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The White Rose is perhaps the most famous of all German Resistance organizations active during World War II, yet few realize today what a formidable threat this group of young people posed to the Third Reich.

The White Rose was arguably one of the most inclusive resistance groups in Germany in terms of membership. Members came from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities and creeds. Comprised mostly of students, the group also included older adults who joined their fight against Nazism. The group’s most well-known leaders were Hans and Sophie Scholl, two free-spirited siblings who loved literature, sports and the outdoors. Initially joining Nazi Party youth groups, the pair became disillusioned with the regime and worked fiercely against it. For their Resistance activities, both brother and sister were beheaded by the Nazis via guillotine on February 22, 1943—an atrocious punishment hardly imaginable in 20th century Europe.

Other White Rose leaders included Christoph Probst, a husband and father of three children, Willi Graf, a rebellious young wanderer, and Alexander Schmorell, born to a German father and a Russian mother, and thus driven by a personal desire to stop the carnage between Germans and Russians on the Eastern Front. They and other members were also executed.

While the Nazi regime suppressed all opposition brutally, its reaction to the White Rose was particularly swift and cruel. Adolf Hitler personally signed a statement refusing all appeals for mercy. Why was the Nazi reaction to this group so vehement?

A closer look at archival documents published by the German Resistance Memorial Center reveals that these youths possessed a truly powerful voice. Whereas propaganda produced by Communist groups tended to be clumsily loaded with proletarian buzzwords, the White Rose knew how to appeal to their own people in their own language—invoking history, literature, solidarity and national pride. Working as a team to write pamphlets, they used familiar concepts of heroism, duty and repetition of the word “Volk” (traditionally used to mean “the German people”) to sway readers stuck in the Nazi web.

“Up until the outbreak of war, the majority of the German people were blinded, the National Socialists did not reveal their true nature; but now that we have seen through them, it must be the sole and highest duty, even the most holy duty, of every German to destroy these beasts!” wrote the group in June 1942.

Growing up in Hitler’s Germany, White Rose members knew the Nazi propaganda, youth groups and social agendas from the inside out. Using their wits and their writing skills, these young critical thinkers threatened to undermine the regime in a way that few other resistance groups could.

“One cannot criticize National Socialism on an intelligent level, because it is unintelligent,” the group declared in a June 1942 pamphlet. “This movement was, already in its earliest seed of origin, aimed at deceiving people.”

They reminded readers of the wasted lives of German soldiers. “Who has counted the dead? Hitler or Goebbels? Probably neither. Thousands fall daily in Russia,” they wrote. “Sorrow steps into the little houses of our German homeland and no one is there to dry the tears of the mothers. Hitler lies to those he robbed of the most precious ones in their lives, whom he drove to a senseless death.”

They took bold swipes at the Nazis on a cultural level. The book Mein Kampf was written in “the most awful German I have ever read,” declared the group in June 1942. Hitler’s ramblings in Mein Kampf indeed demonstrate poor writing ability, but nobody had dared point it out in public.

“Yet the people (Volk) of poets and thinkers have elevated it to a Bible,” the pamphlet continued sarcastically, using the common German phrase “Dichter und Denker” to remind readers of an illustrious literary past.

The youths expressed themselves with brilliance, zest, and sometimes ironic humor, anticipating other Germans grumbling at them and urging readers not to become “bitter hermits” in the face of tyranny. They challenged their audience to fight. “Are your spirits already so very defeated by the violation that you have forgotten it is not only your right but your moral duty to put an end to this system?”

If members of the White Rose had been given a platform or a microphone with which to address a crowd, their brave young voices would have stirred their fellow Germans’ hearts.

The final blow the White Rose managed to strike was a reaction to Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943. The group issued perhaps their most stinging rebuke of Hitler—one that directly challenged his military authority.

“Utterly shaken to the core, our people stand beholding the downfall of the men at Stalingrad. Three hundred and thirty thousand German men were driven to their deaths, senselessly and irresponsibly, by the ingenious strategy of the World War Lance Corporal,” they wrote, mocking Hitler’s lack of military rank.

To rub salt on the wound, they followed up with a phrase often recited by the Hitler Youth: “Führer, wir danken dir! (Führer, we thank you!)” They went on to call Hitler a “bumbling amateur” and denounce the Nazi war effort as “the primal instincts of a political clique.”

“Freedom and honor! For ten long years, Hitler and his lackeys have wrung these two glorious German words to the point of nausea, banalized them, distorted them, as only superficial people can, who toss the highest values of a nation to the swine,” they wrote.

With fury worthy of a Wagnerian opera, they continued: “The German name will forever be defiled if the German youth do not ultimately rise up, wreak vengeance and atonement at once, smash the tormentors of Germany and raise up a new, intelligent Europe.”

“The face of the German people is looking to us!” the pamphlet continued. “Beresina and Stalingrad lie burning in the East—the dead of Stalingrad implore us! Rise up, mein Volk, the smoke rises from the fiery beacons!”

The last sentence is a verse from a traditional German marching song entitled, Frisch auf, mein Volk” (Rise Up, My People). The song was penned by soldier-poet Theodor Körner circa 1813, known and loved by German troops for his fiery ballads inciting rebellion against Napoleon. Its lyrics are rich with metaphors and imagery from German romantic sagas—the song speaks of swords and spears, duty, willpower, and the “Heldentod” (heroic death in battle) of German warriors bent on overthrowing tyranny.

These were the same cultural concepts that Hitler manipulated—the same phrases he played upon in speeches to excite the passions of his German listeners and sway their hearts to be loyal to him. Now, these phrases—and the sense of German national spirit they evoked—were being used against him. The White Rose had hit at the very cornerstones on which Hitler’s authority as “Führer” was built.

While distributing the group’s last fiery pamphlet at Munich University, 21-year-old Sophie Scholl climbed to the top floor of the atrium and scattered the leaflets below, causing papers to rain down in a shower of defiance. She was spotted by janitor Jakob Schmid, a diehard Nazi, who informed on the group. A crackdown ensued. Police forces quickly descended on the band of friends.

The Nazis tended to dismiss all expressions of resistance as the machinations of alleged “left-wingers,” “Bolshevists,” “Jews,” or “foreign agents”—essentially blaming all criticisms on out-groups who did not belong to the Nazis’ perceived community. The Nazis believed they themselves epitomized German cultural values. Therefore it was unimaginable to them that Germans, citing cultural values, would rise up against them. This made the Nazis desperate to silence them.

Amid a wave of persecution, interrogations and show trials, members of the White Rose went to their graves undaunted. Alexander Schmorell spoke fearlessly of his love for his Russian mother in a courtroom packed with officials who preached fanatical hatred of Russians. Sophie had the courage to calmly tell Roland Freisler, a judge notorious for screaming abusively at prisoners, that she did not regret her actions. Moments before his death, her brother Hans shouted as the guillotine blade fell: “Es lebe die Freiheit! (Long live freedom!)”

The White Rose had succeeded in distributing their pamphlets far and wide; their written words had reached thousands of German-speaking households from Vienna to Hamburg. In summer 1943, a Nazi public prosecutor in Munich described the group’s activities as “the most serious case of the most highly treasonous propaganda that occurred in the Reich during the war,” which attests to how extremely threatening it was to the regime.

Although their lives were taken from them, the memory of the White Rose has endured and their dream of a free Europe has been realized. Today the face of Sophie Scholl represents the White Rose and all who resisted Nazism in a memorial hall amid the green hills near Regensburg, Bavaria. Its vaulted ceilings cast light on the carved stone visages of warriors, artists, poets, and kings—many of whom Sophie and her friends once admired. Her white stone bust stands enshrined brightly among them in this hall of heroes, which is appropriately named Walhalla (Valhalla). MH