‘Conscience Before Conformity’: What the White Rose Students Can Teach Today’s Young Scholars

COMMENTARY: Hans Scholl, like his sister Sophie, had found in St. John Henry Newman and other Christian writers the resources and inspiration to make sense of the brutal world around him.

Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst at East Station in Munich on July  23,1942. The three students were executed together.
Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst at East Station in Munich on July 23,1942. The three students were executed together. (photo: George Wittenstein/AKG / Public Domain)

A great deal of ink has been spilt recently about the culture wars on campus, where progressive ideologies are tolerated and even championed by both faculty and students. By contrast, advice about how to nurture young hearts and minds to withstand the prevailing climate has been in relatively short supply.

With the approach of another White Rose anniversary, I can think of no better example worth reflecting on than the lives of Hans and Sophie Scholl. These martyrs for truth and conscience illustrate how it is possible to survive, and indeed thrive, in a truly toxic academic atmosphere.

Eighty-one years ago, on Feb. 18, 1943, Hans and his sister Sophie were caught distributing anti-Nazi leaflets at Munich University. Five days later, they were tried and executed for high treason on Hitler’s direct orders. The Scholls belonged to a group of students who, using the nom de guerre of the White Rose, spoke out against National Socialism and circulated thousands of leaflets urging Germans to rise to their moral duty and resist Hitler and his “atheistic war machine.” They also condemned the persecution of Jews in the year when Hitler began to implement the Final Solution — and were among the few to speak publicly of the Holocaust while it was taking place.

The Scholls and their friends are household names in Germany. Sophie has nearly 200 schools named after her and was dubbed the greatest German woman of all time by a popular television series called Greatest Germans. After the conspirators of the failed July 20, 1944, attempt on Hitler’s life, the White Rose students are the best-known example of Germans who sought to resist the Nazis. That there were so few similar deeds shows just how difficult and dangerous resistance was and how successful Nazi tactics had been in desensitising consciences and eliminating whatever stood in their way. Even the effort to maintain some form of inner or passive resistance required great determination. 

Hans and Sophie were the second and fourth of five children, all of whom were encouraged to read widely, play musical instruments, and enjoy the outdoor life. Both were initially enthusiastic members of the Hitler Youth, joining in 1933 when membership was optional and against their father’s wishes: They even became group leaders. They loved their country and wanted it to achieve greatness again after the ignominy of the Great War, but they became disillusioned by their experiences in the Hitler Youth and began to oppose virulently every manifestation of Nazism. 

The Scholl household gradually became a magnet for kindred spirits who felt disillusioned or alienated, a place of sanctuary where the children could talk openly to trusted friends and relatives. Banned books, such as those by Jewish writers, were read, and the regime was criticized over meals, especially by Herr Scholl, who had always been vehemently anti-Nazi. After dinner, he would sometimes leave the table early, saying, “Now, if you will excuse me, I will go and earn a jail sentence,” a euphemism for listening to forbidden radio stations such as the BBC.

Hans began his medical studies in 1939, but Sophie was only able to join him at Munich three years later. During the intervening period, they began discussing the big questions of life — with each other and with other trusted friends, by letter and in person — which had been brought home to them by events that were unfolding in Germany and across Europe. Why did people not speak out against so many lies? Why were they only interested in self-preservation? Where is God today? How could a good God allow so much suffering? In their different ways, they each detested regimentation and its accompanying, deadly standardization, and reacted against being herded into ideological factions by adopting a defiant attitude and assuming a state of continuous resistance. Feeling abandoned in a strange and empty world, which was tearing itself apart, and finding that the conflict was unbearable when separated from friends and family, they sought out solitude and turned to prayer. Books, especially forbidden ones, came to play an important part in their lives.

They discovered in Christian writers, ancient and modern, a way of making sense of the dark times they inhabited, as well as answers to their deepest longings. From their letters and diaries, we know that they were strongly influenced by St. Augustine’s Confessions, Blaise Pascal’s Pensées (Thoughts), George Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest, and the sermons and other writings of St. John Henry Newman. 

Out of the round-robin letters that they and their friends had started writing, there developed a hand-written magazine comprising essays, poems, personal reflections and drawings. Cultural rather than overtly political, the contributions achieved some form of self-expression beyond the reach of the regime, an escape from the suffocating, mindless propaganda of National Socialism: They asserted intellectual independence. To different degrees, they were all striving to formulate answers to the problems thrown up by life in a totalitarian regime and to ground them on cultural and spiritual foundations. Badly in need of contact with like-minded souls, if they were to survive the dark days of the war, the recipients agreed to take an active share in the enterprise. The magazine would be called Windlicht (Hurricane Lamp), as it would shield them from the storm raging around them. 

Upon entering Munich University in May 1942 to study philosophy and biology, Sophie discovered that the student body was largely Nazi in attitude and outlook and that Nazi policies were championed in both classroom and corridor. All student groups were strictly supervised by young zealots from the National Socialist Student Union who monitored the words and actions of students and professors alike. The ideological police were ever on the lookout for signs of defeatism, subversion or irreverence for authority. Nevertheless, on entering this world, Sophie found that it was possible, by careful choice of subjects, to avoid courses in “racial hygiene” and to outwit the system.

In Munich, Sophie was immediately welcomed into the friendship circle of her brother Hans, now in his fourth year of studies. Hans was half-student, half-soldier; a medical student during term time, a medical assistant in military hospitals during vacations. The medical corps to which he was assigned was an ideal place to meet pacifists, fellow dissidents and opponents of the regime and to exchange ideas and banned literature (which was becoming ever harder to obtain). 

The circle of friends that formed around Hans was not a formal club with its own rules and membership list, yet it had a well-defined identity and its unspoken standards were recognized by all within it. Those belonging could sense whether someone else should be allowed to join them. Although Sophie was immediately welcomed into the circle, others were accepted only with the utmost caution and over time. Fellow dissenters recognized each other when they withheld consent to remarks which were meant to attract approval. In conversation, if a wary exchange continued, code words were offered and deciphered on both sides until the moment came when they “understood” each other.

These dissenting students had a relish for life that was not smothered by the darkness around them. They met up for reasons of solidarity: to feel sustained and secure and to leave replenished, and they often stayed up late chatting, discussing and singing. They all came from stable families and bourgeois backgrounds; in many ways, they were model Germans. None of them was a political radical (in the peacetime sense of the term), yet they rejected the prevailing values, deliberately cut themselves off from the society of their peers, made themselves aliens in own land, and put their lives in jeopardy rather than conform.

Just like the students who dared to be different, faculty who struggled to survive the toxic atmosphere also needed all the support they could muster among themselves, as well as among other intellectuals outside the university. Just like the students, they organized underground meetings where they could air their grievances and read banned — English, French and Russian — literature. When dissident students and academics came together, there was an extra dimension to the mutual support they could lend each another. 

It was through one such dissent group that the Scholls met the philosopher and cultural historian Theodor Haecker. He had become a Catholic after translating Newman’s Grammar of Assent in 1921, and for the rest of his life, Newman was his guiding star. He translated seven of Newman’s works, and on several occasions read excerpts from them at the illegal secret meetings Hans convened for his friends. 

The first four White Rose leaflets were written and distributed in a hectic 16-day period, June 27-July 12 in 1942. Haecker’s influence is particularly evident in the fourth: This leaflet, written the day after he had read the students some powerful Newman sermons, finishes with the words: “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace! Please read and distribute!”

When Sophie’s boyfriend, a Luftwaffe officer called Fritz Hartnagel, was deployed to the Eastern Front in May 1942, Sophie’s parting gift was two volumes of Newman’s sermons. After witnessing the carnage in Russia, Hartnagel wrote to Sophie to say that reading Newman’s words in such an awful place was like tasting “drops of precious wine.” 

In another letter, Hartnagel wrote: “We know by whom we were created, and that we stand in a relationship of moral obligation to our creator. Conscience gives us the capacity to distinguish between good and evil.” These words were taken almost verbatim from a sermon which Newman preached in Oxford called “The Testimony of Conscience.” In it, Newman explains that conscience is an echo of the voice of God enlightening each person to moral truth in specific situations. All of us, he argues, have a duty to obey a right conscience over and above all other considerations.

During the interrogation after her arrest in February 1943, Sophie said that it was her Christian conscience that had compelled her to oppose the Nazi regime nonviolently. The same was true for Hans: He, like his sister, had found in Newman and other Christian writers the resources and inspiration to make sense of the brutal and demonic world around him. They were tried on the morning of Feb. 22,1943, and executed that afternoon.

The most inspiring movie about the White Rose resistance is undoubtedly Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005), which was nominated for an Oscar in the category of “Best Foreign Film.” Based entirely on transcriptions from the White Rose interrogations and trial, which were discovered after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it confronts us with a young woman who was prepared to put conscience before conformity. 

After the Second World War, Winston Churchill wrote: 

“The political history of all nations has hardly ever produced anything greater and nobler than the opposition which existed in Germany. These people fought without any help, whether from within or from without, driven only by the uneasiness of their consciences. As long as they were alive, they were invisible to us, because they had to put on masks. But their deaths brought their resistance to light.”

How can students today — and their faculty mentors — take inspiration from the White Rose resistance? We might not be guillotined, but we might be marginalized and “canceled.” Is that what martyrdom looks like today? 

Who are the martyrs on the side of the truth in the modern Western university? Hans and Sophie Scholl were willing to risk everything. What are we prepared to sacrifice for the sake of the truth?