On 22nd February 1943, three students from the University of Munich stood in front of the Volksgerichtshof and were sentenced to death for treason against the Nazi regime. They were guillotined just a few hours later, and Monday will mark 78 years since their deaths. These students were the Scholl siblings, Sophie and Hans, and their friend Christoph Probst.
All three were members of the anti-Nazi resistance group, “die Weiße Rose”, and the first to be executed for the organisation’s activities. Although the group was supported by many others, its other three core members were Alexander Schmorell, Wili Graf, Kurt Huber, a professor of musicology and philosophy. By the end of 1943, these three had also been killed, as had other fringe members.
What set this group apart from other resistance factions was their means of protest. Unlike the Edelweiss Pirates, whose main objective was violently antagonising Hitlerjugend members, and the 20th July plot to kill Hitler, the White Rose movement engaged solely in non-violent protest. From 1942-43, under the leadership of Hans and his fellow medicine student Alexander, they wrote and distributed six different Flugblätter - leaflets. These contained scathing criticisms of Nazism and the war and called for fellow citizens to revolt against it.
Memorial for The White Rose, showing replicas of the leaflets, in Geschwister-Scholl-Platz, Munich.
„Seit der Eroberung Polens [sind] dreihunderttausend Juden in diesem Land auf bestialischte Art ermordet worden. Hier sehen wir das fürchterlichste Verbrechen an der Würde des Menschen, ein Verbrechen, dem sich kein ähnliches in der ganzen Menschengeschichte an die Seite stellen kann."
(“Since Poland was conquered, 300,000 Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way. In this we see the most terrible crime against the dignity of mankind, a crime that cannot be compared with any other in human history.”) - The second leaflet of the White Rose.
Yet at its core, this group was just an ordinary circle of friends. Furthermore, Sophie and Hans Scholl had once been enthusiastic supporters of National Socialism. So what compelled them to resist in such a culture of fear?
It is likely that this can be first traced back to Hans Scholl’s arrest in 1937, at the age of nineteen, for being a member of a forbidden youth group, Deutsche Jugendschaft. He was also charged with so-called “immorality”, since he had been in a relationship with another member of the group, Rolf Futterknecht.
Although charges against him were eventually dismissed due to his youth, such an experience must have been deeply traumatic. It seems very probable that this persecution he experienced for his sexuality was an important factor in his opposition to the Nazi regime, which tortured and murdered thousands of LGBTQ+ individuals, primarily homosexual men, in concentration camps.
It seems clear too that the time which some group members had spent serving on the Eastern front was also a strong motivating factor in their decision to start a resistance movement. In between their studies at university, Hans and Alexander experienced close at hand the brutality inflicted against people whom Nazis deemed inferior.
Back in Munich, Sophie, who was studying biology, learned about the forced euthanasia of children with disabilities, committed by the dictatorship. Perhaps the motivation for the group to resist was best summed up by Sophie during her interrogation by the Gestapo:
„Ich bin nach wie vor der Meinung, das Beste getan zu haben, was ich gerade jetzt für mein Volk tun konnte.“
("I still believe that I have done the best thing which I could have done for my people at this moment")
Marble bust of Sophie Scholl in The Walhalla, Regensburg. Photo: RyanHulin via Wikimedia Commons
Although the White Rose Movement was not directly instrumental in bringing down the Nazi regime, their leaflets were dropped over Germany by the allied forces at the end of 1943 and the courageous resistance of these young individuals is commemorated in Germany to this day.