For quite a few years I have served as a preliminary judge for the White Rose Student Research Contest, sponsored by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education.
So I have known about the college-age students in Germany -- especially Hans and Sophie Scholl, siblings -- who led the anti-Hitler effort under the White Rose name. But until recently I had not read the 2017 book, At the Heart of the White Rose, edited by Inge Jens.
The book is a remarkable collection of many of the letters and diary entries -- along with some explanatory commentary -- the Scholls wrote before they were executed by the Nazis on Feb. 22, 1943. Hans was 24, Sophie 21.
The documents reveal how their growing commitment to oppose Hitler's evil regime was rooted in their Christian faith -- a faith that they understood in different ways at different times. Reading it from this side of World War II and the Holocaust, it's possible to detect small changes in their thinking that led them to a resistance movement.
In some ways, it was a wildly optimistic and unrealistic resistance, given that Germany was deeply in the grip of Nazi anti-Jewish ideology and given that the resisters were few in number and were unexperienced young people.
But, for all that, it's an inspiring story about standing for truth and against destructive power.
One aspect of the Scholls' life that shows up in shining ways is their devotion to -- and love of -- their parents. Their father, Robert Scholl, even spent some time imprisoned for imagined crimes against the Nazi government, though he was far from a revolutionary leader. Still, he and his wife instilled important values in their children that led them to recognize the brutality of what was happening to Jews as well as to others under Hitler and to want to do something to stop it.
At one point Hans writes to his mother in reply to something inspiring she had written to him: ". . .don't imagine that your words pass me by. What a mother says sticks. . ."
By March 1938, the Germany in which Hans grew up was becoming unrecognizable to him: "My head feels heavy. I don't understand people anymore. Whenever I hear all that anonymous jubilation on the radio, I feel like going out into a big deserted plain and being by myself."
And yet there is an eerie silence in these letters and other writings. Neither Hans nor Sophie, for instance, wrote a word in these documents about the shock of Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass") on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, when Nazis burned down synagogues, vandalized homes, schools and businesses of Jews and killed almost 100 Jews in Germany. Were they stunned to silence? Were they fearful of saying anything critical even in private letters and diaries?
Almost a year after Kristallnacht, by contrast, Sophie writes to a soldier with whom she seems to be in love and says: "I just can't grasp that people's lives are now under constant threat from other people. I'll never understand it, and I find it terrible. Don't go telling me it's for the Fatherland's sake."
And in May 1940, she writes this to the same man, Fritz: "Although I don't know much about politics and have no ambition to do so, I do have some idea of right and wrong, because that has nothing to do with politics and nationality. And I could weep at how mean people are, in high-level politics as well, and how they betray their fellow creatures, perhaps for the sake of personal advantage. Isn't it enough to make a person lose heart sometimes?. . .I'm sometimes tempted to regard mankind as a terrestrial skin disease."
As the war proceeds, with Germany winning victory after victory in the first years, we see resistant hearts starting to beat in the Scholl siblings. The question is what they will do in response.
Sophie gives at least a hint in a September 1940 letter to Fritz: "To me, justice takes precedence over all other attachments, many of which are purely sentimental."
And in August 1941, Hans writes to a young woman with whom he's in love, telling here that the "past few weeks have been more important to my inner self than many of the foregoing months. I realize I'm gradually getting a grip on myself, and that one road is materializing out of many illusions and false trails. Am I telling the whole truth? Not everything will be as I would have wished, I'm afraid."
By May 1942, Hans, Sophie and a few other conspirators are clandestinely distributing White Rose leaflets calling for "every individual, conscious of his responsibility as a member of Christian and Western civilization. . .(to) defend himself as best he can at this late hour. . .(to) work against the scourges of mankind, against fascism and any similar system of totalitarianism." And that summer they learned of the death camps Germany's government built in Poland and published what they could find out about them.
You can read a fuller account of the Scholls and the White Rose effort here.
But this collection of private writings from young resisters is a good lesson in how people come to form their moral conscience and what actions moral clarity leads to.
In this case, the resistance they offered was nonviolent. We will have to study other examples to discern how deep belief and certitude can turn into a violent response. And for sure we need to do that. In fact, the last chapter of my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, focuses on just that question.
* * *
WHAT TO MAKE OF ANTI-CATHOLIC BIGOTRY
Fr. James Martin, a Catholic priest (he wrote a nice endorsement of my latest book), said recently that “Anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice.” The Atlantic's excellent religion writer, Emma Green, then did this interview with Martin to explore that contention. It's well worth a read. Note, please, that Martin acknowledges that "we have to be careful not to label every single critique of the Church as anti-Catholicism. The Church deserves its critics, especially in the light of the sex-abuse crisis and financial scandals and other things." Still, he said (and I agree), that "anti-Catholic tropes get a pass in our culture for a number of reasons, in a way that anti-Semitism, anti-Islam or even homophobia do not." But just as thoughtful criticism of Israeli government policy is not antisemitism, so criticism of the Catholic Church's abysmal handling of the priest sex abuse scandal isn't anti-Catholicism. (I wish critics of my own writing who have accused me falsely of being anti-Catholic understood this latter point. But I'm not holding my breath.)