How John Henry Newman’s Writing Fought the Nazis

Soon-to-be saint inspired resistance to the Third Reich via the White Rose Movement.

John Henry Newman (r) influenced Sophie Scholl (l) and her resistance group during World War II.
John Henry Newman (r) influenced Sophie Scholl (l) and her resistance group during World War II. (photo: Portrait of Newman by George Richmond, 1844; all public domain photos via Wikimedia)

What do a 19th-century Catholic convert and 20th-century college student have in common?

A lot, if their names are Newman and Scholl — for Sophie Scholl, the young German woman who 76 years ago lost her life resisting the Nazis, was influenced by the writings and witness of soon-to-be St. John Henry Newman.

“Sophie Scholl was deeply moved by Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons,” explained Father Dermot Fenlon, whose groundbreaking essay on the connection between Newman and the White Rose movement appeared in the German journal Newman Studien (2010).

The White Rose was a nonviolent, intellectual resistance group. It comprised mainly students at the University of Munich, who, from June 27, 1942, onwards organized an anonymous leaflet and graffiti campaign calling for active opposition to the Nazi regime. The Gestapo arrested the leaders of the White Rose group on Feb. 18, 1943; show trials followed, as well as prison and execution for those implicated.

Sophie Scholl and her brother, Hans, were the leaders in this student resistance. In organizing acts of subversion against the Third Reich, they were motivated in part by the experience of a war being fought without hope of victory and in part by a reaction to the suppression of conscience and thought by the Nazis.

Father Fenlon’s interest in the connection between Newman and the Scholls had been sparked by the pioneering work of Jakob Knab, the historian of the White Rose movement. Speaking to the Register, Father Fenlon said: “I am of the opinion that [in regard to the White Rose movement] the essential influence of Newman is found in the person of Sophie Scholl and that his influence did not extend to the subsequent attempt of the White Rose movement to spark a student revolt issuing in a disastrous termination.”


Newman and the White Rose

Speaking to the Register, Ryan Marr, director of the National Institute for Newman Studies and associate editor of the Newman Studies Journal, said that Newman’s influence on Scholl is clear: I think that Newmans writings played a significant role in the development of Sophie Scholls thoughts on resistance to totalitarianism.”

This is a view also shared by scholar Paul Shrimpton, who has researched and published on Newman’s life and thought. His latest book is Conscience Before Conformity: Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Resistance in Nazi Germany (2018). Speaking of Scholl and her fellow resisters, Shrimpton told the Register: “There is no doubt that Newman was one of the ‘Christian sages’ who [through his writings] was able to respond to the students’ need to make sense of the moral chaos around them.” He added: “Newman’s words provided much-needed relief for their spiritual and intellectual hunger.” Before discovering Newman, they had read the works of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Pascal and the leading writers of the French journal Renouveau Catholique, such as Georges Bernanos, Léon Bloy and Paul Claudel, but Shrimpton maintains “that they were [most] strongly influenced by Newman.”

The future White Rose members were intellectually formed under the direction of Theodor Haecker, a philosopher who had become a Catholic after translating Newman’s Grammar of Assent in 1921. It was through Haecker that the Scholls were first introduced to Newman’s works.

Following the rise of Hitler, Haecker was banned from speaking in public or writing under his own name. Thereafter, his resistance to the Nazi regime was undertaken through cultural resistance, and in particular by translating the works of Newman into German.

Shrimpton sees Haecker as the mentor for Sophie and Hans. The most dramatic experience of the influence of Haecker, and of Newman, came on Dec. 13, 1942. Haecker read to the Scholls from his draft translation of Newman’s four Advent sermons on “The Patristical Idea of Antichrist.” This was the pivotal text for Haecker’s thesis on understanding Christianity in the Third Reich. “To judge from diary entries and letters of those present, [that reading] was a life-changing occasion for them,” Shrimpton says. “The fourth White Rose leaflet was written the day after the students had attended another secret meeting with dissident academics and intellectuals at which Haecker was the main speaker; and the leaflet echoes his voice and, in places, Newman’s too.”

In 1942 Sophie Scholl gave two volumes of Newman’s sermons as a parting gift to her boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel, when he was sent to the Eastern Front. Marr told the Register: “Amidst the chaos of the Eastern Front, Fritz wrote to Scholl, describing Newman’s writings as being like ‘drops of precious wine.’”


Sanctity of Conscience

In particular, it seems Hartnagel, and indeed others in the White Rose, were drawn to Newman’s thoughts on conscience. In his “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” (1875), Newman described conscience as “the aboriginal vicar of Christ,” meaning that it was the first way in which we hear the voice of God speaking to us. Although the idea is sometimes misunderstood today, Newman also believed in the primacy of conscience. “In Fritz [Hartnagel’s] letters, and in the activities of the White Rose movement more generally, you see how there was an intentionality about being attentive to conscience as a way of evaluating the merits of what the governing authorities were asking of the German citizenry,” Marr explained, going on to say that Newman is clear that Christians are never compelled to follow a command that runs contrary to the objective moral law: “Newman’s nuanced treatment of the role of conscience in the moral life provided the members of the White Rose resistance with the tools necessary to articulate reasons why their refusal to obey Hitler was not only a legitimate option, but morally obligatory.”

The resistance of Sophie and Hans led to their deaths. Both were executed by guillotine on Feb. 22, 1943; Hans was 24 years old, and Sophie was only 21. It is not widely known that, one hour before their executions, both Scholls asked to be received into the Catholic Church. The Lutheran prison chaplain dissuaded them from doing so, however, out of sensitivity to their grieving and profoundly devout Lutheran parents. Sophie was guillotined first. As Hans was led next to his death, he cried out: “Long live freedom!” When Sophie’s boyfriend Hartnagel returned from the front he visited Sophie’s parents to extend his condolences. On leaving he gave them a collection of Newman sermons translated by Haecker.


Newman Today

Just as for Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, Shrimpton sees a profound relevance in Newman’s thought and writings for today’s youth. It challenges, he explains, prevailing orthodoxies: “To read Newman complacently, in order to find only what confirms our existing way of thinking and feeling, is to miss the profoundly interpersonal challenge which he intends,” Shrimpton says. Today, too, he suggests, the challenge of Newman’s influence will “surprise or even upset us. Because Newman inhabits the same modernity as ourselves, he speaks to our own time in ways that can inform and transform us. This influence unites intellectual, moral and spiritual considerations in ways which are inseparable from the call to conversion.”

Interestingly, Father Fenlon sees Newman, with his explicit call to conversion to Christ, coming to the aid of society caught up today in the effects and ideology of another revolution: “Today, in the aftermath of the sexual revolution, Newman’s teaching on chastity and celibacy in religious and lay life, his own fidelity to the vocation of purity and holy virginity, constitutes the ground of his significance for the Church and the world at large.”

Marr, too, argues that Newman’s work is an antidote to some of the most serious errors of our own day — most notably, perhaps, our culture’s drift into relativism. “Whereas in our time many assume that morality — how one lives one’s life — is a matter of personal opinion, Newman was a vociferous critic of private judgment. He not only preached against it, but also provided an exemplary model of seeking the truth regardless of the costs.”

In Newman’s case, Marr says, once he embraced Catholicism, “he left behind a stable and respectable career and was willing to suffer great public derision in order to enter her fold. How many of us would be willing to sacrifice friendships, respectability and job prospects for what we believed to be true?”

For Marr, Newman’s intellectual studies and his spiritual quest all “confessed that he felt like he had no choice [but to be received into the Church], because he believed his eternal destiny was at stake.”

“This sense of the priority of eternal concerns over any temporal goods seemed to pervade every facet of Newman’s life,” Marr reflected, before adding: “Near the end of his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, he presses his readers to take seriously the question of where the true Church is, reminding them, ‘Time is short; eternity is long.’”

Register correspondent K.V. Turley writes from London.