Sophie Scholl: The Real Story of the Woman who Defied Hitler

Richard J. Evans discovers new insights about the life, capture and trial of an anti-Nazi protester

April 9, 2009

In June 1942, a hundred or so citizens of Munich were surprised to find a letter posted through their doors containing a leaflet denouncing the Nazi regime and urging them to engage in passive resistance to its policies. Vehemently expressed but very generalised denunciations of Nazi crimes were followed by lengthy quotations from Goethe and Schiller. Most of the recipients handed the leaflets over to the Gestapo, who concluded that the leaflet was the work of romantic idealists who did not pose much of a threat. In July 1942, however, two more leaflets were distributed, far more strident in tone and explicit in detail than the first, attacking Nazi atheism, describing the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews in Poland as the most frightful crime in history, and urging people to bring down the regime by sabotaging the war effort in any way they could. The authors of the leaflets called themselves the “White Rose”.

Over the next few months, three more leaflets appeared, attacking Hitler personally as a liar and a criminal, and calling for an admission of “the guilt with which the German people have burdened themselves through their support of Hitler’s regime”. After the calamitous defeat of the German armies at Stalingrad, the fifth leaflet announced that: “Hitler is leading the German people into the abyss.” “Hitler”, it declared correctly, “cannot win the war; he can only prolong it.” Nazism and Prussian militarism had to be replaced by a federal system embedded in a Europe based on international co-operation. Freedom of expression, a sixth leaflet protested, had been trampled on and must be restored. People must leave the Nazi Party. Germany’s honour had to be rescued.

By this time, early in 1943, the White Rose had become bolder, scattering leaflets around Munich and daubing graffiti on the walls of public buildings with slogans such as “Hitler the mass murderer” and “Down with Hitler”. Who were the members of this group? Most of them were Munich university students in their twenties. At the core of the group were Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie, along with others such as Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf and Christoph Probst. By early 1943 they had built up connections with like-minded people in Hamburg and other centres and were starting to forge links with the larger, loosely-organised left-wing resistance group known as the “Red Orchestra”.

While the latter has always aroused controversy and debate because of its communist sympathies, the White Rose quickly gained iconic status after the war and has become the object of widespread veneration in Germany, with streets, schools, squares and public spaces named after the Scholl siblings in many parts of the country. The fact that they were young, the purity of their motives, the selfless bravery of their actions and clarity of their moral vision, all these factors made them - rightly - into models of civil courage and civic responsibility for postwar German society, and above all postwar German youth.

Above all, perhaps, their terrible fate has aroused a sense of horror and outrage at the Nazi regime that must surely still affect anyone who reads about it today. On 18 February 1943, while distributing their leaflets on the campus of Munich University, the Scholls were discovered by a caretaker and arrested. After a quick trial before the People’s Court, presided over by the brutal and abusive Nazi judge Roland Freisler, they were beheaded on 22 February 1943, along with Probst. As he was fastened to the guillotine, Hans Scholl shouted defiantly: “Long live freedom!”

Much has been written about the White Rose, and we know a great deal about its members, their backgrounds and their actions, but in this new biography of Sophie Scholl, Frank McDonough, of Liverpool John Moores University, has managed to unearth some significant new material by assiduously trawling the archives, discovering letters and diaries, Gestapo interrogation records and trial documents, as well as interviewing surviving participants and relatives of the Scholls. The leaflets are usefully translated in full in an appendix. McDonough’s account corrects many widespread errors in the literature, laying to rest, for example, the common belief that the Scholls were tortured after their arrest, or that they yielded no information to their skilled Gestapo questioners during their interrogation.

McDonough brings out not only Scholl’s ordinariness, but also the debt she owed to her liberal father Robert in forming the fundamental values that guided her. While this helps explain how she became, with her brother, increasingly critical of the Nazi regime even before the war, one wishes that the book had attempted more comparisons with other resistance groups, and made more of an attempt at contextualisation. The publishers, too, have not served the author well; the book is riddled with misprints and minor errors. This is a pity; this may be a conventional biography, simply written and straightforward in its approach, but it is undoubtedly the standard work on its subject, and it deserves better.

Sophie Scholl: The Real Story of the Woman who Defied Hitler

By Frank McDonough

The History Press 232pp, £20.00

ISBN 9780752446752

Published 6 February 2009

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Reader's comments (1)

It is an excellent read nonetheless and a very important one. For we live in rather similar times today, regarding how to resists the current anti-democratic forces ranged against the lay people of this country.How do we learn from the errors made by the White Rose group, so we ourselves don`t suffer the same fate by extrapolation. For telling truths to the powerful is still a rebellious and (potentially, a legally defined treasonable) act. It would be a romantic glossing over of the facts if we think that what the group did was somehow well received by the students and professionals that they targeted with their six leaflets. They were not. Their denouncing of the war effort at a time when the Red Army were turning the tide out East did not go down well at all. Their execution was not controversial at all at the time, bit fast maybe-but all due process as established by the Nazi parallel legal structures they`d created was followed. And maybe this is where Mr Mc Donough could have been clearer. He writes a good story, and is engaging , well paced and morally committed. These were good kids, young dads and fine academics, but those of us who dwell on Sophies minor role in it all are missing some big pointers. Herself and Hans seemed intent on self-destruction at times, and were irresponsible regarding the lives now inextricably linked to theirs. The writer lays the contexts out well, and this needs to be considered when we lionise the Scholls. Yes, they were immensely brave and charismatic, talented and creative. But Sophies vainglorious throwing of the leaflets into the Lichthof atrium was petulant, Hans and his graffiti campaign in the few days before the leafet drop alerted the authorities to where the heart of the White Rose group would soon be found. Yes, it was Sophie-but I detected a weariness and tiredness in both siblings, searching for closure and release from the madness and terrors that would accompany their great rebellion. They seemed resigned to a death or jail time, their tactics seemed to induce their capture-and others were needlessly widowed, orphaned and cruelly killed because their tactics, and headstrong unwillingness to discern what would be a long term strategy is a tragedy. This is NOT in any way to condemn these brave and fearless kids. The pressures would have been intolerable even as an adult in freer days like ours. Mc Donough had insights alright, but the Scholls needed some serious theology and biblical discernment to get their timings and co-ordinations correct, and to protect their colleagues who could not be as sanguine about losing their lives as they were. A great book, a manual in how to create cells and networks for our own times. But let`s leave off the empty gesture reflex adulations of "the heart of the white rose"-and look at the intellectual grasp, courage and polemical theology that soaks these leaflets today , as they did back in 1942/3. Muth, Huber , Graf and Schmorreel were the REAL Lions of Munich, and poor Probst and his young family deserved so much better. But a great and valuable read, thank you all!