“In the movie theatres, the film was usually preceded by a weekly news show, and in most of these weekly shows the newsreader gives a brief speech,” Dr. George Wittenstein told students at Oregon State University in a 2013 talk about his time resisting the Nazis.
“Suddenly two rows ahead of me, a man appeared and picked somebody in the audience and took him away to the Gestapo. This man had said something derogatory against Hitler. Somebody in the audience heard him say this, called the secret police, and he was carted away.
“Now I want you all to think. What would you do to get rid of this elected government?” said Wittenstein, a member of the White Rose, an anti-Nazi student group at Munich's Ludwig Maximilian University.
“Don't forget, telephones are all tapped, the press is not free, and the radio is controlled and censored by the government. What can you do? Please raise your hands with any good ideas,” he continued.
One man in the Oregon audience put his hand up and suggested that he would have prayed.
“Pray? Will it get you anywhere? It may be good for your heart, but not for the community and for the country.”
There was very little you could do, Wittenstein emphasized – the Nazis controlled all aspects of society to the extent that sons would denounce their fathers, condemning them to a concentration camp.
But the White Rose, founded by siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, did have ideas.
They formed the group to try to undermine the Nazi party, but particularly the hold it had over Germany's universities. It was a secret organisation of students at the University of Munich, that committed to writing, printing and distributing anti-Nazi leaflets around the campus. On occasion they also wrote graffiti on city buildings saying “Freedom!” and “Down with Hitler!”
On February 22nd 1943, after less than a year of resistance, the White Rose was crushed by the Nazis.
The Scholl siblings had been discovered by a janitor four days earlier distributing their anti-Nazi leaflets in the main university building just north of the city centre. They realized they had a few leaflets left over, and so Sophie threw the leaflets over a balcony into the main atrium.
Tragically, the janitor saw the 21-year-old Sophie and took them to the rector where they were handed over to the Gestapo.
Wittenstein said of the act that “it was probably the most foolish thing they ever did… Sophie and Hans did this in a moment of joy and Übermut [wantonness], not thinking of the consequences.”
The memorial to the Scholl siblings and Christoph Probst in Munich. Photo: Amrei-Marie/Wikimedia Commons.
Hans and Sophie were taken to the Gestapo headquarters in Munich, and were joined the next day by another member of the group, Christoph Probst. He was arrested on February 19th, after a draft of a leaflet was found in Hans Scholl's pocket. The draft was analysed and the handwriting was identified as that of Probst. Hans, 24, had tried to protect his friend by ripping up the sheet and swallowing it, but just enough was recovered to identify the handwriting.
The three underwent two days of intensive questioning before being put on trial on the morning of February 22nd, charged with committing “treasonable acts likely to advance the enemy cause”. The judge sentenced them to death, and all three were guillotined at 5pm that same day.
Just before the blade fell, Hans cried out: “Long live freedom!”
Three other members of the group – Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, and Professor Kurt Huber – were arrested and guillotined later that year. Another, Hans Conrad Leipelt, was executed in 1945 for distributing copied White Rose leaflets in Hamburg. The leaflets were called: “And their spirit lives on.”
The Gestapo had been aware of the group from the summer of 1942, when the first of six leaflets was circulated around the campus and city of Munich. The leaflets were placed in phone booths and on windowsills, and later also sent to contacts at other universities where they were then distributed.
All of the leaflets were highly critical of the Nazis, and openly detailed Nazi atrocities. The murder of Jews in concentration camps was described as “the most appalling crime against the dignity of man, a crime to which nothing similar in the entire history of the human race can be likened.”
The White Rose also pleaded with the Allied powers to impose severe punishment on all Nazis, including all the “little villains” of the party. They also called for a new democratic state in Germany within a new, peaceful Europe.
Immediately after the death of the Scholls and Probst, students in Munich held a pro-Nazi rally, at which the janitor who reported them was presented on stage and cheered by the crowd.
Despite the limited effect they had on the country engulfed in Nazism, the White Rose movement is widely celebrated around the world for their resistance to Hitler. The Scholl siblings are seen as leading figures in peaceful resistance movements around the world, remembered for their courage until the moment of their deaths.
It's perhaps difficult for people fortunate enough to live in western democracies today to answer Wittenstein's question of what we would have done.
But one of those executed for his resistance, the music and philosophy professor Huber, gave insight into the motivation behind their courageous, non-violent fighting. In his final letter to his son, he wrote this solemn message:
“I died for Germany's freedom, for truth and honour. Faithfully I served these three until my very last heartbeat.”