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Thursday, February 2, 2012

So Madeleine, was it a revolution?

     This time every year, I tend to get swamped with requests for information about White Rose resistance from high school students who are just beginning their National History Day projects. No matter the annual theme, White Rose usually shows up as a favorite topic. It truly is that good a story.
     Too often those requests for information have come in the form of, Hey, I am doing a National History Day project, so tell me everything you know about the White Rose. It can be a little frustrating when students expect to gain knowledge without expending any effort.
     This year, the inquiries have been refreshingly different. Out of six initial emails, three teams have stayed with it, asking intelligent questions that prove they've already done a fair amount of homework and are prepared to do more.
     My first phone interview was with a young woman named Madeleine Poisson. Part interview, part conversation, the exchange encouraged me on several levels. First, Madeleine wasn't looking for easy answers. She was ready to think about complex questions beyond the basic plot-line of White Rose actions. She's thinking about motivation and relevance of specific incidents (trying not to give away her project, since it is a competition).
     Madeleine asked, and followed up on, the notion of White Rose as revolution. This year's National History Day theme is Revolution, Reaction, Reform in History, so it's a fair question, indeed, a question one would expect in the context of NHD. But she pursued it. Madeleine, this is the longer answer I promised during the interview.
     The technical definition of "revolution" is: 2a) A sudden, radical, or complete change; b) A fundamental change in political organization, esp.: the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed. Syn: See Rebellion. (Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary - not the online version!)
     When you then "see Rebellion," the concepts are further explained.
     Rebellion: 1) Opposition to one in authority or dominance; 2a) Open defiance of or resistance to an established government; b) An instance of such defiance or resistance.
     Webster's further differentiates between synonyms. "Revolution, uprising, revolt, insurrection, mutiny: Rebellion implies open, organized, and often armed resistance to authority; revolution applies to a successful rebellion resulting in a change usually in government; uprising implies no more than an effort at rebellion; revolt and insurrection imply an armed uprising that quickly fails or succeeds; mutiny applies to group insubordination especially against maritime authority."
     The origin of the word rebellion (bellum means war) lends credence to the sense that a rebellion must be something active. Real rebels rarely sit in their rooms and play video games, even if they are dissatisfied with a teacher or parent or government policy. While real rebels have to talk to one another to make plans for a rebellion, their conversations will focus on what they can do to remove the person or entity they perceive as the problem.
     Similarly, revolution has two possible etymologies (histories of the word), one meaning to overthrow, the other to roll back or revolve. While not as war-like a word as rebellion, a revolution still makes us think of something that a group of people must do.
     When we look at what the students and mentors of White Rose resistance did, their actions don't appear to come all the way up to the level of revolution or rebellion. They wanted Hitler's regime to be toppled. They wanted National Socialists out of power. They wanted Nazis to be prosecuted as the criminals they were.
     But they stopped short of open defiance. They were not well organized. They did not purchase weapons and ammunition in preparation for an armed assault on the Chancellery in Berlin, or any other active means of deposing the tyrant.
     The White Rose friends seemed to think that if they simply told their fellow Germans what the Nazis were doing, it would be enough. If they wrote about the 300,000 Jews who had been murdered, they reasoned, then surely 60,000,000 Germans would rise up as one and run the bully out of Berlin. They believed that if they appealed to the consciences of friends and neighbors, if they quoted enough Christian Scripture and German philosophy, if they mentioned the facts that pointed to a crushing defeat at the hands of the Allied Powers, then surely a combination of all those things would serve as wake-up call and their nation would be saved.
     It's clear they knew that they had failed. Hans Scholl bartered for a pistol that an army comrade had smuggled in from the Soviet Union. Willi Graf talked about blowing up Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, not with his White Rose friends, but with others willing to take bigger risks. Lilo Berndl nee Ramdohr wrote that Alex planned to leave after the February 18 leaflet campaign, heading for his beloved Russia where he could fight against the Germans. Christoph Probst often spoke of doing something, though the doing remained undefined.
     So Madeleine, was it a revolution? It's not that easy a question.
     We have plenty of examples where strong words (like those penned by White Rose students and Kurt Huber) turned into open rebellion, shaking the foundations of government and toppling dictators. Our national favorite is, of course, the American Revolution. Without the eloquence of Thomas Paine, Samuel Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, the revolution could easily have devolved into a petty dispute over taxes.
     Instead, the American war (there's that active component again) against the British found its basis in uncommon ideas of human dignity, justice, and freedom. What we now take for granted was cutting edge political philosophy of its day. The idea that common people could rule themselves, without God-ordained nobility as patrons and purse-keepers, seemed more far-fetched than the notion that man could build machines that would fly.
     Real revolutions then - at least the kind that do not quickly return power to a different form of the same thing, that is, to a dictator by another name - depend on both elements of rebellion: The writers or "pamphleteers" who define the goals and aims of the revolution, its philosophical bases, and what it seeks to accomplish. And, the larger group that generally uses force to achieve its defined ends.
     At issue with White Rose: The students had the first part of the equation covered. They knew what they wanted to do and why. They wanted Hitler out of power, and their philosophical basis was the dual notion of human dignity and freedom. (They had apparently heard Franklin Roosevelt's "four freedoms" speech from 1941, because they borrowed from his rhetoric.)
     But that work alone would not remove Hitler from power. Just as Thomas Paine needed George Washington's military acumen in the American Revolution, German resistance needed military direction to make those beautiful words a reality. Conversely, the July 20, 1944 resistance had ample military strategy, but lacked a moral and philosophical foundation that maybe, just maybe, could have infused it with greater passion. That's a debate for a whole other day.
     One final item to consider.
     I believe that White Rose students as a group of friends were not 100% prepared to take that next step and organize. They were willing to die - this "critique" does not diminish their courage in the least.
     But as Vincent Probst and Christian Petry argued in 1968, the students were so idealistic that they were ultimately ineffective. That naive belief that if they just said what was going on, everyone would come together and throw the bums out - that belief prevented them from reaching their goal.
     All of the above being said: We must be careful when speaking about revolution and rebellion. When we see injustice in our world (when, not if), we should not go on a murderous rampage to right that wrong. We have a responsibility as civilized human beings to bring about justice by non-violent means, with violence only our last and desperate move.
     We must first exhaust legitimate forms of protest - one-on-one mediation; legal action if the injustice violates the law of the land; legislation to address injustice; non-violent marches and protests; referenda on corrupt officials or politicians who perpetrate injustice; "shaming" criminals by denouncing their handiwork; using tools of journalism, music, theater, film-making to make our case.
     As we do these things, we must define the philosophical and moral basis for our action. Why is this or that unjust? What is keeping that injustice from being righted? Is the injustice perpetrated by society at large or by a small segment of its governing class?
     In other words, revolution should be our last resort, only when everything else has failed.
     So Madeleine, was it a revolution?

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