“Isn’t it mysterious—and frightening, too, when one doesn’t know the reason—that everything should be so beautiful in spite of the terrible things that are happening? My sheer delight in all things beautiful has been invaded by a great unknown, an inkling of the creator whom his creatures glorify with their beauty—That’s why man alone can be ugly, because he has the free will to disassociate himself from this song of praise” (HWR 276).
Sofie Scholl in a letter 1942
Her bust now stands in Valhalla, the hall of Great Germans, one of the very few women selected for this honor.
Another bust lives in the White Rose Atrium at the University of Munich, where she and her brother Hans were arrested in 1943 (SS XV). “Learn from us,” it pleads. “Don’t allow the same thing to happen in your nation, neighborhood, city and state.”
The leaflets are preserved in bronze on the ground in front: “Wake up. Resist. Sabotage!” Sofie* Scholl’s words ring out still, a grim reminder of what can happen in times of totalitarianism and fascism when one is brave enough to speak out. But also a reminder of what one or a few voices speaking out can do and what more could have done, had they joined in. Sofie and the group of college students at University of Munich who called themselves The White Rose urge us to stand up and resist racism, sexism, fascism, anti-semitism, warn of what could happen if we do not.
A young woman in Nazi Germany, ripped apart within by the horrors her government and nation were perpetrating onto other humans, Sofie Scholl took the most dangerous risk of speaking her mind and having her voice when she knew it would mean her life if caught. She chose to join the group of young college students called “The White Rose” in Munich, in the heart of Nazi Germany at the peak of WWII, an attempt to wake up her peers and change the tide of events so horrendous and annihilating being carried out in their name.
What would I have done? many of us ask ourselves? Would I have done what Sofie did? Did it do any good? Remembering her makes the answer yes. We must remember Sofie Scholl.
Born in 1921, Sofie grew up in the city of Ulm, Germany. Her father was outspoken against the Nazi regime from the beginning. In spite of this, his children chose to participate in the Nazi youth movements– creating tension in the family. It took them a while, but, slowly they all came to agree with their father, Sofie and her brother Hans becoming more and more radicalized as the war continued.
“For the first few years of Nazi rule, all the Scholl children were infected by the excitement that permeated their schools and community—the wearing of uniforms, the marching in torchlit processions through the streets of Ulm, the camping out in the country—and felt themselves a part in the rebuilding of their deeply divided and demoralized nation”(SS 24).
National Socialism was rigid when it came to gender roles and wanted women and girls to go back to being householders creating more citizens for the state. They glorified the role of peasant women and women whose only desire was to work in service to the Fatherland.
Sophie was assigned months of hard labor, as were all German girls, to work for the war effort. It was a brutal experience with the female leaders’ abuse and the mind numbing insistence on conformity. She read banned books secretly and tried to keep her values in tact in spite of these experiences.
“She might have led a quiet life of bicycle trips and chores and studying for exams, like so many German girls around her, who kept their eyes closed whenever possible to the ugly contradictions of their world. But there was something in Sofie Scholl that made her different from these girls; it had to do with the sharpness with which she saw these contradictions, and how she must live if she was to remain true to her values, her inner self”(SS 48).
In a letter to her boyfriend in 1940, Sofie writes:
“I’m sure you find what I’m writing very unfeminine. It’s ridiculous for a girl to involve herself in politics. She should let her feminine feelings dominate her thoughts. Especially compassion. But I believe that first comes thinking, and that feelings, especially about little things that affect you directly, maybe about your own body, deflect you so that you can hardly see the big things anymore”(SS 45).
In Sofie’s letters we get a brief look at her struggle with coming to terms with the reality of the world she was growing up in.
“Weariness is my principal possession. It keeps me silent when I ought to speak out—when I ought to admit to you what concerns us both”(HWR 85).
We get a slight peek inside the mind of the girl who would become the woman to make such choices.
“As I see it, a soldier’s position vis-à-vis his nation is rather like that of son who vows to stand up for his father and family come what may. If his father does another family an injustice and gets into trouble as a result, the son has to back his father regardless. Personally, I can’t raise that much family feeling. To me, justice takes precedence over all other attachments, many of which are purely sentimental.
And it would surely be better if people engaged in a conflict could take the side they consider right”(HWR 102).
In one of the letters Sofie mentions going to the artist colony in Worpswede and seeing the work of Paula Modersohn Becker (1876-1907), a #NastyWomanArtist featured on this site, and liking it. (Many of the women of #NastyWomenWriters have connections in interesting ways which, if we follow those connections, form an interesting web of #Nastywomen through time.)
“I’m crazy about Paula Modersohn’s work…She developed a tremendously original style for a woman, and her paintings aren’t derivative of anyone in particular. You must see them all. After hers, the rest of the pictures at the exhibition just floated past me“(HWR 38).
Sofie’s brother Hans was already at University of Munich when she arrived to attend. He had already begun the movement to take action against the Nazis rather than just hold in his anger and disgust quietly. The White Rose already had the initial plans for their work, which included releasing leaflets protesting the war and asking the general population to wake up and resist.
“The ‘LEAFLETS OF THE WHITE ROSE’ began to appear in Munich in mid-June 1942. Four of them came out, one after another, like a staccato burst of fire—filled with rage, brimstone, and literary citations. And as quickly as they came, they were gone.
The city had seen nothing like it in years; perhaps only in the early months after Hitler’s takeover had such lengthy and passionate anti-Nazi tracts been circulated. The leaflets were typed single-spaced on both sides of a sheet of paper, duplicated, folded into envelopes with neatly typed names and addresses, and mailed as printed matter to people all over the city”(SS 56).
When Sofie arrived the first leaflet was already released. She found out her brother had written it after discovering a book in his apartment with the same passages highlighted that were in the leaflet. She joined the group immediately.
These young men and women were so brave. It can be hard for us to even comprehend. They were in imminent danger. The act of having the conversations they had was considered treason, even thinking such thoughts was punishable betrayal.
We must understand that they had been brainwashed from a very young age by Hitler’s youth movements. Almost the entire nation around them believed in what was happening and believed it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t as if everyone agreed with the beliefs of The White Rose. The fact that they were able to even think for themselves and then make decisions on how to act was profound. They were brave beyond measure and they paid for it with their lives.
Jews are human beings too – it makes no difference what your opinion is regarding the Jewish question – and these crimes are being committed against human beings. Perhaps someone will say, the Jews deserve this fate. Saying this is in itself a colossal effrontery.
But let us assume that someone has said this. How can he face the fact that the entire population of aristocratic Polish youth has been exterminated (would God that the extermination is not yet complete!)? You may ask, and in what manner has this taken place? All male offspring of aristocratic families between 15 and 20 years old are sent to concentration camps in Germany as forced labor. All the girls of the same age group are being sent to the SS brothels in Norway!
But why are we bothering to tell you all this, since you know everything anyway? If you are not aware of these specific crimes, then surely you are aware of equally heinous crimes committed by these terrible subhumans? Because this touches on a question that affects all of us deeply, a question that must make us all stop and think: Why is the German nation behaving so apathetically in the face of all these most abominable, most degrading crimes?”
They typed the leaflets up secretly at night trying not to make a lot of noise. They acquired printing machines and copied them by hand on these machines one at a time, staying up all night. They put the leaflets into suitcases and got on trains with the loaded suitcases, transporting them to other cities all over Germany in order to have them postmarked from various locations. They risked checkpoints and identity checks to do this, in order to speak to all Germans, “This is not who we are. Wake up! Resist! Sabotage! Do anything to stop this terrible regime.” They ended each leaflet asking the recipient to make copies of it and distribute it further. The White Rose distributed 5 leaflets. The 6th was never distributed. They were caught while it was being written.
They began to paint graffiti, “Down with Hitler,” and white swastikas crossed out with red on campus buildings and walls. The student body became disruptive and agitated. They felt they were being heard, making a difference.
They were being sought after, hunted down. Threats to their lives were publicly made by the regime who asked their peers to turn them in. Yet they persisted.
“And even when you think that everything’s about to end, the moon reappears in the sky the following night, the same as ever. And the birds continue to sing as sweetly and busily without worrying whether there’s any point in it. Have you noticed the way they tilt their little heads to the sky and sing with complete abandon, and how their little throats swell? It’s good that such things are always with us. You have them too. It’s enough to gladden one’s heart, isn’t it?”(HWR 89).
Sofie Scholl in a letter, 1940
On February 18, 1943, Sofie and her brother Hans were arrested while scattering leaflets from a balcony in a University building with high vaulted ceilings onto the gallery below. They were tried, found guilty and beheaded in one day.
Later, many of the others of The White Rose were caught, tried and murdered. Word of their murders got out to the larger world and the allies reprinted tens of thousands of their leaflets and dropped them from allied planes over Germany
“Once upon a time—I’m reminded of this by your reference to the innocent suffering of the trees—I occasionally use to wish I was just a tree, or better still, just a fragment of bark from a tree. I entertained such whims very early on, but nowadays I take care to stifle them and resist the kind of fatigue that seeks fulfillment in nonexistence. It isn’t because I’ve conquered the feeling, far from it, but I’m often, almost constantly, overwhelmed by a feeling of melancholy of which I am becoming almost fond. Do you know what I mean? It’s dangerous and even sinful to cherish one’s own agony of mind”(HWR 301).
Sofie Scholl in a letter to her sister, February 2, 1943
Sofie Scholl is a #NastyWomanActivist.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2019
*I chose to use the Sofie spelling of her name in this post because that was the given spelling of her name and it is how Sofie referred to herself. It felt important to offer her true name and afford this woman some dignity in a world that denied her so much.
Dumbach, Annette and Jud Newborn, Sophie Scholl and the White Rose. One World Publications: Oxford, 1986.
Jens, Inge, ed. At the Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl. Plough Publishing House: New York, 2017.