1943: Sophie Scholl of the White Rose

On February 22, 1943, Sophie Magdalena Scholl, former student of philosophy and biology at the University of Munich in Germany, was executed by guillotine for her role in the White Rose nonviolent Nazi resistance group.

Scholl was born just 21 years earlier and spent a carefree childhood in Ludwigsburg and later, in Ulm.

Although she initially joined Bund Deutscher M├Ądel at age 12 (as required), she quickly grew disenchanted with the group and began to identify strongly with the dissenting political views of some of her teachers, family, and friends.

While serving the required six months in the National Labor Service prior to enrolling in university, Scholl began exploring the philosophy and practice of passive resistance, which she was almost immediately able to put into practice at the University of Munich the following spring, where she quickly fell in with the compatriots of her older brother, Hans Scholl.

Initially a forum to entertain the abstract questions of budding young intellectuals, the group (which dubbed itself the White Rose) quickly moved towards taking a more active role in resistance to the Nazi regime.

How should an individual act under a dictatorship? What obligations, or indeed, power, did a group of half a dozen students have in the face of such stifling repression? As Sophie and her brother watched as their father was jailed for a critical remark made about Hitler to an employee, other group members shared stories of atrocities witnessed during war service (of the six members, all but Sophie were male).

It was agreed that some sort of action was necessary. But what?

The group began distributing a series of leaflets urging other Germans to join them in resistance against the Nazi regime. The earlier leaflets were mailed anonymously to addresses all over Germany (copied out of the phone book), but later, the group began targeting the student population. In Fellow Fighters in the Resistance, they wrote: “The name of Germany is dishonoured for all time if German youth does not finally rise, take revenge, smash its tormentors. Students! The German people look to us.”

Passive was their philosophy, but their language was most certainly not.

In February 1943, the group targeted the last of the series of six leaflets for distribution in the main building of the university. Scholl and her brother volunteered to distribute the leaflets one morning, and nearly were able to disappear into the throng of students once classes let out, before being spotted by a janitor and quickly arrested.

After hours of interrogation, Scholl had almost established her innocence, until investigators searched the siblings’ apartment and found proof of her guilt. At this point, she switched tactics and proudly stood by her actions, stating that she was obligated to act in accordance with her conscience and would freely do the same thing again, and this in the face of increasingly hostile and derogatory questioning by her interrogator.

Scholl, her brother Hans, and White Rose member Christoph Probst were subsequently brought to trial in the People’s Court in a crowd of hand-picked Nazi supporters and in front of the notorious Nazi judge Roland Freisler. Found guilty, each was allowed to give a brief statement. Scholl proclaimed, “Where we stand today, you will stand soon.”

Hans and Sophie Scholl and Probst were executed just hours after their trial. Sophie Scholl’s last words were: “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?”

Indeed, the pamphlet that led to Scholl’s death did have that very effect. Smuggled out of Germany later that year, the Allied Forces seized on it and dropped thousands of propaganda copies German cities later that year, retitled as “Manifesto of the Students of Munich”.

In the post World War II era, the Geschwister Scholl (Scholl siblings) have since attained an almost mythical stature in German culture and history, with numerous monuments and schools dedicated in their honor (as well as the famous University plaza the siblings crossed the day of their arrest). In a nationwide 2003 poll, Sophie and her brother Hans were voted the fourth most important Germans of all times, above Bach, Goethe and Einstein.

A celebrated movie about Sophie Scholl was released to critical acclaim in 2005, and the White Rose continues to be the subject of numerous books and articles, from the philosophical to the startlingly practical and pertinent questions of the present day, of just what an ordinary and relatively powerless individual can and should do under extraordinarily trying circumstances.