“Millions of “good” Germans did not like the Nazis, yet thought they were the less evil compared to the communists…Everything was still standing; life went on as before; but beneath the surface, something had changed.”– Inge Scholl on Germany shortly after Hitler’s election.
Many people from my country know how fascist Germany fell. Over the decades, WWII has increasingly been presented in the good versus evil narrative. While this narrative may fit better here than with other wars, it tends to gloss over the presence of resistance in Germany. It consigns all Germans to the role of active supporter or coward.
In Germany, for years following the regime’s downfall, The White Rose was assigned as required reading. The educators hoped that the bravery displayed in it, the choice to put others’ lives over country, even when that meant possibly losing your own, might help students do the same. They hoped children might recognize some of the warning signs if ever another regime such as Hitler’s tried to take control.
The book itself is quite short, but gripping. It follows the development of The White Rose, an student-lead underground resistance from its inception to its downfall. Sophie and Hans Scholl grew up in Hitler’s youth groups. They watched the environment turn from celebratory to one of censure– where young people,and their family, were scorned for expressing doubt in the regime, discomfort with its rhetoric against Jewish people. As the two grew older, they became more and more disenchanted with the government, more suspicious of the narrative they were being sold. When they reached university, they joined with others to form the underground resistance.
At this point in time, many were confident Hitler would only fall with military action, and perhaps the Scholls agreed, but during a time when so many had given into apathy, the Scholls felt it their duty to resist using any means possible. For them, the question was not whether or not they supported the regime but what resistance meant in practice. How could they resist? How could they encourage others to?
The White Rose was born from defiance, anger and conviction of morals. What started with surreptitious meetings with like-minds; meetings where they could share texts from forbidden philosophers and writers and rail against the loss of freedoms and death which surrounded them. Even those meetings might be enough for imprisonment or death, but the group decided it wasn’t enough.With the aid of other students, and a professor, they began putting together pamphlets which they scattered about different cities in Germany. Every time they traveled to place them in mailboxes of random people or leave them in front of university classrooms, they risked their lives.
These pamphlets reassured others that they were not alone. They denounced the regime for its cruelty and appealed to German citizens’ humanity. One specifically outlined how to resist passively, instructing readers “to concentrate upon what was attainable…” and resist in small ways each day. When the Scholls were arrested after throwing pamphlets from the University steps, they knew they would be sentenced to death. They did not waver in their choice. From the record of their, and others’ testimony, the prosecution described the resistance as both child-like and devious; in competent and dangerous. As I read it, I could help but recognize echoes of this in today’s characterization of organized opposition.
Some have said the reliance of the book on text. Many pages are either reprints of the pamhplets The White Rose spread or the text of their trials. When one remembers the purpose of the collection, it becomes easier to understand why Inge Scholl did not speculate as often. Still, I can understand the desire for more– perhaps another edition with further thoughts from the two resistance leaders’ sister. Inge does write a conclusion where she tries to assess the impact her siblings had and make sense of the desire for current society to claim them as their heroes, to see themselves reflect in their actions. She writes:
“It would be wrong to see the action of the students in Munich in the period 1942-43 as a noble deed in the abstract. I twas concrete, and its goal and starting point were concrete…we should look upon [what they did] as a singular instance.
“It was an instance in which five or six students took it upon themselves to act while the dictatorship was totally in control; in which they accepted the lonely burden of not even being able to discuss these matters with their families; in which they took action even though the omnipotent state allowed them no room for maneuver; in which they acted in spite of the fact that they could do no more than tear small rifts in the structure of that state– much less blast out the corner stones.
“It is rare that a man is prepared to pay with his life for such a minimal achievement as causing cracks in the edifice of the existing order.”
Near the end, The White Rose includes an account of Sophie Scholl’s last days from the view of a fellow prisoner. It is heart-wrenching. As I read, I wondered if I could ever be as brave as Sophie Scholl was, even as her death drew near. We all like to believe we’d be on the “right side of history”. We like to think we’d be the hero, but when people are disappearing everyday; when executions are carried out for reading the wrong text or protecting another person, could you really say you would lay down your life for your morality?
Authoritarianism relies on fast movements and a cocktail of xenophobia and forced-nationalism. It assumes that with enough violence and mistruth, people will simply give up. That this small group would sacrifice their lives to save the German soul is exceptional. Many have suggested a dark shadow has fallen over our world recently. Some say this reflects in the literature we consume and, indeed sales for dystopian tales like 1984 and The Handmaiden’s Tale have risen. Both these books are speculative horrors, neither offer the surety that comes with knowing evil has been defeated. The White Rose is similarly sobering. It is only through knowledge of history that we know the Scholl’s won and, as Sophie Scholl said to the judge before her death “Soon you will be standing where I now stand.” The White Rose offers readers the heroes of a good story, but more importantly, it offers some guidance for the non-heroes, the people who picked up the pamphlets from their mailboxes and felt a little less alone.