Culture

Remembering the "White Rose"

60 years ago, on Feb. 22, 1943, three students of the Munich-based resistance group “White Rose” were executed for inciting young people to rise against Hitler -- a fact that many young Germans today are unaware of.

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Against Hitler -- Hans Scholl (right), Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst, key members of the resistance group "White Rose"

On a clear February day in 1943, Hans and Sophie Scholl entered the deserted atrium of the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich bearing a suitcase full of leaflets containing a passionate appeal to Germans to engage in "passive resistance" against Hitler and the Third Reich.

They worked swiftly, dropping stacks of the explosive leaflets throughout the corridors, just minutes before the atrium would be flooded with students leaving lectures and classes. Before hurrying outside to safety, the brother and sister, on a last-minute urge, decided to get rid of the remaining few documents in the suitcase.

22-year-old biology and philosophy student Sophie Scholl hurriedly climbed the grand marble staircase to the upper level of the hall and in a rush of emotion, flung the last remaining leaflets high in the air. The dozens of pamphlets glided down to the feet of scores of stunned students exiting lecture halls, among them university janitor and Nazi Party member, Jakob Schmidt.

Schmidt spotted Sophie and Hans with the leaflets -- within minutes the doors were locked, the police called and Hans and Sophie were hustled into Gestapo custody. Four days later they went on trial for treason along with another accomplice, 24-year-old Christoph Probst, and were executed by the Gestapo within hours on the same day.

Inciting resistance through bold actions

Today, memories of the "White Rose" student group live on through numerous memorials, films and books on the story of the courageous members who courted certain death as they worked night and day, cranking a hand-operated duplicating machine to create laboriously-penned leaflets urging ordinary Germans to resist Hitler and his anti-Semitic policies.

The leaflets were stuffed into envelopes, stamped and mailed from various major cities in southern Germany to students, academics, scholars and café owners, their addresses randomly chosen from telephone books. Some of them were even anonymously distributed in the streets of Munich and at house doors.

"Hitler cannot win the war, he can only prolong it. The guilt of his helpers has forever crossed every possible boundary. That’s why you should separate yourself from the Nazis! Show through your actions that you think otherwise!," one of the pamphlets said. In an even bolder move, three members of the "White Rose" also painted slogans on the sides of houses in Ludwigstrasse, one of Munich’s main thoroughfares. They wrote, "Down with Hitler", "Hitler mass murderer", "freedom" and drew crossed-out swastikas.

Two months after the execution of Sophie and Hans Scholl and Christoph Probst, three further members of the "White Rose", among them 49-year-old philosophy professor, Kurt Huber, the editorial brain behind the leaflets, were also sentenced to death and summarily executed.

Low awareness in Germany about "White Rose"

Over the years, the "White Rose" and their brutal silencing by the Gestapo has came to symbolize still relatively unknown German resistance against Hitler, both internationally and within Germany. History lessons at several schools and universities world-wide that deal with the World War and the Holocaust inevitably find mention of the courageous student group that dared to defy Hitler’s rule.

But despite international recognition of the Munich student group and their brave role during Nazi Germany, few Germans between the ages of 15 and 30 today are aware of the group or their significance.

In interviews with DW-RADIO, some young people on the streets of Germany were pretty clueless of what "White Rose" meant. Answers like "White Rose – Jews?.... To be honest with you, I have no idea about them ... ", were common.

Topic of resistance not dealt with thoroughly in Germany

According to one survey, only about every third German in 1991 knew that there were students who had fought Nazi Germany. Resistance expert Wolfgang Benz, Head of the Center for Anti-Semitic Research, says that even today, many German citizens have very vague ideas about resistance against Hitler.

"One knows that there was resistance. For sure, most also know that there wasn’t much of it. And when it comes to the details of how resistance to the regime was actually carried out, that’s when the lack of knowledge becomes apparent," he says.

Matthias Heyl, Head of the Youth Meeting Point in the former concentration camp of Ravensbrück, says that most of these ignorant attitudes also apply to German youngsters.

"We know from our own experience here, that there are certain schools, in which the topic is dealt with in detail and then there are others, where one has to begin really from scratch. It ("White Rose" and resistance groups) is not widespread."

Benz and Heyl explain the lack of knowledge regarding resistance groups by the fact that the Nazi era lies too far back in the past – almost 60 years and the fact that the topic is hardly discussed at the moment in German society. The present generation, according to them, can’t imagine the amount of courage one needed back then during the dictatorial regime to raise a voice of dissent against Hitler.

Matthias Heyl, however, believes that once young people learn about the history of the "White Rose", they can identify with the members of the group even today.

"When one looks at the biographies of Hans and Sophie Scholl and the other members of the "White Rose", one realizes that they were completely normal people who used their ordinary opportunities to do something extraordinary," he says.

Indeed one place in Germany where students look upon the members of the "White Rose" as role models is a high school in the small town of Pulheim near Cologne, named after the brother and sister duo, Hans and Sophie Scholl. For the students here the young resistance fighters of the "White Rose" stand for values that are valid even today: they’re a sign against the war and a symbol of hope.

"They stood up for justice and were caught and killed in the end," says one student.

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