Thomas Friedman's October 10 Newsweek column challenged today's college students to break away from their 'Generation Q' - the quiet generation - stereotype and do more to effect change in our society. Many of his points are well-taken, especially comments about some being content to upload their concern, a so-called Facebook activism.
When I read his words about a month ago, I found myself agreeing with him. After all, my generation marched on Washington, joined the Peace Corps (one friend died while serving), and held peaceful and not-so-peaceful demonstrations against the injustices of our day.
Then we grew up, settled down, and lost our idealism and willingness to take risks on behalf of others. It's always harder to fight injustice when we're personally comfortable.
The more I've thought about it, the less I agree with Friedman. What we need is tikkun olam, repairing this old world. Give me slow and steady informed dissent any day, the kind of passion that still goes to football games and school dances, yet is deadly serious about doing whatever can be done to make our society whole. Especially when that passion lasts a lifetime.
I love seeing Naomi Iser and her Brandeis friends publicly declare their fast on behalf of Darfur relief ~ as one of many ways they have embraced that issue. Or Tim Hansen and Amy Samuelsen and their entourage at Brigham Young University agonizing over the Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979 and concluding: "We need to help the world."
But informed dissent cannot and should not be limited to the Big Things like genocide ~ although if images of Darfur now and Cambodia then don't elicit righteous indignation, a person is likely emotionally dead. Still, real activism has no heart if we can get upset about events halfway around the world while remaining numb to human rights abuses next door and wounds suffered by our neighbors.
So I am equally happy when I note that Robert Barton (also of BYU) noiselessly gives his time to volunteer, to help out in 'small spaces.' Or when I read that five Baylor University guys took their friend's close call with suicide to heart. And set out to do something about the epidemic of hopelessness.
This is the true message of the White Rose students and the adults who learned from them. Yes, they attempted grandiose things, noble feats of conscience. But all of that would have meant nothing if Willi Graf had not been willing to give up his seat on the streetcar to Russian women, forced laborers in Munich. If Alex Schmorell and Nikolai Nikolaeff-Hamasaspian had not taken food and clothing to POWs and more of those forced laborers, also in Munich. If Traute Lafrenz had not assisted her Jewish neighbors in Hamburg when the noose tightened.
Caring about the wrongs that are right in front of our face should ~ must ~ accompany activism and even attend acts of civil disobedience.
Informed dissent? Means caring more about integrity and about the powerless more than we care for our own comfort. Because once you start caring, actions follow.
October 25, 2007
It's a good thing I made no promises this time last year. Otherwise, I'd have some major apologizing to do!
To be painfully honest, White Rose work pretty much came to a standstill over the last twelve months. It didn't make sense any longer. I felt like - we all felt like - we were butting our heads up against a brick wall that had been reinforced with commercial-grade steel and topped off with barbed wire. Any time we tried to do anything that put "the truth" of the White Rose story out there, any time we bucked the system or took on the well-funded White Rose establishment in Munich, we ended up suffering the consequences. And made nary a dent in a well-oiled, corrupt machine.
I don't know about you, but I am not a person who relishes pain. Even the emotional kind.
So it was easier to put "White Rose" on hold and concentrate on things that made me and our family happy. We moved to Utah (because the unemployment rate out here is much lower than on the East Coast or in Texas, and it was easier to find a job unrelated to White Rose), stored our archives in the basement in unopened boxes, and did as little as possible.
Luckily, Dr. Igor Chramov in Orenburg, Russia is a persistent fellow. Although we didn't answer his initial 2007 email about the Schmorell conference in September, he followed up. And followed up. For reasons I don't understand to this day, we decided to go to Orenburg after all. It was not necessarily a "rational" decision. The trip was horribly expensive, I was unmotivated by the topic, and by the time the conference rolled around, I was up to my eyeballs in non-White Rose work. It seemed like a terrible choice to have made.
The Orenburg part of the trip was preceded by a week in Germany. We visited old friends in Bad Heilbrunn, people and place that serve as a favorite flannel nightgown or broken-in hiking shoes. For several days, we simply basked in the warmth that comes from that kind of friendship.
Equally important, we visited two of the White Rose women we hold dear. The first visit nearly didn't happen. Herta Probst is not well, and her family tends to protect her from people and things that would drag her down. Especially after the Probst family's awful experience with the recent Sophie Scholl movie - in which Christoph Probst was falsely portrayed as the weakling, when Hans Scholl was the one who almost fainted (and so on and so on) - they can hardly work up the strength to tackle anything related to the White Rose. It doesn't seem to matter how loudly or correctly they attempt to rectify history, to persuade writers to "get it right the first time." There's so much invested in The Official Legend that no one listens to them.
The plan therefore involved a ten-minute "hello" to Herta Probst, followed by dinner with one of her children.
Four hours later, we were still talking, eating cake and drinking coffee, laughing even at the ridiculousness of some of the pompous asses who put on a big White Rose show with no substance behind them.
This conversation began to effect a change inside me, reminding me why our work is important, why it's important not to give up even when the "pompous asses" seem to be winning. I saw anew the faces of the White Rose that make this story so personal, so very valid for the 21st century. When Herta recalled the shenanigans her beloved husband and Schurik had pulled, the silliness that had been heart and soul of a powerful friendship that eventually led both to give up their lives for freedom and justice, I saw and heard "my" BYU team in all their crazy glory, hearts of gold, yearning for a world where injustice is a thing of the past.
The next day, we sat across the table once again from Lilo Ramdohr, this time joined by her precious grandson. A new generation is joining the work of "keeping true memories alive". In Domenic's face, I could see the passion that once had been on Lilo's, when she was a young woman fresh out of college, caught up in an unwanted intrigue for the sake of her friend Schurik, and for the sake of Germany. Lilo's health is failing too - she turned 94 on October 11 - so it is important for Domenic and all the other grandchildren of these White Rose families to become actively involved in righting the record.
Yet as is so often the case, the "good guys" have largely kept silent over the past sixty years. For the most part, they have quietly gone about their lives, never seeking fame or fortune for their virtues, past or present. The 'new generation' is therefore under-informed about their grandparents' heroics. They know only that it's a topic that's hardly ever brought up, although "White Rose" in general often consumes the German media.
It's rarely these "good guys" who hog the media spotlight. I saw with Domenic that our work involves far more than merely recording an accurate history for scholars and young students to read. We can also fill in the gaps for children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who badly need to know just how heroic some of their family was.
[And I have yet to figure out how an entire nation of "scholars" has allowed the fraud to be perpetrated so long, to the point that those who proudly wore the swastika during the Third Reich are allowed to posture and swagger before the cameras, with no one dragging them off the stage in handcuffs for blatant lies. I understand why the liars do it - it must be awful living with the guilty conscience of a Nazi past, even if none of them was a guard at Auschwitz - but I don't understand why tenured professors, government officials, radio and television journalists, and keepers of archives let them get away with it. - Note that I include U.S. "scholars" in this indictment, because way too many American universities regularly invite known Nazis posing as "freedom fighters" to speak on campus - without challenging one word of their speeches. Unforgivable.]
The Russian leg of the trip started off traumatically. We arrived on September 12. Moscow felt like it was under siege, almost a martial law mentality. Police on every street corner, Kremlin off limits, no one "able" to speak either German or English when we asked directions. We came oh-so-close to turning around and heading back to Bad Heilbrunn, where we felt safe. Our airport hotel in Moscow did not even have Internet service, so in the short space of a day, we began to feel cut off from the rest of the world. A scary place to be.
(A couple of days later, we heard that Putin had dissolved his government the day we were "in town". And a new Siberian friend told us that the day before - yes, September 11 - there had been a suicide bomber, evidently near the Kremlin, in Moscow. No wonder the city was on edge!)
After an equally rough start in Orenburg - no Internet service there either, among other things - the change that began with the visit with Herta Probst blossomed into a full-fledged turning point. I cannot go into too many details, as I am still processing some of the conversations and conclusions.
What I can tell you: I saw firsthand the great White Rose dichotomy, up close and personal. At that memorial service on the occasion of what would have been Alexander Schmorell's ninetieth birthday, a decidedly motley crew had gathered.
Some had come because German and Russian television cameras showed up. They made sure they were front and center of photo ops. They tried to grab the best tables whenever we ate together (and we ate together a lot!). They genuflected before the graven image of fifteen minutes of fame. In short, they represent on a small scale the larger circle of would-be scholars who nearly drove me away from this topic that for so long has been my passion.
But there were others there as well, the "others" I felt comfortable with, "others" who gladdened my heart and renewed my hope for Truth. I changed my opinion about a couple of people whose work I had known about without knowing them - positive change. We discussed and debated our differing conclusions. It felt good to be among these "others" who care as much as I do about getting the story right - the first time.
We left Orenburg completely exhausted, but convinced we had to return to White Rose work full-time. Effective today, we are doing just that.
It's funny in some ways. We came to Utah, expecting to put the White Rose behind us. Over the past few years as we have sent out our newsletters, I've always felt like BYU - Brigham Young University - would be the last place that could ever be hospitable to the true White Rose story. LDS theology does not encourage civil disobedience. When I've seen Mormon missionaries in Texas, the East Coast, in Germany, I've always envisioned even Mormon young people as complete conformists who only do as they are told, without thinking, reflexively as it were.
Just as Orenburg renewed my vision for our White Rose efforts and changed my mind about some of the "players", living and working among BYU students has definitely changed my mind about BYU. True, LDS theology does not encourage civil disobedience. But "my" BYU team showed me that they care very much about right and wrong, about social justice, about values that matter. They subscribe to a very strict honor code, yet they are anything but conformists. I'm proud that some of them have become my friends. They have renewed my hope in students who are willing to be themselves, stand up for what is right, and in so doing, change the world.
Who knows? A year that started out one way may prove to end up completely different.
One thing is for certain. I am different.