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16 September 2017


100 years ago, on 16 September 1917, Alexander Schmorell was born.  Even those who do not know his name will have heard of the “White Rose”, a resistance group in Germany during Hitler’s reign.  This group mainly comprised of a few young students at Munich University and included, towards the end, their professor Dr Kurt Huber.  Hans Scholl and his friend Alexander Schmorell, both students of Medicine and in their younger years members of the Hitler Youth, had become more and more disillusioned with Hitler’s politics, the senseless loss of life both at the front and at home, the horrific treatment of the Jews, and in particular the apathy and cowardice of the German population in the face of all the atrocities that were committed in the name of their fatherland.

Hans Scholl, executed aged 24

Alexander Schmorell, executed aged 25

They decided to act and, in their youthful optimism, hoped that they would succeed in inspiring their fellow countrymen to take decisive action against Hitler.  The risks they took were astounding, their idealism admirable.  They managed to acquire a duplication machine (in these days enough to attract suspicion), and they wrote a series of leaflets (six in total in 1942 and 1943), aimed at spurring fellow Germans into action against the Nazi regime.  Their intellectual inspiration came from role models, such as the Roman Catholic Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen whose courageous sermons against the injustice and brutality of the regime, especially his outspoken stance against euthanasia, were legendary, or Kurt Huber, one of their professors, who managed to send out coded messages of humanity in his lectures at a time when few dared to do so.

Professor Dr Kurt Huber, executed aged 49

Clemens August Graf von Galen

The first leaflets were printed in hundreds of copies and sent to targeted addresses by post (acquiring sufficient paper, stamps and envelopes was highly risky in itself!), with a request to pass them on to others so that resistance would gradually grow and Germans would unite in their fight against Hitler and in restoring their national honour.  Sadly, this hope was unfounded:  many of the recipients of these letters were so scared that they handed them in to the Gestapo who immediately suspected Munich students as their source and became extra vigilant. 

As time went on, distribution was not confined to Munich any longer, which increased the nervousness and alert of the Nazi regime.  The White Rose teamed up with other resistance groups in Germany and began to widen its net.  In the meantime, the group had been joined by two other male students, Christoph Probst and Willi Graf, as well as Sophie Scholl, younger sister of Hans, who had started her studies of Biology and Philosophy at Munich university in 1942.  All these students, with a shared interest in philosophy, politics, music and poetry, were enthusiastic pupils of Kurt Huber whom they convinced to write the last, fateful leaflet for them.  As a married man and father he had provided spiritual mentorship but had hesitated to get involved in active resistance himself.  The courage of his young followers, however, inspired him to take action in the end.

Sophie Scholl, executed aged 21

Christoph Probst, executed aged 23

Willi Graf, executed aged 25

The story of the White Rose had a rapid and sad end.  Jakob Schmid, a university caretaker, a man who in normal times would have been as ordinary as his name, observed Hans and Sophie Scholl when they distributed the final copies of the last leaflet in the courtyard of Munich university.  He “did his duty”, as unquestioningly as so many before him and so many after him.  He called the Gestapo, reported what he had seen and revelled in his newfound fame as the man who had brought down the authors of the infamous leaflets.  Even after the war he never acknowledged any wrongdoing and continued to be convinced that he had only followed orders and therefore done the right thing.  Following orders, unfortunately, is still used today as an excuse by those who refuse to be autonomous persons.

I will not go into much detail about the final chapter.  Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friend Christoph Probst (the most cautious of the five students as he was a young married father of three with a strong sense of responsibility for his family) were arrested immediately and after an appallingly short and shoddy trial beheaded on the same day.  Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf and Kurt Huber were arrested shortly afterwards and executed a few months later.  Their calm dignity in death was as awe-inspiring as their courage and conviction in life. 


Before Sophie was led to her death, her last words to her cellmate were something like this:  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?  The hope that her death would spur people into resistance and that there would be, at the very least, a revolt amongst her fellow students in Munich was sadly in vain:  the show trial proved to be a deterrent against any further actions of the kind.  Nonetheless it gave Sophie hope in her final days.

Hans, Sophie and Christoph in 1942

Hans Scholl spent the few opportunities he was given for self-defence on trying to take as much blame upon his own shoulders as possible in order to save his friend, young dad Christoph, whose youngest child was only four weeks old at the time, from execution.  He did not beg for himself but stood up for his beliefs, true to the conviction he had expressed earlier:  It’s high time that Christians made up their minds to do something . . . What are we going to show in the way of resistance (…) when all this terror is over? We will be standing empty-handed. We will have no answer when we are asked: What did you do about it?


Christoph Probst, for the sake of his family, asked for clemency and for a proper trial, but in the end accepted his sentence bravely.  He had written the draft for the seventh leaflet that ultimately led to his execution and ended with the words:  Hitler and his regime must fall so that Germany may live.

Willi Graf, like his friends, spent time at the front in medical combat and was horrified by the suffering he witnessed.  His medical care for the wounded was described as exemplary.  He had resisted Hitler from the start and never associated with the Hitler Youth.  After he had been sentenced to death in April 1943, he was kept in solitary confinement for six months because the Gestapo tried to get further information out of him about eventual other members of the White Rose and similar groups.  Graf remained steadfast and betrayed no names, until his execution in October.

Alexander Schmorell, with Hans the initiator of the group, was arrested on the day of the funeral of his friends Hans, Sophie and Christoph.  He spent his last weeks writing letters to his family and consoling them.  This is an extract from his final letter, written on the day of his execution: 

My dear father and mother

Now it shall be none other than this, and by the will of God, today I shall have my earthly life come to a close in order to go into another, which will never end and in which all of us will meet again. Let this future meeting be your comfort and your hope. Unfortunately, this blow will be harder for you than for me, because I go in the certainty, that I have served my deep conviction and the truth.  All of this leaves me with a calm conscience, despite how near the hour of death is. (…)  I will ask God to grant you solace and peace. And I will wait for you! One thing, above all, let me imprint on your hearts: Never forget God!!!

Your Schurik

With me goes Professor Huber, who also sends you his most heart-felt greetings!

Kurt Huber, after a humiliating trial that saw him insulted and deprived of his university degrees and citizenship, gave a final speech in court that contained the following dignified words:  You have stripped from me the rank and privileges of the professorship and the doctoral degree which I earned, and you have set me at the level of the lowest criminal.  The inner dignity of the university teacher, of the frank, courageous protestor of his philosophical and political views - no trial for treason can rob me of that.  My actions and my intentions will be justified in the inevitable course of history, such is my firm faith. 


None of Huber's academic colleagues were prepared to give him a character reference for his court case.  The composer Carl Orff, highly regarded by the Nazis and a friend of Huber, declined Mrs Huber's desperate plea to intervene on behalf of her husband, as he feared it would taint his career by association.  In a particularly nasty twist, he then pretended to the US authorities during the denazification process that he had been one of the founding members of the White Rose, which led to his acquittal from Nazism charges.  All of this teaches us a lot about human nature and the tendency of many to choose opportunism over courage.

The story of the White Rose, of these fine young people and their mentor, is thought-provoking in so many ways, and the key questions we need to ask ourselves are:  How would we behave?  What was it that gave these people their strength?

I think that three possible answers can be found in the things that link these five students:  a good upbringing in families that valued moral principles; a strong core set of values, supported by substantial knowledge of political and philosophical thinkers; a spiritual dimension that cemented this inner strength and allowed them to die peacefully in the knowledge that they had done their duty on earth and acted with integrity. 


Sophie and Hans Scholl came from a strong Lutheran family, although Hans in particular felt a strong affinity to Catholicism.  Willi Graf was a Catholic; Christoph Probst, son of a free-spirited father and Jewish stepmother, asked to be baptized by a Roman Catholic priest before his execution.  Alexander Schmorell was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, of Russian origin and grandson of a Russian Orthodox priest.  All of them drew strength from their religion, but their common spirituality and belief in fundamental human values transcended the differences between their respective belief systems.

Alexander Schmorell, who was born 100 years ago to the day, was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in Munich in 2012 and made a saint.  All six members of the White Rose have been honoured posthumously in many ways, in books and films, with stamps printed in their memory, with schools and streets named after them.  Today, as eye witnesses of these dark years in German history become fewer and fewer, it is more important than ever that we continue to remember them.  Their idealism may have been naïve, but at least they tried.

Icon Card of Alexander Schmorell

Bertolt Brecht, in his historical play about the life of Galileo Galilei, describes a scene where Galilei recants his scientific research about heliocentrism, after being threatened with torture by the Inquisition.  His young and idealistic pupil Andrea turns away from him in disgust and says:  Unhappy is the land that breeds no heroes.  Galileo, older and wiser, replies: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.

Fortunately, many of us live in countries that need no heroes on the scale of the martyrdom of the members of the White Rose.  Nonetheless, I believe we can learn a lot from the strength of these young people who stood up for their convictions, who fought against political apathy and who had the courage to be guided by their moral values.

Commemorative stamps in honour of the Scholl siblings, East Germany 1961 and West Germany 1964.

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