Moral courage and the story of the White Rose
By David Cooley.
“Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go …”
Those were among the last words spoken — 77 years ago —by a 21-year-old German girl named Sophie Scholl before she was executed by her own government in the dark times of the Nazi regime. Sophie was a loving, spunky, young girl full of life and laughter. So, what was the “crime” that brought about her demise?
Sophie, along with her older brother, Hans, and some of their friends at Munich University, formed a secret group called “The White Rose,” which covertly produced and distributed leaflets all over Germany that exhorted the people of good will to “wake up” and take action against the Nazis, who were committing atrocities in the name of the German people. The crime was “High Treason.” A total of three were killed that day, Feb. 22, 1943 — Sophie, Hans and their friend Christoph Probst, who was married and had three young children — the rest of the group was hunted down and killed not long after that.
The atrocities the White Rose spoke out against were not only the obvious crimes against humanity — which included killing anyone deemed “unworthy of life,” especially Jewish people, “useless eaters,” and enemies of the all-powerful state — but also the offences that the Nazis committed against the God-given freedom of the people. The rule of the day was conform and obey or suffer the dire consequences. I once thought that George Orwell’s novel “1984” was just an incredibly imaginative vision of a dystopian future that, while very frightening, seemed almost impossible. In reality Orwell was just taking notes from recent history. Living in Germany in the 1930s, if you happened to be someone who wasn’t brainwashed or completely apathetic to other people, was a nightmare. One of the hardest parts was not being able to trust anyone, even those you loved. Make a wrong move and they might turn you in to the authorities — and life was over.
The White Rose produced a total of six leaflets that, using beautiful and powerful language, interpreted the sign of the times and spoke the truth about what was happening all around Europe. The Gestapo (Nazi state police) spent the better part of a year trying to figure out where these leaflets were coming from so that they could track down and silence the authors. The first line on Leaflet 1 set the tone for the subsequent writings: “Nothing is more dishonorable for a civilized people than to let itself be ‘governed’ without resistance by an irresponsible clique of rulers devoted to dark instincts.” Another line demonstrated the wisdom the students had beyond their years: “If everyone waits for his neighbor to take the first step, the messengers of the vengeful nemesis will come ever closer, and the very last victim will senselessly be thrown into the throat of the insatiable demon.” The leaflets of the White Rose offered practical advice for how every-day people could defy Hitler and the Nazi Party in small but effective ways. The goal was to bring down the tyrants and restore dignity to Germany.
One of the reasons why I am inspired by this particular group of young adults is that they were compelled to act even when the easiest and safest choice was to not do anything. They ended up losing their lives even though they could have easily survived the war and lived out their dreams. Truthfully, they looked like members of the so-called “Aryan race” and they had a deep love for their country; and yet, they had an unwavering dedication to the simple difference between right and wrong, an unstoppable urge to seek the truth and the steadfast desire to invest the precious little time they were given in things that really mattered.
Among the many things that motivated the siblings that led the peaceful resistance of the White Rose were the Bible and the writings of St. Augustine. These two things formed their worldview more than anything else. In addition, Sophie also studied Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman’s writings on conscience. She and her brother both lived their lives always with an eye on eternity and finding consolation in Christ.
The catalyst of the White Rose movement came about when Sophie and Hans read an anti-Nazi sermon of the Catholic Bishop of Munster, Clemens von Galen in August 1941. In it the bishop openly attacked the Nazi euthanasia program. He wrote: “There are sacred obligations of conscience from which no one has the power to release us and which we must fulfil even if it costs us our lives.” They were thrilled someone was finally speaking out and Hans came up with the idea of finding an old duplicating machine.
But, on Feb. 18, after close to a year of building up a silent rebellion, they were caught distributing fliers by a man at the university and turned in to the authorities. They were interrogated, imprisoned and given a very speedy trial. They stood before their Nazi judge and jurors in the notorious People’s Court and demonstrated great courage. After just a few days they were sentenced to die … immediately, by way of the guillotine.
They kept their faith to the end, even in the face of death. During her trial Sophie said, “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause?” Up to the last minute Sophie was given a chance to recant her stance and keep her life, but she just couldn’t do it. She would stick with her brother and her friends and not compromise what really mattered to her. It cost her her head.
Many times in life we are faced with hard decisions. Being Catholic in this day and age is not easy. The way of life we are called to is not hard because we can’t tell right from wrong; it’s hard because often times making the right choice results in our losing something very precious to us. What we lose might be our popularity, our security, or even our life as we know it. Life is not fair; innocent people sometimes suffer the most. We need to look no further than Christ on the Cross for evidence of that. As Catholics we are always called to stand up for what is right, what is good, and what is holy — no matter what the cost. If those young students, in Germany, in 1943, could exemplify such moral courage in the face of grave evil and danger, can’t we find the courage to speak of and live out our Christian convictions today? While Sophie was willing to die for her worldview, are we able to live for ours?
David Cooley is co-director and office manager of the Office of Catechesis and Evangelization in the Diocese of Covington.