Learning from the White Rose
Seventy-five years ago last month, Sophie and Hans Scholl and their friend,
Christian Probst, were executed by guillotine at Munich’s Stadelheim Prison for high
treason. Their crime? They were the leaders of an anti-Nazi student organization,
the White Rose, and had been caught distributing leaflets at their university in the
Bavarian capital; the leaflets condemned the Third Reich, its genocide of the Jews and its futile war.
How did young people once active in the Hitler Youth come to recognize the
evil of the Nazi regime and risk their lives to oppose it?
The 2005 Oscar-nominated film, “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” offers a part of
the answer. The garish brutality of the Nazis, not least at its Nuremberg party rallies,
was a first hint to serious young people that something was wrong here. The White
Rose youngsters were also thinkers and studied Socrates, Plato and Pascal under
the tutelage of Kurt Huber, a philosophy professor who despised the Hitler regime.
The leaflets that were their primary resistance tool included references to Goethe,
Aristotle, Schiller and Lao Tzu – further signs of deep and broad reading.
What you won’t learn from the film, however, is that the triggering inspiration for their activism was the “Lion of Muenster,” Archbishop Clemens von Galen, whose anti-Nazi preaching convinced the members of the White Rose that thought and discussion must give way to action. So, between June 1942 and
February 1943, the White Rose produced and distributed six leaflets urging others
to nonviolent resistance against the Nazi regime. To stand by silently, they claimed,
was to be complicit in “the most horrible of crimes – crimes that infinitely
outdistance every human measure.” To do nothing was to truckle to Hitler; and
“every word that comes out of Hitler’s mouth is a lie.”
The fourth pamphlet made a promise: “We will not be silent. We are your bad
consciences. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.” And therein lies a clue to
another inspiration for the Scholls and their friends: John Henry Newman and his
writings on conscience.
In Britain’s Catholic Herald, Paul Shrimpton notes that the youngsters of the
White Rose were deeply influenced by Augustine’s “Confessions” and George
Bernanos’s “Diary of a Country Priest.” But it was Newman’s sermons, recommended to the White Rose students by a philosopher who had converted to Catholicism after reading Newman’s “Grammar of Assent,” which prompted that fourth pamphlet with its call to heed the demanding voice of conscience.
Shrimpton reports that when Sophie Scholl’s boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel, was
assigned to the Russian front in 1942, Sophie gave him two volumes of Newman’s
sermons. He later wrote her that “we know by whom we are created, and that we
stand in a relationship of moral obligation to our creator. Conscience gives us the
capacity to distinguished between good and evil” – words, Shrimpton notes, that
“were taken almost verbatim from a famous sermon of Newman’s called ‘The
Testimony of Conscience.’”
On the witness stand before the notorious Nazi “People’s Court” judge Rudolph Freisler, 21-year old Sophie Scholl testified that it was her conscience, and her Christian conviction, that had led her to nonviolent resistance against Hitler and his gangsters. That Christian conscience, we now know, was formed in part by a serious intellectual and spiritual encounter with Blessed John Henry Newman.
There is a lot of talk in the Church these days about “conscience,” and
Newman is invoked by many prominent personalities in those debates. So it might
be useful for all concerned, including Church leaders in Munich where the White
Rose youngsters gave their lives for the truth, to ponder Newman’s influence on
these contemporary martyrs.
What did the members of the White Rose learn from Newman about conscience? They learned that conscience could not be ignored or manipulated. They learned that the voice of God speaking through our consciences sets before us
what is life-giving and what is death-dealing. They learned that conscience can be
stern, but that in submitting to the truths it conveys, we are liberated in the deepest
meaning of human freedom. They learned that obedience to conscience can make us courageous and that to strive to live an ideal with the help of grace is to live a truly noble life with an undivided heart.
George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.