The past offers us many lessons. And cause for alarm. And inspiration, too.
Seventy-two years ago today, three young Germans — 21-year-old Sophie Scholl, her older brother by three years, Hans, and their friend 24-year-old Christoph Probst — were put to death by the Nazis. They were decapitated — guillotined — within hours of being found guilty in a sham trial conducted by “Raving Roland,” a typical Nazi lunatic.
Their crime? Standing up against the most evil crime imaginable.
The charge was treason — treason committed courageously against the Third Reich.
The Scholls had a history of standing up to the Nazis. Hans was arrested in 1937 for involvement in the German Youth Movement, an unapproved group. In 1942, Hans and Sophie’s father, Robert, the former mayor of Forchtenberg, was imprisoned for several months for telling his secretary, “This Hitler is God’s scourge on mankind.”
So, perhaps it was no surprise that the Scholls helped organize a group known as The White Rose, comprised mainly of students at the University of Munich. These young people saw Hitler and the Nazis as pure, unadulterated evil — as a threat to all that is good and true.
They were convinced that most Germans felt the same way. But they knew most were too afraid to speak up, to stand up, to resist the evil in front of them. After all, the price would almost assuredly be death, and life is mighty dear.
The White Rose dissidents found the courage to put the “lovely intangibles” of justice and decency and truth ahead of safety and life itself. In addition to painting “Down with Hitler” graffiti on buildings in Munich, the group produced six pamphlets from June 1942 until February 1943 urging Germans to rise up against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The leaflets were distributed to students at the University, where they caused quite a stir, as well as throughout Germany — some even made it to German-occupied countries.
The White Rose leaflets and anti-Nazi graffiti unnerved the Gestapo, which feared this brazen public rebuke to their authority might inspire others to rise up in opposition. In a state otherwise tormented into silence, the totalitarians were frustrated in their inability to find and crush this resistance.
Then, on February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie Scholl were caught distributing leaflets at the University. They were promptly arrested. Hans carried a paper on him that implicated Christoph Probst, a married medical student and father of three children, who was quickly arrested as well.
Afraid of public sympathy for these young people, the Nazi state moved quickly, putting the three on trial just four days later, on February 22. Roland Freisler, chief justice of the People’s Court of the Greater German Reich, came in to preside at the show trial. He lambasted and screamed at the three as traitors. At one point, the judge asked how the three could have been brought up in German society and yet turn against it. Sophie stoically responded, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare to express themselves as we did.”
The judge sentenced all three to death. Hours later, after the Scholls’ parents had visited Hans and Sophie at Stadelheim prison, and before Christoph Probst’s wife, who was in the hospital having their third child, could see her husband one last time, the three were taken to the guillotine.
“Es lebe die Freiheit!” proved to be Hans’s last words: Long live freedom!
The Scholls and Probst were not the last of The White Rose activists to die for speaking out. Co-conspirators Alexander Schmorell and Willi Graf were put to death later in 1943, as was University of Munich Professor Kurt Huber, who had helped the students. Others involved in the effort were sent to prison.
Professor Huber, less sure than his young friends (many of whom had witnessed the Eastern Front) that Germany would lose the war, said at his trial, “We do not want to fritter away our short lives in chains, even if they are golden chains of prosperity and power.”
In remembering the tragic deaths of the White Rose fellowship, let’s take inspiration from their defiance of extravagant evil. The students’ professor was right: we don’t want to fritter away our short lives in chains. We must not sit idly by while more chains are placed upon us.
Even in America, vigilance is required to keep freedom alive. And resistance sometimes costs us more than a few bucks donated to a good cause. Sometimes it costs us reputation, too. We may receive no small amount of derision, even get called silly names, like “wingnuts” and “moonbats” and “wacko birds.”
And it is not as if the government doesn’t have the power to destroy us. The IRS can be set at us. (And has been.) The NSA and the CIA and the FBI and Homeland Security can spy on our emails and Skype conversations. (And undoubtedly has.) In the past, our government has framed “rabble rousers” for speaking up against it. Congress can destroy almost any business in the land with an unread addendum to almost any bill.
The bigger the government gets, the harder it is to control. And the more it can control us all.
The White Rose resistance should inspire us to bear a little more risk in the cause of civilization, justice, freedom.