Earlier this year marked the 99th anniversary of the birth of Sophia Magdalena Scholl, a German anti-Nazi political activist during the forties. Scholl was a member of White Rose, a group of Munich-based students partaking in non-violent resistance to the Nazi regime through anonymous leaflets and graffiti. They were active for less than a year (between 1942 and 1943), before three of the group, siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst, were caught and executed. Though small in number (there were only six core members) and short-lived, the actions of White Rose have resonated through history.
Hans, a University of Munich student, was a former member of the Hitler Youth. He had joined the program much to the chagrin of his father, former Mayor of Forchtenberg and a staunch opponent of Hitler. Hans soon became disaffected with the monstrous actions of the ruling Nazi party in wartime. His other sister Elizabeth recounted, “We learned in the spring of 1942 of the arrest and execution of 10 or 12 Communists. And my brother said, ‘In the name of civic and Christian courage something must be done’.” Along with pals Alexander Schmorell, Wil Graff, and Jurgen Wittenstein he began writing, publishing and printing pamphlets criticising the government and calling for an end to the war. On discovering that her brother had penned one of the leaflets she found on campus, Sophia Scholl immediately joined the group.
Both Sophia and her brother were catholic and influenced by the writings of saint John Henry Newman (the ‘controversial’ English theologian and poet), developing a ‘theology of conscience’, or religious compunction to resist the horrors of the Reich. Sophia sent volumes of Newman’s work to her boyfriend, Fritz Hartnegal, a German soldier fighting on the eastern front. His letters detailing the war crimes he had witnessed, such as the systematic murder of Jewish people and massacres of Soviet prisoners of war, further radicalised the group against the regime.
The members of White Rose wrote and published four leaflets over the summer of 1942, with a further two making it to print before the arrest of Probst and the Scholl siblings. A seventh tract was also drafted. These were distributed in the university and around central Germany, with a copy of the sixth pamphlet being smuggled out of the country to the UK via Scandinavia. It was this final publication that Sophia was seen distributing with her brother on 18 February 1943. They were reported by maintenance man and prize grass-hole, Jakob Schmid.
They were given a show trial, with no testimony for the defence though Sophia regularly interrupted the judge (Roland Freisler, a loathsome and prominent ideologist of National Socialism), restating the morality of their actions.
“Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”
No surprise, they were all found guilty and executed by guillotine (still common practice at the time) only hours later. Accounts of those present noted the dignity and courage with which Sophia in particular faced death. The executioner himself, Johan Reichhart, whose own story is an interesting one, later noted that he had never seen anyone die as bravely as Scholl.
The most immediate legacy of the group was that the sixth leaflet, the one that was smuggled out, was re-titled The Manifesto of the Students of Munich and later airdropped over Germany by the Allied Forces. It’s contribution to ending the war cannot be calculated, but it is deeply symbolic.
Sophie Scholl – The Final Days (original title: Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage) is a 2005 film which does exactly as it says on the tin. Directed by Marc Rothemund and starring Julia Jentsch in the titular role, the film focuses mainly on the arrest, interrogation and subsequent trial of Sophia and her brother. Their acts of subversion and resistance are largely confined to the first scenes of the film, so fans of day-to-day chores of anti-fascist action will sadly have to get their kicks elsewhere.
There are compelling performances from the cast, with Jentsch by turns showing us the quick-wittedness of Scholl under questioning, through the distraught fear for her life, and on to her final dignified resolve in the face of death. Alexander Held delivers a believable Robert Mohr, the Gestapo interrogator who at first thinks Scholl is innocent, then repeatedly tries to offer her a reprieve through betraying her comrades. He is uncomprehending when Sophia affirms that her salvation is through faith and religion – the paucity of his own beliefs laid bare as he flails for a way out for someone who he sees as a pretty young woman, led astray by men who he’d hang as soon as look at. Their interactions form the backbone of the film and the chemistry between the actors is key.
It is André Hennicke, however, who steals the scenes in the films climax, as Dr. Roland Freisler presiding over the kangaroo ‘People’s court’. His pomp and repugnant officiousness turns to incandescent rage at the actions of the three accused students. In response to Hans’s damning accounts of the German military on the front line, Freisler screams “Are you really so stupid as to think that even one German would believe that nonsense?” Fabian Hinrich, playing Hans, looks him coolly in the eyes. “If you and Hitler weren’t afraid of our opinion, we wouldn’t be here.” There is also some small comfort for the viewer in the dramatic irony of Hans’ final words in court, “You may hang us today, but you’ll be hanged tomorrow.” (Freisler was actually killed during a bombing raid and mourned by no-one)
The film really highlights how small the actions of the group seem (such as piling up flyers in corridors) and yet how obviously powerful and important it was at the same time, as shown by the draconian response of the authorities. Perhaps this is why when watching the movie it is easy to make an empathetic connection with Scholl and the White Rose group. You don’t have to imagine yourself bearing arms in pitched street battles with storm troopers, but we can picture ourselves pushing some leaflets off a ledge, especially if they called Hitler a knob.
Predictably the most moving moments fall in the final act. Those sentenced to death were normally given 99 days between their trial and their execution date. A prison warden, however, ruefully advises Sophia, “If you want to write a farewell letter, do it quickly.” Combined with the look of realisation on her face, Jentsch’s reply, “Today?”, is arguably the most powerful line uttered in the film. The true realisation of the consequences of her (virtuous) actions crashes home, with a force that is physical. Scholl clutches her abdomen as if kicked and emits a guttural cry that should touch all but the stoniest of onlookers. If you don’t feel it, you’re a fascist.
The visit from her parents (Petra Kelling and Jörg Hube), permitted an audience with Sophia to say their farewells, is heartbreaking and profound at the same time. We see the resolve setting on her face. “I’d do the same again,” she tells them. “You did the right thing,” her father assures her, “I’m proud of you both”. I can’t imagine the feeling of knowing your children are about to be slaughtered by the servants of a sickening evil, by lackeys who could only dreaming of having half the spine of Sofia and her brother. The look on Hube’s face, a mix of pain and pride, does an admirable job giving me an inkling of how it must have felt. It’s hard not to see your own mother too in the face of Kelling as she contemplates the loss of her daughter. At this bit, dear reader, I was in bits.
Execution is seldom humane, of course, but there is something barbaric and visceral about this method, it’s anticipation, the sounds of the blade and the aftermath of decapitation. Pop fact, Old Rope once played an executioner in a short student film. We had stocks and sort of half-guillotine on a freezing cold beach in winter. I had to ‘behead’ my mate Sarah. Needless to say it wasn’t as powerful as the ending of The Last Days of Sophia Scholl. We only see, in part, one death sentence carried out, though we hear all three. The last words heard are those of Hans, who shouts: “Es lebe die Freiheit!” (“Long live freedom!”).
The political science school at the University of Munich was later named in honour the two Scholls, along with many German streets, squares and schools. In 2003, Sophia beat Bach, Goethe, Gutenberg, Bismarck, Willy Brandt, and Albert Einstein in a competition to find the greatest Germans of all time (if the votes of just the young had been counted, she would have topped the poll). Sophia’s boyfriend Fritz later married her sister Elizabeth, perhaps the style of the time. Though interned by the French following the war, Mohr was never tried for his involvement in the Gestapo. Jentsch, incidentally, won best actress at the European Film Awards for her portrayal of Sophia Scholl.
Let’s leave the final words – in fact Sophia’s actual final words – to the woman herself, as reported by her cellmate Else Gebel.
“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.”
- You can read the White Rose leaflets in this archive on LibCom and more details of her life here. The film is currently on YouTube, but that might not last.
- The below extract is from the second White Rose leaflet. It is a cautionary warning from history about the complacency of those unaffected by repression. It seems as important now as ever.
“Why do German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes, crimes so unworthy of the human race? Hardly anyone thinks about that. It is accepted as fact and put out of mind. The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals; they give them the opportunity to carry on their depredations; and of course they do so. Is this a sign that the Germans are brutalised in their simplest human feelings, that no chord within them cries out at the sight of such deeds, that they have sunk into a fatal consciencelessness from which they will never, never awake? It seems to be so, and will certainly be so, if the German does not at last start up out of his stupor, if he does not protest wherever and whenever he can against this clique of criminal, if he shows no sympathy for these hundreds of thousands of victims.”
White Rose Leaflet 2