In the winter of 1943, three German university students stood in the Palace of Justice in Munich awaiting certain death. Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl, and Christopher Probst were founding members of an anti-Nazi group called The White Rose. Composed of a handful of students and a professor at the University of Munich, the group disseminated six pamphlets calling for the German people to passively resist Nazi rule. From the summer of 1942 to the winter of 1943, they printed thousands of these pamphlets and spread them throughout Germany. Though the origin of the name The White Rose remains unknown, the image remains a symbol of resistance and the desire for liberty during one of the most violent regimes in human history.
The story of the Scholl siblings is inscribed upon the cultural consciousness of Germany. After the fall of the Nazi regime, many statues and monuments were erected and schools named in their honor. Defying Hitler: The White Rose Pamphlets by Alexandra Lloyd, a researcher in German studies at Oxford, is an attempt to convey this story to an even larger audience. This slim volume contains fresh translations of the White Rose pamphlets accompanied by extensive contextualizing information.
Defying Hitler is broken up into three main sections and also includes a helpful timeline of events and extensive notes and a bibliography. The first part introduces the White Rose movement: what it was, how it was formed, and in what historical context. By explaining the conditions of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, the author reveals how the Scholl siblings went from being members of the Hitler Youth to risking their lives to fight against National Socialism. Lloyd also introduces the group’s pamphlets and examines the numerous philosophical and historical references found in each. The pamphlets vehemently denounce the Nazi actions against the Jews, and the reader of Defying Hitler learns that Hans Scholl, Alexander Schmorell, and Willi Graf, founding members of The White Rose, actually witnessed parts of the Holocaust on their military tour. The second section of the book contains biographical sketches of the seven key figures who made up the movement. Here, the author includes wonderfully chosen excerpts from their personal letters to convey some sense of who these people were and how they reacted to the trying time in which they lived.
The pamphlets themselves, provided here in translation, are notably brief, only comprising the last twenty pages of an already short book. In German, they are called Flugblätter, literally “flying sheets of paper.” The first four pamphlets were produced over the course of sixteen days, and the sense of urgency is palpable in each of the texts. Each pamphlet ends with some variation on the line, “please duplicate this and redistribute!”
In reading the pamphlets, it is immediately evident how erudite the authors were, and it is equally clear that they were passionately patriotic. They used an approach equal parts rational examination and emotional attack, logos and pathos, to draw their fellow Germans out of fear and apathy and towards resistance. The pamphlets invoke the names of Germany’s greatest writers, such as Goethe and Schiller, as well as philosophers as varied as Aristotle and Lao Tzu. They use these thinkers not only to evoke the flories of Germany’s past but also to create a prophetic picture of how the world would view Germany after it lost the war. To conclude the first pamphlet, Scholl uses the words of Goethe from one of his more obscure works, Epimenides Awakes (1815): “And now I’ll meet my brave heart/ Who gather in the midst of night/ To share a silence, keep awake/ They stutter, stammer, on and on/ That fair enchanting word: Freedom.” The poem was originally a musical drama written to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, and here, too, it is used again as a call to fight against unjust rule. The poetry gives a sense of moral purpose to the idea of resistance.
The next two are more political, drawing on various philosophers to denounce the authoritative practices of the Nazis. The third pamphlet concludes with a selection from Aristotle’s Politics about the nature of tyranny: it reads, “A further essential aspect (of tyranny) is seeking to ensure that nothing any subject says or does remains hidden . . . and moreover to fill the whole world with hatred and turn friend against friend.” These words were prophetic, as the group was soon hounded by Gestapo surveillance. The fourth pamphlet, the last one in the main series, is the ultimate denunciation. It uses the strongest language of all and includes excerpts from Ecclesiastes and Novalis to show that the Nazis and their supporters were condemned by God. It closes with, “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will never leave you in peace.” The last two pamphlets show an increasing sense of urgency. They do away with literature and philosophy and directly blame Hitler for the incredible devastation the war had brought to bear on Germany. A seventh pamphlet was written but never distributed.
The day before Sophie Scholl’s execution by guillotine, she was questioned by the Gestapo. She attested, “I remain of the opinion that I did the best I could for my people. I therefore have no regrets about my conduct.” The last word found written in her jail cell was Freiheit, “Freedom.” A similar sentiment was expressed by the other members of the group. In their last speeches and letters written from prison, they all stood by the cause for which they had given their lives. Until the end, The White Rose showed an indomitable spirit. Part history, part biographical study, Defying Hitler conveys the triumphs of a group that should never be forgotten.