Exactly 70 years ago today, an innocent young woman was executed. Sophie Scholl, a 21-year-old university student at the University of Munich in Germany, had defied the Nazi regime and for her supposed crime had her head severed from her body by a well-used guillotine.
During the height of the Nazi party’s power, Sophie and a few co-conspirators produced and distributed a series of six leaflets condemning the government and calling for an end to the war. These were branded under the name “The White Rose,” the name of their non-violent resistance group promoting peace in the shadow of Germany’s tyrannical state.
Once they were caught and arrested, Sophie, her brother, and a friend were given a “show trial” and within mere hours were beheaded. While thousands of Germans were likewise charged with treason and sent to their death, Sophie’s story is inspiringly unique.
As a youth, Sophie and her brother enthusiastically joined Hitler Youth—the regime’s paramilitary organization in which the rising generation was indoctrinated with the party’s ideology. (They would later write: “‘Philosophical training’ is the name given to the despicable method by which our budding intellectual development is muffled in a fog of empty phrases.”) Their parents did not share their early love for Hitler, and over time the children saw that they had been wrong to so blindingly support the state. Despite their newfound political views, the Scholl children could not easily do much. Open dissent was illegal once World War II broke out, and Germans toed the line that is common to citizens everywhere: support the troops by supporting the government.
Sophie and her White Rose associates could not comply. Others in the group wrote the essays which Sophie helped distribute; being a girl, she was not under as much suspicion as she moved around town. Internal dissent was always dealt with rapidly by the Gestapo, so the persistent publication of these leaflets inflamed the community quickly.
Of course, Sophie and her friends knew what would happen to them if they were caught. Despite that possibility, they pressed on, penning barbed words that defied an empire. In the first leaflet, they wrote:
If the German people are already so corrupted and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in lawful order of history; if they surrender man’s highest principle, that which raises him above all other God’s creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and thus subject it to their own rational decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass – then, yes, they deserve their downfall.
The White Rose’s invitation to resist Germany’s government was not without its condemnation of the citizenry’s apathy. Rather than simply offering an alternative solution to their present condition, the leaflet’s authors aimed to point out the people’s sins while calling them to repentance. This acerbic approach permeated their writings, and is particularly visible in a passage from the second leaflet:
For through his apathetic behavior he gives these evil men the opportunity to act as they do; he tolerates this “government” which has taken upon itself such an infinitely great burden of guilt; indeed, he himself is to blame for the fact that it came about at all! Each man wants to be exonerated of a guilt of this kind, each one continues on his way with the most placid, the calmest conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!
While disseminating their sixth leaflet, Sophie and her brother were arrested. Days later, they appeared in court to face their accusers: Nazi loyalists quick to act as judge, jury, and executioner. One summary of the trial provides a glimpse into the denial of due process to which Sophie was subjected:
He conducted the trial as if the future of the Reich were indeed at stake. He roared denunciations of the accused as if he were not the judge but the prosecutor. He behaved alternately like an actor ranting through an overwritten role in an implausible melodrama and a Grand Inquisitor calling down eternal damnation on the heads of the three irredeemable heretics before him…. No witnesses were called, since the defendants had admitted everything. The proceedings consisted almost entirely of Roland Freisler’s denunciation and abuse, punctuated from time to time by half-hearted offerings from the court-appointed defense attorneys, one of whom summed up his case with the observation, “I can only say fiat justitia . Let justice be done.” By which he meant: Let the accused get what they deserve.
Sophie’s parents attempted to enter the courtroom during their children’s trial, but were denied access. “But I’m the mother of two of the accused!” her mother told one of the guards. His response: “You should have brought them up better.” Robert, the father, was forcibly escorted outside. His prophetic words largely fell on deaf ears that day: “One day there will be another kind of justice! One day they will go down in history!”
Indeed. A prominent area within the University of Munich is named after Hans and Sophie Scholl, along with streets, squares, and schools around Germany. Books and movies portraying their story are popular and widely available.
Their dissent is their legacy.
Like Fred Korematsu, the members of the White Rose are recognized and remembered for defying injustice and daring to go against overwhelming peer pressure. We honor their bravery, and applaud their activism. We cannot imagine ourselves being in a similar situation.
But we are in a similar situation! The stinging rebukes penned by Sophie’s associates have plenty of application to Americans in our generation who largely tolerate (if not explicitly support) injustice. Are we that different from the Germans who embraced an evil empire? As Milton Mayer, author of They Thought They Were Free, wrote about them:
What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security.
Hitler’s tyranny was not rolled out in one stump speech, for (we can assume) the Germans would have responded in horror. Instead, they were incrementally convinced that the programs and actions instituted by the state were necessary. “Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last,” writes Mayer, “but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow.”
Save a few quickly-extinguished flames of resistance, no such reaction was produced among the German people. In hindsight, they learned their lesson and now praise the very people that were previously demonized as traitors and killed. Should we not learn from their mistakes, we risk experiencing the same:
Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.
The government taxes people to line the pockets of a few well-connected corporations. It explicitly sanctions the termination of the lives of countless unborn children. It sends thousands of innocent people to their death, writing off their fate as “collateral damage.” It destroys families by sending its military officers to fight in unjust wars, leading to suicide, divorce, and rampant immorality. It erodes Americans’ savings by manipulating the currency and violating the free market. It incarcerates individuals whose sole “crime” is to have ingested a naturally-occurring plant. It confiscates a significant portion of each person’s income, redistributing it to others who grow dependent upon the pilfered proceeds. It violates their privacy, listens in on their conversations, and archives their every digital fingerprint. It molests them and calls it security. It robs them and calls it their civic duty. It purports to spread freedom internationally while violating it domestically.
“Through his apathetic behavior [a person] gives these evil men the opportunity to act as they do,” wrote White Rose. No, the various governments in this nation are not sending people to their deaths en masse. No, they are not enforcing genocide against large quantities of innocent individuals. No, alarming atrocities are not apparent to the average citizen.
But that’s the point of the lesson to be learned from Sophie’s advocacy and Mayer’s observations—if we “do not raise a hand” when small violations occur, then how in the world would we object to the large ones? If we don’t resist limited violations of liberty, do we expect that we would defy the extreme ones?
Facing her accusers in court, Sophie stated that “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.”
More poignant are her last words before the blade fell. “How can we expect righteousness to prevail,” she rhetorically asked, “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?”
Sophie stood up against a despotic regime and didn’t flinch. We have the opportunity, even an obligation, to defy injustice while in its (relatively) early stages. We do not currently face the same threats for punishment against civil disobedience, and the internet facilitates the dissemination of alternative voices to “awaken” and “stir to action” those who currently slumber. Our chance of success is higher and our risk of punishment is lower.
What, then, are we waiting for?