With Hitler’s appointment as chancellor on January 30, 1933, the Nazi party lost little time in eliminating opposition. Two days later, the 876-member democratically elected deliberative body, the “Reichstag”, was dissolved.
As the 1930s wore on it was increasingly dangerous to oppose the Nazi party. History fails to record many of the names of those who simply…disappeared. Forget for a moment the idiocy of our age and the ease with which the word Nazi, is thrown around. Then imagine having the courage to oppose those monsters alone, in the 1930s and ’40s. Many who did so would pay with their lives: Bernhard Lichtenberg. Martin Niemöller. Claus von Stauffenberg. Franz Jägerstätter. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There were others. Too many to count.
Some survived to tell the tale. One such was the Württemberg politician Robert Scholl who criticized the ruling party before, during and after World War 2. Scholl was one of the lucky ones. He lived to tell the story, but not without spending some of the intervening years, behind bars.
Robert and Magdalena (Müller) Scholl had six children together, four girls and two boys. The older of the two brothers, Hans, joined the Hitler youth, against the express will of his father.
Hans even held a leadership position in the Deutsches Jungvolk in der Hitler Jugend (“German Youngsters in the Hitler Youth”), a section of the Hitler Youth aimed at indoctrinating boys, 10-14.
In 1935, Hans was selected to carry the flag at the 1935 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg, one of three standard-bearers, from Ulm.
He joined the Reich Labor Service for two years before beginning medical school, in Munich. During a semester break, Scholl was drafted as a medic in the French campaign. Back at school, Scholl began to meet teachers and students, critical of the regime. Theirs was a Christian-ethical world view. One of them was Alexander Schmorrell.
Hugo Schmorell was a German-born doctor, living and working in Russia. He married Natalia Vedenskaya, the daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest. Alexander Schmorell was born to the couple in Orenberg Russia and baptized, in the Russian Orthodox church.
Hugo remarried after Natalia died of typhus, this time to a German woman who, like himself, grew up in Russia. Alexander grew up bilingual, able to speak German and Russian, like a native.
Following the Russian Revolution, the family moved to Weimar Germany . In later interrogations by the Gestapo, Alexander described himself as a German-Russian Tsarist who hated Bolsheviks.
In the Nazi world view, slavs are part of a great horde of Untermenschen, people considered racially or socially, inferior. Alexander Schmorell believed no such thing about himself. He was proud of both his German and his Russian side.
In religion class, Schmorell displayed a stubborn refusal to bend to the will of others, crossing himself right-to-left in the manner of the Russian church and not left to right. Alexander joined the Scharnhorst youth as a boy, mostly for the love of horseback riding. Once the organization was absorbed into the Hitler Youth movement he gradually stopped attending. Like Scholl, Schmorell joined the Wehrmacht, participating in the Anschluss and eventual invasion, of Czechoslovakia.
In 1941, Scholl and Schmorrell were drafted as medical auxiliaries, for service in the east. There the two witnessed the dark underbelly of the regime in whose service, they risked their lives. The Warsaw ghetto. The savage treatment of Russian prisoners. The endless deportations and dark rumors of extermination centers.
Scholl and Schmorrell wanted better. Back in school the pair discussed this growing dissatisfaction with the regime with Kurt Huber, professor of music and a vocal anti-Nazi. By June 1942 the pair had begun to write pamphlets and calling themselves, the “White Rose”.
“Isn’t it true that every honest German is ashamed of his government these days? Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes—crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure—reach the light of day?”— 1st leaflet of the White Rose
During later gestapo interrogations, Scholl gave differing stories as to the origin of the name. A poem of the same name by the German poet, Clemens Brentano. A work by the Cuban poet, José Martí. Perhaps it was nothing more than the purity of the white rose, in the face of evil. Or maybe Scholl meant to throw his Nazi tormenters off the scent of Josef Söhngen, the anti-Nazi bookseller who had helped them, in so many ways.
“Since the conquest of Poland, 300,000 Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way … The German people slumber on in dull, stupid sleep and encourage the fascist criminals. Each wants to be exonerated of guilt, each one continues on his way with the most placid, calm conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!”— 2nd leaflet of the White Rose
The group added members and supporters. Willi Graf who, unlike the founding members hated the Hitler Youth movement, from the beginning. Christoph Probst whose step-mother was Jewish and considered the Nuremberg laws an affront to human dignity. Hans’ sister Sophie who joined, despite her older brother’s protestations. Like her brother, Sophie detested what the Nazis stood for.
“Why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanised state system presided over by criminals and drunks? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right—or rather, your moral duty—to eliminate this system?”— 3rd leaflet of the White Rose
“The government—or rather, the party—controlled everything: the news media, arms, police, the armed forces, the judiciary system, communications, travel, all levels of education from kindergarten to universities, all cultural and religious institutions. Political indoctrination started at a very early age, and continued by means of the Hitler Youth with the ultimate goal of complete mind control. Children were exhorted in school to denounce even their own parents for derogatory remarks about Hitler or Nazi ideology”.Surviving White Rose member George J. Wittenstein, M.D., “Memories of the White Rose”, 1979
Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen was critical of the Nazi movement from the beginning, denouncing Hitler’s “Worship of Race” as early as 1934.
Galen excoriated the Nazi euthanization program from the Catholic pulpits of Münster and across the German empire, condemning “the innocent and defenseless mentally handicapped and mentally ill, the incurably infirm and fatally wounded, innocent hostages and disarmed prisoners of war and criminal offenders, people of a foreign race or descent”.
Bishop Galen’s sermons were seminal in the formation of the White Rose. One of his sermons formed the basis for the first pamphlet.
Hand copied leaflets were inserted into phone books or mailed directly, to teachers and students.
The grotesque sham trials conducted by Hitler’s “Blood Judge” Roland Feisler made short work of any who would oppose “Der Fuhrer”. Today, the “People’s Court” of Nazi Germany is best remembered in the wake of the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In reality, this perversion of justice had been around for ten years, handing out death sentences, in the hundreds. This video gives a pretty good idea of “justice” meted out, in Roland Feisler’s court.
“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer
There were Germans throughout the war who objected to the murder of millions, but theirs was a forlorn hope. Clergymen Dietrich Bonhoeffer would state “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” For his opposition to the Reich, Bonhoeffer would pay with his life.
Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, great grand-nephew of the famous Helmut von Moltke would lead 28 dissidents of the “Kreisau Circle”, against this “outrage of the Christian conscience.” These too would pay with their lives.
The most successful German opposition party came from the universities of Munich, with connections in Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Vienna, including the White Rose. These were a surprise to Nazi leaders as Universities had long been stalwart supporters of Nazi ideology.
Hans and Sophie arrived on campus with a suitcase full of pamphlets, on February 18. This was their 6th. Hurriedly moving through the campus the Scholls left stacks of leaflets outside of full lecture halls: Memorial to the “Weiße Rose” in front of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich
“…Fellow Fighters in the Resistance! Shaken and broken, our people behold the loss of the men of Stalingrad. Three hundred and thirty thousand German men have been senselessly and irresponsibly driven to death and destruction by the inspired strategy of our World War I Private First Class. Fuhrer, we thank you!…” – Excerpt from pamphlet 6
Their task complete, the pair realized they still had a few. From the upper floor of the atrium, Sophie tossed them into the air and watched them flutter to the ground. It was a reckless and stupid act.
If this story is about heroism it also about the opposite, the sort of loathesome toady without who no Nazi regime, would have thrived. One such was the custodian Jakob Schmid, who scurried to the top of the stairs and grasped the two by the collar.
The Scholl siblings were quickly arrested. Hans had on his person the draft of another pamphlet: #7, written by Christoph Probst. He tried to eat it but the Gestapo was too fast. Probst was arrested within hours, eighty more over the following days. On February 22, 1943, all three were tried before judge Feisler’s People’s Court. All three were sentenced to death by guillotine, the execution carried out, the same day.
Hans Scholl’s last words are recorded as Es lebe die Freiheit! (Let Freedom live!)
Graf, Schmorrell, Huber and 11 others were tried on April 13. All three received the same sentence, death by decapitation. All but one of the others received prison sentences, between 6 months and 10 years.
The last member to be executed was Hans Conrad Leipelt on January 29, 1945.
Despite the execution of the group’s leaders, the White Rose had the last word. That last pamphlet was smuggled out of Germany and copied, by the allies. Millions of copies rained down from the sky, dropped, by allied bombers.
Lieselotte ″Lilo″ Fürst-Ramdohr was a war widow at 29 when she joined the White Rose, hiding pamphlets in an apartment closet and helping to make stencils, for graffiti. In 2013 she gave an interview for BBC Worldwide. It was three months before she died, at the age of 99.
Lieselotte was arrested and interrogated for a month by the Gestapo, and released. She thinks they’d hoped she would lead them, to fellow conspirators.
In 2012, Lilo’s friend Alexander Schmorell was awarded sainthood by the Russian Orthodox church. She thought it was all too amusing. “He would have laughed out loud” she said, “if he had known. He wasn’t a saint. He was just a normal person.”