On June 28, 1940, four days after the fall of France, the German Sophie Scholl wrote a letter to her boyfriend Fritz Hartnagel, an officer in the Wehrmacht. Scholl, whose bitter disillusionment with Nazi misrule had hardened into firm opposition to it, expressed her despair at the onward march of Hitler’s forces and his stranglehold on power. “If I didn’t know that I’ll probably outlive many older people,” she wrote, “then I’d be overcome with horror at the spirit that’s dominating history today.”

But Scholl wasn’t outliving older people for long. Less than three years later, her life was tragically, and barbarically, cut short. As a member of the underground resistance movement Die Weiße Rose, she was caught and found guilty of preparing and distributing “seditious pamphlets” containing “attacks on National Socialism and on its cultural-political policies.” The price for high treason was death. At five o’clock in the afternoon on February 22, 1943, just three hours after the end of her show trial, Scholl was guillotined at Stadelheim prison in Munich. She was twenty-one years old.

Despite the odds, Scholl insisted on facing up to a Goliath-type foe.

Had Scholl eluded her murderers, survived the war, and lived on until today, she would have just turned one hundred. But back then the odds were stacked too firmly against her and the other members of the White Rose. The group was predominantly made up of a small band of students who, though wily operators, could only defy for so long the iron fist of the state. Under the watchful Gestapo, resistance was futile. And in the Volksgerichtshof, the so-called People’s Court, presided over by the hysterical, fanatical Roland Freisler, mercy was nonexistent.

Despite the odds, Scholl insisted on facing up to a Goliath-type foe. Allowing bout upon bout of horror and injustice to pass her by unchallenged was simply not an option. Doing nothing was tacitly complying. “I want to share the suffering of these days,” she wrote in her diary. “Sympathy becomes hollow if one feels no pain.” The Nazis ensured she felt enough of that when they finally captured her. They took her life, but her memory has lived on, reminding successive generations of the impact of human bravery and the power of passive protest.

Sophie Scholl was born on May 9, 1921, in Forchtenberg, a town in the north of what is today Baden-Württemberg. She and her four siblings, Inge, Hans, Elisabeth, and Werner, grew up in a liberal Protestant family. Her mother, Magdalena, was a former nurse and church deacon; her father, Robert, was the town mayor. In 1932 he moved his family to Ulm to start a company as a tax and business consultant. There Sophie attended secondary school and, to her father’s dismay, became a member of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the League of German Girls. Hans, her older brother by almost three years, joined the Hitler Youth. Both children climbed the ranks, embracing ideals, enjoying activities, and relishing their contribution to the Fatherland.

Sophie Scholl in 1938. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

But their initial enthusiasm soured, and they came to react against Nazi persecution and indoctrination. They admired “degenerate” art and read and helped circulate forbidden literature. Hans became involved with a banned German youth group until a clampdown led to the Gestapo taking him away and detaining him for three weeks. They also hauled in sixteen-year-old Sophie for interrogation, giving her a first taste of state brutality. She finished high school in March 1940 after passing her Abitur exams, glad to leave behind conformist classmates and lessons infused with National Socialist ideology. “Sometimes school seems like a film to me,” she wrote. “I look on but for all intents and purposes I’m excluded from performing.”

She looked forward to a new start at Munich University studying biology and philosophy. First, though, she trained as a kindergarten teacher in the hope that a posting would be seen as an acceptable substitute for compulsory farm work with the National Labor Service. It wasn’t, and so she was made to endure six months of manual toil and ideological training sessions. After this she received another conscription order, this time from the War Assistance Program, stipulating an additional six months of work as an attendant at a kindergarten attached to an armaments factory in a town near the Swiss border. So began a bleak period of her life, one in which she was ground down both by daily duties and by the knowledge that she was indirectly contributing to the war effort.

Once at university, things looked up. Sophie socialized with Hans, who was studying medicine, and his friends. Through her brother, she also came in contact with the Catholic journalist Carl Muth and the writer and philosopher Theodor Haecker—two men who had fallen foul of the Nazis and who, in private company, stimulated the Scholl siblings with intellectual discussions and inspired them with state-of-the-nation criticism.

Then in June 1942, while in a lecture, Sophie spotted a leaflet under a desk. It was produced by an organization called the White Rose and was an impassioned appeal for passive resistance against a criminal government. The language was flowery: “If everyone waits for someone else to make a start, the messengers of avenging Nemesis will come steadily closer, until even the last victim has been cast senselessly into the maw of the insatiable demon.” The content was padded out with lengthy literary quotes from Goethe and Schiller. The message, however, was clear: it was time for the German public to stand up and take action. The leaflet ended by exhorting the reader to make copies and pass them on.

Sophie discovered that Hans and his friend Alexander Schmorell were behind the leaflet, and that the other core members of the White Rose comprised fellow medical students Christoph Probst and Willi Graf, plus a professor, Kurt Huber. To begin with, Hans denied all involvement to Sophie. When he owned up, he defended the risk he was taking as a calculated one and assured his sister there was no way that the leaflets could be traced back to him. Despite his protestations, Sophie insisted on joining the movement, completing its inner circle. She turned out to be a valuable asset: she acted as treasurer, bought writing materials, prepared, copied, and posted leaflets, and, most dangerous of all, scattered them on solo courier runs.

Three more leaflets were created and distributed over the summer of 1942. Two further leaflets followed in the winter. Each successive leaflet came with a stronger tone and a more urgent plea. In the first leaflet, the Nazis are merely “an irresponsible clique”; by the third one they are constructors of a “dictatorship of evil.” That third leaflet exhorts Germans to become saboteurs, whereas in the sixth and final one, written after Germany’s rout at Stalingrad, they are told to “arise, fight back, and atone, smash our tormentors, and set up a new Europe of the spirit.”

As leaflets began to show up in Frankfurt and Vienna, the Gestapo redoubled their efforts and launched a manhunt to track down and stamp out the perpetrators.

The White Rose expanded, building cells and establishing contacts in other German cities. As leaflets began to show up in Frankfurt and Vienna, the Gestapo redoubled their efforts and launched a manhunt to track down and stamp out the perpetrators. They needn’t have bothered. In the end, it was a humble university caretaker named Jakob Schmid who caught the first two culprits—Sophie and Hans. On February 18, 1943, the pair were depositing copies of the sixth leaflet around their university. Sophie took the last of the batch and threw them over a balustrade from a top floor. Schmid was standing below. As the leaflets fluttered down into the atrium, he pounced. Four days later, the Scholls and Probst were sentenced to death. Schmorell, Graf, and Huber were caught in the next wave of arrests and suffered the same punishment in April.

Sophie displayed fortitude until the bitter end. Under interrogation she didn’t reveal the names of any White Rose members. When her questioner, Robert Mohr, tried to persuade her to recant her misguided beliefs and pledge allegiance to National Socialism in order to save her life, she refused and rejected his warped vision. “I would do it all over again,” she said, “because I’m not wrong. You have the wrong worldview.” In court she interrupted Freisler’s crazed tirade. “Somebody had to make a start,” she shouted out. “What we said and wrote are what many people are thinking. They just don’t dare say it out loud!” She walked calmly to her execution with her back straight and her head held high.

The White Rose was one of many groups who, in the final analysis, only managed to undermine rather than overthrow the Nazi regime. The Red Orchestra and the Kreisau Circle were also mercilessly crushed by the Gestapo. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators paid the ultimate price for their failed assassination of Hitler and attempted coup d’état in July 1944. So too did the husband and wife Otto and Elise Hampel, whose anti-Nazi campaign was a less sophisticated but just as daring version of the White Rose’s. Instead of distributing articulate leaflets throughout Munich, they scattered what were often poorly written postcards across Berlin. Hans Fallada immortalized the couple’s struggle in his novel Every Man Dies Alone. In one of the later scenes, Otto Hampel’s fictional counterpart Otto Quangel is told by a Gestapo inspector that he is no more than a gnat trying to take on an elephant. Quangel’s defiant reply echoes Sophie’s comeback to Mohr: “I had to fight, and given the chance I would do it again.”

Their leaflets, and by extension their message, spread to all corners of occupied Europe.

Sophie and her comrades also had to fight, and while they didn’t defeat their oppressor, they didn’t die in vain. Their leaflets, and by extension their message, spread to all corners of occupied Europe. A copy of the sixth leaflet was smuggled out of Germany by one of the founding members of the Kreisau Circle, Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, and sent on to London. There it was reprinted with the title “The Manifesto of the Students of Munich,” reproduced in the tens of thousands, and dropped over Germany from Allied aircraft. The words of the White Rose gave hope, strength, and encouragement to those whose reserves had run low or run out.

“Such a beautiful sunny day,” Sophie said after learning her fate, “and I have to go . . .” She has, however, left her mark. In Germany, streets, squares, schools, and other institutions are named after her and her brother, as is the country’s most prestigious humanitarian literary prize. The powerful and poignant 2005 film Sophie Scholl—Die letzten Tage (“Sophie Scholl—The Final Days”) reminded German viewers of her heroism and martyrdom. Its Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film enabled Sophie’s story to reach and affect wider audiences.

Clive James once wrote that “part of the sad truth about Sophie Scholl is that nobody remembers a thing she said, and in her last few minutes alive she said nothing at all.” But in the end it was what she did that mattered, not what she said. Her actions spoke far louder than her words. A century on from her birth, they still inspire awe. We should never forget how cruelly her light was extinguished, or how brightly it once burned.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 4, on page 58
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