“How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”
Those were the courageous and inspiring last words of Sophie Scholl, an idealistic twenty-one-year-old former kindergarten teacher who was executed by guillotine on February 22, 1943 for her part in distributing anti-Nazi leaflets at a Munich university. Her twenty-four-year-old brother Hans, a medic recently returned from the Russian front—who along with Sophie and a small circle of other young German intellectuals styled themselves members of the “White Rose” resistance—met the same fate that day. His final words were more succinct, perhaps less poetic than hers, but no less bold. Before he died, Hans said simply: “Long live freedom!”
It is often painful to read the contents of At the Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl, edited by Inge Jens, because we know how the story ends. But their twin stories are no less beautiful to experience through this collection of letters and random diary entries that cover several years leading up to their untimely deaths. While there are sometimes coded remarks, especially in the later period, that more starkly acknowledge their moral revulsion to pain, death, the war, and the atrocities committed in the name of the Nazi regime that filter back to them—as well as their shared responsibility to somehow counter that panoply of wickedness—much of the collection barely references politics or the greater issues and events of the time. Instead, there is an emphasis upon a shared love of art, literature and music, nature and the outdoors, intellectual musings on philosophy, and an increasingly fervent embrace of religious faith to counter the problem of evil in the world.
The Scholl family—not only Hans and Sophie, but another brother and two sisters—were cultured, well-educated, well-read, raised in a climate loyal to liberal democracy, nurtured by their father, a former major, who himself was jailed for referring to Hitler as “a scourge of God.” Hans and Sophie wrote in an era when literate people tended to write much more frequently and more copiously than is common in a twenty-first century replete with email and messaging. Letters were everything. Most of this volume contains the letters that Hans and Sophie wrote to others; we are not privy here to those received in return. They each wrote to their parents and their siblings. Hans wrote to his girlfriend Rose Nagle, and to friends back home. Sophie wrote to her oldest friend, Lisa, as well as, most poignantly, to her boyfriend Fritz Hartnagel, a soldier on the Russian front who became disillusioned by the Nazi atrocities he witnessed and fell more deeply under the spell of Sophie’s commitment to a moral center, despite the barbarity that colored their world.
Hans, a handsome iconoclast scolded by officers for wearing his hair longer than customary, plainly chafed at the kind of “order” stereotypical to German youth in the Hitler era. It is clear that his sense of duty was far less to the Fuhrer than to the mangled wounded and frostbitten unfortunates—German and Russian—that fell under his care. Likewise, Sophie—mandated for a time to perform factory service behind the lines—had far more compassion for the Russian women compelled to work at her side, and for faraway victims of Nazi aggression, than loyalty to the war effort. The quality of their collective prose is nothing less than superlative. Hans’s words are striking and impressive, anchored to an intellectual tradition, firm in conviction, articulate in expression. Yet it is Sophie, wittier than Hans, plainer in appearance, highly artistic, deeply spiritual, and consumed by the beauty of nature despite the ugliness that intrudes upon her, who truly captivates the reader. As Richard Gilman observes in the Preface: “Although one’s admiration for Hans never falters, it’s Sophie who breaks your heart.” [p.xi]
There is much more that could be said about Hans and Sophie, but the primary duty of the reviewer should be to let their own voices be heard. Here’s one from Hans:
I’m not dejected and distracted at heart, truly not. On the contrary, I can see positive values in the midst of a world of brutal negation … As for a world of illusion, I don’t give a damn for it. None of this implies a morose attitude toward others. Far from it. I try to see them as they are and make an equable impression on them, and I don’t shrink from the vilest stench or the muddiest color. They exist. Shadows exist for the sake of light, but light takes precedence. [Hans, in a letter to Rose Nagle, August 12, 1941, p.169]
And one from Sophie:
Now I’m delighting once more in the last rays of the sun and marveling at the incredible beauty of all that wasn’t created by man: the red dahlias beside the white garden gate, the tall, solemn fir trees, the tremulous, gold-draped birches whose gleaming trunks stand out against all the green and russet foliage, and the golden sunshine that intensifies the colors of each individual object, unlike the blazing summer sun, which overpowers anything else that tries to stir. It’s all so wonderfully beautiful here that I have no idea what kind of emotion my speechless heart should develop for it, because it’s too immature to take pure pleasure in it. It merely marvels and contents itself with wonder and enchantment. Isn’t it mysterious—and frightening, too, when one doesn’t know the reason—that everything should be so beautiful in spite of the terrible things that are happening? My sheer delight in all things beautiful has been invaded by … an inkling of the creator … That’s why man alone can be ugly, because he has the free will to disassociate himself from this song of praise. Nowadays one is often tempted to believe that he’ll drown the song with gunfire and curses and blasphemy. But it dawned on me last spring that he can’t, and I’ll try to take the winning side. [Sophie, in a letter to her friend Lisa, October 10, 1942, p.275-76]
Another from Hans:
The mail I get here is very irregular. I really sympathize with the Gestapo, having to decipher all those different handwritings, some of which are highly illegible, but that’s what they’re paid to do, and duty is duty, gentlemen, isn’t it! … Another batch [of casualties] arrived here yesterday from Russia … The demands on us differ from those involved in opening other people’s letters and prying around in them. I wonder if those gentlemen would be as courageous if they had to slit open dressings sodden with pus and stinking to high heaven? It might upset them, I fear. [Hans, in a letter to his parents, March 18, 1942, p.217]
And a final one from Sophie:
I’ve never, ever believed that anyone thinks it is good for a weak country to be attacked by a powerful army. Even the worst of men … won’t regard that as a good thing. The supremacy of brute force always implies that the spirit has been destroyed or at least banished from view … Oh, those lazy thinkers with their sloppy notions of life and death! Only life engenders life, or have they seen a dead woman give birth to a child? Or what about a stone, which can’t be denied a semblance of life, since it exists and has a fate of its own—have they ever seen one reproduce itself? They’ve never reflected on the absurdity of the proposition that only death engenders life, and their urge for self-preservation will lead to their self-destruction. [Sophie, in a letter to Fritz Hartnagel, October 28, 1942, p.278]
The writing quality reflected in these excerpts is typical of much of the collection. Knowing their fates, I more than once found tears in my eyes as I turned the pages, especially when I was touched by poor, doomed Sophie’s irrepressible optimism. Full disclosure: I inadvertently obtained At the Heart of the White Rose through an early reviewer’s program because I carelessly skimmed the description. I expected to receive a history of the “White Rose” movement, rather than some three hundred pages of primary sources. Still, bound to a strong obligation to read and review books that come to me via this program, I persevered. The hours I spent alone with Hans and Sophie made me so very grateful that I did.
While the German resistance movement was tiny, and the efforts of the Scholls and the White Rose hardly resulted in a single Nazi military setback, their struggle manifested an outsize moral victory. So substantial, in fact, that the final White Rose leaflet was smuggled out and millions of copies of it were dropped by Allied planes over Germany in July 1943, just months after Hans and Sophie went to the guillotine. Hans and Sophie remain martyrs to a universal cause that still resonates today, particularly in these dark times in the United States and across the globe, where the forces of tyranny seem to have reassembled once more with a chilling vigor.
Hans and Sophie were betrayed while distributing White Rose leaflets by a janitor at the university, an act that sent them to their deaths. I know nothing of this janitor in real life, but I can’t help imagining him much like some miserable, disaffected middle-aged fellow standing in the back of a populist rally here, wearing a red “Make America Great Again” cap, casting hatred and suspicion at those who are not like him, whom he holds responsible for his every failure. One passage from the leaflet that cost Hans and Sophie their lives proclaimed the critical importance of the principles of “Freedom of speech, freedom of religion and protection of the individual citizen from the arbitrary action of criminal dictator-states.” In honor of Hans and Sophie Scholl, let’s make certain their sacrifice and those principles are never forgotten. Especially today.