Several blocks from Munich University in Germany, on a quiet, tree-lined street, sits a drab, gray apartment building. A student on a bike casually rides past, a brown UPS truck makes a routine delivery, and a nearby Starbucks bustles with an upscale clientele, not hinting at the tumultuous history that unfolded here 75 years ago.
In 1943, Sophie Scholl, 21, was a promising philosophy and biology student at the university. A small plaque attached to the apartment complex honors her and her brother: “Sophie and Hans Scholl, who gave resistance to the Third Reich under the sign of the White Rose, lived here in the back building.”
Influenced by Catholic teachings, Sophie protested the crimes of the Nazi regime.
Dozens of casually dressed students amble to class today at Munich University. A broad square sits on both sides of Ludwig Street. The square to the east is called Professor Huber Platz, in memory of Kurt Huber. In the early 1940s, he was a middle-aged philosophy professor who began secretly meeting with the Scholls and other students troubled by the war.
The square on the west is called the Geschwister Scholl Platz (the Scholl Siblings Square). Scattered in clumps on the pavement, ingeniously embedded into the cobblestones, are re-creations of the White Rose leaflets protesting the Nazis and brief biographies of the Scholls.
Draped in Nazi flags in the 1930s and beyond, Munich was Hitler’s lair. This is where his “Beer Hall Putsch” failed in 1923 and where, after the Nazis came to power, a memorial to the Nazis who died in the uprising was erected. Residents passing the memorial were required to give the Nazi salute; Gestapo agents posted nearby arrested those who failed to comply. A short distance from the university was a public square that was the Fuhrer’s favorite spot to give his fiery speeches denouncing his opponents and demonizing Jews.
Sophie grew up in Ulm, a city 100 miles west of Munich. Her circle of friends, including Hans, enjoyed hiking in the mountains, skiing and swimming. They read literature, played music and attended concerts. They were a lively, mostly carefree cadre of teenagers.
The Scholls were part of the crowd in another way. In 1933, despite his parents’ opposition, Hans joined a Hitler Youth group and quickly became a “Fahnleinfuhrer,” a troop leader. In 1934, Sophie also joined a local Hitler Youth group and, impressed by its rigor, eventually also became a leader. The Scholls were apolitical. They did not know much about the Nazis. Attractive to them was the idea of a “new Germany,” robust and strong.
But Hans soon became disillusioned with the authoritarianism of Hitler Youth. He was reprimanded for playing “un-German” folk songs on his guitar and for altering the swastika image. After quitting the group, he joined a youth group favored by Catholics and forbidden by the Nazis and was briefly imprisoned in 1937. Sophie, too, soon was troubled by her Hitler Youth group. A few Jewish friends were not allowed to join; the anti-Semitism pricked her conscience.
Once she got in trouble for reading aloud a passage from the Book of Songs by German-Jewish author Heinrich Heine.
A medical student, Hans eventually served as a medic in the German invasion of France in 1940 and on the Eastern Front in Russia in 1942. He witnessed atrocities such as the mass execution of Russian soldiers and heard disturbing stories about the killing of Jews. Deeply disturbed, the Scholls found spiritual solace in an anti-Nazi sermon, secretly printed and distributed, of Catholic Bishop Clemens von Galen of Munster.
Raised Lutheran, Sophie and Hans also studied the ideas of John Henry Newman, regarded as the 19th-century’s most important English-speaking Catholic theologian. Cardinal Newman strongly argued that Catholics were free to follow the guidance of their consciences.
The Scholls and other students began meeting secretly at the home of Huber and with professor Carl Muth, the publisher of a Catholic magazine. Hochland magazine included stories by progressive Catholics whose work, while not overtly political, nevertheless encouraged independent thinking and allegiance to higher principles than human laws.
The students were a formidable bunch — intelligent, idealistic and spiritual. They became highly skeptical about the course of the war, ashamed at the meek conformity of the average German and appalled by the brutal policies of the Nazis.
The Scholls and their friends decided to actively resist the Nazis after the arrest and execution of a dozen dissenters. “It is time that in the name of civic and Christian courage something must be done,” Hans said.
It was his idea to name their protest group the “White Rose.” There was no symbolism to the name. It “sounded good,” Hans later explained to his Nazi interrogators.
The first White Rose letters arrived in Germans’ mailboxes in June 1942. The leaflets were intended to inform the Germans of military defeats, shake their belief in Hitler and arouse passive resistance. The first one began: “Nothing is more dishonorable for a civilized people than to let itself be ‘governed’ without resistance by an irresponsible clique of rulers devoted to dark instincts. Is it not true that every honest German today is ashamed of his government?”
The letters were written by Hans, Huber and another dissenter and duplicated on a hand-operated duplicating machine. White Rose members mailed the letters to random addresses found in telephone directories. To hide their tracks, they mailed them from different cities.
Six letters were eventually distributed. They denounced Hitler and railed against the murder of Jews.
“Here we see the most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of history. For Jews, too, are human beings,” read the second letter.
An Impulsive Act
The third-floor atrium of the main building at Munich University is austere and age-worn. It was here Feb. 18, 1943, that Sophie took her pile of anti-Nazi pamphlets and, not seeing anyone, impulsively flung them downward. The papers fluttered to the ground floor. Classes were in session, and students, soon exiting the classrooms, would pick up and read the leaflets. Hans silently stood nearby.
But a janitor had spotted Sophie, and she fled toward an exit. The man caught her on a stairwell and roughly detained her. He had ties to the Gestapo. Sophie and Hans, who had not abandoned his sister, were quickly handed over to the Gestapo.
The Fate of Dissidents
Near Munich University is the imposing Justizplast, a neo-baroque structure built in the 1890s. Today it houses the Bavarian Department of Justice and Munich courts. In 1943, it was called the Volksgerichtshof (People’s Court). The Scholls were put on trial here four days after their arrest. Also on trial the same day was dissident Chrisoph Probst, arrested because a letter from him was found in Hans’ pocket.
The three were charged with treason. Trying to protect Probst, a father of three, the Scholls confessed and tried to take the blame. Hearing their case was Roland Freisler, a notoriously rabid Nazi. After Freisler pronounced his verdict — death by beheading — Sophie remained defiant. “Where we stand today, you will soon stand.”
Just days after their arrest, the Scholls’ sentence was carried out the same day it was handed down. They kept their courage until the end. Before the blade fell, Hans shouted, “Es lebe die Freiheit (Long live freedom)!”
Near the end, Sophie told her cellmate: “Such a fine sunny day and I have to go. But what does my death matter if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?” Huber and three other White Rose members were later arrested and also executed.
The White Rose messages lived on. A White Rose leaflet was smuggled out of Germany, and Allied planes dropped millions of copies on German cities. Charismatic even from the distance of time, the Scholls became widely celebrated in Germany.
In a poll several years ago, Germans voted for the Scholls as the fourth-greatest Germans of all time. Hundreds of schools and streets are named after Sophie. A powerful 2005 German film on her that was nominated for an Oscar for “Best Foreign-Language Film” further cemented her fame in Germany.
At the school building where Sophie suddenly released the pamphlets is a museum dedicated to the White Rose movement. Photos of Hans, Sophie and other White Rose students show them full of life and vigor, hiking, reading and enjoying one another’s company. An elderly staff person enjoys taking visitors out the doors and around the corner to the exact spot on the stairwell where Sophie was apprehended.
On the first floor in a corner, far below the balcony where the leaflets fluttered down, is a bust of Sophie. Throngs of younger schoolchildren typically surround it. Below it usually rests a bouquet of fresh white roses.
Jay Copp writes from
La Grange Park, Illinois.