A short history of the White Rose

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Gravestones of Hans and Sophie Scholl

A short history of the White Rose

Adapted from the Jewish Virtual Library and other sources

Like other young Germans, Hans and Sophie Scholl had enthusiastically joined the Hitler Youth. They believed that Adolf Hitler was leading Germany and the German people back to greatness.

Their parents were not so enthusiastic. Their father Robert had told his children that Hitler and the Nazis were leading Germany down a road of destruction. Gradually, Hans and Sophie began realizing that their father was right, influenced also by the Catholic Bishop August von Galen, an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime. They concluded that, in the name of freedom and the greater good of the German nation, Hitler and the Nazis were enslaving and destroying the German people.

They also knew that open dissent was impossible in Nazi Germany, especially after the start of World War II. Instead, they began sharing their feelings with a few of their friends: Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, and Willi Graf, as well as with Kurt Huber, their psychology and philosophy professor.

One day in 1942, copies of a leaflet entitled “The White Rose” suddenly appeared at the University of Munich. The leaflet contained an anonymous essay that said that the Nazi system had slowly imprisoned the German people and was now destroying them. The Nazi regime had turned evil. It was time, the essay said, for Germans to rise up and resist the tyranny of their own government. At the bottom of the essay, the following request appeared: “Please make as many copies of this leaflet as you can and distribute them.”

The leaflet – secretly written and distributed by the White Rose – caused a tremendous stir among the student body. It was a rare time that internal dissent against the Nazi regime had surfaced in Germany, and many of the student body considered the authors traitors.

Another leaflet appeared soon afterward. And then another. And another. Ultimately, there were six leaflets published and distributed by Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friends, four under the title “The White Rose” and two under the title “Leaflets of the Resistance.” Their publication took place periodically between 1942 and 1943, interrupted for a few months when Hans and his friends were temporarily sent to the Eastern Front to fight against the Russians.

The members of the White Rose, of course, had to act cautiously. Producing and distributing such leaflets was not only very difficult but even dangerous. Paper was scarce, as were envelopes, and if one bought them in large quantities, or for that matter, more than just a few postage stamps (in any larger numbers), one would have become instantly suspect. The Nazi regime maintained an iron grip over German society. Internal dissent was quickly and efficiently smashed by the Gestapo. Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friends knew what would happen to them if they were caught. Sophie was so frightened during the time that she slept in Hans’ bed. Hans, too, was very afraid.

People began receiving copies of the leaflets in the mail at addresses selected randomly from the phone book. There was a mixed reaction. Of the first 100 leaflets mailed out, 35 were turned in to the Gestapo. However, students at the University of Hamburg began copying and distributing them. Copies began turning up in different parts of Germany and Austria. Graffiti by the White Rose began appearing in large letters on streets and buildings all over Munich: “Down with Hitler!…Hitler the Mass Murderer!” and “Freiheit! …Freiheit! (Freedom!…Freedom!)”

The Gestapo was driven into a frenzy. It knew that the authors were having to procure large quantities of paper, envelopes, and postage. It knew that they were using a duplicating machine. But despite the Gestapo’s best efforts, it was unable to catch the perpetrators.

One day, February 18, 1943, Hans’ and Sophie’s luck ran out. They were caught leaving pamphlets at the University of Munich and were arrested. A search disclosed evidence of Christoph Probst’s participation, and he too was soon arrested. The three of them were indicted for treason.

On February 22, four days after their arrest, their trial began. The presiding judge, Roland Freisler, chief justice of the People’s Court of the Greater German Reich, had been sent from Berlin. No witnesses were called, since the defendants had admitted everything. A court-appointed defense attorney summed up his case with the observation, “I can only say fiat justitia. Let justice be done.”

Sophie Scholl shocked everyone in the courtroom when she said to Freisler: “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.” Later in the proceedings, she told him: “You know the war is lost. Why don’t you have the courage to face it?” (Earlier, during her interrogation, she had said “I am, now as before, of the opinion that I did the best that I could do for my nation. I therefore do not regret my conduct and will bear the consequences that result from my conduct.”)

In the middle of the trial, Robert and Magdalene Scholl tried to enter the courtroom. Magdalene said to the guard: “But I’m the mother of two of the accused.” The guard responded: “You should have brought them up better.” Robert Scholl forced his way into the courtroom and told the court that he was there to defend his children. He was seized and forcibly escorted outside. The entire courtroom heard him shout: “One day there will be another kind of justice! One day they will go down in history!”

Freisler pronounced his judgment on the three defendants: guilty of treason. Their sentence: death. Hans was 24, Sophie 21, Christoph 22.

They were escorted back to Stadelheim prison, where the guards permitted Hans and Sophie to have one last visit with their parents. Han’s eyes were clear and steady and he showed no sign of dejection or despair. He thanked his parents again for the love and warmth they had given him and he asked them to convey his affection and regard to a number of friends. Sophie’s face was also clear and her smile was fresh and unforced, with something in it that her parents read as triumph. “Sophie, Sophie,” her mother murmured, as if to herself. “To think you’ll never be coming through the door again!” Sophie’s smile was gentle. “Ah, Mother,” she said. “Those few little years…” Sophie Scholl looked at her parents and was strong in her pride and certainty. “We took everything upon ourselves,” she said. She cried only when returned to her prison cell.

No relatives visited Christoph Probst. His wife, who had just had their third child, was in the hospital. Neither she nor any members of his family even knew that he was on trial or that he had been sentenced to death. While he had always had faith in a God, he had never committed to a certain faith. On the eve of his death, a Catholic priest admitted him into the church. “Now,” he said, “my death will be easy and joyful.”

That afternoon, the prison guards permitted Hans, Sophie, and Christoph to have one last visit together. Sophie was then led to the guillotine. One observer described her as she walked to her death: “Without turning a hair, without flinching.” Christoph Probst was next. Hans Scholl was last; just before he was beheaded, Hans cried out: “Long live freedom!”

Unfortunately, they were not the last to die. The Gestapo’s investigation was relentless. Later tried and executed were Alex Schmorell (age 25), Willi Graf (age 25), and Kurt Huber (age 49). Students at the University of Hamburg were either executed or sent to concentration camps.

At his trial, Kurt Huber quoted Johann Gottlieb Fichte:

And thou shalt act as if

On thee and on thy deed

Depended the fate of all Germany,

And thou alone must answer for it.

Today, a square at the University of Munich is named after Hans and Sophie Scholl, and there are streets, squares, and schools all over Germany named for the members of The White Rose. In 2003, Hans and Sophie were voted by their countrymen as the fourth greatest Germans of all time, above figures such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Albert Einstein. In 2012, Alexander Schmorell was glorified as a Passion bearer by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. All the members of the White Rose are recognized as Righteous Amongst the Nations by the State of Israel.