The lessons of history that I learned between pages of books and in sterile lecture halls compare little to the moments I’ve stood on blood-stained floors or peered through the bars at ghost-filled rooms. In Europe, the sites of the Holocaust boggle the mind. How could a whole nation steamroll toward genocidal fervor as the Germans did during the Second World War? Of course, occasionally we hear about the brave neighbors who hid Jews or Gypsies and helped people escape from Europe, but it didn’t seem like there were too many people who spoke up. As German pastor Martin Niemöller famously put it:
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
To speak up likely meant merely adding one more person to the victim roll. But I hadn’t ever heard of Sophie Scholl.
The way I found out about Sophie was rather serendipitous. My hometown of Madison has a lot of film fans. (We have one of two Sundance cinemas in the US, and used to have more indie film houses before said Sundance outlet apparently drove them out of business to then offer mostly Hollywood blockbusters. Ahem.) Film festivals and special screenings are common.
In 2005, the docudrama Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Sophie Scholl: Die letzten Tage – nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film) came to town to be screened as a preview to its North American release. The film was presented by the German director himself, Marc Rothemund. After the Berlin Wall came down, many records which had been confiscated by the Soviets when they came into Germany at the end of the war became accessible. This included information about a young student who attended university in Munich during World War II. The film is primarily based on her diary and Nazi records of her arrest and transcripts of her show trial.
Sophie, her brother Hans Scholl, and their friend Christoph Probst – members of an underground group called the White Rose – were arrested when they were caught spreading anti-Nazi pamphlets at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the sixth of the six pamphlets the White Rose printed. Needless to say, the story doesn’t end well.
But contrary to the stereotype of the left-leaning, anti-establishment college student, the students in Munich cheered at the demise of these anti-Nazi fellow students. Answering questions after the film, Rothemund said there were not many people who disagreed with the Nazis’ direction, “maybe 100,000” was his off-the-cuff estimation. We’ll never know, of course; those who were silent could have been so to protect themselves and their own children, and those who made this claim after the fact may be rewriting their own personal histories out of shame or fear of reprisal.
When I recently visited Munich, I made it a point to go looking for Sophie. Though the Nazis ended Sophie’s life with the guillotine, her name and her story refused to be silenced. The sixth White Rose pamphlet was smuggled out of Germany and later dropped by the planes of the Allies as The Manifesto of the Students of Munich.
Today Sophie and other members of the White Rose are memorialized in plaques and monuments. Geschwister Scholl (Scholl Siblings) Square and Professor Huber Square face each other across Ludwigstrasse at the heart of the university campus. (Huber was their professor who also joined the White Rose, and composed that 6th pamphlet.)
On the pavement before the main University building is a memorial to the White Rose designed to look like a scattering of papers. Inside, in that fateful atrium, is a statue of Sophie. Another memorial stands among Munich’s Royal Gardens.
On that same weekend I was in Munich, a march of perhaps 3,000 gathered to protest racism and the continued Nazi sentiments.
An onlooker, an elderly woman, snorted and said, “There are more police than protestors,” a rather obvious exaggeration. A German friend standing there with me and translating explained that Munich was and remains politically conservative.
The next day I found the Scholls’ former apartment building and the plaque that marks it, about one kilometer north of the university. I tried to imagine how vulnerable they must have felt hauling a heavy suitcase full of what could have been (and would be) evidence enough for a death sentence.
The plan was to leave stacks of these pamphlets outside classrooms so that students would pick them up for their own accord and the message of the White Rose society might spread. Did they know what was going on at the front lines? Did they know about the death camps? But more critical: Did they care?
In the days before CCTV this should have been a relatively low-risk endeavor. Everyone was in class, so they had time. But when the coast was clear and they moved quickly throughout the building, time ran out. Sophie made one critical error. Just as the classes were about to spill into the halls, she had made it to the top of the central atrium. Rather than placing the last stack of leaflets on the floor and departing calmly and discreetly, she leaned over the balustrade and tossed them into the air to flutter down into space. It drew the attention of a building staff person, and later that man was able to identify Sophie as the culprit. It was the loose thread that unraveled the rest. Hans was arrested and a draft of a seventh pamphlet found in his pocket led them to Probst.
Not long after seeing the film about Sophie, I saw Downfall (Der Untergang), the German film chronicling the final days of Hitler in his bunker under Berlin, his Third Reich collapsing about him, his mind falling off its last hinges. It is an excellent film with a rattling performance by Bruno Ganz. But what struck me were the short interviews that framed the film. The director spoke with one of Hitler’s personal secretaries, Traudl Junge, by then an old woman. She is of the variety who claims they didn’t know the full extent of what was going on.
At the end of the film, she speaks of walking through the streets of her hometown of Munich one day and seeing a plaque on a building commemorating Sophie Scholl and her courage to stand up for what was right. And she says it struck her then that being a young person and not knowing what is going on is not an acceptable excuse.
Whether I believe her or not, I can’t say. But I do believe it possible. People will blind themselves to all sorts of things in the name of nationalism and religion or just to have a comfortable mental space where they never need to question their beliefs. “The other troops rape, pillage, and plunder; our troops would do no such thing.” Facing a dark reality about something one holds dear can be a devastating option, and people who may be normally “good” will aid and abet atrocity rather than see their sacred “truths” corrupted. I’ve read of Catholic parents, whose own children were being sexually abused by the local priest, who nevertheless scolded their kids, told them never to say such an awful thing, and then sent them on to church, back into the nightmare. After reading those personal stories, nothing now would surprise me.
It’s important that we remember not just Sophie Scholl and her courage, but Traudl Junge and her failure. Anyone is capable of choosing either path, and both have their consequences.