The White Rose was a group of students (and their professor) in Munich, Germany, who wrote and disseminated pamphlets that were highly critical of Nazism and called for rebellion and the end of the war. The group was active for a little over six months—from June 1942 to February 1943—yet its name lives on today.
Despite their trenchant opposition to Hitler, it would be wrong to portray the White Rose as particularly pro-Jewish; they made little mention of Jews and were primarily concerned with redeeming Germany by inciting active, nonviolent opposition to Nazi rule. The fate of the Jews of Germany and elsewhere in Europe was not an issue they sought to address, much less their cause.
Nevertheless, the White Rose called for resistance to Nazism at a time when incredibly few Germans did, and they did so over the course of six passionate pamphlets. At the time of the first, summer 1942, Munich, like the rest of Germany, was strongly Nazified: swastika flags were ubiquitous, even at schools and universities where students were taught to unquestioningly follow Hitler and the Party.
It was in this atmosphere that a band of students formed the White Rose. The most well known members of the group were Alex Schmorell, Willi Graf, Christoph Probst and, most famously, siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl. All except Sophie studied medicine at the university, a subject that, before Nazi racial laws, had traditionally attracted a large proportion of Jewish students. The five were joined and supported by other students at different times, and by a University of Munich professor named Kurt Huber.
Hans and Sophie Scholl have become the best-known members of the White Rose and icons of German resistance since the war. But initially their paths mirrored that of the majority of their non-Jewish German peers, when as children they joined the Hitler Youth and learned to revere German greatness, Nazism and Hitler. It was a normal upbringing for the time, albeit with one important difference: their father, Robert Scholl, warned them that Hitler would lead Germany to ruin. In Nazi Germany, a man ranting to his children at home was about the extent of dissent to Nazi rule—until those children helped to found the White Rose.
From Hitler Youth and high school, the Scholls attended university in Munich. Hans Scholl’s studies were interrupted when he and many of other male medical students were called up to fight on the Eastern front for three months in the summer of 1942. Hans’s diaries of the German campaigns in Russia and Poland document his revulsion at what he saw, including the treatment of Jews and Poles. Other members of the White Rose also witnessed the awful realities of warfare and the German forces’ barbaric treatment of Jews. On their return to Munich, they had learned more about war than the average medical student.
Although they were no longer ignorant of war, the students remained naively optimistic about their potential to instigate revolution at home. The White Rose’s plan was to ignite student rebellion through agitprop pamphlets. They aimed to clandestinely write, print and circulate pamphlets on a large scale, despite the practical difficulties of surreptitiously procuring the required supplies, and the personal dangers they would incur. They quickly succeeded in publishing their first pamphlet, which opened with the following proclamation:
“Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be ‘governed’ without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain today that every honest German is ashamed of his government.”
In these first two sentences the group outlined their raison d’etre: opposition to a government that they considered shameful. Even as young students they were apparently concerned with their personal and national legacy—that Germany’s crimes would tarnish its reputation for generations.
“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?”
It is likely that this reference to “crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure” is to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews, among other victimized groups. However the word Jew appears only once on the first pamphlet, in a reference to Goethe, who “speaks of the Germans as a tragic people, like the Jews and the Greeks.” This sentence is doubly instructive. By quoting Goethe, it points to the group’s reverence of German literature of tradition; and it shows, too, that their priority is the German people and that the Jews (and Greeks) are merely other, tragic people.
The group is preoccupied with saving the Germans’ reputation, a people they see as “spineless, will-less” nation where “by means of a gradual, treacherous, systematic abuse, the system has put every man into a spiritual prison.” Much like Austrian revisionism, which portrays Austria—not the Jews—as the first victim of Nazism, the White Rose’s first pamphlet argues that the Germans are victims of the Nazis.
In their second pamphlet the White Rose refers again to Jews—by saying that they don’t really want to refer to them at all. “We do not want to discuss here the question of the Jews, nor do we want in this leaflet to compose a defense or apology. No, only by way of example do we want to cite the fact that since the conquest of Poland three hundred thousand Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way. Here we see the most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of history.”
The authors are clearly shocked and sickened by the treatment of Jews, but they appear to recognize that a defense of Jews would be unpopular and poorly received; they mention the treatment of the Jews to serves as an illustration of how far Germany has sunk.
“For Jews, too, are human beings—no matter what position we take with respect to the Jewish question—and a crime of this dimension has been perpetrated against human beings.”
It seems that the group’s defense of the Jews is limited to a protestation that Jews are human, despite Nazi propaganda to the contrary. The group does however attack those who would say, “the Jews deserved their fate” as a “monstrous impertinence.” Again, ostensibly recognizing that their audience likely would not care for or about Jews, they offer a crime more likely to offend a German audience: that “the entire Polish aristocratic youth is being annihilated.”
Paradoxically, the White Rose’s resistance to Hitler was inspired by the same reverence for Germany and German culture that Nazism had instilled in the students. The nonviolent group respected German nature and poetry, which they quoted in their pamphlets. Because of their nationalism, their literature was concerned more with the morality of Germany than with the fate of the Jews. The White Rose sought to redeem their people—at great personal risk.
It is easy to underestimate the bravery required to print and transport anti-Nazi propaganda in Hitler’s Germany. By producing thousands of copies of their pamphlets and transporting them between different university campuses in Germany, the White Rose put themselves at immense danger. In addition to distributing pamphlets, group members also put up graffiti denouncing Hitler on prominent buildings around Munich.
Naturally, it did not take long for the White Rose to attract the attention of the Nazi authorities. Then, fatefully, in February 1943 a University of Munich janitor saw Hans and Sophie Scholl throwing pamphlets into an auditorium, and reported them to the Gestapo. The six members from the university were quickly arrested, given spurious trials, found guilty of treason, and executed by guillotine. The young students famously displayed great bravery and dignity, both at their trials and executions on February 22, 1943. Hans Scholl’s final words were “long live freedom!”
The White Rose’s immediate legacy was ensured when a copy of their last, unpublished pamphlet was smuggled out of Germany to England, where it was reproduced en masse. Allied bombers then dropped millions of copies—far more than the group could have ever dreamed of—all over Germany.
Sixty years after their death, Sophie and Hans Scholl were voted the fourth most important Germans ever in a month-long competition broadcast on national television. In martyrdom, they and other members of the White Rose became Germany’s conscience. It is to their honor but their nation’s shame that German resistance to Nazism is personified by a small group of brave, idealistic students—students who were unafraid of death as they struggled to redeem their country’s soul.