Were it not for that distinctive T-shirt, it’s doubtful I would ever have known about the White Rose Society. But meeting a friend recently, I was attracted by his T-shirt. At the top there was a line of Arabic script, beneath that the phrase, “We Will Not Remain Silent.” I was informed that this motto dated back to 1943, when a small group of students at the University of Munich, sickened by the atrocities of the Nazi’s, especially the persecution of the Jews, formed a resistance movement, which they named “The White Rose Society.” The origin of that name has never been determined, though one historian wrote that the color white represents purity. Perhaps it was that romantic-sounding name that sparked my interest. In any event, I found myself utterly engrossed in the story of these idealistic and heroic young intellectuals.
Spending almost an entire day at the Berkeley Public Library, and assisted by a reference librarian who was equally intrigued by this Society, I unearthed a wealth of materials, the most valuable being the book, “A Noble Treason: The Revolt of Munich Students Against Hitler.” Thanks to the librarian’s computer skills, I was provided with a print-out of all four leaflets written by these students—leaflets calling for German youth to overthrow the regime. "The name of Germany will be dishonored forever lest German youth finally rise to smash [Hitler’s] tormentors and invoke a new, intellectual and spiritual Europe.” These leaflets were not the rabid ravings of wild-eyed radicals, but rather were beautifully-written, scholarly documents with quotations from Aristotle, Friedrich Schiller, Goethe and Lao Tzu. I was especially taken by the opening sentence in the First Leaflet: “Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be ‘governed’ without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain that every honest German is ashamed of his government.” Given today’s shameful Iraq war debacle, might we not substitute “honest American” for “honest German"?
Members of this newly formed resistance movement were Hans Scholl, his sister, Sophie Scholl (perhaps the most dedicated and effective of all), Christoph Probst, Alex Schmorell, and Kurt Huber, a psychology professor and their spiritual guide. This small group assembled several evenings a week, working on their leaflets, which were cranked out, one by one, numbering in the thousands on an ancient mimeograph machine. It was Sophie who purchased the paper and envelopes, going from store to store so as not to arouse suspicion by the large number of supplies.
Circulating the leaflets was a perilous task, but Sophie, carrying them in a valise, wisely mailed them from other cities, such as Stuttgart and Augsburg to divert attention from Munich. Soon the leaflets appeared in cities all over Germany, even Salzburg and Vienna. The Munich Gestapo was understandably in a state of high alarm and it set out to search for the resistance group.
On Feb. 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie entered the University for the last time, carrying a bag crammed full of leaflets. After scattering many of them in the halls and lecture rooms, they climbed to the roof, throwing the remaining leaflets onto the university courtyard. They were observed by a janitor who immediately informed the Gestapo. Reaction was swift. A “People’s Court", in an electrically charged trial, ruled that Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst, in defaming the Fuhrer “are sentenced to death.” That same day, the three marched bravely to the Guillotine. Before being executed, Christopf shouted “We will meet each other in a few minutes.” Hans responded, “Long live freedom.” Sophie followed calmly. So—the death of these three spelled the death of the “White Rose.” Yet their message endured. “We shall not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The white rose will not leave you in peace!”
Absorbed as I’ve been with the dramatic account of these heroic young resistance leaders, I’m left with the disturbing question: Why are today’s university students not rebelling at the Iraq war and other injustices? Except for a tepid demonstration against Boalt Hall Law Professor John Yoo and his defense of torture tactics by the present administration, there have been few protests. Am I foolish to dream of a White Rose Society in this country to restore our honor and atone for the needless loss of American military and innocent Iraq’s?
Dorothy Snodgrass is a Berkeley resident.