On a bike ride through Munich, my group stopped in a University of Munich courtyard. There, looking like some dropped or scattered papers, we found the White Rose Memorial embedded in the stones. The guide spoke to us about Sophie Scholl and the White Rose group. We learned about the pamphlets that young Sophie threw, and how she and her brother Hans were executed for treason. But that just scratched the surface of the story. Who was Sophie Scholl? What did the White Rose Resistance group do? Was she really killed for throwing pamphlets? Naturally, the story of Sophie Scholl goes deeper than a few pamphlets, and takes some unexpected turns.
Who was Sophie Scholl
Sophie Scholl, the fourth of 6 children, spent the first 10 years of her life in Forchtenberg, Baden-Wurttemberg, where her father was the Mayor. At age 10, the extraordinarily close family moved to Ulm when Robert Scholl lost his job as mayor because of his liberal views. The family enjoyed a comfortable upper-middle class lifestyle, and Sophie’s childhood was happy. When the NAZI party came to power in 1933, Sophie and her brothers, Hans and Werner, believed that the promises made by the party were in line with their ideals. She joined the Bund Deutscher Mädel or BDM (League of German Girls), and a few other groups that focussed on nature, arts, and music. According to historian Richard Hansen, “The Scholl children, all five of them – Inge, Hans, Elisabeth, Sophie, and Werner – needed no government propaganda to urge them to love their country. Like most children everywhere, they were patriotic by instinct, and the country they loved was their immediate surroundings.” (Note- the 6th child, Thilde, died at age one)
Sophie’s father, an avowed pacifist, was horrified that his children believed the Nazi propaganda. But, unlike most German fathers of the time, Robert Scholl’s liberal nature meant he allowed the children to argue and speak their mind.
In 1936, all extracurricular groups except the Nazi sanctioned organizations were banned. Hans, his sisters, and a few friends formed their own club, based on camping, hiking, reciting German poetry, and singing old songs. He, Sophie, and their sister Inge were arrested for participating in this unsanctioned group. The Gestapo searched the Scholl house and confiscated journals and folk song lyrics. Because of her young age, 16, Sophie was released the same day, her siblings were released after a week. Doubt began to creep into Sophie’s mind.
When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, her brother Werner, and Sophie’s boyfriend Franz were conscripted and sent to the Eastern Front.
Although she apprenticed as a Kindergarten Teacher, Sophie really wished to study biology and philosophy. She hoped that the apprenticeship would mean an exemption from Reichsarbeitsdienst, but unfortunately, the only way for her to attend University, was to trade six months of her life to the RAD, the State Labor Force. For Sophie, these six months of military life and indoctrination bored and angered her. Wishing for an “autonomous life” led to deeper disenchantment with the regime. Finally, in 1942, Sophie finished with her duties and moved to Munich to attend the University of Munich, where her brother Hans already studied medicine.
Hans Scholl and the White Rose Resistance
“Someone had to make a start. What we said and wrote are what many people are thinking. They just don’t dare to say it out loud“- Sophie Scholl
Because of his medical studies, Hans Scholl spent six months on the front lines as a medic in France. Back at school he worked with wounded soldiers, which deepened his feelings of futility about the War. He and a group of other like-minded medical students felt that “In the name of civic and Christian courage something must be done”. His White Rose group, included Hans, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, and Jugen Wittenstein. Kurt Huber, a philosophy teacher at the University known to students for his carefully veiled lectures against the regime joined them later.
The group decided to publish pamphlets or leaflets to get their words out. The first of the “Flyers from the White Rose” went out in June of 1942, and called for the restoration of democracy and social justice. Because of shortages and rationing, the group purchased paper and stamps from different shops around the city. Copies were made on a second hand mimeograph machine. In order to stay anonymous, they used friends to mail the pamphlets from cities around Germany. Despite their careful planning, the Gestapo zeroed in on the university fairly quickly.
There are a few different stories about how Sophie joined the group. Some say she was part of it from the beginning, and even asked her boyfriend Franz for a loan to buy a printing press… other sources claim she found a pamphlet and matching notes in Han’s apartment. Regardless of how she joined, Sophie, being a girl, made a valuable asset. The SS seldom stopped young women for long. Sophie felt strongly for the White Rose group and insisted on participating.
The second pamphlet in late June focussed on the murder of 300,000 German Jews. Their appeal hoped Germans would recognize the government’s crime against humanity. Shortly thereafter they published pamphlet number three. This one hoped to awaken the lower classes against the government to help bring down the regime. The White Rose even advocated sabotage.
At this point, the White Rose was still mostly mailing pamphlets to addresses they pulled out of the phone book. Members would make trips out of town by train to send suitcases full of their papers from different cities to mix things up despite the constant threat of being stopped by the Gestapo.
Pamphlet Four detailed the tragedy of Operation Barbarossa on the Eastern Front. Thousands of young German soldiers died daily in this all out failed assault on the Soviet Union. German military commanders vastly underestimated the sheer numbers of the Russian Army. “Neither Hitler nor Goebbels can have counted the dead. In Russia thousands are lost daily. It is the time of the harvest, and the reaper cuts into the ripe grain with wide strokes. Mourning takes up her abode in the country cottages, and there is no one to dry the tears of the mothers. Yet Hitler feeds with lies those people whose most precious belongings he has stolen and whom he has driven to a meaningless death.”
At the end of July, all medical students, including Hans, Christoph, Willi, and Alexander, found themselves conscripted to act as medics on the Eastern Front. The months on the front lines only increased their disenchantment with Hitler’s government, and their disgust with the German Army grew. The young men were now convinced that the Germans could not win the war. They arrived home in November ready to ramp up the movement.
The Final Leaflets
“We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!” White Rose Leaflet Four
To the White Rose, the failure on the Eastern front meant that the Nazi government was crumbling, and they just needed to give it a push. By January 1943, they had their fifth pamphlet ready. Together Hans and Sophie wrote their most dangerous words, advocating for and end to Imperialist government, and demanding freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and protection from arbitrary violence at the hands of the government. 10,000 copies were printed up and distributed. In addition, members of the White Rose snuck out at night to paint the words “freedom” in red on the walls of government buildings. This recklessness put them square into the Gestapo’s attentions, and a serious investigation was launched.
On February 18, the White Rose left piles of their 6th leaflet in the Halls of their University while students were in class. Sophie noticed that some leaflets were still in the leather case used to carry them in to school, so she grabbed the stack and threw it over the railing to the hall below. A Janitor, loyal to the Nazi party, saw her do it, and reported her. Sophie, Hans and Christoph were arrested, Han had the rough draft of the seventh leaflet in his briefcase.
Trial and Execution
Sophie and the men withstood 17 hours of interrogation, but they refused to give up the names of the other White Rose members. The trial took place immediately, with the prosecution insisting that the White Rose undermined Germany’s ability to win the war. The defendants were not allowed to speak during the trial in their own defense, although at one point Sophie shouted out. “I am now, as before, of the opinion that I did the best I could do for my nation. I therefore do not regret my conduct and will bear the consequences of my actions”
The verdict- Guilty
On February 22, 1943, the jury reached a guilty verdict, and Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl and Christoph Probst were executed by guillotine at the Stadelheim Prison. They are buried nearby in the Perlacher Friedhof.
Hans’s last words were “Long Live Freedom!”
Even during the sham of a trial, they kept silent about the other members of White Rose. Still, they were unable to save their friends, and there were two more White Rose Trials for core and fringe members of the organization. Several, like Alexander Schmorell, were put to death, others given long term prison sentences.
After the execution of Sophie and Hans, their father, mother and sisters, Inge and Elisabeth, were arrested. The Gestapo kept the women for a month before releasing them. Robert Scholl got a two year sentence. Even after the release, the family was shunned by their neighbors. Their brother Werner died on the Eastern Front. Inge and her husband founded the Ulm School of Design, and later she wrote a book about the White Rose, and became heavily involved in the Peace Movement. Elisabeth, who died in February 2020, married Fritz Hartnagel (Sophie’s boyfriend) shortly after the war, and ended up being the last surviving member of the family. Inside Germany, the execution of the White Rose members barely made notice in the newspapers. Overseas, their story Thomas Mann read their 6th Leaflet over the air on BBC Radio… and copies of the leaflet were dropped by the British airforce over Germany.
It’s probably an easy 20 minute walk from the White Rose Memorial at the University of Munich to the Führerbau near the Kaiserhof (the Führer’s building. During the Nazi times, it served as a representative building for Adolf Hitler. Today that building houses the Hochschule für Musik und Theater). Sophie Scholl and the White Rose essentially worked in the backyard of the National Socialists. Since the end of the War, the White Rose movement is recognized worldwide as symbol for resistance, the names of the Scholls appear on roads and buildings around the world (especially Schools). And in Bavaria, the Geschwister-Scholl Pries (Scholl Sibling Prize) annually awards a book that “shows intellectual independence and supports civil freedom, moral, intellectual and aesthetic courage and that gives an important impulse to the present awareness of responsibility“. Student movements in America and around the world still follow the White Rose tactics and principles to speak truth to power. Although her story begins with a belief in the system, Sophie Scholl reminds us all to follow your moral code, your conscience, and to stand up and fight for what is right.
May 9, 2021, would have been Sophie’s 100th Birthday.
“Die Sonne scheint noch” (“The sun still shines”) – the last words of Sophie Scholl
For Further Reading…or viewing
The White Rose: Munich, 1942–1943At the Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie SchollPamphlets: Leaflets of the resistance movement in GermanyFreiheit!: The White Rose Graphic Novel