Mittwoch, 26. Juli 2023

Concerning German Remembrance of "Die Weiße Rose"

Rites of remembrance

In Western societies in general, and particularly in present-day Germany, we can observe a tendency towards an ahistorical view of human existence, obliterating the complexities of past and present. In contrast to this tendency, Germany, although undergoing a rapid process of transformation from – in relative terms – a culturally and ethnically homogeneous country into a heterogeneous multiethnic and multicultural society, is preserving a „national“ perspective regarding the country´s history. Whether, in the future, a „national“ narrative is apt to provide a „collective memory“ for a „modern immigrant society“ - the political goal proclaimed by the Berlin government – remains open to question.

Up to now,  in historical and political education, the focus lies on Germany´s bitter past of Nazism and the Holocaust. To a lesser degree, historical tribute is paid to the legacy of the anti-Nazi resistance. Aside from the failed plot of July 20, 1944, as an outstanding historical event, the student resistance group of the „Weiße Rose“ serves as a shining example of courage and ethical purity. Again, in events commemorating their martydom, the motives of the Scholls and their friends are rarely elaborated in full scope but elevated to an abstract ideal. Not by chance, in various films and exhibitions, the role of Sophie Scholl as a female resister is given particular emphasis.

It is to be noted, too, that there exist two separate - in fact, politically divergent - societies dedicated to preserving the ethical and political heritage of the „Weiße Rose“. In general, memorial events are staged by the „Weiße Rose Stiftung e.V.“ founded in 1987 by Inge Scholl and surviving members of the resistance group. Minor attention is attracted by the „Weiße Rose Institut“ set up, in 2003, by other family members of the group at the Abbey St. Bonifatius in Munich.

To further illustrate the intricacies of „Gedenkkultur“ (commemorative culture), the role of Alexander Schmorell, half-Russian by descent and born in Orel, Russia, in the revolutionary year 1917, tends to recede in the background. As a fellow medical student at the University of Munich, Schmorell became Hans Scholl´s closest friend. In the spring and summer of 1942, the two of them coauthored and spread the first leaflets titled „Die Weiße Rose“. In the second trial against members of the resistance group staged at the „Volksgerichtshof“ in Munich in April 1943, Schmorell, together with Kurt Huber and Willy Graf (killed some months later), was sentenced to death and executed, two months after the Scholls´ and their friend Christoph Probst´s execution. In 2012, Schmorell was canonized as „Alexander of Munich“ by the Russian Orthodox Church.

The commemoration of the „Weiße Rose“ heroism may also lead to overlooking the specific situation in February 1943, when the Munich group stepped up its actions of leaflets and graffitti („Freiheit“, „Nieder mit Hitler“). In false optimism, they hoped for a general upheaval against the Nazi regime in reaction to the catastrophic defeat of the 6th German Army at Stalingrad. In particular, their hopes were spurred by spectacular scenes of protests among Munich students triggered by a primitive speech of the Munich Gauleiter Paul Giesler at an academic event. Under strong emotional pressure, Hans and Sophie, on the morning of February 18, dared upon their last and fatal action of emptying a suitcase and a  satchel filled with leaflets from the gallery into the entrance hall of Munich University. The text itself, written by Professor Kurt Huber and edited by Hans Scholl, called for action against Europe´s subjection to Nazi terror. It was imbued with patriotic fervor appealing to the „spirit of 1813“.

On February 22, 1943, Sophie Scholl fearlessly addressed the notorious Roland Freisler president of the „Volksgerichtshof“ at Munich: „I am of the opinion still of having done the best I could do for my people, in particular now. Hence I do not regret my way of actions, and I am prepared to face the consequences arising from my actions.“ Patriotic words like these are likely to sound strange and politically inappropriate to young Germans today, removed from Nazism and World War II by several generations.

Ricarda Huch´s concept of a Memorial Book

There is an abundance of literature on the „Weiße „Rose“. And yet, its legacy is exposed to a fading historical memory in general and to a narrowed emphasis on politische Bildung („political education“). Against this background, a small book written by the historian Klaus-Rüdiger Mai, author of a biography of the Catholic Jewish martyr and saint Edith Stein, stands out for widening our perception of the „Weiße Rose“:

Klaus-Rüdiger Mai: Ich würde Hitler erschießen. Sophie Scholls Weg in den Widerstand, Paderborn (Bonifatius Verlag) 2023, 192 pages.

In the summer of 1946, the violincellist Susanne Hirzel happened to read an appeal by Ricarda Huch (1864-1947). The author and poet Huch, thanks to her son-in-law Franz Böhm, an economist, herself connected with a group of resisters on Freiburg, asked for collecting material for a Memorial Book in remembrance of those „heroic persons“ who had risked the attempt to overthrow the „astutely  established regime of horror“. (After Huch´s decease in 1947, the collection of papers was edited and published titled by the dramatist Günther Weisenborn, himself affiliated with the resistance group of the „Rote Kapelle“. The book titled „Der lautlose Aufstand. Bericht über die Widerstandsbewegung des deutschen Volkes 1933 – 1945“ first appeared in 1953.)

Susanne Hirzel, daughter of a Lutheran minister in the city of Ulm, and Sophie Scholl had been friends, as 14-year-old girls of the same age, since 1935. In the second trial against the „Weiße Rose“ she got away with a sentence of six months.

Bringing to mind Sophie´s courage in the face of death, Susanne Hirzel in a long letter responded to Huch´s request. She recalled that, in January 1943, Sophie Scholl had told her of her Munich friends´ pamphlets denouncing the Nazi regime. Somebody had to take courage in commencing action. „If I had a chance of shooting Hitler, I would do it, even though being a girl.“

Dictatorship and Romantic Sensitivity

Like in other Scholl biographies, the basic theme of May´s book is the siblings´ mental and moral development from early enthusiasm for Hitler towards uncompromising resistance, triggered by specific encounters with despotic arbitrariness. The Scholls´ road to resistance cannot be separated from its historical setting.

Germany´s political atmosphere in the final phase of the Weimar Republic is illustrated by two quotations. In the year 1931, the author Curzio Malaparte, himself rooted in Italian fascism, observed that Hitler was about „to skip the ´risky´ role of Catilina [convicted by Cicero of plotting against the Roman Republic, in 63 B.C.] and to adopt the less risky role of a plebiscitary dictator“. Other observations came from the French socialist Pierre Vinot in his book „Uncertain Germany“. He wrote about the collapse of the civic order and an abnormal propensity to self-analysis“. In addition, he diagnosed the inveterate penchant for a welfare state („Fürsorgestaat“) as an idea „certainly not belonging to civic culture. We are entering here into the wide field of socialism.“

The French writer was referring to the idea of the community of the people („Volksgemeinschaft“), removed from party politics and transcending class barriers. This romanticist concept was popular in the various „leagues“ („Bünde“) of the German youth movement, where the love of nature was merged with nationalism and social idealism. One of the heroes revered by the „Bünde“ was the poet Stefan George who, in 1927, proclaimed his dream of „Das Neue Reich“. With ideas and emotions of this sort, the „Bünde“ were not very far from the promises of national socialism. As a young army officer, Count Stauffenberg, famed for his attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944, was swayed, too, by the enthusiasm generated by a column of SA stormtroopers celebrating Hitler´s ascendance to power (by appointment as Reichskanzler, January 30, 1933). In 1933, the law professor Ernst Forsthoff – becoming a half-hearted opponent of Nazism some years later -, in his book „Der totale Staat“ („The Total State“) proclaimed that the „bourgeois age was to be liquidated“. In the prospect of a „better future, “ it was necessary to exhaust the last reserves of the people.“

Inspired by their surroundings – school, church, and peers - the Scholl siblings were caught up in the nationalist euphoria. Inge Scholl, the eldest of the five sisters, brandished a picture of Hitler in her room. She was keen to see her brother Hans and his „club“, i.e. the Ulm YMCA, joining the Hitler Youth. Also, she was the first of the siblings to be appointed leader in the girls´ branch of the Hitler Youth („Bund deutscher Mädel“, BdM, League of German Girls).

Hitler Youth and „bündisch“ activities

The siblings´ enthusiasm for the Hitler Youth was in part due to the pubertarian desire of detaching themselves from their parental home. Hans Scholl entered into a permanent conflict with his father Robert Scholl, an agnostic pacifist anti-Nazi. Later, in 1942, at the time when Hans and Sophie were about to enter their fateful career as resisters, Robert Scholl was betrayed by his secretary for calling Hitler "a scourge of God.“ He was sentenced to four months in jail and barred from working as a tax consultant. Again, in Mai 1943, he was sentenced to eighteen months in jail for listening to foreign, i.e. „enemy“ radio stations.

Despite quarrels during adolescence, family ties remained intact, with mother Magdalena Scholl, of pietist faith and trained as a „Diakonisse“ ( the Protestant equivalent of a nun), sedating emotions. At every stage on their children´s road to resistance, the family provided emotional support. Also, we find no trace of antisemitic sentiments in that family. Young Sophie Scholl is quoted saying: „Anyone who does not know Heinrich Heine, doesn´t know German literature.“

Hans´ character, exhibiting strong self-will and a hungry intellect, can best be described as a „firebrand“. Sophie, too, her artistic talent and poetic sensitivity notwithstanding, drew attention among Ulm citizens as a „boyish“ BdM enthusiast. Yet, in one aspect, by cultivating specific youth movement traditions, the youngsters deviated from the rules and rites of the Hitler Youth. Inspiration came from Eberhard Koebel (tusk), the nonconformist leader of a group named d.j.1.11 (German Youth of November 11, 1929), who, after clashes with Nazi rivals - involving arrest and torture in Berlin in the spring of 1933 – emigrated to England via Sweden in 1934.

In the above-mentioned letter, Susanne Hirzel described the ideals and the emotions prevailing in those  bündisch“ groups: „In the final analysis, it was all about ´freedom´. We were resolved to dedicate our lives to this goal, although no one could have given a closer definition of what this ´freedom´ really meant.“ Klaus-Rüdiger Mai provides an interpretation of his own by seeing the Scholls´ and their friends´ emotions in the romantic tradition of the eighteenth-century „Sturm und Drang“ period, backing up his view with a quotation from Jack Kerouac´s „On the Road“. Kerouac writes about those „ crazy ones, crazy for life“. „What were such people called in Goethe´s Germany?“ On his last way, being marched to the guillotine, 24-year-old Hans Scholl exclaimed: „Es lebe die Freiheit!“ (Long live freedom!)

From 1936 onward, nonconformist traditions in and outside the Hitler Youth were no longer tolerated but criminalized as „bündisch activities“ („Umtriebe“/activities in the sense of „disturbances“). Questioned by the Gestapo in February 1943, Sophie explained her early break with Nazism „above all“ with her and her siblings´ arrest in the late autumn of 1937 for charges of „bündische Umtriebe“. Charges against Hans Scholl and Inge´s friend Ernst Reden involved violations of the penal code § 175 banning homosexual practices. Referring to emotional uncertainties in the phase of puberty, the historian Mai refutes the theologian Robert Zoske, who, in his biographies, has attempted to elaborate on bisexual behavior of Hans and to detect latent lesbian tendencies in Sophie Scholl. ( ;

Like Zoske in his biography of Hans Scholl, May, in his biographical essay on Sophie, fails to mention the Scholl family´s close relationship with Richard Scheringer, noteworthy for his biography. As a lieutenant, Scheringer, together with two other young officers, was convicted, in March 1930, for spreading Nazi propaganda in the Reichswehr (army). While serving his sentence, he converted to communism without abandoning his nationalist sentiments. Aside from minor brushes with the regime, he emerged unscathed from the Nazi era on his farm near Ingolstadt. The Scholl children occasionally spent their holidays there. Elisabeth, one of the five siblings, was employed as a maid in the Scheringer family at the time of the Munich drama.

Christian Faith

Standing out as a firmly established motive of the young Scholls´ road to martyrdom was their Christian faith, differing, to be sure, in certain features as regards Hans and his younger sister Sophie. When Hans, before, in late 1937, being captured himself, learned about his siblings´ arrest, he sent a letter thanking his mother for sending him a „wonderful“ word from the Bible. „It helped me to regain my old composure.“ Around 1939/1940, Hans Scholl (and somewhat later Sophie) was introduced by their brother Werner´s Catholic friend Otto Aicher (who had been barred from graduating at his school for refusing to join the Hitler Youth) to the Munich circle of Catholic intellectuals centered around Carl Muth and the convert Theodor Haecker. Thus, thanks to Aicher, himself intending to make converts of the Scholls, the siblings came to know the ideas of the French Rénouveau catholique inspired by authors like George Bernanos, Paul Claudel, and Jacques Maritain.

The author Mai is far from diminishing the intellectual and religious relevance of the Munich circle of the anti-Nazi opponents around Carl Muth. Nonetheless, he sees the Scholl siblings´ road to resistance in the tradition of Protestantism. Before being murdered on the scaffold on February 23, 1943, they received the Last Supper from a Lutheran pastor. In contrast to Luther, who, at his trial before the Imperial Diet at Worms in 1521, could expect salvation from the Elector of Saxony, there was no mighty secular power to hold a protecting hand over young Hans and Sophie Scholl.


The above article is an enlarged version of my review of Mai´s book on my Globkult blog This text again is based on my review in the Catholic newpaper „Die Tagespost“ of February 22, 2023,

For additional reading see my articles and reviews:

Keine Kommentare:

Kommentar veröffentlichen