Saturday, February 24, 2018

Sophie Scholl and the Conscience of the Nation

by Nomad

This 22 February marked the 75th anniversary of the trial and execution of  21-year-old Sophie Magdalena Scholl. Along with her brother, Hans, and her friend, Christoph Probst, Sophie was charged with and convicted of high treason against the Nazi regime.

The three had formed the underground resistance group known as the White Rose (die Weiße Rose). According to their confessions, the three distributed anti-war leaflets at the University of Munich (LMU). The group called for German citizens to passively resist the Nazi government and its war machine. As support for their calls for resistance, the group cited Biblical and philosophical arguments to win the hearts and minds.

There was no question about the danger and the risks. And by the time of their arrest, the Gestapo had amassed enough evidence against the trio to force confessions. 

Since the commencement of the war, the Reich was extremely sensitive to any sign of internal resistance and through Nazi-sponsored judges, tracked and mercilessly crushed any emergent groups. 
Between 1933 and 1945, German judges, both civilian and military, handed down an estimated 50,000 death sentences, most of which were carried out. 
And age was not a consideration for leniency.

The People's Court

The presiding judge that tried the Scholl case, Roland Freisler, was particularly brutal. There was no pretense of fairness in Freisler's courtroom, the so-called People's Court (Volksgerichtshof). The judge nearly always sided with the prosecuting authority. A defendant had little hope of escape from a capital charge if Freisler presided.

Here's an excerpt from his Wikipedia biography:
Freisler became in this period notorious for berating in a personalized injudicial manner from the bench the steady stream of defendants passing before him on their way to their deaths, often shouting and occasionally yelling at them – particularly in cases of resistance to the authority of the Nazi state – in an enraged, glaringly clarion but dramatically controlled harsh voice, using a mastery of the art of courtroom performance artifice.
In 1939, Freisler introduced the concept of 'precocious juvenile criminal' in the "Juvenile Felons Decree". For the first time in modern German legal history, there was a legal basis for imposing capital punishment on under-age citizens.

This legal tool allowed the German courts to sentenced at least 72 German juveniles to death between 1933 and 1945. Only a year before  Scholl's trial, 17-year-old Helmuth Hübener, found guilty of high treason for distributing anti-war leaflets in 1942.  Hübener  defiantly told the judge:
"Now I must die, even though I have committed no crime. So now it's my turn, but your turn will come."
Judge Friesler was unimpressed, He justified his decisions like this:
"In times of war, breaches of loyalty and baseness cannot find any leniency and must be met with the full force of the law."
Freisler's viciousness was well-known outside of the courthouse. In January 1942, at the Wannsee Conference of senior governmental officials,  he laid the legal groundwork for the extermination of European Jewry.

Even by Nazi standards, Friesler was a nasty piece of work. So, at her trial, Sophie Scholl found herself face-to-face with the evil she decried in her incriminating leaflets.

To Do What is Right

Given all that, the trial of Sophie Scholl and the other members of her group was a mere formality. From the moment of their confession, there was never any doubt whatsoever what the outcome of the trial would be.

Nevertheless, Scholl refused to back down. She courageously told the court and the audience- mostly made up of military officers that if this tribunal believed her execution would stop a resistance, they were, she told the court, very wrong.
"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.
Her conscience reportedly was moved to action by stories she had heard of Nazi atrocities on the Eastern front, in particular, the massacre of Soviet POWs and of mass killings of Jews.

She believed that, in order to prevent a greater catastrophe at the hands of a madman, the morality of the German people had to be awakened. If that, said the Scholls, was possible, every effort had to be made.
“I am, now as before, of the opinion that I did the best that I could do for my nation. I, therefore, do not regret my conduct and will bear the consequences that result from my conduct.”
As Sophie wrote in a letter in 1940:
“I may not understand much about politics and I have no ambition to do so, but I do have some feeling for what is right and what is wrong. That has nothing to do with politics or nationality.”
As her brother, Hans, had once written in a letter:
"Where does the truth lie? Should one go off and build a little house with flowers outside the windows and a garden outside the door and extol and thank God and turn one’s back on the world and its filth? Isn’t seclusion a form of treachery of desertion? I’m weak and puny, but I want to do what is right.”
At no time during her trial, she expressed any regret for her actions. Sophie faced the end with a courage and conviction that impressed even the prison officials.
Her last words were recorded as
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?
Only a few hours after the trial, the three were beheaded by a guillotine by executioner Johann Reichhart in Munich's Stadelheim Prison.
The event, in some respects, was just another tragic day in the time of the brief supremacy of Nazi rule. So many more tragedies would follow, too many to count them all.

Justice From the Sky 

That's not quite the ending of this sad story, however.
One of the White Rose's leaflets was somehow smuggled out of Germany through Scandinavia to the UK.
By the middle of 1943, only a few months after her death, one of Sophie's tracts, retitled The Manifesto of the Students of Munich, would be dropped by the millions by Allied flyers. Despite attempts at absolute suppression by the Nazi courts, Sophie's words would reach hundreds of thousands.   

Her judge, Freisler, would die almost exactly two years later- fittingly in his court during a 1945 Allied bombing raid of Berlin. According to one story, Freisler was killed by a direct hit as he was trying two women, who survived the explosion.

True or not, one thing was clear. as one foreign correspondence noted, "apparently nobody regretted his death." And when his body was brought to Lützow Hospital, one worker reportedly said: "It is God's verdict." That seems to have been the common consensus.
He would be buried in an unmarked grave and remembered only for the misery and terror he created in the name of Nazi Justice.

In Memoriam

In contrast, Sophie Scholl's legacy lives on. Since the 1970s, there have been three film versions of her story. The latest in 2005, Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage (Sophie Scholl – The Final Days) drew upon the statements of survivors that were uncovered after the fall of East Germany.
In 2006, the film was nominated an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. (It is featured in its entirety below.)

Additionally, Scholl's story survives in literature, theater and even in rock music- as recently as last year.
Today, busts of both of the Scholls can be found in the University of Munich as part of the  Walhalla Memorial. That memorial is dedicated to important historical figures in Germany. Her bust is alongside those of philosophers, astronomers, and composers.