What were they thinking of, those naive and glorious youngsters? This year is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Sophie Scholl, heroine of the White Rose, German martyr and secular saint. Scholl and her friends must have known what would happen to them. Yet they persevered. In the worst of times, they embraced their doom. In defiance of evil, they took their stand, for all humanity, for all time.
During much of the twentieth century, it seemed as if mankind had fallen into a second Dark Age, never more so than during the Second World War. Throughout much of supposedly civilised Europe, hell had been let loose. To assert that millions of men were behaving like beasts is an insult – to beasts. When we are dealing with human behaviour, ‘bestial ‘ reaches new depths. Under this black shadow, the lives of countless millions had become an incessant cry of pain. The concentration camps and the gas ovens exceeded the most hideous creations of Hieronymus Bosch, while the armies of the Eastern front mobilised courage and technology on an unprecedented scale – in order to pervert it, in the service of the mass murderers grappling for mastery.
In Munich, some undergraduates were aware of this. Only a few years earlier, many had supported Hitler. Now, they had come to understand his true nature. As medics, some of them had served briefly during the invasion of Poland and had learned that atrocities were routine. During 1942, a small number of friends decided that something had to be done; it was their ‘civic and Christian duty.’ One point ought to be stressed. There is a crucial difference between these students and many of the generals who later turned against Hitler. Those soldiers did not act until it was clear that Germany was losing the war. In 1942, that was not yet the case. Unlike a lot of the July 1944 plotters, the resisters from Munich did not want Hitler to win.
They decided to form a secret cell, which they called the White Rose. A white rose symbolises purity, gentleness and grace. We can assume they deliberately chose the name of a beautiful and vulnerable flower as a contrast to the horrors bestriding the continent, the vileness bestriding Germany.
Their resistance took the form of producing leaflets, which they circulated in the university. Although Sophie Scholl was not a founder member of the White Rose, she insisted on joining when she heard about it. She pointed out that as a girl, she would be less likely to be stopped and searched.
That may have been true, for a time. But as the leaflets circulated, the authorities were alerted. Once the Gestapo swung into action, detection was inevitable. So was the aftermath. At her trial for treason, Sophie Scholl was defiant. ‘Somebody had to make a stand,’ she told Judge Roland Freisler, an embodiment of Nazi evil. The verdict was equally inevitable, as was the consequence: death by the guillotine, which was inflicted within a few hours of the sentence.
Awaiting death, Sophie Scholl was serene, and firm in her religious faith. Although it was still February when she faced her end, it was a fine spring day. ‘Such a splendid sunny day and I have to go,’ she told her cellmate. ‘But what does my death matter if by our acts, thousands of people are warned and alerted. Among the student body there will certainly be a revolt.’
There, she was wrong. Courage and truth clearly came easily to her, even when they were likely to lead to the supreme sacrifice. In her youthful idealism, she did not realise how rare those qualities are. The student body did not come out in revolt. Millions of Germans continued to fight for Hitler, until they and their country had drained every dreg from the cup of evil. The White Rose could not withstand tank tracks or a guillotine’s blade.
But Sophie Scholl did not die in vain. Although rose blossoms may perish with the fall of the year, they reappear in spring and summer. So it was with the White Rose. In Germany’s slow and agonised postwar moral resurrection, it played a crucial part. Germans who wanted to reconnect with their country’s past could find consolation. When evil was darkening the sky: when it seemed to have sundered Germany from all that had ever been good; when many Germans wondered whether they were worthy of their heritage or whether the name of Germany had been blackened for all time – they could remember that at the worst of moments, evil had no enduring dominion. It could crush the White Rose and butcher those who had proclaimed it. Yet there would be a day of resurrection.
Sophia Magdalena Scholl: the very name is redolent of an older, better Germany. Although her brother and a friend were executed with her, she caught the public’s imagination. Photographs survive. They are deeply moving. She had a soulful face, expressive of profound moral depth and a willingness to bear the sins of her age, at whatever personal cost. She has been commemorated on postage stamps, in statues, in the naming of schools and institutes, and in the hearts of countless Germans. She earned that gratitude by her sacrifice for her country’s soul. Her Lutheran Church does not create saints. Had she followed Rome, like many other Bavarians, she would surely have been canonised. At the end, religion sustained her. In response, even those who cannot share her faith might wish it to be true. She did not only deserve trumpets to sound for her on the other side. She deserved the entire orchestra of the Heavenly Host.