The White Rose of Munich-Naiveté, The Futility of Sacrifice and the Unanticipated Value of Martyrdom

Grab von Sophie und Hans Scholl und Christoph Probst, Weiße Rose, Friedhof am Perlacher Forst in München

Graves of the White Rose: Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst - source Wikimedia

I almost let this important anniversary slip by last Wednesday the 22 February, which marked the sixty-ninth anniversary of the executions of three members of the Nazi era White Rose resistance organization:  Hans Scholl, his younger sister Sophie, and Christoph Probst at Stadelheim Prison in Munich on that date in 1943.

I commemorate that event each year, usually by rewatching Marc Rothemund’s excellent 2005 film Sophie Scholl: the final days,  as a way to refresh my memory and my sense of moral outrage at the sad and tragic termination of one more example of German resistance to the Nazi regime under the heavy blade of the fallbeil.  As it turns out I spent that evening watching for the first time Margarethe von Trotta’s 2003 film Rosenstraße which depicts the events surrounding the 1943 Rosenstrasse Protests.  I’ve spent the last few days doing some reading and trying to put those two event into some kind of a context.

I’m going to try to keep this from turning into a couple of movie reviews, though obviously the direction of my thinking has been significantly impacted by the two films.

One thing that might be interesting for you to keep in mind as you read this essay is how much of what I have to say challenges your particular narrative of the Second World War and the Nazi Holocaust , and what your reactions are to having that narrative challenged.  Another thing to bear in mind as you read is that I regard the entirety of the Second World War from the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 to the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945 as a holocaust – in the French sense of the word [from the Old French ‘holocauste’] ‘all burned’.   I treat the Holocaust perpetrated against Europe by Nazi Germany from the Invasion of Poland to the downfall of Hitler and the Nazi regime as a major, [possibly the most major] but distinct episode within that.  In the same fashion I consider the Shoah perpetrated against the Jewish peoples of under Nazi dominion to be a major and defining episode within the context of the Nazi Holocaust and the Second World War a whole.  It is important in my way of thinking not to lose sight of these relationships while at the same time never minimizing the suffering of anyone to preserve one’s own narrative.

"Weiße Rose" monument, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich- source wikimedia

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?

~ From the first leaflet of the White Rose

 The White Rose of Munich

The White Rose was a non-violent student resistance group that existed from June 1942 until February 1943, a mere eight months, at which time three members of their group were discovered, arrested by the Gestapo, imprisoned, tried and executed within a matter of five days.  The White Rose and its leaflet and graffiti campaign protesting the Nazi regime was centered at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, and produced a total of six leaflet messages and a few  instances of anti-war graffiti.  The core of the group consisted of only eleven students, one could hardly call them a ‘movement’, and one professor.

The principal members of the White Rose were:  Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst, Alex Schmorell (now officially a saint in the Orthodox Church), Willi GrafTraute Lafrenz, Katharina Schueddekopf, Lieselotte (Lilo) Berndl, Jürgen Wittenstein, Marie-Luise Jahn and Falk Harnack along with Professor of philosophy and musicology, Kurt Huber [a friend of Carl Orff btw].

It was on the morning of the 18th February 1943, while in the process of distributing copies of their sixth leaflet outside the doors of classrooms in the university building while classes were in session that Hans and Sophie Scholl were discovered.  Sophie realizing that there were still leaflets remaining in their suitcase, went back into the building accompanied by her brother and dropped the remaining leaflets from the third floor of that atrium – the fatal putsch – and were observed by Jakob Schmid, now one of the most notorious janitors in history, and apprehended.  The siblings were immediately arrested by the Gestapo and questioned with the results I outlined above.  Eventually the rest of the organization was crushed:  Alexander Schmorell and Kurt Huber were beheaded on 13 July 1943, and Willi Graf on 12 October 1943.  Others were tried or imprisoned but managed to escape death, mostly as a result of allied bombing raids forcing the trials to be postponed and moved, or lost evidence.

For all of this the daring do, the White Rose is very little known in the United States even today, as are most of the scattered resistance activities against the Nazis by Germans.   As Americans, we do know about the July 20 1944 Assassination Plot against Hitler because it made it into Hollywood early on, and by extension a few know of Helmuth James Graf von Moltke and the Kreisau Circle, but in America until very recently the White Rose and almost all other home-grown German resistance activities were unknown, even though there were a few contemporaneous newspaper accounts in the US.

Generally speaking, discussion of German resistance to the Nazis has been downplayed or minimized for decades as it was seen as running contrary to the popular narrative of Nazism and the war fought to end it.  This was particularly true as more attention was starting to be paid to the issue of the Holocaust/Shoah starting in the 1970’s, after a long period of neglect itself.  It was not until the Holocaust and its implications became more fully accepted [and even developed dogmas of its own] that the White Rose and other German resistance efforts to the Nazis during and before the war became an acceptable topic in the US.

In Germany, however, after the war the White Rose  and in particular Sophie Scholl became the popular heroine of the movement, the virginal White Rose of Munich.  Sophie herself was a very interesting character: highly intelligent but naïve, courageous but impulsive, keenly perceptive to the nature of the moral blight that Nazism represented to the German people, but at the same time reckless with the lives of her friends and family – but for one unrestrained impulse the entire story might have ended quite differently.

The Unanticipated Value of Martyrdom

Since the conquest of Poland three hundred thousand Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way … The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals … Each man wants to be exonerated of a guilt of this kind, each one continues on his way with the most placid, the calmest conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!

~From the first leaflet of the White Rose

The movie Sophie Scholl and the events of history it recounts, touches a deep nerve in me in that it signifies both the sadness and the tragedy latent in the martyrdom of the White Rose.  Firstly there is the deep emotional sadness at the death of three such noble and young souls, in particular this beautiful young woman Sophie Scholl, that were extinguished in such a dreadful way.  Secondly there is the dreadful tragedy that the White Rose, their efforts and the sacrifice of their lives had no measurable effect on the war or reducing the suffering it produced:  no fresh opposition movements were born, no popular uprising occurred, the student body of the University did not “ignite” and ALL of the leaflets distributed at the University, every single one, were turned in or confiscated before the students present ever left the building.  One could say that in their day and hour the activities of the White Rose were a complete failure.   One copy of the sixth leaflet was eventually smuggled out of Germany, to be edited and reused as Allied propaganda, but even then the results were essentially nil.

As a thinking, caring person, what is one to make of this state of affairs?

It seems that it was only after the War that the activities of the White Rose and martyrdom of Sophie Scholl and her brother and friends took on real significance as a moderating influence in the protracted post-war process of the German people coming to terms with their complicity in their Nazi past.  This process is going on to this day of course, but that German reconciliation to the horrors of its own misdeeds, as foot-dragging and denialist as it has been at times, was completely unprecedented in the course of human history, for a country, for a people, to genuinely start to come to terms with its own genocidal misdeeds.  This is an ongoing struggle with the implications about what it means to be a German and a human being.

To be fair one must remember that for thousands of years it was considered a virtue for your nation to extirpate it enemies; consider the case of the six Caryatids of the  porch of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis at Athens, set there according to Vitruvius to commemorate the destruction of Karyæ and the enslavement of its women after betraying Athens by siding with Persia – monument to a genocide right there on the Acropolis, overlooking birthplace of democracy.  It was a real shift in human evolution when people began to think otherwise – living up to this ideal is one of the most difficult and important challenges in the modern world.

Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.

~ Yehuda Bauer

For the German people after the War the process of reconciling themselves to their Nazi history began with a process of recognition and admission about what the facts of the Holocaust were, admitting that they actually happened, and then the great sorting out of responsibilities.  Who was responsible for what?  What am ‘I’ responsible for, what are ‘we’ responsible for.  In general, each person, each survivor: victim, perpetrator and bystander, must come to terms with this – if any real healing, any real resolution, if anything is really to be learned from the martyrdom of millions.  In the reality this process for the German people has been difficult, protracted and filled with denial and despair.

When individuals and a society are forced to confront collective guilt, as the Germans have, progress can proceed along two axes one of guilt and one of shame, a relatively healthy collective guilt defines one axis, a more toxic collective shame defines the other.   I make a simple and practical distinction between the two, the former allows progress and a deepening of humanity – good, the later feeds denial and despair – bad.

In the case of the axis of shame there can be two polarities, an extroverted polarity, which is to reject shame forcefully, to deny the Holocaust completely, or to minimize and rationalize it to a level that can be tolerated psychologically.   The rise of the skinheads, neo-nazis, and other systematic Holocaust denying ideologies are manifestations of this, an improperly processed guilt that dredges up the worst of the spent carcass of Nazi ideology and regressive thinking and attempts to reanimate it to protect the individual and collective psyches.  The other alternative, the more introverted polarity, is the acceptance a shame so toxic that future generations cannot scrub it off and lose their will to live, live fully human lives, both as individuals and as a nation, to willingly consign their nation to the dustbin of history.  Spengler at the Asia Times attempts to make this point in his essay The Incredible Lightness of Being German, interesting read.

For the German people, and by extension humanity, to actually learn the lessons of the Second World War, Nazism, and the Holocausts that the Nazi regime spawned, to make good on the suffering, deaths and destructions, required a heroic kind of acceptance of the guilt, individual and collective, that the Holocaust engenders – without merely splitting off from it psychologically and defining the problem as somebody else’s shame because ‘I’ correctly denounce it – rather naive and unfair.  It is in this process that the true importance of the White Rose and the Geschwister Scholl serve an invaluable purpose for the German’s as people, and by extension humanity;  that even as the German people allowed themselves to be lied to, manipulated and controlled, allowed their finest and worst qualities to both be co-opted to the Nazis insane ends, there were Germans who could still see the situation for what it truly was, a disaster for themselves as Germans, perpetrator and bystander, as well as the victims of Nazi violence, and that at least some had the courage and the fortitude to resist all that and act – even in the face of death.  So, for the Germans the White Rose has come to represent opposition to Nazi tyranny in the German psyche, as well as a more general resistance to the tendency towards tyranny embedded in the human psyche.

For all the world’s peoples, not just the German people, the Nazi state, the Holocaust, represents an important lesson to be learned about being human and how we as peoples have to learn how to deal with events of such enormous terribleness as the Holocaust or other genocides.  The example of the White Rose of Munich help us all see how it is possible.

Well, this is the thesis I have been working on since 2006, the German people working through their collective guilt and collective shame as time passes, new scholarship emerges and new art is produced.  Why should we begrudge the German people a few generations to work through one of the darkest chapters in human history when in America, a hundred and fifty years after the fact, we are still trying to figure out what happened to us as a people with the issue of slavery and our own little Civil War.

Then I watched the movie Rosenstraße and I was sent back to the drawing board.

More to follow,


6 thoughts on “The White Rose of Munich-Naiveté, The Futility of Sacrifice and the Unanticipated Value of Martyrdom

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