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Sophie Scholl, Nazi Resistance Hero

George J. Wittenstein

Sophie Scholl, Nazi Resistance Hero

Sophie Scholl’s active opposition to the Nazis led to her execution. On what would have been her 90th birthday, we look back on her short life and how her story resonates in current day Germany.

Sophia Magdalena Scholl was born May 9, 1921, the fourth of sixth children. Her father was the mayor of Forchtenburg, a small town in the south of Germany. When Sophie was 9, the family moved to Ludwigsburg and later Ulm, before settling in Munich.

In 1933, like most girls age 12, she joined the League of German Girls, founded in 1930 as the female branch of the Hitler Youth movement. (By 1939 membership would be compulsory.) At first Sophie and her brother were enthusiastic Hitler supporters, but she soon began criticizing the organization for its militarism. Her father’s influence certainly played a part in their early dissent, as he and many of his friends opposed Hitler from the beginning. At home, he also exposed his children to works by banned writers like Thomas Mann and Paul Claudel.

Sophie Scholl was a skilled artist, and another shaping factor in her political outlook was her friendship with so-called ‘degenerate’ modern artists whose work didn’t exalt the “blood and soil” values of militaristic Germany.

In 1937 her brother Hans and some friends were arrested for participating in the German Youth Movement, a longstanding organization that had been banned by the Gestapo. Later, her father was also jailed for telling his secretary that Hitler was “God’s scourge on mankind.”

To complete the compulsory pre-college National Labor Service, Scholl became a kindergarten teacher but was later told she also had to serve as a nursery school teacher to fulfill her duties. Seeing the growing regimentation of the Labor Service further helped turn her against Hitler. At some point during her service, she also began studying the philosophy of non-violent resistance.

Scholl enrolled at the University of Munich in 1942, where her brother Hans was studying medicine, and started hanging out with a group drawn together by their love of art, literature and music. Increasingly, they found themselves discussing politics and decided something must be done.

Along with philosophy professor Kurt Huber, five students – Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl, Alex Schmorell, Willi Graf and Christoph Probst – formed a group called The White Rose. To protest the Nazi regime, they participated in subversive activities including weekly discussion groups, painting “Freedom” outside the university’s entrance and encouraging students to think for themselves.

Most troubling to the Nazis, however, were the anonymous leaflets they printed and distributed throughout Germany.

Although relatively few copies of the six leaflets they wrote were produced, it still proved a difficult and dangerous undertaking. Paper was scarce, buying lots of postage stamps would have drawn suspicion, and they risked getting caught distributing copies of their writing in phone booths and other public places, or transporting them on their person by train. Of the 100 copies of the first leaflet they produced, fully 35 were handed over directly to the Gestapo.

Unflinching in its language, the first pamphlet began:

“Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be governed without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. 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?”

In 1943 as the war situation worsened for Hitler, The White Rose grew bolder. By the fifth pamphlet, they were producing between 6,000 and 9,000 copies. Three members painted “Down with Hitler” and “Hitler Mass Murderer” slogans on one of Munich’s main boulevards. On the night of Thurs., Feb. 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie were distributing their latest leaflet in an empty classroom when they were seen by a school custodian named Jakob Schmid. He immediately informed the Gestapo.

They were questioned for four days. Then, after a trial that lasted just a few hours, Hans and Sophie Scholl were convicted of treason and sentenced to death. Their sentences were carried out the very same day by guillotine. Gestapo prison officials noted Scholl’s courage in their reports, giving her last words as “Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

Three others in the White Rose group were also later executed, but far from providing a spark that would lead to the regime’s downfall, the whole affair went largely unnoticed by Germans at the time.

Seventy years later, Sophie Scholl is celebrated in Germany as a national hero, appearing on postage stamps and having countless schools, streets and public squares named in her honor. Biographies have been written about her and she was the subject of at least four films, the most recent being a 2006 production nominated for an Academy Award.

Asked by the Gestapo what motivated her actions, she said, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just do not dare express themselves as we did.”

On a birthday she’s no longer here to enjoy, it’s worth remembering that sometimes being a hero means daring to express yourself no matter the consequences.