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
Published 6 February 2009