The Young German Christians Who Spoke Truth to Power
By Teresa Limjoco
One used his Faith as a shield in the face of brutal Gestapo interrogation; he did not talk. Another converted on his way to the guillotine. All were inspired by the heroic resistance of one Catholic bishop. Today, they would be regarded as very odd, indeed. What would modern Germans think of university students with strong Christian beliefs — many sustained by a deep attachment to Catholicism — defying the government? It is almost unheard of.
In this look back at the heroic young Germans who died defying the Nazi terror, Teresa Limjoco reveals the truth about where their strength came from.
In the 1930s, they were young, middle class and well-educated. They discussed philosophy, sang in a Bach choir, enjoyed music, poetry, art, and books. They could easily have continued with such lives, but their consciences were awakened as they watched 1930’s Germany succumb to Nazi barbarism.
Moving beyond the passive ‘inner emigration’ most intellectuals resorted to, these University of Munich students formed the ‘White Rose’ (‘Die Weisse Rose’), a resistance movement which dared to speak truth to power.
It would cost them their lives.
Speaking Truth to Power
Enthusiastic Hitler Youth members as teens, siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl grew disillusioned when the anti-Jewish hooliganism of Kristallnacht in 1938 revealed the ugly, ruthless face of Nazism. Disillusion would turn to outrage as they learned of ever-escalating heinous Nazi attacks on defenseless Jews.
In 1941, Hans heard of a homily preached by von Galen, the Roman Catholic bishop of Munster, (pictured to the left) who bravely denounced Nazi euthanasia of the disabled and mentally ill. In this, Hans – a medical student who had served as a medic on the Eastern front – found his inspiration.
With medical students Christel Probst and Willi Graf, and their friend Alexander Schmorell, Hans formed the ‘White Rose’, one of the only groups that ever dared to voice opposition in Hitler’s Germany. His sister Sophie and Professor Kurt Huber joined them.
Their weapon? Leaflets. The first, in mid-1942 incited Germans to passively resist the Nazis, whom they termed ‘an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct.’1
In eight months, they distributed six leaflets. Their bravery would be short-lived, however; the Scholls and Probst were soon arrested. The White Rose was mercilessly crushed.
Their sixth and last leaflet was sent out between February 16 and 18, 1943, an especially dangerous time. After the disastrous defeat of the Wehrmacht in Stalingrad, Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels gave a ‘scorched-earth’ speech on February 18 at the Sportpalast that called for ‘total war’. (Coincidentally, Sophie’s correspondent-boyfriend, Lt. Fritz Hartnagel, was assigned to Stalingrad).
As glimpses of their vulnerability surfaced, the Nazis ramped up their brutality. More death sentences were meted out to dissidents. Yet the need to oppose such a malevolent entity trumped fear. Hans and Sophie knew the risk of their fateful decision to distribute those leaflets in the university. They were quickly reported.
Hans and Sophie knew the risk of their fateful decision to distribute those leaflets in the university. They were quickly reported. Hans Scholl (left), Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst, leaders of the White Rose resistance organization. Munich 1942 (USHMM Photo)
The Nazis prosecuted and executed the three on February 22, 1943 with unusual swiftness and stealth, fearing they would become martyrs. Their sentences would serve as an example. After a sham ‘trial’, they were condemned to death by guillotine for ‘high treason’ by Hitler’s ‘hanging judge,’ Roland Freisler.
What They Believed
While their incredible courage has made them latter-day film heroes, most people today have no idea that the extraordinary acts of the Scholls, Christel Probst, and Willi Graf were grounded in a firm belief in God. Their fourth leaflet boldly called Hitler the Anti-Christ, and declared that ‘[o]nly religion can reawaken Europe, establish the rights of the peoples, and install Christianity in new splendor visibly on earth in its office as guarantor of peace.’1, 2, 6
The Scholls’ mother, Magdalena, was a Lutheran deaconess who taught her children the Bible. Her son Hans also found guidance in Catholic works such as St Augustine’s Confessions and Paul Claudel’s writings.3, 6 [St Augustine’s City of God (Civitas Dei) would even find mention in the third leaflet]. (2) Sophie kept a well-worn copy of Confessions in the compulsory labor service camp. One line in particular resonated with her: ‘Thou hast created for us Thyself, and our heart cannot be quieted till it find repose in Thee.‘ 2
German historians Jakob Knab and Guenther Biemer believe today that Cardinal John Henry Newman’s writings influenced Hans and Sophie’s moral, spiritual, and intellectual formation — including the Christian understanding of conscience. 2
Professor Carl Muth had introduced them to St Augustine’s works, and also to Cardinal Newman’s work through his friend, Theodor Haecker. Haecker was a Catholic convert who had translated Newman’s writings into German. ‘ [C]onscience,’ Newman wrote, ‘is the voice of God….’5 Sophie apparently valued Newman’s ideas enough to share them with Fritz Hartnagel, giving him two volumes of the Cardinal’s sermons in 1942. 2, 4, 7
Like many Germans today, ‘Christel’ Probst grew up with no religion. As a young adult, however, he’d felt a closeness to the Catholic Church. News of the Nazi euthanasia program and persecution of the Jews outraged him. As he wrote his sister Angelika, ‘…it was not given to any human being, under any circumstance, to make judgments that are reserved to God alone. … Every individual’s life is priceless. We are all dear to God.’3
Evidence linking Christel to a draft for the seventh leaflet led to his arrest by the Nazis. He asked to be received into the Roman Catholic Church on the day he was to die. He was baptized and received First Communion, after which he said, ‘Now my death will be easy and joyful’.3 He left behind a wife, two young children, and a newborn baby.
As a Roman Catholic, Willi Graf felt deeply the Nazi persecution of his Church. While serving as a medic during the invasion of Poland and Russia, Willi was horrified by the atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht there. He could not but reject a system that went against his deepest beliefs. He would help write the leaflets, but it was July 1943 when the Gestapo finally caught up with him.
He was executed in October following Gestapo efforts to extract more information from him. His Faith gave him strength to withstand brutal interrogations without compromising his friends. 2
On his last day, he wrote to his family, ‘On this day I’m leaving this life and entering eternity. … strength and comfort you’ll find with God and that is what I am praying for till the last moment … Hold each other and stand together with love and trust…. God’s blessing on us, in Him we are and we live …’.6
2018 was the 100th anniversary of his birth and the 75th anniversary of his execution. He deserves much more recognition than he’s received in the past. Unlike the other White Rose members, he refused to join the Hitler Youth and never did, despite threatened with being prevented from taking the university admittance test. Instead, he joined illegal Catholic youth groups for boys and was arrested in early 1938 for his participation. He and his friends spent a few weeks in jail. He served as an altar boy at the Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Saarbruecken where he grew up, joined the Red Cross as a university student, and pursued medical studies as opposed to the liberal arts which he maintained were corrupted by the Nazis. His main concern had been for the victims and was deeply troubled by the indifference and/or alignment of those in authority with the Nazis. His favorite bible verse, which inspired him throughout his life, was James 1:22. He strove to be a “doer of the Word.” He also recited Psalm 90. After two deployments on the Russian Front and his resistance with the White Rose, he was arrested by the Gestapo in Munich on February 18, 1943. Of the core White Rose members, he spent the longest time in prison (8 months) and never cooperated with the Gestapo, thereby saving the lives of those whom he had tried to recruit for the White Rose. He also experienced the most time on the battlefield as a combat paramedic and witnessed crimes against humanity committed by his fellow Germans. He was executed for high treason on October 12, 1943 in Munich’s Stadelheim Prison, today one of Germany’s largest prisons. He was declared a martyr by Saint Pope John Paul II. (7)
Willi, the Roman Catholic, was executed in October following Gestapo efforts to extract more information from him. His Faith gave him strength to withstand brutal interrogations without compromising his friends.
Sophie Calmly Faces Nazi Torture and Death
All who witnessed their last days were struck by their ‘Seelenkraft,’ their ‘strength of soul.’3 Sophie’s calm fortitude so impressed her interrogator, Robert Mohr, that he actually offered her a way out: that she admit to having misunderstood what National Socialism meant and must regret what she did.
“Not at all,” Sophie defied him. “It is not I, but you, Herr Mohr, who have the wrong Weltanschauung (‘world view’). I would do the same again.”3
The executioner himself, a veteran of thousands of such tasks, said that he had never seen anyone meet her fate so calmly as Sophie Scholl did. She was 21 years old.
The executioner himself, a veteran of thousands of such tasks, said that he had never seen anyone meet her fate so calmly as the 21-year old Sophie Scholl did.
Not ideology, but Faith sustained them
Seventy years after their deaths, the exceptional moral courage of these young people remains astounding. It was not a political agenda nor an ideology but basic human decency and life-affirming beliefs based on strong religious convictions that inspired and sustained the White Rose martyrs.
Hans was 24, Sophie was 21, Christel was 23, and Willi was 25 years old when their brave young lives were extinguished.
Would that their heroism live on to inspire more bravery in us all.
1 Scholl, Inge. The White Rose: Munich, 1942-1943. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1983. [NOTE: Inge Scholl was the sister of Hans and Sophie. The book was originally written in 1970, and a new Introduction by Dorothee Soelle is included in the 1983 edition.]
2 McDonough, Frank. Sophie Scholl: The Real Story of the Woman Who Defied Hitler, Stroud, Gloucestershire: History Press, 2009.
*Note 13 in Chapter Three mentions Jakob Knab’s findings on the Cardinal Newman influence.
[NOTE: The latest, with a few additional tidbits that have not been mentioned in previous publications. ]
3 Hanser, Richard. A Noble Treason: The Story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Revolt Against Hitler. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1979. [NOTE: Excellently written, hard to put down.]
4 Cardinal John Henry Newman and the Scholls http://newmaninspiredresistance.blogspot.com
5 Quotation from Cardinal Newman.
6 Dumbach, Annete and Newborn, Jud. Sophie Scholl and the White Rose. Oxford, England: Oneworld, 2006. [NOTE: Another fine and credible source.]
7 Excerpts from Fritz Harnagel’s letters to Sophie Scholl. http://pedrokolbe.wordpress.com/2013/10/10/john-henry-cardinal-newman-and-the-white-rose/
8. Several images from Wikipedia
9. Richards-Wilson, Stephanie. PhD, EdD. http://kritische-ausgabe.de/artikel/faith-under-fire; http://fountainsofcarrots.com/2018/06/.