On this day in 1943, two extraordinary people were executed for treason against the Nazis. Hans Scholl was 24, his sister Sophie 21. They were extraordinary people even regardless of their role in history. Hans, a natural leader, bowled over practically everyone by sheer force of personality; his Gestapo interrogator thought this young traitor was the most intellectually brilliant person he had ever met. Sophie, straight-talking and often profound, could be the life of the party at one moment, and at the next retreat into a deep, almost mystical inner life. Both were scarily intelligent and utterly uncompromising.
It would be possible to argue that the Scholls and the rest of the White Rose movement achieved nothing, that their campaign should be classed with the Charge of the Light Brigade as a splendid but pitiable failure. Weren’t they, you might ask, too reckless from the beginning, daubing the streets of Munich with anti-Hitler slogans? Wasn’t it, as Sophie seems to have admitted herself, a ‘stupid mistake’ to distribute their leaflets so openly, scattering them in the University hall and so getting caught? And weren’t those leaflets, sent all over southern Germany, quite strange anyway, with their lengthy quotations from Lao Tzu and Schiller and their apocalyptic rhetoric? Wasn’t it, in fact, just what you would expect from a group of excitable and rather pretentious students?
This much has to be conceded – the members of the White Rose were not really very politically-minded. Willi Graf preferred singing in the Bach Choral Society to being a subversive activist. Kurt Huber spent the last weeks before his execution desperately trying to complete his big book on Leibniz. What really mattered to them was art, literature, philosophy, religion, and those values which were so colossally important the Nazis could not even see them.
But that was their strength: they saw themselves as part of a whole civilization and its principles – at the heart of them, the respect for human life. One of the great turning-points for Hans and Sophie came in 1941, when the Bishop of Münster, the fearless Count Clemens von Galen, used a sermon to denounce the Nazis’ euthanasia programme. Hitler had explained that this was a kind, humane project: only the most wretched individuals, carefully selected by an expert panel of doctors, would be ‘granted release by euthanasia’. Later, the Ministry of Propaganda sponsored a popular TV drama, in which a beautiful young woman with multiple sclerosis pleads to be allowed an assisted suicide. Like the Scholls, von Galen saw what was really at stake. Some slopes, the bishop told his listeners, really are slippery:
Once it becomes permissible…to put to death ‘unproductive’ human beings, then we are all of us open to being murdered when we, too, are old and feeble and no longer productive… If such things are permitted, then none of us is safe in our lives.
Though von Galen was too popular a figure for the Nazis to touch, they kept his words out of the press. But people duplicated the sermon and mailed it around. And this example of disseminating anti-Nazi material set Hans thinking. He read and reread his copy of the sermon and was heard to muse aloud: ‘One definitely ought to have a duplicating machine of one’s own.’ That duplicating machine, in the end, cost Hans his life.
Von Galen vividly confirmed the Scholls’ sense of ‘the massive Nazi assault on the decencies and traditions of the civilization they knew’, as one excellent biography puts it. Working as an army medic, Hans was constantly among the wounded and suffering; he knew that they should not be classed as useless. So did his fellow White Rose member Christopher Probst, also a medic. Christopher’s sister Angelika recalled his ‘outrage’ over the euthanasia programme: ‘No one, he said, can know what goes on in the soul of a mentally afflicted person. No one can know what secret inner ripening can come from suffering. Every individual’s life is priceless.’
In their Hitler Youth days, before their disillusionment, Hans and Sophie would have sung songs with lines like:
The old must perish,
The weak must decay.
But they grew up into a better philosophy, one which valued every human life, however weak and defenceless. Hans and Sophie, with the rest of the White Rose movement, lived by high ideals. They knew they could not bring down the whole regime. They made a huge impact, even so, and a sceptic who called their efforts a romantic failure would simply be wrong. The Scholls delivered a real blow to Nazi self-confidence, and after their deaths the leaflets were reproduced and distributed in their millions all over Europe. To the people of Germany, to exiles abroad, to prisoners in concentration camps, it was an awakening of hope to hear the news about these young people in Munich. And their example endures. Sophie has nearly 200 German schools named after her.
All that is true; but their achievement cannot be summed up by listing its practical results. It was something more, something hard to express, though the words of Geoffrey Hill (speaking about the Elizabethan martyrs) come close: ‘The very fact that they lived ennobles the human race, which is so often ignoble.’ The Scholls fought against huge odds, not for victory, but because fighting was the only thing worth doing. Hans was motivated less by the hope of effecting change than by a haunting thought about the verdict of future generations: ‘We will be standing empty-handed,’ he warned. ‘We will have no answer when we are asked: What did you do about it?’