This champion was born 100 years ago:
Exactly 100 years ago today a most remarkable German woman was born. But she did not live very long. She died in a Nazi prison at just 21 years of age. She was beheaded because of her beliefs – and actions. We must never forget her life and her death. I have already written about the Scholls and the White Rose movement. See here for that background piece: billmuehlenberg.com/2018/07/30/notable-christians-sophie-and-hans-scholl/
But with this special anniversary it is well worth spending more time on these incredibly brave and resolute young people who dared to take on the might of the Nazi regime and do their own small bit to awaken the conscience of a nation.
Sophia Magdalena Scholl was born on May 9, 1921 in Forchtenberg, Germany. As teenagers in the 1930s she and her older brother Hans had joined the Hitler Youth. Like so many other Germans, they felt that Hitler would lead Germany out of its doldrums into greatness.
But their parents knew better and warned them about what the Nazis were really up to, and just how opposed they were to Christianity. Eventually they started to get wise as to what was going on. She went on to study biology and philosophy at Munich University. Hans was studying medicine there as well, and had first started this movement, with Sophie joining him a bit later.
They and a few others began to produce leaflets to alert people as to the diabolical nature of the Nazis. The core group of those in the White Rose movement included Hans and Sophie Scholl and a few other fellow students: Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, and Christoph Probst, as well as a professor of philosophy and musicology at the University of Munich, Kurt Huber.
For a brief period of time they produced and distributed their leaflets, mainly at the university. But these ended up going to other parts of Germany and even Austria. From June 1942 to early 1943 a total of six of these leaflets were written and passed around. Others started to copy and distribute them as well, with some sent through the mail. Graffiti also began to appear, with phrases like “Down with Hitler” and “Freiheit (Freedom)” written on buildings and streets.
This was of course always going to be very risky work. On February 18 she and Hans were arrested. After lengthy interrogations, a brief “trial” found them guilty and they were sentenced to death. Sophie was beheaded four days later on 22 February 1943 in Stadelheim Prison in Munich, along with brother Hans and Christoph Probst. Willi Graf, Alexander Schmorell, and Kurt Huber were arrested later in February and also executed a short time afterwards.
As I stated, I have already discussed their lives and work before. Here I want to emphasise a few key things. A while ago I started a new subcategory to my website called “Resistance Theory”. This has to do with how we – especially Christians – are to understand things like submission to government, and if there are times when disobedience to the state and resistance to it is morally justified.
One thing I simply note is that the leaflets they produced were first said to be of the White Rose, but by January 1943 they were instead titled “Leaflet of the Resistance”. And they knew of course that a small group of people and a small number of leaflets would not bring down Hitler and the Nazis.
But they had to do their part, and they had to raise awareness of what was happening. They had to act as the conscience of a nation. In his book A Noble Treason Richard Hanser says this:
Hans and Alex had decided to address themselves not to the general public but to persons selected for their roles in the cultural community, which National Socialism was in the process of destroying – university professors, schoolteachers, clergyman, people who could influence the opinions of others. Included in the first target group were a number of restaurant owners and innkeepers, on the theory that such men were always in contact with groups of people at places where the leaflets would be discussed and passed around.
The young men did not imagine that their leaflets would destroy Hitler and bring the regime to its knees. They were idealists; they were not fools. They knew, as one of their leaflets said, that military might alone would destroy Hitler. For them, an immediate, visible result was not an important consideration. What was important was to launch a moral protest, to send out a cry of conscience. They wanted to make a start at eroding the faith of their fellow Germans in their leadership, to let their fellow dissidents know that they were not alone and that the monolith of public support for the regime was a propaganda myth. Among themselves, in their own expressions of purpose and intent, the word they most often used was aufrütteln: to shake up, to arouse. Kurt Huber, when his time came to speak out before his judges, expressed the motive of the White Rose in a sentence: “To call out the truth as clearly and audibly as possible into the German night.
There was another factor, aside from the content of the leaflets, that made them worth issuing from the viewpoint of the dissidents. The fact that they appeared at all was a blow at the structure of the absolute state. Their existence alone said that all was not well among the people, that beneath the façade of regimentation and conformity something was seething, something subversive was at work. If this much showed, more must be suspected. The Gestapo had no way of knowing whether a few hundred leaflets meant only a few hundred leaflets or were the surface symptoms of a threat to the whole structure.
This is a very important quote, not just in regard to the White Rose, but for other groups in the past (think of Wilberforce and the abolition movement), and also for many of us today who are increasingly sensing the need to ‘shake up, to arouse’ the masses as Big Brother statism seems to be descending all around the West.
All the more reason to keep sharing the story of Sophie and the others. Indeed, it has worked to some extent in Germany. The story of The White Rose is now well-known to most Germans. Many streets and schools have been named after members of the group. A square at the University of Munich for example is named after Hans and Sophie Scholl, and a €20 sterling silver collectors coin was issued in April 2021 to coincide with her birthday.
To conclude, a few notable quotes from Sophie are worth again featuring here:
“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves – or enemies.”
“Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”
“Stand up for what you believe in even if you are standing alone.”
“An end in terror is preferable to terror without end.”
In the face of all this, I remind you of something that Jesus said two millennia ago as recorded in Mark 8:36: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, but lose his soul?” Or as Leonard Ravenhill put it much more recently: “Are the things you are living for worth Christ dying for?”
Thank God for Sophie Scholl and the others. Their lives of principled and courageous resistance to that which is evil, and their commitment to that which is right, should inspire us all to do the same whenever necessary.
For further reading
Dumbach, Annette and Jud Newborn, Sophie Scholl and the White Rose. Oneworld Publications, 1986, 2018.
Hanser, Richard, A Noble Treason: The Story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Revolt Against Hitler. Ignatius, 1979, 2012.
Jens, Inge, ed., At the Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl. Plough Publishing, 2017.
McDonough, Frank, Sophie Scholl: The Real Story of the Woman Who Defied Hitler. History Press, 2010.
Scholl, Inge, The White Rose: Munich, 1942–1943, 2d ed. Wesleyan, 1952, 1983.
Shrimpton, Paul, Conscience Before Conformity: Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Student Revolt in Nazi Germany. Gracewing Pub., 2018.
And for a look at the larger work of resistance in Nazi Germany, see this volume:
Gill, Anton, An Admirable Defeat: A History of German Resistance to Hitler, 1933-1945. Henry Holt, 1994.
A two-hour video of their story, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, is found here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=baRvF6ZBK18