The White Rose, Silenced Voices of Hitler’s Germany

Fifty-four years ago three German students were arrested. A few days later they were hauled before the Volksgerichtshof (“People’s Court”), sentenced to death and executed by beheading the same day. Within a few months many more arrests were made, and, in a second trial, three additional death sentences were handed down. (The “People’s Court,” I should add, existed outside the German constitution. It was created by the NSDAP, the National Socialist Party, in 1934 for the sole purpose of eliminating Hitler’s enemies.)

In the early summer of 1942, a group of young people — including Willi Graf, Christoph Probst, Hans Scholl, his sisters Sophie and Inge Scholl, and Alex Schmorell, all in their early twenties, as well as their professor of philosophy, Kurt Huber, formed a a non-violent resistance group in Nazi Germany. The group became known for an anonymous leaflet campaign, lasting from June 1942 until February 1943, that called for active opposition to the Nazis regime.

The White Rose members: Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst, Hans Scholl, Willi Graf, Kurt Huber, Sophie Scholl

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 White Rose was influenced by the German Youth Movement, of which Christoph Probst was a member. Hans Scholl was a member of the Hitler Youth until 1936 and Sophie was a member of the Bund Deutscher Mädel.

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. 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.

1942: Hubert Furtwangler, Hans Scholl, Willi Graf, unknown, Sophie Scholl and Alexander Schmorell before leaving for service on the Russian front

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.

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.

Several members had served in the German Army before resuming their studies. This provided them with information about the atrocities being committed by the Schutz Staffeinel (SS).Willi Graf had served as a medical orderly in France and Yugoslavia in 1941 whereas Hans Scholl and Schmorell had seen Jews being murdered in Poland and the Soviet Union. When Scholl and Schmorell returned to Munich in November, 1942, they joined up with Graff and began publishing leaflets about what they had seen while in the army.

In “Passive Resistance to National Socialism”, published in 1943 the group explained the reasons why they had formed the White Rose group:
“We want to try and show them that everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of the system. It can be done only by the cooperation of many convinced, energetic people – people who are agreed as to the means they must use. We have no great number of choices as to the means. The meaning and goal of passive resistance is to topple National Socialism, and in this struggle we must not recoil from our course, any action, whatever its nature. A victory of fascist Germany in this war would have immeasurable, frightful consequences.”

The White Rose group also began painting anti-Nazi slogans on the sides of houses. This included “Down With Hitler”, “Hitler Mass Murderer” and “Freedom”. They also painted crossed-out swastikas. 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.

On Thursday, February eighteenth, 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 22nd February. They, along with Christoph, were arrested. Within days, all three were brought before the People’s Court in Berlin. On February 22, 1943. 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.

Detail of copies of White Rose pamphlets have been embedded in the pavement of Geschwister-Scholl-Platz outside the central hall of Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich

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.