German students with courage to oppose Hitler paid with their lives

Sophie Scholl was one of a small group of Munich students known as the White Rose who spoke out against the Nazi regime
Sophie Scholl was one of a small group of Munich students known as the White Rose who spoke out against the Nazi regime

Historian GORDON LUCY tells the 75-year-old story of young Nazis who grew to oppose the regime

On February 18, 1943 Sophie and Hans Scholl and Christoph Probst – members of the White Rose group – were arrested in Munich for their moral and ethical opposition to the Nazi regime. Four days later all three were executed by guillotine.

Although raised in a liberal and devoutly Lutheran home unsympathetic to National Socialism, Sophie and Hans Scholl joined the League of German Girls and the Hitler Youth respectively.

Both rose to leadership positions in the two organisations but became progressively disillusioned with the Nazis and their antisemitism, their totalitarian regime and everything they stood for.

Elisabeth Scholl remembered a conversation with her sister on the day before the outbreak of the Second World War. Elisabeth had said: “Hopefully there will be no war.” Sophie had replied: “Yes, I hope there will be. Hopefully someone will stand up to Hitler.”

Sophie had the ability to see issues with a greater clarity than her brother.

In May 1942, she enrolled at the University of Munich to study biology and philosophy. Hans was already there as a medical student. He introduced her to his friends and fellow medical students Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst, and Willi Graf.

They all shared a keen interest in art, music, literature, philosophy, and theology. They enjoyed hiking, skiing and swimming and attended concerts and plays together. Although from diverse religious backgrounds – Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox – they subscribed to a shared moral and ethical perspective on the world.

Fritz Hartnagel, Sophie’s boyfriend, was a soldier serving on the Eastern Front where he witnessed Soviet POWs being shot and buried in a mass grave and learned of the systematic killing of Jews.

In July 1942 Hans Scholl, Alexander Schmorell, and Willi Graf were sent to the Eastern Front as medics. Their experiences corroborated what Fritz Hartnagel had told Sophie.

In response they formed the White Rose at Munich University. There are a range of different explanations for the choice of name. It may have had its origins in German literature or the name may have been simply intended to symbolise purity and innocence in the face of evil.

Appreciating the danger, Hans Scholl had initially sought to exclude his sister from the group and to keep her unaware of their activities but once she discovered them she joined in energetically.

They produced six flyers to create a university movement against the regime. They urged the German people to passively resist the Nazi regime. The flyers deployed both Biblical and philosophical texts to provide an intellectual case for résistance. Sophie helped copy, distribute and mail the flyers, as well as manage the group’s finances.

Sophie, Hans and Christoph Probst were arrested for distributing their sixth and final flyer at Munich University on February 18, 1943. They were swiftly arrested, subjected to intense interrogation and tried by Roland Friesleron, a fanatical Nazi, in the so-called ‘People’s Court’ on February 22.

The trial could be best described as a judicial farce. Sophie Scholl said: “What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”

The verdict was a foregone conclusion. All three were executed by guillotine in Stadelheim Prison later the same day. Prison staff testified to the fact that all three faced their deaths with courage.

A prison guard recalled: “They bore themselves with marvellous bravery ... that is why we risked bringing the three of them together once more – at the last moment before the execution. We wanted to let them have a cigarette together before the end. It was just a few minutes that they had, but I believe that it meant a great deal to them.”

Hans Scholl’s final words, as the flashing blade of the guillotine fell, were: “Long live freedom!”

Else Gebel, a political prisoner with whom Sophie briefly shared a cell, recorded her last words before being taken away to be executed: “It is such a splendid sunny day, and I have to go. But how many have to die on the battlefield in these days, how many young, promising lives? What does my death matter if by our acts thousands are warned and alerted? Among the student body there will certainly be a revolt.”

While there was no student revolt, Sophie Scholl by her courage had earned her place in history. The members of the White Rose proved correct in claiming that “Hitler cannot win the war, he can only prolong it”.

On February 18, 1943, the date on which Sophie, Hans and Christoph Probst were arrested, Joseph Goebbels made his most famous speech before a carefully selected audience at the Berlin Sportpalast.

He said: “Do you believe with the Führer and us in the final total victory of the German people? Are you and the German people willing to work, if the Führer orders, 10, 12 and if necessary 14 hours a day and to give everything for victory? Do you want total war? If necessary, do you want a war more total and radical than anything that we can even imagine today?”

Goebbels’ audience proved less fanatical and enthusiastic than the regime would have wished. At the beginning of month the German army had sustained its greatest defeat in history with the capitulation and virtual annihilation of the General Paulus’ Sixth Army at Stalingrad. The tide had turned and Stalingrad marked the beginning of the end of Hitler’s regime.

According to German historian Joachim Fest, the true significance of the White Rose was that “a small group of Munich students were the only protestors who managed to break out of the vicious circle of tactical considerations and other inhibitions. They spoke out vehemently, not only against the regime but also against the moral indolence and numbness of the German people”.

In 2005, German actress Julia Jentsch played the role of Sophie in the screenplay ‘Sophie Scholl – the Final Days’.