My generation has seen that history does repeat itself. We know world wars I and II and we have seen “regime change” in action from country to country, from Libya to Iraq. Those who think that history does not repeat itself might read some of these lines about what once happened and what is happening today.
After World War II the area with the great fountain in front of Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilian University (LMU) on the famed Ludwigsstrasse was named the Geschwister Scholl Platz in honor of the anti-Nazi brother and sister Scholl who led the student White Rose resistance movement in 1943 against the Nazi dictatorship. In the main building of the university—in which I also studied in the 1960s—not many years earlier Sophia and Hans Scholl had distributed anti-regime leaflets and paid for it with their lives.
In the best known film about the Scholl siblings, The Final Days, (2005) Sophie (Sophia) Scholl joins the White Rose student organization run by her brother Hans. They have prepared copies of their sixth anti-Nazi leaflet. Sophie and Hans place stacks of the leaflets outside university lecture rooms. With only minutes left until the period ends, Sophie then goes to the top floor and pushes the remaining copies over the balustrade. As Hans and Sophie are leaving, a janitor who saw Sophie scatter the leaflets holds them until police arrive and arrest them. The siblings are taken to the Munich Stadelheim Prison and interrogated by the Gestapo. Initially Sophie claims she and Hans had nothing to do with the fliers; she just noticed them in the hall and pushed a stack off the railing because it is in her nature to play pranks. She is about to be dismissed when the order arrives to hold her. The investigation has incontrovertible evidence that Sophie and Hans were responsible for the distribution of anti-Nazi leaflets. Sophie concedes her involvement (as does Hans) but determined to protect the others she maintains that the production and distribution of the leaflets in cities throughout the region were entirely the work of her brother and herself. Sophie argues that before 1933 (the date of the Nazi take-over) laws guaranteed freedom of speech. She then describes atrocities committed by the Nazis including reports of concentration camps related by soldiers returning from the Eastern Front. She assumes all blame, and refuses to name accomplices. Sophie, her brother and a married friend with three children, Christoph Probst, are charged with treason, troop demoralization and abetting the enemy. In a show trial they are condemned to death. Sophie declares that many people agree with what she and her group have said and written, but they dare not express such thoughts. She has the courage to tell the court that “where we stand today, you (the procurator) will stand soon.” That same day Sophie is guillotined. The blade falls and the picture goes black. Footsteps are heard, then Hans’s voice exclaims “Es lebe die Freiheit!” (“Long live Freedom!”), before the blade falls again. Probst is brought in next and the blade falls once more. In the closing shot, thousands of leaflets fall from the sky over Munich. A title explains that copies of the White Rose manifesto were smuggled to Scandinavia and then to England, where the Allies printed millions of copies of the “Manifesto of the Students of Munich” that were subsequently dropped on German cities. The first frames of the credits list the names of the seven members of the White Rose group who were executed, more than a dozen who were imprisoned, and supporters and sympathizers who received draconian punishments.
Twenty-five years later during student rebellions across the West, in Munich Sophia and Hans Scholl were remembered. They were already symbols of resistance; now they became a reminder that history does indeed repeat itself. Courage was the question. Courage has always been the ultimate question for each of us. After all, knowledge requires courage. Again today, in another place and time, I have recalled the Scholls. Maybe that is part of the reason that in recent days I began keeping a Facebook log of manifestations of Fascistic violence throughout Italy, echoing the way it began in the 1930s in Germany, and now what is happening in many places in the world.
December 6, 2017: Fascists-Nazis are on the attack across all of Italy. Today Nazi-Fascist demonstrations in front of the offices of the Liberal La Repubblica, one of Europe’s major newspapers, and the leftist Espresso weekly magazine, both in Rome. “We’re here to stay,” they announce. “No truce now,” and they are strong throughout the country. Masked faces, fire bombs in the center of Rome. Fascists-Nazis! No holds barred.
December 7, 2017: Militants of Fascist Forza Nuova (New Force) are rampaging throughout Italy. After yesterday’s demonstrations at the newspaper, La Repubblica and left-wing weekly Espresso, handmade bombs were planted early this morning in front of a Carabiniere station on Rome’s central Piazza San Giovanni. At the same time the press is reporting on extensive million Euro financial dealings of Forza Nuova (FN) in Kiev, Ukraine and in Crimea. These are dangerous signals of the growing Fascist menace and financial maneuvers to support it. Let no one think spreading Fascism in Europe or the USA is merely sensationalistic journalism. It started this way for Hitler in Munich and Mussolini in Rome. The Nazi government in Ukraine is becoming a symbol of what is possible elsewhere. The history of Fascism is being repeated.
December 8, 2017: In the city of Forli in eastern Italy Fascists armed with clubs clashed with anti-Fascists; a member of the left-wing metal workers trade union was injured. In Como in north Italy anti-Fascists marched in protest against Fascism and intolerance. In Naples, Fascists slogans were found in front of the local offices of La Repubblica newspaper. Meanwhile a Demos Poll shows that 46% of the Italian electorate is worried about violence by Fascist extremists.
December 10, 2017: Militants of Forza Nuova and anti-Fascists clashed on the streets of a cold Milan, the capital of north Italy, clashes squashed then by police anti-riot forces. The tam tam of the social networks got many anti-fascists on the streets in record time and the Fascists got the worst of the conflict this time. The Fascists were on the streets to demand that public housing be awarded only to Italians, not immigrants. Opposition to immigrants is a major point on the Fascist agenda which creates support for their organizations such as Forza Nuova in Milan and Casa Pound in Rome, in general, among the lower working classes especially in Italy’s major cities.
Everyday history repeats itself. Especially historical evils. It does not require courage to become aware of what evils are happening around us. Courage is however required to do something about those evils. Before arriving in Munich I had witnessed the first stirrings among the student population in Berkeley. I had admired the fiery orators, and imagined emulating them. I marveled at their awareness and interpretations of the events in the world: the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall and the Cold War.
Munich-München: While living in Munich after Slavic studies at Berkeley I began reading my Lenin and my Marx more seriously, more personally, studies which eventually changed my world outlook. I had trouble grasping the historical difficulty of synchronizing European Socialism with Russian Communism and the significance of the concept of revolution. Not that I believed then in the possibility of the resurgence of Nazism that had assassinated its best people; Hitler was dead and gone forever. As was his evil spirit, I thought. But I still did not realize that the much ballyhooed de-nazification never actually took place. Instead the U.S. government had enlisted German Nazis in its war against the Soviet Union. Russia too grabbed the few nuclear scientists it could in its efforts to catch up with America’s nuclear capabilities, while the USA and the Vatican assisted a great number of top Nazis to escape to Latin America. Yet the times of revolution in Europe seemed were over and done, and I accepted the maxim that the history of Nazism could not repeat itself. On the other hand, it became clearer each day that Germany was an instrument of American power—not an ally as some claim today—but a vassal and an occupied country. I had witnessed it happening; authority in new Germany was infested with ex-Nazis. In 1967 the war in Vietnam was raging, over a half million US soldiers were there and the yearly military draft of young Americans growing. In that period German youth looked at everyone over forty with suspicion. Nazi! Fascist! Murderer!
University students in Munich were becoming infused with the ardor that eventually blossomed into revolutionary 1968 and gave birth to the terrorist Red Army Faktion, also known as the Baader-Meinhoff Gang. Hans and Sophia Scholl had been beheaded only a little over a decade earlier. Die Weisse Rose, the White Rose, might live again.
One precise historical precedent to the 1967-68 student revolt in Munich was remembered by some young people aiming at remaking society: on November 7, 1918 Munich workers led by the bearded Berlin journalist, pure-of-purpose Kurt Eisner had staged a socialist revolution—local and more or less spontaneously—and people discussed the role of “good intentions”—that only good could flow from good—and the eventual emergence of the ideal political leader. It was still disconcerting to me that Eisner’s politics was bloody business. For Eisner’s revolutionary regime—in the words of Max Weber ‘run by poets, semi-poets, mezzo-philosophers and schoolteachers’—left a trail of blood and violence behind it. There is a place in Munich’s Müllerstrasse where the Workers Regime executed a certain Countess Westarp and nine hostages. At some point in those years I read and remembered the Brecht quote: Welche Niedrichkeit würdest Du nicht begehen um die Niedrigkeit abzuschlagen? Eisner’s subsequent electoral defeat and assassination by the anti-Semitic Bavarian aristocrat, Count Anton von Arco-Valley, in April of the next year led to a bloody military repression of the “Socialist” participants in Catholic Bavaria’s only political deviation to the left: in the cellar in the St. Georg Palais the reactionary White Guard shot twenty-one youths of the St. Joseph Gesellenverein. Bavaria was then ripe to become the seedbed of the National Socialism of Adolph Hitler.
And it was from that history that I learned to mistrust “spontaneous revolution” … if, that is, it is not one of the first stages of the process of real revolution. I deduced that alone spontaneous uprisings and revolts lead to repression, reaction and the crushing of the revolutionary spirit for long periods afterwards. For what kind of a revolution could a Saupreusen journalist (a Prussian pig as real Muncheners called Northerners) organize among unorganized Munich workers who were just hungry and destitute at war’s end, while even the revolt of the Spartacists-Communists led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, with a real party and the best leftist leaders of Germany behind them, was failing in Berlin.
Historians like to pose terrifying “what if questions”. Since, as it seems, Eisner’s ‘purity of purpose’, instead of engendering good, willy-nilly paved the way for evil, the question here is again spontaneity and chance: What if Eisner had not left Berlin for Munich? Would there still have been a Bavarian Socialist State? And if not, would Adolf Hitler still have been welcomed in aristocratic Catholic Bavaria to march with his men down the avenue past Munich’s great university? And would the history of twentieth century Europe have been different? Or would the same Hitler or another Hitler have emerged elsewhere?
Busy as we youth were in the 1960s with the festive side of Munich, Oktoberfest and Carnival parties, my friends and I didn’t often discuss political subjects like Capitalism and Socialism. Yet, my own past in the American South seemed dead and sometimes I heard a summons, like a call to the future, a future that weighed on my past. I began to wonder about that past: if instead I had been born German in the post-WWI period, I too might have fought for the same ideals as Sophia and Hans Scholl; or, like Brecht I too might have committed ‘any vileness in order to eliminate vileness’. Or, I came to realize, if I had been born German of an earlier generation I could have been together with Rosa Luxemburg—or perhaps by a twist of destiny become a National Socialist Nazi.
Time and place are a mystery. Everything seems to be circles and repetitions. And chance. Subjects and objects. Who decides which is which? Who decides such things? Who brings a Hitler to Munich? How and why do people like Hans and Sophia Scholl emerge from the morass? Is that truly all chance? For as Sophia said in her final words: they wanted to regain their past … the past when the law guaranteed freedom of speech. Their image of the past seems to us reconstructed. Personal. Distinct. Makes you realize that the past is always incomplete. And that history is people. So what about the personal courage she displayed? Though interesting, history cannot account for it … nor for cowardice, either. So the closest to truth might be our own interpretations of what we think might have happened … which is not always even close to reality.
There are times when each single event seems absolute. Eisner in Munich. Rosa Luxemburg in Berlin. I am now cognizant that nothing is absolute, for things are linked and go on changing, fundamentally, and from one moment to the next until you suddenly realize history is repeating itself. So you come to believe less and less in absolutes. You have to mistrust absolutists who demand specific answers, who demand yes or no, who prefer white to black, this to that, and use expressions like ‘in the final analysis’.
It seems I seldom understand what is happening to me while it is happening. And I’m nervous and unclear about what exactly is going on in my world today. But I believe if you open your eyes and begin to really see, you understand everything is ambiguous, ambivalent, two-edged and paradoxical. One says that is life. Still, I am aware of the helplessness you feel when you are unable to see what it is you yourself are doing. Am I alone in that? Or is it the same quagmire with others? I have hated to choose; as if I knew the correct answers and the right choices. I can only guess. I like to think I might have some minimal influence on events—maybe as much as one grain of sand influences the level of the sea. And even if I could exert any influence it might cause damage as political and military leaders prove day by day.
However, in sleepless nights, alone, you might wonder about your own courage. In such moments you might ask yourself: Would I have Sophia’s courage? Courage! The necessary quality, right and just, to awaken awareness of injustice and create dissent. The dissent that can then create the awareness that resistance is the next step … the step toward rebellion and finally revolution.
I believe it was in that period in Munich that I began realizing that I was a social being—another European idea many old friends mistrusted. But I now know, for example, that you can live in America all your life and pay taxes and vote and believe in the Constitution and hang out the flag and hold garage sales and donate to the Red Cross and to missionaries in Africa and go to church on Sunday and always fasten your seat belt and never have an inkling as to what social justice means. One wonders if heroes are born or created by circumstances.
Throughout history heroines like Sophia Scholl have emerged and stepped onto center stage. In the name of justice they have challenged Power by a demand for an apparently normal right even if established Power labels that demand state treason. But always they challenge Power: Antigone, Joan of Arc, Anne Frank and Sophia Scholl.
The question Sophia asked herself was how the individual must act under a dictatorship. She and members of The White Rose instructed Germans to passively resist the Nazi government. The pamphlet used Biblical and philosophical support for an intellectual argument of resistance. In addition to authorship, Scholl helped copy, distribute, and mail pamphlets while also managing the group’s finances. She and the rest of the White Rose were arrested for distributing the sixth leaflet at Munich University on 18 February 18, 1943. In the People’s Court on February 22,1943, Scholl was recorded as saying these words:
“Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”
Else Gebel who shared Sophie Scholl’s cell recorded her last words before being taken away to be executed:
“It is such a splendid sunny day, and I have to go .… What does my death matter if by our acts thousands are warned and alerted. Among the student body there will certainly be a revolt.”
In a historical context, the White Rose’s legacy has had significance for many commentators and artists, as a demonstration of personal courage, and as a well-documented case of social dissidence in a society of violent repression, censorship, and conformist pressure. Playwright Lillian Garrett-Groag stated in Newsday on February 22, 1993, that “It (the White Rose) is possibly the most spectacular moment of resistance that I can think of in the twentieth century… The fact that five little kids, in the mouth of the wolf, where it really counted, had the tremendous courage to do what they did, is spectacular to me. I know that the world is better for them having been there, but I do not know why.” In the same issue of Newsday, historian Jud Newborn noted that, “You cannot really measure the effect of this kind of resistance in whether or not X number of bridges were blown up or a regime fell … The White Rose really has a more symbolic value, but that’s a very important value.”
On February 22, 2003, a bust of Scholl was placed by the government of Bavaria in the Walhalla Temple for prominent Germans located near Regensburg in Bavaria. The Scholl Siblings Institute for Political Science at MLU is named for Sophia and Hans Scholl. Many local schools as well as countless streets and squares in Germany have been named after the Scholls. In 2003, in a nationwide competition to choose the top ten most important Germans of all time, Scholl and her brother Hans finished in fourth place, above Bach, Goethe, Gutenberg, Bismarck, Willy Brandt, and Albert Einstein. If the votes of young viewers alone had been counted, Sophia and Hans Scholl would have been ranked first. Earlier, readers of Brigitte, a German magazine for women, voted Scholl “the greatest woman of the twentieth century”
Cinema, Literature And Theater
In the 1970s and 1980s, there were three film accounts of Sophia Scholl and the White Rose resistance. The first film was financed by the Bavarian state government and released in the 1970s, entitled Das Versprechen (The Promise). In 1982, Percy Adlon’s Five Last Days presented Lena Stolze as Sophia Scholl in her last days from the point of view of her cellmate, Else Gebel. In the same year, Stolze repeated the role in Michael Verhoeven’s Die Weisse Rose. In February 2005, the movie about Scholl’s last days, Sophie Scholl—Die letzten Tage – (The Final Days), featuring actress Julia Jentsch in the title role, was released. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006. For her portrayal of Scholl, Jentsch won the best actress at the European Film Awards and the Silver Bear for best actress at the Berlin Film Festival.
In literature, Shattering the German Night (1986) about the White Rose by Jud Brown and Annette Dumbachs was reissued in an illustrated edition in 2006 as Sophie Scholl and the White Rose. In February 2009, History Press released Sophie Scholl: The Real Story of the Woman Who Defied Hitler by Frank McDonough. And in February 2010, Carl Hanser Verlag released Sophie Scholl: A Biography by Barbara Beuys in German.
Playwright Lillian Garrett-Groag’s play The White Rose features Sophie Scholl. We Will Not Be Silent, a drama by David Meyers of Scholl’s imprisonment and interrogation premiered at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia in July 2017.
Crossposted at The Greanville Post
Gaither Stewart is a Writer on Dandelion Salad and Senior Editor and Rome-based European correspondent of The Greanville Post. A veteran journalist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is also the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated spy thrillers whose latest volume, Time of Exile, was recently published by Punto Press. His latest book is the essay anthology Babylon Falling: Essays About Waning Qualities and Studies of Failing Empires (Punto Press, 2017).
[DS added the video.]
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days [English Subtitles]
White Rose Resistance on Feb 15, 2017
Watch this true story based on the courage of Sophie, her brother Hans, and their friend Cristoph who had the faith and fortitude to stand AGAINST the Nazi regime at the height of its power during WWII.
Is this coming to America? Will we each have to face the same system she did? If that does happen, what will you do when the time comes to speak for what is right? What happens when freedom becomes a crime?
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