73 years ago, February 18, 1943 Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie, the leaders of the German youth group Weisse Rose (White Rose), were arrested by the Gestapo for opposing the Nazi regime.
The White Rose
In the early summer of 1942, a group of young men — including Willi Graf, Christoph Probst and Hans Schol formed a non-violent resistance group in Nazi Germany, consisting of a number of students from the University of Munich and their philosophy professor. The group became known for an anonymous leaflet campaign, lasting from June 1942 until February 1943, which called for active opposition to the Nazis regime.
The group co-authored six anti-Nazi Third Reich political resistance leaflets. Calling themselves the White Rose, they instructed Germans to passively resist the Nazis. They had been horrified by the behavior of the Germans on the Eastern Front where they had witnessed a group of naked Jews being shot in a pit.
The core of the White Rose consisted of five students — Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans Scholl, Alex Schmorell, Willi Graf, and Christoph Probst, all in their early twenties — also members were Hans and Sophie's sister Inge Scholl, and a professor of philosophy, Kurt Huber.
Between June 1942 and February 1943, they prepared and distributed six different leaflets, in which they called for the active opposition of the German people to Nazi oppression and tyranny. Huber drafted the final two leaflets. A draft of a seventh leaflet, written by Christoph Probst, was found in the possession of Hans Scholl at the time of his arrest by the Gestapo, who destroyed it.
During early summer of 1942, Alex Schmorell and Hans Scholl wrote four leaflets, copied them on a typewriter with as many copies as could be made, probably not exceeding 100, and distributed them throughout Germany. These leaflets were left in telephone books in public phone booths, mailed to professors and students, and taken by courier to other universities for distribution. All four were written in a relatively brief period, between June 27 and July 12. As far as is known today, Hans Scholl wrote the first and fourth leaflets, Alex Schmorell participated with the second and third.
All leaflets were also sent to the members of the White Rose, in order that we could check whether they were intercepted. Significantly, of the first 100 leaflets, 35 were turned over to the Gestapo.
By turning the leaflets over to the secret police, one hoped to be beyond suspicion. It might even have entered one's mind - and it certainly would not have been unthinkable - that such leaflets could have actually been produced and mailed by the Gestapo in order to test one's loyalty to the party and state.
Producing and distributing such leaflets sounds simple from today's perspective, but, in reality, it was not only very difficult but even dangerous. Paper was scarce, as were envelopes. And if one bought them in large quantities, or for that matter, more than just a few postage stamps (in any larger numbers), one would (have) become instantly suspect.
Taking leaflets to other cities carried great risk, because trains were constantly patrolled by military police, who demanded identification papers of any male of military service age. Anyone traveling without official marching papers was AWOL - and the consequences predictable.
"Some of us traveled in civilian clothing, hoping for the best, some with forged travel orders, I myself used false identification papers (my cousin's with whom I shared a certain resemblance). We left the briefcases which contained the leaflets in a different compartment, for luggage was routinely searched. Mostly, however, leaflets were taken by female students who were not subject to such scrutiny."
The members of The White Rose worked day and night, cranking a hand-operated duplicating machine thousands of times to create the leaflets which were each stuffed into envelopes, stamped and mailed from various major cities in Southern Germany. Recipients were chosen from telephone directories and were generally scholars, medics and pub-owners in order to confuse the Gestapo investigators.
While Hans and Alex alone drafted the first four leaflets, they counted on Christoph Probst to comment and criticize. Jürgen edited the third and fourth leaflets and traveled to Berlin with the dangerous documents. Willi contributed to the fifth leaflet and did a generous amount of legwork, getting supplies and trying to recruit support outside of Munich.
Sophie worked at getting stamps and paper (one could not buy too many stamps at one place without arousing suspicion) and also managed the group's funds. Kurt Huber contributed to the fifth leaflet and solely drafted the sixth (and final) leaflet, while Hans was apprehended with a rough draft of a seventh leaflet written by Christoph Probst.
All members traveled throughout Southern Germany (and beyond) to mail stacks of leaflets from undetectable locations. Hundreds of leaflets were also left at the University of Munich, carefully hand-delivered in the middle of the night.
Arrest of the White Rose
On three nights in February 1943 (3rd, 8th and 15th), Hans, Alex and Willi conducted the most dangerous of all the White Rose activities. The three men used tar and paint to write slogans on the sides of houses on Ludwigstrasse, a main thoroughfare in Munich near the University. They wrote "Down With Hitler", "Hitler Mass Murderer", "freedom", and drew crossed-out swastikas... this while policemen and other officials patrolled the streets of Munich. It was, by far, the most public, blatant and dangerous of their activities.
On Thursday, February 18, 1943, Sophie and Hans distributed the pamphlets personally at the university. They hurriedly dropped stacks of copies in the empty corridors for students to find when they flooded out of lecture rooms. Leaving before the class break, the Scholls noticed that some copies remained in the suitcase and decided it would be a pity not to distribute them.
They returned to the atrium and climbed the staircase to the top floor, and Sophie flung the last remaining leaflets into the air. This spontaneous action was observed by the custodian Jakob Schmid. The police were called and Hans and Sophie were taken into Gestapo custody. The other active members were soon arrested, and the group and everyone associated with them were brought in for interrogation.
Sophie and Hans were questioned for four days in Munich, and their trial was set for February 22. They, along with Christoph, were arrested. Within days, all three were brought before the People's Court in Berlin. The trial was run by Roland Freisler, head judge of the court, and lasted only a few hours, they were convicted of treason and sentenced to death. Only hours later, the court carried out that sentence by guillotine. All three faced their deaths bravely, Hans crying out his last words, "Long live freedom!"
Later that same year, other members of the White Rose -- Alexander Schmorell (age 25), Willi Graf (age 25), and Kurt Huber (age 49) -- were tried and executed. Most of the other students convicted for their part in the group's activities received prison sentences.
Prior to their deaths, several members of the White Rose believed that their execution would stir university students and other anti-war citizens into a rallying activism against Hitler and the war. Accounts suggest, however, that university students continued their studies as usual, citizens mentioned nothing, many regarding the movement as anti-national. Their actions were mostly dismissed, until after the war when their efforts were eventually praised by the German consciousness.
"They permit us to believe that at the time not all Germans were mute and cowardly followers," German President Joachim Gauck has said, referring to the importance of the Scholls and the White Rose. In its fourth pamphlet, the group wrote, "We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!"
Their words, Gauck said, still apply today. Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friends had the courage to stand up for their convictions and resist - showing a degree of courage possessed only by a few at that time.
”How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause,” Sophie Scholl said. ”Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go,” she continued, ”but what does my death matter, if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”
”The White Rose is a radiant page in the annals of the 20th Century. The courage to swim against the stream of public opinion, even when doing so was equated with treason, and the conviction that death is not too great a price to pay for following the whisperings of the conscience,” writes Chris Zimmerman in The White Rose: Its Legacy and Challenge.
Sophie Scholls sister Inge Aicher-Scoll wrote: ”Perhaps genuine heroism lies in deciding to stubbornly defend the everyday things, the mundane and the immediate.”
Other Resistance Groups
The common, and mostly true, belief is that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis ruled Germany with an iron fist, crushing any rebellion or dissent with swift fury. Even more valuable information is on the people who had courage to oppose the dictatorship. And the White Rose group not the only one. All the opposition groups were collectively known simply as “Widerstand” (“Resistance”). Let’s briefly mention the heroes:
However, there were a number of groups active in Germany that were trying to take down the Nazis.
1. Red Orchestra
This name applies to both Soviet and German espionage programs and the specific German one we’re discussing is the Schulze-Boysen/Harnack group, which was created in 1936. Named after Harro Schulze-Boysen (the Luftwaffe staff officer who founded it) and his friends, one of their goals was to gather intelligence for the Allies and help those hunted by the Nazis to get to freedom. However, their primary goal was to incite civil disobedience by distributing a number of leaflets, as well as causing the Nazis grief through the specter of subversion groups. In 1942, after Gestapo agents intercepted some of their radio transmissions, nearly all of the members of the group were arrested and executed.
2. Kreisau Circle
Established and led by Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg, and Adam von Trott zu Solz, the Kreisau Circle was stationed at Moltke’s estate. Said to be one of the main centers of the German resistance movement, their goal was to figure out how to establish a peaceful, Christian Germany, after the war was lost. (For them, it was difficult to reconcile their hatred toward Hitler and the Nazis and their patriotic love for Germany.) The group was known for spreading information to the Allies, as well as other resistance groups within Germany. Later in the war, some of the members were involved in a failed assassination of Adolf Hitler, and many of the Kreisau Circle were arrested and executed, even those who had no part in the coup attempt.
3. The Rosenstrasse Protest
A singular event, perpetrated because of the deportation of thousands of Jewish men who were married to non-Jewish women, the Rosenstrasse protest was one of the largest public displays against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. For over a week in early 1943, the women peacefully marched in protest against their husbands’ deportation. Seemingly faced with death each night at the hands of the guards they marched in front of, they persisted, until Hitler released the prisoners, even those already sent to Auschwitz. This was more out of concern for the secrecy of his “Final Solution” than anything else though. Because no one was punished, and almost all of the men survived the war, this incident provides one of the greatest “What if?” questions about the whole war: What if the rest of Germany had stood up to Hitler?
4. The Solf Circle
The least successful of all the groups on this list, the Solf Circle was an informal group of intellectuals who were against Nazism. Established by Johanna Solf, the widow of a German ambassador, the group would routinely meet to discuss their plans to aid the Jews (Solf and her daughter helped hide a number of Jews and assisted their escape from the country). On September 10, 1943 at a birthday party for Elisabeth von Thadden (a famous Protestant headmistress at a nearby school), a secret Gestapo agent was unknowingly invited by one of the members and he reported their actions. Nearly everyone was rounded up, arrested, tried, and executed.
5. The European Union
Not to be confused with the collection of European countries today, the original European Union was a group of anti-fascist Germans who despised Nazism and what it had done to their country. Founded in Berlin in 1939, the group began under the leadership of Robert Havemann, a chemist, and Georg Groscurth, a doctor. The European Union produced many leaflets during the war, as well as providing aid and information to Allied Forces and those hunted by the Nazis. However, they never actively tried to take down the government because they felt it would collapse on its own. What they wanted to do was create a unified, socialist Europe. Paul Hatschek, one of the leading members, was captured by the Gestapo in 1943 and ratted out nearly every person in the group, with at least 15 of them being killed.
6. Johann George Elser
Normally a footnote in the history of Hitler and Nazism, Johann George Elser was one of many men who tried to assassinate Hitler. However, Elser is part of a select group of people who tried to do it alone. Every year, the Nazis would meet at the Beer Hall Putsch, to commemorate the failed overthrow of the German government that landed a younger Hitler in jail. Elser knew this and used it to his advantage. Ten months before Hitler was going to give his annual speech on November 8, 1939, Elser began scouting out the area. For months, Elser worked, hollowing out a stone pillar behind where Hitler would stand, so a bomb could be placed inside of it. He created a timer that would last for 144 hours and set it for 9:20 PM on November 8, right in the middle of Hitler’s speech. Unfortunately, Hitler changed his plans at the last minute because of weather problems and ended 30 minutes early, escaping unharmed. Elser was arrested and imprisoned until April 1945, when he was executed.
7. The Swing Kids
Mainly based in the city of Hamburg, the Swing Kids began as a counterculture group to Nazism. They were youth who enjoyed American swing music, something the Nazis detested. Though not very political at the beginning, the Swing Kids were said to have begun spreading the truth heard from the Allies to German citizens. In addition, many of the group members began to non-violently protest other aspects of Nazi rule, with some even going on to join other more political groups like the White Rose. After 1941, the Nazis began to crack down on the swing clubs, sending many of the children to concentration camps.
8. The Edelweiss Pirates
Another group of ex-Hitler Youth, the Edelweiss Pirates began organizing right before the outbreak of World War II. Mostly comprised of teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18, they had no central leader and were only loosely affiliated with the groups in other cities—sometimes, the only common factor was the Edelweiss flower badge which they all wore. As the war dragged on, the Edelweiss Pirates performed increasingly dangerous tasks, including sabotage against German railways and aiding Jews fleeing from the Nazis. German reprisals were varied, depending on the severity of the crime, but many were sent to camps or prisons, with some even being executed. When the war ended, many of them disbanded, but a few continued, turning their attentions to the Allied troops who now occupied Germany.
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