“We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!”
One of the big movies of the moment is Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie, an attempt to tell the story of the group of German aristocrats and senior military officers who were behind the 20th July 1944 Plot which aimed to assassinate Adolf Hitler. I won’t be watching it as it features the dreaded Tom Cruise.
Electro Kevin has pointed out the problem with Cruise and Singer attempting to portray Oberstleutnant Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg as a hero here. Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were typical German aristocrats of their era, whose main issue with Adolf HItler was that he wasn’t doing a good enough job of winning the war. A letter Stauffenberg sent to his wife Nina when service in Poland contains the following clause –
“The population here are unbelievable rabble; a great many Jews and a lot of mixed race. A people that is only comfortable under the lash. The thousands of prisoners will serve our agriculture well.”
These men were not humanitarians -they were not ‘nice’ people, regardless that they were doing the work of the angels in trying to assassinate a monster.
It would have been far more interesting had Bryan Singer focused on some rather more sympathetic, and in many ways braver opponents of the Nazi regime.
Die Weiße Rose (the White Rose) was a non-violent resistance group in Nazi Germany centred around a group of students at the University of Munich and their Professor of Philosophy and Musicology. Through the medium of anonymous leaflets, between June 1942 and February 1943 the group called for active opposition to Hitler’s regime.
At the heart of the White Rose movement were brother and sister Sophie and Hans Scholl, Alex Schmorell, Will Graf, Christoph Probst, Traute Lafrenz, Katharina Schueddekopf, Liesolette Berndl, and Falk Harnack. Mostly in their early 20s, they were supported by Professor Kurt Huber and a wider group of supporters. Over the nine months in which they were active, the group prepared and distributed six leaflets calling for active opposition by the German people to Nazi oppression.
Unlike the July 20th Conspirators, the White Rose group was motivated by moral and ethical considerations. Some had seen first hand the horrors of the war and the Nazi occupation of the East – Willi Graf had seen the Warsaw and Lodz ghettos and was left emotionally scarred by the sights. The group were dedicated to principles of tolerance and justice.
Influenced by the anti-Nazi cleric Bishop August von Galen, and quoting extensively from the Bible and from philosophers, the group appealed to the German Intelligensia whom they believed would be naturally opposed to the Nazis. They mailed their leaflets to cities in Southern Germany, later reaching further afield, distributing their work via courier runs.
“Since the conquest of Poland three hundred thousand Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way … The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals … Each man wants to be exonerated of a guilt of this kind, each one continues on his way with the most placid, the calmest conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!”
From the Second Leaflet of the White Rose group.
The leaflets caused a sensation, and the Gestapo began intensive efforts to discover how was behind them.
On the nights of 3rd, 8th and 15th of February 1943 the group used tar-based paint to grafitti the walls of the University and other building in Munich with slogans such as ‘Freedom” and “Down with Hitler”. The loss of Sixth Army at Stalingrad provided the impetus for the group’s 6th Leaflet. On the 18th Hans and Sophie Scholl brought a suitcase full of leaflets to the University. They planned to leave them in piles in the corridors for students to find when they came out of their lectures. Finding that some were left, they climbed to the top of the staircase and Sophie spontaneously threw the remaining leaflets into the air. Her action was spotted by a caretaker, who called the Gestapo. Sophie and Hans Scholl were arrested shortly afterwards. Before long the rest of the group had been rounded up and taken into custody.
The Scholls and Probst were first to be tried before Roland Freiser of the Volksgerichtshof—the People’s Court—on 22nd February 1943. They were found guilty of treason, were executed by beheading using the guillotine. All three were noted for the courage with which they faced their deaths, particularly Sophie, who remained firm despite intense interrogation. The group had believed that their fellow students would be stirred into activism by the deaths. Heartbreakingly, in reality their deaths passed with little comment – it is believed that some students even celebrated the deaths of people they saw as traitors.
Over the next few months many other members of the group were tried and executed or sentenced to long terms in prison.
The White Rose had the final word, however. Their final leaflet was smuggled out of Germany to Britain, and was dropped in millions across Germany by the RAF. The group, particularly Sophie Scholl, would become icons of modern Germany.