must be bad to survive at all. There has probably only ever been one human being who managed to walk an absolutely straight road to God.”2
Sophie was determined that her convictions should, indeed must have consequences in both her public and private life. In June, 1940 she would press the point with Fritz:
“I’m perfectly prepared to believe that you argue with me for argument’s sake when we get onto ideological and political subjects. Personally, though, I never argue for argument’s sake…. I can’t imagine two people living together when they differ on these questions in their views, or at least in their activities.”3
After saying she would have been more impressed with the French had they defended Paris “to the last bullet,” she lays down the gauntlet once again:
I’m sure you find it unwomanly, the way I write to you. It seems ridiculous for a girl to care seriously about politics. She’s supposed to let her feminine emotions rule her thoughts, compassion, above all. But I find that thoughts take precedence, and that emotions often lead you astray because you can’t see big things for the little things that may concern you more directly— perhaps, personally.”4
If Fritz wasn’t getting the point, the fault was his own. Sophie was utterly committed to following the dictates of conscience, and that meant those around her would need to accept that, not merely tolerate it. Fritz’s ambivalence, his good-natured joking, his appeals to duty and Volk, did not fall on deaf hears. On the contrary, they elicited very pointed and detailed brushbacks. Fritz would remain a friend to Sophie, but nothing more.
“I’ve already been asking myself whether I ought not to give up hearing from you since it is for selfish reasons that I keep on writing you….And at the bottom you’re already half on my side and will never feel wholly comfortable on that other side again.”5
She confesses that it is the same struggle for her, torn betwixt the demands of conscience and an “easy Philistinism”. She defends her bluntness and asks if he still wants to write to her, though “you obviously feel very deserted. Here I cannot help you—even though it hurts me so much.”
There are a number of things that Sophie said that have gained a wide currency, both in German today, and elsewhere. One of the most enduring is:
“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”
When the trucks arrived on the streets of Munich and began collecting the Jews for deportation, the members of the White Rose ceased to be
a private debating society, crossing the line into street action. The decision was made to print and circulate a pamphlet. How the name “White Rose” came to be chosen remains lost to history, though Lord willing the name itself shall always be with us. The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation presents the pamphlets, in summary, as follows:
“Nothing is so unworthy of a nation as allowing itself to be governed without opposition by a clique that has yielded to base instinct…Western civilization must defend itself against fascism and offer passive resistance, before the nation’s last young man has given his blood on some battlefield.”
Members of The White Rose worked day and night in secrecy, producing thousands of leaflets, mailed from undetectable locations in Germany, to scholars and medics. Sophie bought stamps and paper at different places, to divert attention from their activities.
In 1933 Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany. Many Germans who were uncomfortable with the anti-Semitic ranting of the Nazi party appreciated Hitler’s ability to bolster pride in a shamed nation.
The second White Rose leaflet stated: “Since the conquest of Poland 300,000 Jews have been murdered, a crime against human dignity…Germans encourage fascist criminals if no chord within them cries out at the sight of such deeds. An end in terror is preferable to terror without end.”
Sophie’s brother Hans spent two years in the military, studied medicine at the University of Munich, and was a medic at the Eastern front with Alex, Willi and Jurgen in 1942.
Jurgen transported stacks of pamphlets to Berlin. The journey was dangerous. “Trains were crawling with military police. If you were a civilian and couldn’t prove you’d been deferred, you were taken away immediately,” he recalled.
The third leaflet demanded: “Sabotage in armament plants, newspapers, public ceremonies, and of the National Socialist Party…Convince the lower classes of the senselessness of continuing the war; where we face spiritual enslavement at the hands of National Socialists.”6
As the days passed, the group became more and more bold. Hans Scholl, in particular, seemed reckless, leaving flyers out in the open in his apartment, and on his person. Sophie would go from one part of town to the other buying stamps and dropping the leaflets in the mail to prominent citizens. Disgusted with the cowardice of an often unbelieving and compromised clergy, the group began painting anti-Nazi slogans on public buildings, targeting churches, in particular. The paint they used proved impossible to scrape off, so the Nazis covered their sloganeering with paper. The paper served a temporary purpose since the paint immediately began to seep through and displayed the slogans for all to see.
Then one day, Hans and Sophie Scholl headed to the university with a briefcase full of leaflets. They began to pass them out, surreptitiously at first, but then more openly, finally throwing the last few handfuls over the upper story bannister into a courtyard below brimming with students. A handyman who worked for the university, one Jakob Schmidt, saw the Scholls and what they were doing. He reported them, and soon thereafter both Hans and Sophie were arrested. Sophie had the presence of mind to rush into a nearby room and get rid of any incriminating evidence, but Hans was captured with a leaflet in his pocket as well as information that implicated other White Rose members.
Their rooms were raided, uncovering more evidence. Friends were rounded up and, fueled in some cases by fear, and in others by a lack of fear, the truth began to come out. Interrogations were followed by more arrests. Some who were barely aware of the actions of the group were snared, while others who were deeply complicit managed to escape. Ironically, some who professed their full allegiance to National Socialism were convicted because, as “good Nazis” they should have known better.
When the transcripts of the interrogations and interviews were only recently made public, a film was released entitled “Sophie Scholl, the Final Days.” Written by an atheist, but one whose screenplay scrupulously followed the actual words of the interrogation, the film is a magnificent if unintended testimony to grace under fire, literally. Those who have seen the film come away with the belief that they know Sophie, really and truly know her. That’s particularly true for Christians who pick up on all the subtleties and theological distinctions which Sophie employs in her defense.
The God who is always near is certainly with her in this film, although her character also expresses the unknowability of God which was a sad and ultimately nonsensical feature of German theology of that time. The Barthian God is fine when one is sipping chocolate in Switzerland, but in a prison cell awaiting execution, it is the God Who is There, really there, that matters. There was enough evidence to convict Sophie of treason, but surely more to convict her of faithfulness. We dare not presume to see her heart, or anyone else’s, but those who die with the Lord’s name on their lips surely deserve the name martyr.
“Remember Jesus,” says her mother when granted a brief visit before Sophie’s execution. “You too, Mama,” Sophie replies.
“Despite Magdalena’s deep-rooted Pietist faith, the events of the previous forty-eight hours left her badly shaken, doubting. ‘We would like to ask, weren’t there tens of thousands of angels that could have prevented this from happening? But then I hear Sofie singing ‘God wanted it this way’”.
On Feb 22, 1943, Sophie, Hans and their friend and accomplice Christoph Probst were condemned to death by the ‘People’s’ Court, which had been created by the National Socialist Party to eliminate Hitler’s enemies. The judge in the film appears a maniacal caricature but the trial was actually filmed. Retrieved from the archives, the viewer sees that the actor’s portrayal of Judge Roland Freisler was actually quite accurate. While the Confessing Church attracted a strong following among Germany’s Reformed churches, no denomination was without embarrassment. Chief among the embarrassments was Friesler himself. Raised in the Reformed Church, Frielser’s life and conduct have left an indelible stain.
Sophie and Hans both thought that their execution—they were both beheaded in Stadelheim Prison on February 22, 1943—would trigger a student uprising. Instead, thousands of students at the university rallied to scream their outrage at the traitors. And so it seems that Sophie’s death was not so much a lesson for them, as for us.
“How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause. Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”
— Sophie Scholl
|1.||↑||Newman, John Henry Apologia Pro Vita Sua. The Apologia is often compared to Augustine’s Confessions.|
|2.||↑||Oldfield, Sybil, Thinking Against the Culture, Sussex Academic Press, 2015, pp198-9. Letters from Sophie Scholl to Fritz Hartnagel.|
|4.||↑||Ibid., p. 200.|
|5.||↑||Ibid, p. 201.|