Sophia Scholl was a German student, who was active in the White Rose – a non-violent resistance group to Hitler and the Nazi party. In 1943, she was caught delivering anti-war propaganda and, with her brother Hans Scholl, was executed for high treason.
She has become an important symbol of anti-Nazi resistance in Germany.
Sophie Scholl was born in Forchtenberg on 9 May 1921. She was the fourth out of six children. Her father Robert was the Burgermeister (Mayor) of Forchtennerg am Kocker.
She was brought up as a Lutheran Christian and her childhood was relatively happy and carefree. However, in 1933, Hitler came to power and began controlling all aspects of German society. Initially Sophie was unaffected, but her father and brothers were critical of the Nazi regime and this political criticism filtered through to leave a strong impression on the young Sophie.
At the age of twelve, she joined a pseudo Nazi organisation, the League of German Girls. Initially Sophie enjoyed the activities of the group, and she was promoted to Squad Leader. However, after her initial enthusiasm over the activities of the group, Sophie became uneasy about the conflict between her conscience and the creeping Nazi ideology of the organisation. In 1935, Nuremberg laws were passed which increased the discrimination against Jews, banning them from many public places. Sophie complained when two of her young Jewish friends were barred from joining the League of German Girls. She was also reprimanded for reading from the ‘Book of Songs’ by the banned Jewish writer Heinrich Heine. Scholl indicated her rebelliousness by replying, that Heine was essential for understanding German literature. But, these incidents and the bans against Jews led to Sophie taking a much more critical attitude to the Nazi regime. She began choosing friends more carefully – people who were politically sympathetic to her viewpoint.
In 1937, her brothers and some of her friends, were arrested for participating in the German Youth Movement. This incident left a strong impression on Sophie, and helped to crystallise her opposition to the Nazi regime. In 1942, her father was later sent to prison for making a critical remark about Hitler. He referred to Hitler as “God’s Scourge.”
Sophie was an avid reader and developed an interest in philosophy and theology. She developed a strong Christian faith which emphasised the basic dignity of every human being. This religious faith proved an important cornerstone of her opposition to the increasingly all-pervading Nazi ideology of German society. Sophie also developed a talent for art – drawing and painting, and she became acquainted with artistic circles which, in Nazi terms, were labelled degenerate.
In 1940, after the start of the Second World War, she graduated from her Secondary School and became a kindergarten teacher at the Frobel Institute. However, in 1941, she was conscripted into the auxiliary war service working as a nursery teacher in Blumberg. Sophie disliked the military regime of war service and started to become involved in passive resistance to the war effort.
After six months in the National Labour Service, in May 1942, she enrolled in the University of Munich as a student of biology and philosophy. With her brother Hans, she became associated with a group of friends who shared similar artistic and cultural interests, but also developed a shared political views, which increasingly opposed the Nazi regime they lived in. She came into contact with philosophers such as Theodor Haecker, who posed questions of how individuals should behave under a dictatorship.
The White Rose Movement
The White Rose was an informal group who sought to oppose the war and Nazi regime. It was founded in early 1942 by Hans Scholl, Willia Graf and Christoph Probst. They wrote six anti-Nazi resistance leaflets and distributed them across Munich. Initially Sophie was not aware of the group, but when she found out her brother’s activities, she was keen to take part. Sophie took part in distributing leaflets and carrying messages. As a women, she was less likely to be stopped by the SS.
The leaflets of the White Rose contained messages, such as
”Nothing is so unworthy of a nation as allowing itself to be governed without opposition by a clique that has yielded to base instinct…Western civilization must defend itself against fascism and offer passive resistance, before the nation’s last young man has given his blood on some battlefield.”
However, there was a strong police state which kept a high degree of surveillance on any resistance activity. After leaflets were found in the University of Munich, the local Gestapo stepped up its efforts to catch the resistors. Hans, Willi and Alex also began painting anti-Nazi slogans on buildings in Munich.
On February 18, 1943, Sophie and other members of the White Rose were arrested for distributing anti-war leaflets. They were seen by Jakob Schmidt, a local Nazi party member. Sophie and Hans were interrogated by Nazi officials and despite trying to protect each other, just four days later were sent to court. The trial was presided over by Roland Freisler, chief justice of the People’s Court of the Greater German Reich. Freisler was an ardent Nazi and with great vigour and a manic intensity, frequently roared denunciations at the accused.
Despite the hostility, and appearing in court with a broken leg after her interrogation. Sophie replied to the court
“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.”
She also said:
“You know the war is lost. Why don’t you have the courage to face it?”
No defence witnesses were called and, after a very short trial, the judge passed a guilty verdict, with a sentence of death. The sentence was to be carried out early the next morning by guillotine.
Walter Roemer, the chief of the Munich district court, supervised the execution, he later described Sophie’s courage in facing her execution. He reports that Sophie’s last words were:
“How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause. 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?”
The guards were impressed with the courage of the resistors, and relaxed the rules to allow Hans, Christoph and Sophie to meet before their execution.
After the execution of Sophie, Hans and Christoph, the Gestapo continued their relentless investigation. Other members of the White Rose were caught and executed. Many students from the University of Hamburg were either executed or sent to concentration camps.
Legacy of Sophie Scholl
In a poll to find the greatest German, Sophie and her brother were voted to be fourth. Amongst the young generation, under 40, they were the most popular. On February 22, 2003, a bust of Sophie Scholl was unveiled by the government of Bavaria in the Walhalla temple. In 2005, a movie about Sophie Scholl’s last days were made featuring Julia Jentsch (Sophie Scholl: The Final Days)
Motivations of Sophie Scholl
There were several factors that inspired Sophie Scholl to take part in this highly dangerous resistance. Firstly, her family shared a dislike of the Nazi regime. Both her brothers and father had been arrested for making critical comments. Her father, said to the family
”What I want for you is to live in uprightness and freedom of spirit, no matter how difficult that proves to be,” (link)
She lived in a family environment which encouraged opposition to Hitler.
Sophie had a strong Christian faith and was motivated after hearing speeches by anti-Nazi pastors. She read two volumes of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s sermons which made a strong impression on Sophie, especially the ‘theology of conscience’ During her interrogation she referred to this ideology as a defence.
“I am, now as before, of the opinion that I did the best that I could do for my nation. I therefore do not regret my conduct and will bear the consequences that result from my conduct.”
Official examination transcripts (February 1943); Bundesarchiv Berlin, ZC 13267, Bd. 3
Her boyfriend Fritz Hartnagel was on the Eastern Front, he reported to Sophie the awful conditions of war, the failure at Stalingrad and also he his dreadful experience of witnessing war crimes undertaken by German and SS forces.
Reports of mass killings of Jews, were also widely shared amongst members of the White Rose. This features in the second White Rose pamphlet.
”Since the conquest of Poland 300,000 Jews have been murdered, a crime against human dignity…Germans encourage fascist criminals if no chord within them cries out at the sight of such deeds. An end in terror is preferable to terror without end.”
Sophie Scholl and other members of the White Rose remain a potent symbol of how people can take a courageous action to resist, even the most brutal totalitarian regime.
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