“What does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?” – Sophie Scholl
These were the words of Sophie Scholl, a 21-year old leader of a Nazi rebellion movement in the 1940s. Sophie, her brother Hans, and their friend Christoph Probst, were executed by Nazi party officials in 1943, as a result of their distribution of a revolutionary leaflet called The White Rose. Their actions helped spur an undercurrent of revolt across Germany, throughout World War II.
Like many of the changemakers we have written about, the Scholl children were the products of politically aware parents. Their father, Robert Scholl, warned his children that Hitler was a dangerous man whose actions could lead to the destruction of Germany. But like most teenagers of the time, Hans and Sophie followed their peers and joined the Hitler Youth—beginning their indoctrination of the superiority of the German nation. In 1942, their father was arrested and spent time in a Nazi prison for speaking out against Hitler himself. He was quoted as saying, “This Hitler is God’s scourge on mankind, and if the war doesn’t end soon the Russians will be sitting in Berlin.” And so the Scholl children began to understand that the things they’d been taught in Nazi youth organizations might not be morally correct.
Because of their father’s arrest, Sophie and Hans knew that open dissent against the Nazi party was a dangerous enterprise. The government moved from more quiet deportation of Jews to concentration camps, to violent and overt conflict across the nation. In 1942, Sophie was attending the University of Munich and found an anti-Nazi pamphlet in class, which after some detective work she discovered was the work of her brother and some friends who’d formed an anonymous resistance campaign. Despite pleas from her brother, she decided immediately to join the group.
Inspired by the non-violent resistance tactics of American civil rights activists, the students began publishing anonymous pamphlets they distributed across central Germany. The first leaflet of The White Rose group (so named for the symbol of purity in the face of evil) appeared at the University of Munich and included an essay explaining how the Nazi regime was imprisoning and murdering entire groups of German citizens. At the bottom of the flyer were the words, “Please make as many copies of this leaflet as you can and distribute them.” Its appearance caused an immediate stir on campus since dissent against the government was almost unheard of. “We will not be silent,” wrote The White Rose. “We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!”
The second pamphlet described the murder of 300,000 Polish Jews; the third leaflet called for destruction of arms plants, government-supported media, and public political meetings. Rumors, dissent, and more leaflets spread rapidly among students, and Nazi agents frantically began a search for the authors. Citizens began receiving, duplicating, and distributing the flyers in communities across Germany. The White Rose group also took to the streets, painting graffiti across the city of Munich, saying “Down with Hitler!” and “Freiheit!”—Freedom. They wanted to create the impression that The White Rose was a major revolutionary group. Before being caught, the group published six pamphlets in less than a year.
In February of 1943, the group was apprehended when leaving pamphlets in suitcases all across the University of Munich. Sophie took to a balcony that overlooked a courtyard and scattered reams of flyers as students exited classes. Her action was witnessed by the school’s janitor, who reported Sophie and Hans to the Gestapo. After being interrogated for nearly 24 hours, Sophie emerged from questioning with a broken leg but a steely spirit. She was quoted as saying, “I’ll make no bargain with the Nazis.”
The students’ hearing began a mere four days after their arrest and, because all pled guilty, they were not allowed to testify. Still, Sophie did not sit quietly throughout the proceedings. She interrupted the judge throughout, with statements like: “Somebody had to make a start! What we said and wrote are what many people are thinking. They just don’t dare say it out loud!” and “You know the war is lost. Why don’t you have the courage to face it?”
She was allowed one official statement: “Time and time again one hears it said that since we have been put into a conflicting world, we have to adapt to it. Oddly, this completely un-Christian idea is most often espoused by so-called Christians, of all people. How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone who will give himself up to a righteous cause? I did the best that I could do for my nation. I therefore do not regret my conduct and will bear the consequences.” She and her fellow defendants were sentenced to death by execution, which was carried out within hours of the decision. On the back of Sophie’s indictment, she wrote the word “Freedom”. Her reported last words were, “Die Sonne scheint noch”—”The sun still shines.”
At least 14 members of The White Rose organization (reportedly numbered around 30) were executed. More than 5,000 people were beheaded or sent to concentration camps during the height of the Nazi regime. Today, the story of The White Rose is known throughout Germany—which, as a country, has made a commitment to reconciliation and remembrance. There is a square at the University of Munich named for Hans and Sophie Scholl and there are streets, schools, and buildings across the country named for the Scholls and other members of The White Rose.
There have been moments in the last decades, even in the last couple of years, when the question has been asked: “Will you be on the right side of history?” Sophie Scholl knew that she had the opportunity to use her voice in a dangerous time, and she knew which side of history she wanted to be on.