As anti-CAA protestors are relentlessly hounded by the State, dissent is peremptorily throttled and abuses and arrests are on the rise, let us be inspired by the story of Sophia Magdalena Scholl, a 21-year-old student who, along with her brother and friend, was guillotined in Nazi Germany on this day in 1943 for ‘high treason’, a euphemism for challenging Hitler’s fascism and its murderous onslaught.
In their youth, both Sophie and her brother Hans were enchanted by the vision of a new Germany that Hitler was promising to build. Sophie joined the League of German Girls while Hans joined the Hitler Youth. Their father, Robert Scholl, was, however, a strong Nazi critic and warned them of the disaster towards which Hitler was leading the country. Very soon, Sophie and Hans were totally disillusioned with Hitler and began to comprehend the evils of fascism. In 1942, Sophie Scholl enrolled in the Munich University, where Hans was already a medical student, as a student of biology and philosophy. It was in the university that they organized a group of like-minded students, calling themselves the White Rose, as a symbol of beauty, innocence and purity in the face of the monstrous evil that was Hitler’s fascism. The ideology of the group was one of passive resistance to Hitler’s regime. This was coupled with a love for aesthetics and they were initially drawn together by a shared love of art, music, literature and philosophy.
That year Sophie’s father was arrested for openly calling Hitler a ‘scourge on humanity’. Meanwhile, Sophie’s friend Fritz Hartnagel, who had been sent to the Eastern Front on compulsory war service, came back with horrific stories of mass killings of Jews and Soviet Prisoners of War being shot in a mass grave. The White Rose was stirred to action. Between June 1942 and February 1943, the group co-authored 6 anti-Nazi Third Reich political resistance leaflets, urging Germans to passively resist the Nazis. They called for the restoration of democracy and social justice. The core of the White Rose consisted of students – Hans and Sophie Scholl, their sister Inge Scholl, Alex Schmorell, Willi Graf, and Christoph Probst, all in their early twenties. A professor of philosophy, Kurt Huber, was also a member of the group. In January 1943, using a hand-operated duplicating machine, the group is thought to have produced between 6,000 and 9,000 copies of their fifth leaflet, “Appeal to all Germans”, which was distributed via courier runs to many cities (where they were mailed). Copies appeared in Stuttgart, Cologne, Vienna, Freiburg, Chemnitz, Hamburg and Berlin. Composed by Hans Scholl with improvements by Huber, the leaflet warned that Hitler was leading Germany into an abyss; and with the gathering might of the Allies, defeat was now certain. The reader was urged to “Support the resistance movement” in the struggle for “Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and protection of the individual citizen from the arbitrary action of criminal dictator-states”. These were the principles that would form “the foundations of the new Europe”.
Sophie proved invaluable to the group. She played an important role in the distribution of the pamphlets because as a woman, her chances of being randomly stopped and searched by the SS were much slimmer. In addition to authorship and protection, she helped copy, distribute and mail pamphlets while also managing the group’s finances. Even as a majority of the Germans stood resolutely by Hitler in his war efforts, the White Rose pamphlets screamed, “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!” The leaflets caused a sensation, and the Gestapo initiated an intensive search for the publishers. The members of The White Rose, of course, had to act cautiously. The Nazi regime maintained an iron grip over German society. Dissent was quickly and efficiently smashed. Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friends knew what would happen to them if they were caught.
They mailed leaflets to people by picking names from telephone directories, and left them in public places to be found. Students at the University of Hamburg began copying and distributing them. Copies began turning up in different parts of Germany and Austria. The White Rose did not limit themselves to leaflets. Graffiti began appearing in large letters on streets and buildings all over Munich: “Down with Hitler! . . . Hitler the Mass Murderer!” and “Freiheit! . . . Freiheit! . . . Freedom! . . . Freedom!”
On February 18, 1943, the Scholls brought a suitcase full of leaflets to the university. They hurriedly dropped stacks of copies in the empty corridors for students to find when they flooded out of lecture rooms. Leaving before the class break, the Scholls noticed that some copies remained in the suitcase and decided it would be a pity not to distribute them. They returned to the atrium and climbed the staircase to the top floor, and Sophie flung the last remaining leaflets into the air. They were spotted by the janitor Jakob Schmid who immediately informed the Gestapo. Hans and Sophie were taken into Gestapo custody.
After the siblings were arrested, interrogator Robert Mohr originally believed Sophie to be innocent, but once Hans confessed, she also took full responsibility, trying to protect other members of the group. However, a handwritten draft of another leaflet was found in Hans’ pocket, it matched handwriting on a letter found in Sophie’s apartment written by Christoph Probst, who was then arrested as well. They appeared in the People’s Court before the notorious Judge Roland Freisler five days later. He behaved more like a prosecutor than an impartial judge. He raged and ranted against the accused and conducted what was a mockery of a trial as if the future of the Third Reich was at stake. The defendants were permitted neither to give testimony in their defence nor bring in witnesses, so the only statement on record is Sophie’s declaration, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”
On February 22, 1943, Sophie, Hans, and their friend Christoph Probst, were all found guilty of treason and sentenced to be executed by guillotine. They were beheaded by executioner Johann Reichhart in Munich’s Stadelheim Prison only a few hours later at 5 pm. As Sophie walked to her execution, she said, “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?” The execution was supervised by Dr Walter Roemer who was the enforcement chief of the Munich district court. Prison officials, while later recounting the story, emphasized the courage with which she walked to her execution. Her last words were “Die Sonne scheint noch”—”The sun still shines.”
Unfortunately, they were not the last to die. The Gestapo was unyielding in pursuing the case. 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.
After their deaths, a copy of the sixth pamphlet was smuggled out of Germany and delivered to the Allies. It was retitled “The Manifesto of the Students of Munich” and Allied Forces dropped millions of copies, spreading their words of conscience and calls for resistance across Germany. After the war, verdicts like those against the Scholls were overturned; Germany now considers the White Rose members to be heroes.
In 2005, a German television survey voted Hans and Sophie Scholl the fourth greatest Germans of all time, and in the same year in a German women’s magazine, Sophie Scholl was named the greatest woman of the 20th century.
The enduring legacy of Sophie Scholl and her comrades lies in the courage with which students and youths today are resisting fascistic regimes the world over. n