Sophie Scholl: Remembering the White Rose activist on what would have been her 100th birthday

Sophie Scholl, one of the key figures of the Weiße Rose (White Rose) group, would have celebrated her one hundredth birthday on Sunday. Here we take a look at the impact she made at such a young age and the impression she has left on the German history books.

Sophie Scholl: Remembering the White Rose activist on what would have been her 100th birthday
Archive photo shows a memorial set up for Scholl at her former university in Munich in 2018. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

Scholl is regarded by many Germans as an almost saint-like figure and it is likely that you will have seen countless schools, streets and prizes bearing her name across the country. 

Sophie is seen by many as a symbol of unwavering resistance and immense courage, her principles never faltering in her fight for resistance.

The White Rose was a group of students at the University of Munich who encouraged opposition to the National Socialists during the Second World War. The young activists anonymously spread information leaflets around the university and the wider city between 1942 and 1943, before the central figures were discovered and arrested by the Gestapo. 

Though the White Rose was a small endeavour led by a handful of students, it has left an indelible mark on German history. 

Sophie, along with her brother Hans, was one of the core members of the group. 

READ ALSO: What we can learn from the White Rose siblings

Hans and Sophie Scholl. Photo: DPA

Political beginnings 

Sophie Scholl was born in May 1921 in Forchtenberg, a small town in Baden-Wurttemberg, and her family moved to Ulm when she was ten. Although their father was a liberal politician and ardent Nazi critic, both Sophie and her brother were part of the Hitler Youth program. 

Sophie was drawn in by the Nazi party’s cult of the youth and found herself intrigued by the National Socialists’ focus on nature and community. She quickly rose within the ranks of the Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Girls), the female branch of the party’s youth group. 

Although they were initially enthusiastic, Hans and Sophie’s relationship with the nationalist party and its political methods quickly soured. 

As she grew older, Sophie realised the ideology of the National Socialists was not in line with her strong moral convictions. This realisation was particularly enabled by her parents’ openness about their disdain for Hitler’s party, and their willingness to talk freely about political matters with their children. 

Sophie was quick to immerse herself in resistance activism when she started studying in Munich, where she joined the Weiße Rose.

The White Rose

The White Rose was a non-violent resistance group led by students at the University of Munich. The group became active on June 17th 1942 when they published and distributed their first pamphlet urging readers to oppose the Nazi regime. 

The core members of the group were Sophie’s brother Hans Scholl, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, Christoph Probst, and Kurt Huber. Together, they launched an information and graffiti campaign in Munich against the National Socialists. 

Sophie studied Biology and Philosophy and quickly fell in with her brother’s friendship group, who became known for their alternative political views. Sophie only involved herself in the White Rose after two information pamphlets had been distributed, and it was only then she learned of her brother’s involvement in the movement. 

Sophie was seen as a particularly valuable member of the group because, being a woman, she was less likely to be stopped and questioned by the SS – the paramilitary force of the Nazi party.  

Once Sophie joined the writing team, three more leaflets were distributed by the student group across the summer of 1942. 

Sophie’s religious and philosophical convictions began to drive the approach of the White Rose, whose pamphlets focused on the Biblical and intellectual arguments for resistance, encouraging readers to passively resist the National Socialist regime. 

On February 18, 1943, the Scholl siblings scattered hundreds of anti-Nazi pamphlets into the atrium of the University of Munich. This was a daring act of public protest which ultimately cost the Scholl siblings their lives. 

Bavarian State Premier Markus Söder (CSU) places flowers at a memorial for Sophie Scholl at the University of Munich (Ludwig Maximilians University) on Friday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa Pool | Peter Kneffel

Arrest and trial

Sophie Scholl, along with the other members of the activist group, were arrested following the public act, which was observed by a member of the university’s maintenance team. This led the Gestapo to take the students into custody and later to try them in public show trials. 

The main Gestapo interrogator initially assumed Sophie to be innocent, as she had no incriminating evidence on her person when she was arrested. However, in an attempt to protect other members of the group, she tried to claim full responsibility for the spreading of anti-Nazi documents. 

Within their show trials, the defendants had no opportunity to provide testimonies, but Sophie famously interrupted the judge multiple times throughout the trial. 

In the people’s court, she is reported to have said before the judge “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”.

Execution and legacy

On February 22nd 1943, Sophie, her brother Hans, and their friend Christoph Probst were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. They were executed by guillotine just a few hours later. 

Her last words, as she walked towards her execution, came “such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go… What does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

It seems that, even in her final moments, Sophie recognised the impact of her courage in the face of National Socialism. Despite losing her life at such a young age, Scholl lives on in German history as a symbol of powerful defiance, her legacy one of resistance and righteousness.

Scholl has been commemorated across Germany in art, media and education. In 2003, a bust of Sophie Scholl was installed in the Walhalla temple in Bavaria and she was named as one of the most influential Germans of all time in ZDF’s Unsere Besten (our best) campaign. 

Sophie was also the subject of a major film entitled Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage (Sophie Scholl – The Final Days).

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German justice contaminated by Nazis in post-war years

Germany's justice system was still filled with former Nazis well into the 1970s, as the Cold War coloured efforts to root out fascists, according a damning official inquiry presented Thursday.

Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report
Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report "State Security in the Cold War". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

In the 600-page collection of findings entitled “State Security in the Cold War”, historian Friedrich Kiessling and legal scholar Christoph Safferling focused on the period from the early 1950s until 1974.

Their research found that between 1953 and 1959, around three in four top officials at the federal prosecutor’s office, which commissioned the report, had belonged to the Nazi party.

More than 80 percent had worked in Adolf Hitler’s justice apparatus, and it would take until 1972 before they were no longer in the majority.

“On the face of it they were highly competent lawyers… but that came against the backdrop of the death sentences and race laws in which they were involved,” said Margaretha Sudhof, state secretary at the justice ministry, unveiling the report.

“These are disturbing contradictions to which our country has long remained blind.”

‘Combat mission’

It was not until 1992, two years after Germany’s national reunification, that the last prosecutor with a fascist background left the office.

“There was no break, let alone a conscious break, with the Nazi past” at the federal prosecutor’s office, the authors concluded, stressing “the great and long continuity” of the functions held and “the high number” of officials involved in Hitler’s regime.

Chief federal prosecutor Peter Frank commissioned the study in 2017. The federal prosecutor’s office is one of Germany’s most powerful institutions, handling the most serious national security cases including those involving terrorism and espionage.

With more than 100 prosecutors, it is “the central actor in the fight against terror,” the report authors said, underlining its growing role in the decades since the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States.

The researchers were given unfettered access to hundreds of files labelled classified after the war, and found that rooting out alleged communists was often prioritised over other threats, including from the far right.

“In the 1950s the federal prosecutor’s office had a combat mission – not a legal but a political one: to pursue all the communists in the country,” the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said in a summary of the report.

‘Recycling’ Nazis

The fact that West Germany widely used former officials from the Nazi regime in its post-war administration had long been known.

For example, Hans Globke served as chief of staff and a trusted confidant to former conservative West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer between 1953 and 1963 and was responsible for recruitment to top posts.

However, Globke had also been a senior civil servant in the Nazi-era interior ministry and was involved in the drafting of the 1935 Nuremberg race laws that imposed the first dramatic restrictions on Jews.

In recent years, systematic digging into the past of key ministries and institutions has unearthed a troubling and previously hidden degree of “recycling” of Third Reich officials in the post-war decades.

A 2016 government report revealed that in 1957, more than a decade after the war ended, around 77 percent of senior officials at the justice ministry had been members of the Nazi party. That study, also carried out by Safferling, revealed that the number of former Nazis at the ministry did not decline after the fall of the regime but actually grew in the 1950s.

Part of the justification was cynical pragmatism: the new republic needed experienced civil servants to establish the West German justice system. Furthermore, the priorities of the Allies who won the war and “liberated” the country from the Nazis were quickly turned upside down in the Cold War context.

After seeking to de-Nazify West Germany after 1945, the aim quickly shifted to building a capitalist bulwark against the communist threat. That approach often meant turning a blind eye to Germans’ previous involvement in the Third Reich.

In recent years, Germany has embarked on a twilight attempt to provide justice for concentration camp victims, placing several former guards in their 90s on trial for wartime crimes.