History provides many tales of courage, principle and honor. The following is a story I read about this week that exemplifies all three of these.
Hans and Sophie Scholl were German teenagers in the 1930s. Like most young Germans, they joined the Hitler Youth and staunchly believed Hitler would lead Germany back to greatness. But their parents weren’t so sure. Their father, Robert Scholl, believed the Nazis would lead Germany to destruction. Mr. Scholl would later serve time in a Nazi prison for telling someone the war had already been lost. Over time, Hans and Sophie came to realize their father was right.
Open dissent was banned in Nazi Germany. However, Hans and Sophie felt differently, believing it was a citizen’s duty to stand up against an evil regime, especially when it is sending hundreds of thousands of its citizens to their deaths. They began sharing their feelings with some friends, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, and Kurt Huber, their psychology and philosophy professor.
In 1942, a leaflet entitled “The White Rose” appeared at the University of Munich, which 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.” This single publication created quite a stir among the students as it was the first instance of dissent against the regime.
Soon there were other leaflets, four under the title “The White Rose” and two under the title “Leaflets of the Resistance,” during 1942 and 1943, interrupted when one of their group and friends were sent to the Eastern Front to fight the Russians. Members understood they had to act cautiously for fear of Gestapo reprisal.
Soon mailings went out. Students at the University of Hamburg, in addition to the University of Munich began receiving copies. Distribution spread to different parts of Germany and Austria. Soon graffiti began appearing in large letters on streets and buildings all over Munich: “Down with Hitler! . . . Hitler the Mass Murderer!” and “Freedom! . . . Freedom!”
Then on February 18, 1943, the Scholls’ luck ran out, arrested as they were leaving pamphlets at the University of Munich. Soon after Christoph Probst was arrested and all three were indicted for treason.
Four days after their arrest, on February 22, their trial began. The judge did not show leniency, but did allow the witnesses to make comments. It has been documented that Sophie Scholl said: “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.” Then later said: “You know the war is lost. Why don’t you have the courage to face it?”
Parents of Hans and Sophie were barred from entering the courtroom. Mr. School forced his way into the courtroom shouting: “One day there will be another kind of justice! One day they will go down in history!” That same day Justice Robert Freisler pronounced judgment on the three defendants: Guilty of treason. Their sentence: Death.
Escorted back to prison, Hans and Sophie were permitted one last visit with their parents. Hans met with them first, and then Sophie. It has been written that Sophie looked at her parents and was strong in her pride and certainty. “We took everything upon ourselves,” she said. “What we did will cause waves.” Her mother spoke again: “Sophie,” she said softly, “Remember Jesus.” “Yes,” replied Sophie earnestly, almost commandingly, “but you, too.” Sophie left her parents with her face still lit by the smile they loved so well and would never see again. She was perfectly composed as she was led away. A Gestapo official witnessed Sophie crying. Sophie apologized to him, “I have just said good-bye to my parents,” she said. “You understand . . .” She had not cried before her parents. For them she had smiled.
That afternoon all three were led to the guillotine, first Sophie, then Christoph, then Hans. One prison guard commented Sophie walked to her death “without turning a hair, without flinching.” Just before Hans was beheaded, he cried out, “Long live freedom!”
The story of The White Rose moves me on so many levels – mainly the maturity of ones so young. Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I hope I have the strength and courage of men and women who stand for justice.
“Stand up for what you believe in even if you are standing alone.” (Sophie Scholl)