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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

In Defense of the White Rose

     It's February 22, sixty-nine years after Christoph Probst, Hans Scholl, and Sophie Scholl were convicted of treason in Germany's Volksgericht and promptly beheaded. While much about that day has been fairy-taled beyond recognition, one element of the legend has basis in fact.
     Namely, as Hans Scholl was being led to his death, he shouted Long live freedom!
     Now, he did not shout it loudly enough for the whole prison to hear. And he did not shout it after sharing a cigarette with Christl and Sophie. And he did not shout it after shedding a tear for an unnamed 'girlfriend' of any sort.
     But his final words - appropriately enough - reminded the executioner, prison chaplain, and witnesses to his death that the friends of the White Rose were giving their lives for the notion that "freedom of the individual" was worth fighting for. Three leaflets had specifically mentioned their obsession with this personal freedom that had been taken from them by Hitler and his regime.
     In the fifth leaflet (penned by Hans Scholl with input from Alex Schmorell), they told their fellow students, "Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the protection of the individual citizen from the caprice of criminal, violent States – these are the bases of the new Europe."
     In the sixth leaflet, Kurt Huber proclaimed, "Freedom and honor! For ten long years, Hitler and his associates have abused, stomped, and twisted these two glorious German words till they are loathsome."
     And Christoph Probst had said - in a leaflet that was never published - "Today, all of Germany is encircled just as Stalingrad was. All Germans shall be sacrificed to the emissaries of hate and extermination. Sacrificed to him who tormented the Jews, eradicated half of the Poles, and who wishes to destroy Russia. Sacrificed to him who took from you freedom, peace, domestic happiness, hope, and gaiety, and gave you inflationary money."
     For some in the White Rose, limitations on their own freedom motivated them to act. For others, what Germans were doing to others enraged them to the point that they could not keep silent.
     Christoph Probst saw firsthand how his stepmother was marginalized simply for being Jewish. Alex Schmorell hated the discrimination against Russians and other minorities, deemed subhuman and worthy only of forced labor in service of Germans. Willi Graf could not sleep at night, images of bestiality and inhumanity, things he had witnessed on the Russian front burned into his brain.
     Traute Lafrenz's outrage dated back to 1937 and Jewish neighbors she had seen mistreated, and had tried to save. Katharina Schüddekopf went from translating documents for the Nazis to working against them, once she understood what their politics meant. Wilhelm Geyer opposed National Socialism from the beginning, knowing that if the Nazis succeeded, Germans would lose the right to think out loud.
     These friends - students and mentors alike - may have reached their conclusions in different ways. They could not agree on most political or religious matters, and their debates were frequently impassioned, loud, and messy. But on the matter of freedom, they sang in perfect unison.
     That was then, and this is now. Since 1945, the story of the White Rose has been commandeered by four distinct groups, each with private agendas. None of these factions has demonstrated the least interest in understanding the friends of the White Rose - who they were, what they did, how they thought, why they reached their specific conclusions and were willing to sacrifice everything for their convictions.
     The first circle to co-opt the White Rose consisted primarily of those who had been Nazis during the war, and found it convenient to rewrite personal histories to include themselves in anti-Nazi resistance. Their motivation was self-preservation in the face of denazification hearings and the postwar necessity of distancing oneself from Nazi ideology in order to secure jobs in government and education.
     This group included (but was hardly limited to) Inge Scholl and her father Robert Scholl, Franz Josef Müller, and Jürgen Wittenstein. Inge even found ways to turn her siblings' death into a cash cow, siphoning off McCloy funds and collecting donations from wealthy Americans willing to believe her version of events. The comment attributed to her and her husband Otl Aicher - It's been good for us and quite lucky that Hans and Sophie Scholl died - by Barbara Schüler correctly defines the depths this group has plumbed.
     Through the years, friends and readers have sent me newspaper clippings or links to blogs where others have similarly claimed to have been part of White Rose resistance. Some border on the absurd, while others undoubtedly identify men and women with guilty consciences who are grasping at straws when dealing with grandchildren asking questions.
     This is not to say that we have been able to find every single person who was in fact associated with White Rose resistance in the 1940s. There are gaps, there are people whose names we do not know. But so far, these belated "I was in the White Rose" stories do not match up with those individuals, nor have those telling their stories offered credible evidence to support their assertions.
     The second circle consists of those who wish to use White Rose resistance for political purposes. When Germany was still split between East and West, this phenomenon was most noticeable. In the DDR, writers emphasized the strong socialist leanings of the friends. In the West, their democratic tendencies were highlighted.
     Although the DDR-BRD division no longer directly skews the historical record, politics unfortunately plays too great a role in analysis of White Rose activities. Instead of accepting the fact that these students and their older friends and mentors came at their dissenting views from various and often conflicting backgrounds, too many writers try to "smush" text into a preformed mold. In so doing, these dishonest scribes distort "White Rose" beyond belief.
     When writing their story, one may not leave out the Communist Richard Scheringer of Ulm, who greatly influenced Werner and Sophie Scholl. (In February 1943, Elisabeth Scholl was employed by the Scheringer family, and Fritz Hartnagel was forbidden from associating with her because she was believed to be Communist as well.)
     One should not forget either that Christoph Probst toyed with the idea of a return to the monarchy patterned after the old Austrian empire as his solution to National Socialism. Or that Willi Graf once championed Germany's need of an authoritarian regime, believing that Germans were incapable of thinking for themselves; only the Führer should not be allowed to make laws or otherwise become a despot.
     Or that Kurt Huber advocated a federalist (not a democratic) State, and didn't mind National Socialist principles all that much. Or that Falk Harnack saw nothing wrong with a planned economy, that is Communism, but without the criminal behavior of the Soviet state. Or that Harald Dohrn would have liked Germany to become an outright theocracy.
     All of this documents who they were, not who we want them to have been. They were not Americans, no matter how much we like their story.
     We cannot divorce them from their era and homeland. The students had known only the failure of the Weimar Republic and National Socialism. The older friends and mentors had lived through hyperinflation and the Great Depression as young adults. That impacted their thinking, and we may not skip over it simply because it's harder for us to comprehend.
     The third circle started showing up around 2000 after Sophie Scholl topped Brigitte magazine's list as the greatest woman of the twentieth century, and was made up of those who threw together horrible books or movies simply to cash in on Sophie Scholl's immense popularity.
     These writers, documentarians, and filmmakers have shown no compunction at all about getting the White Rose story right. They are in it for the short term, and as soon as the next big thing comes along, they will move along. They're motivated solely by money, not by historical accuracy.
     Finally, the fourth circle has been around for several decades, but has mushroomed in recent years. These religious writers are guilty of the most pernicious and unethical of all distortions of the White Rose story. They are found in almost every Christian denomination and despite disparate creeds, have one thing in common: They remake White Rose in the image of their personal belief system.
     Earlier this month, the Russian Orthodox Church beatified Alexander Schmorell, turning his July 1943 execution into martyrdom on behalf of their church. Their act completely rewrites Alex Schmorell's motivation, if not the very essence of his life.
     Was he a person of faith? Indeed. Did he prefer his religion over the Catholic and Lutheran churches of Germany? No doubt. But his faith was not impetus for his action. Germany's invasion of Russia, combined with crimes against humanity he saw or heard about, moved Alexander Schmorell to passive resistance against the National Socialist regime.
     His beatification rewrites a critical aspect of his personality, of that deep sense of right and wrong that characterizes ethical human beings of any religion (and is absent in unethical human beings of any religion). In one stroke, the Russian Orthodox Church has undone all the good scholarship of Dr. Igor Khramov, Alexander Schmorell's biographer in his hometown of Orenburg, Russia.
     Similarly, there are some in Germany's Catholic Church who would convert the White Rose to Catholic resistance to the Nazi regime and in so doing, would put them on the same path to beatification. Some of these men (so far, I have seen only one woman involved in this matter) revise the facts to make Hans and Sophie Scholl appear Catholic, when those who knew them well insist they were Lutheran through and through.
     Their contemporaries who paint them as irreligious Lutherans include Otl Aicher, who contradicted his wife's (Inge Scholl) assertions that they were on the verge of converting by pointing to a debate he had with Sophie Scholl, where she flummoxed his attempts to convince her of the existence of purgatory.
     Wilhelm Geyer, who spent a great deal of time with the White Rose friends in January and February 1943, noted that although it was clear that Inge Scholl considered converting to Catholicism, Hans and Sophie Scholl did not, and that in the debates in the studio, they successfully refuted much of Harald Dohrn's "more papal than the pope himself" arguments.
     Even the Gestapo profiler Dr. Richard Harder noted that the author of the first four leaflets (especially the ones written solely by Hans Scholl) was Lutheran with interdenominational tendencies, or ecumenical Protestantism. Definitely not Catholic, despite the references to the works of Theodor Haecker.
     These who would see them become Catholic saints mangle their story, pushing and shoving till they force the friends into a mold that destroys the beauty of their noble actions. This deceit dishonors Traute Lafrenz, the anthroposophist; Eugen Grimminger, the non-violent Buddhist; Christoph Probst, who introduced the rest of them to the magnificence of Eastern mystics and writers like Lao-Tse; and Manfred Eickemeyer, a nominal Catholic who had little use for religion.
     Most especially, it dishonors the memory of Catholics who stood up not only to the Nazis, but to priests in their faith who took on the Catholic hierarchy, rejecting not only the tenets of National Socialism but also those who - in the words of Willi Graf's friend and mentor Johannes Maassen - believed that the church had sold its soul for a loaf of bread.
     As bad as the distortion is by extremist Russian Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran writers, it's even more unforgivable when Americans "adopt" White Rose as emblematic of their creed or religion. Yes, it's well and good for Pentecostals and other very-American religions to hold up White Rose resistance as praiseworthy; but it's quite another thing when pastors manipulate their courage to support a particular theological position.

     Does the above "defense of the White Rose" mean that people with strong political or religious views should never write about the White Rose? Or that the friends should not be used as an example in Catholic, Lutheran, Pentecostal classrooms? Or that authors should not delve into socialistic or democratic aspects of White Rose beliefs?
     The answer to those questions is uniformly and resoundingly No!
     We need Catholics, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Russian Orthodox, Buddhists, socialists, democrats, republicans, federalists, secular humanists who are willing to dig deep into the historical record.
     Only a Russian Orthodox writer can "emotionally" explain what it meant for Alex Schmorell to be Russian Orthodox in a Catholic city that thought Russians were subhuman. Only someone who is familiar with the works of Gandhi and Alexandra David-Néel can tell us how Eugen Grimminger saw White Rose resistance.
     To understand Traute Lafrenz's motivation, we need writers who "get" Rudolf Steiner and his Philosophy of Freedom. Willi Graf becomes accessible only if we have a guide who knows Karl Jaspers, Michael Schmaus, and Renouveau Catholique. Wilhelm Geyer's long and strong resistance will make more sense if a fellow Catholic will examine his life and his goal of living 'not as a fanatical, but as a good Catholic'.
     Falk Harnack's arguments during their February 1943 debate and Sophie Scholl's leftist leanings will be more meaningful if a Communist scholar will decloak and explain that political system's impact on White Rose thought, without wrapping the whole group in the hammer and sickle.
     In other words, we need writers of every religious creed and political persuasion who are willing to simultaneously set aside religious and political agendas, while using in-depth knowledge of that creed or political system to clarify otherwise obscure points. Sometimes it's those obscure points that can bring us the deepest insights.
     Above all, we need a commitment to the truth. Inge Scholl wrote that Hans had told her: But if after the war, no one took care to record history correctly, he would change horses in mid-stream [umsatteln] and see to the correction of the historical record … so that afterwards, the Communists won't be the [only] ones who can hold their heads high and gain power over Christians.
     Here's to fresh horses. Long live freedom!


  1. "we need writers who 'get' Rudolf Steiner and his Philosophy of Freedom" I agree wholeheartedly. What can help is a new online “Philosophy Of Freedom Study Course” available at Its free and includes videos, illustrations, observation exercises and diagrams to help study the book. In this book Rudolf Steiner gives his principles of free thinking and morality.

  2. I struggle to understand how anyone can make such confident judgments about another person's motivations, which are often hidden even from that person. Why separate Alexander Schmorell's faith from his ethical judgments? This sounds suspiciously like what you call others to avoid, namely, imposing one's own view of things onto another person. Americans in particular like to assume that "religion" is easily separable from more public aspects of our lives, such as "ethics." This is a very 18th-century view, and one that is foreign to historic Christianity. Is it really possible for a religious believer to see anything at all apart from their faith? If faith is something extrinsic to one's life, then I suppose the answer is yes. This is how many people today, including those who do not practice a religious faith, see things. But this is to assume a view of Christianity that is actually opposed to that faith; faith is not something added to one's life, but the very means through which we see, interpret, and live our lives. Even a cursory knowledge of the great writers of the Christian tradition would prevent someone from reducing faith to something like "belief," which can be neatly divorced from the rest of one's life and judgment. Then it's possible to take something we may think is more important, such as "ethics," and privilege that. Perhaps the Russian Orthodox Church wasn't as foolish, or devious, as you make it seem.

    1. Anthony, while I totally respect your right to your opinion, I challenge you to find anything that Alexander Schmorell himself wrote that would support that opinion. Or even things that contemporaries of his wrote or said about him.

      First-hand accounts (his letters, his Gestapo interrogation transcripts, his friends' words) depict a young man whose Russianness was the single most important element of his life. That informed everything else about Alexander Schmorell. It influenced his dress, the literature he read, the people he associated with. He deemed himself Russian Orthodox not because he was particularly religious (he was *not* religious), but because he was Russian.

      To claim otherwise is to rewrite history.

      And we have that from the most authentic source available: His half-brother, Erich Schmorell.