NEW YORK (JTA) — Though Sophie Scholl and the students of the White Rose resistance were executed by the Nazis 70 years ago this month, the example they set of courage in the face of authoritarian repression is as relevant today as it was seven decades ago.
Their crime: Daring to rouse the consciousness of their countrymen in the face of Nazi Germany’s destruction of all civil rights and its mass murder of European Jews.
In 1933, when Sophie was 12 and her brother, Hans, was 15, the Scholl siblings rejected their Lutheran upbringing and their parents’ Christian humanism and instead embraced Hitler’s philosophy of racial superiority, becoming leaders in the Hitler Youth.
But when Hans was arrested and convicted in 1938 for a same-sex relationship he had had three years earlier, when he was 16, the Scholls’ admiration for Hitler quickly ended. Gradually they became activists against the Nazi cause. By 1942, the siblings were engaging in daring forms of nonviolent resistance.
In May 1942, they dubbed themselves the White Rose and joined with a handful of friends at the University of Munich to produce what became a staccato burst of six impassioned anti-Nazi leaflets. Reproducing thousands in their secret headquarters over a nine-month period — ages before the push-button efficiency of the Internet — they made dangerous train trips to distribute the leaflets throughout Germany. They mailed them to 16 cities — Stuttgart, Vienna, Frankfurt, Berlin and Hamburg among them — in a bid to mislead the Gestapo into thinking theirs was a broad-based movement and not just a handful of students.
"Since the beginning of the war," they declared in their second leaflet in June 1942, "300,000 Jews have been murdered in the most bestial manner. This is a crime unparalleled in human history — a crime against the dignity of Man. But why do we tell you these things when you already know them? Everyone wants to be exonerated, but you cannot be, because everyone is guilty, guilty, guilty."
In their fourth leaflet, they wrote: "We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!"
On Feb. 18, 1943, Sophie and Hans climbed a high gallery at the University of Munich’s vast atrium. From there they scattered hundreds of their sixth leaflet down upon the heads of astonished students below in what was called the only public protest by Germans against Nazism ever to be staged.
Spotted almost immediately, they were arrested by the Gestapo and subjected to grueling interrogation. Sophie, Hans and their comrade Christoph Probst were tried in a show trial in Munich by Hitler’s "hanging judge," Roland Freisler. They were condemned to death. Just four days after their arrest, the three were beheaded by guillotine. Hans was 24, Sophie 21.
But their message lived on. Their last leaflet, smuggled out to the West, was dropped by the tons over Germany. Nobel laureate Thomas Mann broadcast back to Germany from American exile, praising the “splendid young people” who “at the time when Germany and Europe were still enveloped in the dark of night, knew and publicly declared” the ugly truth about Nazism in an attempt to bring about the “dawning” of a “new faith in freedom and honor.”
Today, the White Rose students are icons in Germany. In a nationwide TV competition to choose the Top 10 most important Germans of all time, German voters chose Sophie and Hans Scholl for fourth place — beating out Goethe, Gutenberg, Bach, Bismarck, Willy Brandt and Albert Einstein.
A German film, "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days," was nominated for an Academy Award in 2006, the same time that "Sophie Scholl and the White Rose" was published. Its Hebrew edition just appeared in Israel in time for the 70th anniversary of their extraordinary protest and executions.
Despite all this, the story of the White Rose resistance remains barely known by the general public outside Germany.
But heroism like theirs is being replicated in countries around the world. There is Malala Yousafazai, the now-13-year-old Pakistani children’s rights activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban last October and now says she’s ready to fight on. There are the gays who struggle for equal rights in countries where they are despised and even put to death. There are Chinese dissidents like Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010 but is languishing in a Chinese prison.
Given the oppression, violence and threats such men and women face — and the costs they often are forced to pay – we who live in democracies owe it to them not to stay silent.
"Somebody had to make a start," Sophie Scholl told Freisler, looking the judge straight in the eye on that fateful day in February 1943.
Seventy years on, we are still that somebody.
(Jud Newborn is co-author of "Sophie Scholl and the White Rose," just published in Hebrew by Penn Publications. He also served as founding historian at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. His website is judnewborn.posterous.com.)