The Rosenstrasse Protests-Towards a New Theory of German Resistance, and Why We Should Care

Rosenstraße Berlin

Rosenstraße Berlin today - source Wikimedia

The Rosentrasse Protests

I concluded my previous post The White Rose of Munich with:

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.

So far so good – I have developed the thesis that The White Rose as a resistance movement, and so poignantly symbolized by the martyrdom of Sophie Scholl, was fundamentally a failure in its own time, but gained its true significance only in the post-war years, initially in Germany and for the Germans, and more recently in the rest of the world, and with profound implications for the evolution of human society.

I will now attempt to extend my line of thinking, though I must point out this is merely a first pass with this new version of the thesis.  Again, this discussion is not meant to be a movie review, nor is it strictly a scholarly discussion of the history.  This discussion deals with the notion that the movie, which while inspirational to my thinking, isn’t the history, but is a mirror of the development of modern German attitudes about their history.

First some background.

German Resistance to the Nazi Regime took many forms; however, the Rosenstrasse Protests of 1943 is one that I was not previously aware of until I watched Margarethe von Trotta’s 2003 film Rosenstraße last Wednesday on the occasion of the anniversary of the February, 22 1943 execution of Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans and Christoph Probst.

Von Trotta’s film depicts the events surrounding the 1943 Rosenstrasse Protests by the wives and relatives of German Jewish men who were in mixed marriages with ‘Aryan’ German women at the sudden detention of their husbands at Rosenstraße 2–4, a welfare office for the Jewish community located in central Berlin [Mitte].  Some 1,800 Jewish men, almost all of them married to non-Jewish women, others being the so-called Geltungsjuden were held there.  This was during the period of the so called Fabrikaktion, when the remainder of Berlin’s Jews were rounded up for eventual deportation, and was roughly contemporaneous with the execution of Sophie Scholl.

The film tells the story of the Rosenstrasse Protests  through the fictional tale of  a German Jewess who survives the war do to the intervention of a ‘righteous’ gentile German woman who was married to a Jewish man held at Rossenstrasse.  In the post War world of 21st century New York this Jewish woman, along with her daughter [herself engaged to a gentile], must both must come to terms with the significance of these events and the people who participated in them in their own lives.

As a historical aside most of the men were eventually released and almost all the released men survived the war, including 25 of the men who had been sent to Auschwitz by mistake, but due to their privileged status they were kept segregated from the general population, pending a decision on their treatment; all were sent back to Germany.  There is some scholarly debate over whether the women’s protests were the cause of the men’s eventual release, I will leave the debate to scholars to settle.

The film which critically well received at the time and garnered a number of awards [including a David at the David di Donatello Awards], it does suffer from a number of problems of historical accuracy and intent, what ever its flaws as a film might be.  Some criticism from Wikipedia:

Rosenstraße received notable criticism from film critics and historians alike.  In particular, the film’s explicit claim to give an accurate account of the Rosenstraße protest has caused historians to point out not only a number of minor flaws in the logic of the film, but also some major points where Rosenstraße did not stick to the facts.  Among others, historian Beate Meyer compared fact and fiction in a detailed treatment, and came to the conclusion that Rosenstraße was a projection of contemporary hopes and myths on history, resulting in a utopia.  The audience would inevitably come to wonder how the holocaust could occur “if only seven days of steadfastness would have sufficed to prevent it from happening.”

Towards a New Theory of German Resistance

I think I would have to agree, that whatever the actual errors in historical accuracy, that the film is fairly naive in its psychlogical projection back onto the Germans of that era, and Jews of the modern era.  It is interesting to note how the above criticism meshes with my previous thesis regarding the psychological functioning of the wartime German resistances in the post-war German psyche, and how even as it can serve as an important and legitimate psychological cushion to the German psyche, it can also easily degenerate into fairytale making.  There is a deep tension between the facts that many, many Germans were perpatrators in the Holocaust, many more were bystanders [in the sense of Yehuda Bauer] and relatively few were truly ‘righteous’, yet that does not diminish the acts of heroism and resistance by Germans in the face of death, as complex as their motivations turn our to have been –  that tension must be preserved.

As I was first watching the film it seemed to me to be ‘lensed’ on the psychlogical level from a fairly conventional post-war narrative of Jewish victim hood, Nazi oppression and with some ‘righteous’ Germans thrown in to redeem the situation.  The wives as a group, as hysterical as Von Trotta sometimes directed them, were portrayed as being highly motivated by their love for their husbands and consistently emphasized the ‘husbandess’ of the Jewish men in the eyes of their German wives – all of which is fine and probably largely true, but…  watching the film for the first time about halfway through I experienced a sudden shift in perspective, a kind of noetic whiplash, where the conventional post-war narrative suddenly gave way to a completely different narrative, possibly unintended by the director, namely a narrative of a very German outrage at the violation of their German rights as guaranteed to them by German law.

This idea that can cut several different ways.  One lay of the bias might be the very twisty notion that these German women were relying on the rights guaranteed to them by the antisemitic Nuremberg Laws of 1935, a very steep irony indeed.  These laws, which some of the wives in their own defense could recite from memory, have gone down in history as some of the most morally repugnant laws ever written, yet…  as humans this was all that these women had to cling to in this situation.

Imagine how terrible it must have been for these wives forced to anticipate for many troubling and uncertain years prior, their husbands deportations and deaths held at bay only by the Nazi willingness to adhere to their own race hating laws.  These same laws, the unethical and evil nature of which the wives of Rosenstrasse could not admit to because these laws were all that they had to rely on legally with the Reich, and were the only hope of their husbands deliverance – even as elsewhere husbands, wives and children were being systematically separated, sorted, and selected for immediate death in a gas chamber, or death by the natural “wastage” of forced labor.

Another twist on the lay of the bias is that during the period of the protest itself the lives of the women protesters and Nazi reluctance to act violently against them was secured by their Aryanness, their location in central Berlin, their essentially lawful conduct .  Anyone else, anywhere else and their arrest by the Gestapo would have been swift, as we saw with the case of the White Rose.

You can continue to slice down through layers at your own will, but I will point out another similarity in motivations with the members of the White Rose, and a post-war tendency to revison their motives from a more Judeo-centric position.  The leaflets of the White Rose did specifically reference atrocities committed by the German military in the east…

Since the conquest of Poland three hundred thousand Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way…

~from the second leaflet of the White Rose

…But their concern, at least as stated, appears to have been much more self-centered, focusing more on the national shame that would befall the German people when these crimes became known to the world following what they [the White Rose] foresaw as an inevitable German defeat, than on the personal suffering of the victims of the Nazi state, or their destruction as peoples.

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 picture of German resistance to the Nazis that starts to emerge from all of this, is a that of a complicated tale of conflicting motivations, some more self-serving, some genuinely noble, some based on ethics and reason, some more spiritual or religious in inspiration, and some of a more practical and political nature.  All the strands of these motivations, were at some level true, all weave a tapestry of Germans as deeply human, yet all taken together were insufficient to change the course of the Holocaust.

A cautionary tale for all of us.


3 thoughts on “The Rosenstrasse Protests-Towards a New Theory of German Resistance, and Why We Should Care

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