In 1942, a group of German students formed a protest movement, lighting a fire on their campus. The difference this time was the level of risk they took. These students lived under the rule of Hitler, a time when political indoctrination started at such an early age that family members denounced their own. The party had absolute control, with spies planted everywhere. These students could not stand by idly as the brutality of Hitler's regime became apparent. They called themselves The White Rose.
The group started with the deep friendship of a group of students who shared strong convictions of right and wrong. Hans Scholl and his younger sister Sophie were part of this group. The Scholls were intelligent, philosophical, and religious.They were dedicated to human rights. Their father's views were liberal and progressive, convictions that no doubt influenced his children.
Hans and Sophie didn't always oppose the Nazi party. They were 15 and 12 when Hitler came to power. Like many Germans during this time, they joined the Hitler Youth, enticed by promises of happiness, freedom, and prosperity. They watched bands march in front of town halls. They saw youth holding up banners that bore symbols of victory. Germany's morale suffered greatly after World War I and Hitler knew how to provide a much needed boost.
Hans' and Sophie's father was more astute. He questioned how Hitler, with his expanding weapons and barracks, was going to achieve this greatness. He allowed his children to join the Youth Camp, but he continued to point out the inconsistencies between Hitler's promises and his behavior. Hans and Sophie had to find out for themselves.
It didn't take long. During campfires at Youth Camp, Hans played his guitar and sang folk songs from around the world. The Youth Camp leaders forbade this, permitting only songs from the official Hitler song book. Soon, the party began to censor some of his favorite books. People began to disappear and rumors about atrocities surfaced. Confused and alarmed, Hans and Sophie turned to their father. He told them the truth. He told them how Hitler was waging a battle against life and freedom. Hans and Sophie were appalled by the true aims of the Nazi party. They left the group.
They immersed themselves in their passions of philosophy, art, and music. Hans went away to the University of Munich to pursue his education. Sophie, not yet old enough for college, remained behind. At the university, Hans forged a friendship with Alex Schmorell, Willi Graf, and Christoph Probst. Like Hans, they were all aspiring doctors. Between classes and studying, they discussed classical literature, attended plays, and went to concerts.
Beneath this university life of books, songs, and friends, a deep-seated seriousness and concern about the loss of human lives lurked in their minds. The savagery of the party gnawed at them, bit by bit, until they could no longer be silent. They decided to launch a leaflet campaign denouncing Hitler and his regime. They didn't expect that their resistance would topple the government. The purpose of their crusade was to raise questions, sway the undecided, and create a feeling of unrest and doubt in the minds of the party. They wanted to send a message to Hitler that all was not well within his empire.
In the summer of 1942, the White Rose wrote its first leaflet, a difficult and dangerous task. They had to purchase paper, stamps, and envelopes, expensive and scarce materials. Buying large quantities of these materials caused suspicion. They made less than 100 copies of this leaflet on a manual reproduction machine. They sent the leaflets to themselves, in a test designed to see if the Gestapo would intercept them. They left copies in public telephone books, mailed them to other students, and had messengers deliver them to other universities. In order to defer suspicion from themselves, they also turned some leaflets over to the party.
The first leaflet described the mass murders and urged everyone to work against the "scourges of mankind, against fascism, against totalitarianism." They did not call for active or violent resistance, but rather passive restraint against the Nazi party. The writing was academic and religious, with references to the teachings of great philosophers. This first leaflet included this excerpt from Goethe's "The Awakening of Epimenides."
Though he who has boldly risen from the abyss
Through an iron will and cunning
May conquer half the world,
Yet to the abyss he must return.
Already a terrible fear has seized him;
In vain he will resist!
And all who still stand with him
Must perish in his fall.
Now I find my good men
Are gathered in the night,
To wait in silence, not to sleep.
And the glorious word of liberty
They whisper and murmur,
Till in unaccustomed strangeness,
On the steps of our temple
Once again in delight they cry:
The leaflet ended with an appeal to readers to make and distribute as many copies as possible.
Meanwhile Sophie was becoming disillusioned herself. She could not accept that people were losing their lives at the hands of others, even if it was for the sake of their country. When Sophie joined her brother at the university, she discovered his secret White Rose activities and joined the group. The White Rose wrote and distributed three more leaflets, carrying them in suitcases throughout southern Germany and delivering them by hand at night. The fourth White Rose leaflet called Hitler a liar who succeeded at the expense of human lives. This leaflet ended with a warning. "We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace."
The White Rose halted its operations for several months after the fourth leaflet. The Nazi party, not knowing what to do with medical students during summer break, sent them to the Russian front to work as physician assistants. On the way to the front, they stopped at the Warsaw ghetto, witnessing horse-whippings, beatings, and random shootings. These images remained at the forefront of their minds, adding fuel to their drive. They decided they must do more.
When the students returned to Munich, they tried to enlarge their group by encouraging participation from other schools. They also enlisted the help of Kurt Huber, a professor of philosophy and popular lecturer. Professor Huber reviewed the fifth leaflet, and this time thousands of copies were made with a new duplicating machine. The tide of the war was turning, and The White Rose began to believe that perhaps people were ready to revolt against this regime. This leaflet took on a new, more urgent tone, starting out with "a call to all Germans." The group took more risks, spraying the university walls with "Freedom" and "Down With Hitler." Professor Huber wrote the sixth and final leaflet, imploring others to take action. "Up, up my people, let smoke and flame be our sign."
On February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie carried suitcases stuffed with the leaflets, scattering copies all over campus. The university's superintendent saw Sophie as she dumped the last pile in the courtyard. He captured them and turned them in to the police. Hans and Sophie were interrogated for hours. They displayed courage up to the bitter end, refusing to divulge the identity of other White Rose members. The Gestapo was already on their trail, though, and the rest of the group was arrested as well.
The trial began four days later, at 9:00 AM, presided by "Hitler's hanging judge," Roland Freiser. The proceedings were swift, the outcome a foregone conclusion. By 6:00 PM, Hans, Sophie and Christoph Probst were executed by guillotine. Several months later, Professor Huber, Alexander Schmorell and Willi Graf were also executed.
These students fought against a formidable foe, one that they had very little chance of defeating. At one time Sophie had said "so many people have already died for this regime that it's time someone died against it." The White Rose were the men and women of hope that Goethe wrote about, gathering in the night, writing their words of liberty, refusing to stop until they could declare freedom. Hitler took their bodies. But true to the words of their first leaflet, they have not been silenced. The White Rose is our conscience.
Kelley Scheufler is a contributing editor of the History of Peace Movements.