The White Rose Movement: Conscience in Silent Nazi Germany

By Ryan A. Piccirillo
2010, Vol. 2 No. 09 | pg. 1/2 |

The morality of every person dictates the innate wrongness of genocide, and yet the world stood by as the Nazis sent millions to the gas chambers during the Holocaust. Historians and social scientists often attribute this moral failure to the blissfully feigned ignorance of the German people, enveloped in a blanket of fear propagated by the Nazi regime, and the indifference and prejudice of other nations. Total inaction was a remarkable failure of the human conscience, but a few brave college students in Munich proved to the world that conscientiousness still existed in the Fatherland. It is for their willingness to die to end the silence that The White Rose has become legendary.

Hans and Sophie Scholl were as typical teenagers during the period of the Third Reich: they enlisted in the Hitler youth organization and put their trust in the man behind its name who vowed to help the “fatherland to achieve greatness, fortune, and prosperity” (Scholl 6). Their sister Inge Scholl recalls that she and her siblings “entered into it with body and soul,” consumed wholly by the “mysterious which swept [them] along” (Scholl 6).

However, Hans quickly realized why his father disapproved of their involvement; he began to feel the stifling effects of fascism and was horrified by the heinous murders he witnessed. His readings of philosophical and theological texts augmented his disdain for the Nazi party. He allied with fellow University of Munich students of similar dispositions and began The White Rose movement to end the Nazi regime.

His sister Sophie and Professor Kurt Huber, a professor at the University, would later join the cause. Dissent was not what made this group extraordinary; thousands of Germans, crippled with fear by Nazi propaganda, felt just as they did. What set the members of The White Rose apart was their unwillingness to remain silent and their selfless decision to act on their intuitions.

The White Rose’s publication and distribution of six leaflets calling for passive resistance against Hitler’s regime would eventually lead to the arrest and execution of its six core members. Although their deaths were followed by a deafening silence from the German people and the they called for would never take place, it cannot be said that they gave their lives in vain; the courage of their actions would echo through history as evidence of conscience within silent Nazi Germany.

Leaflets of The White Rose

The first of the six leaflets produced by The White Rose movement opens, “Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be ‘governed’ by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct” (Scholl 73). The content of the six short pamphlets abounds with this message, appealing to German citizens’ intellect, intuition, and sense of shame. The message of the six leaflets evokes realizations about the evils of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party, the moral failure of German indifference and inaction, and calls for an intellectual uprising against the Nazi party. The authors rely heavily on the wisdom of great philosophers and thinkers to validate and reinforce their claims.

Fascism is a form of government which stifles personal expression, oppresses the weak and the different, and indoctrinates its citizens with a dangerous jingoistic spirit of service for the state. The argument against Third-Reich fascism in the first leaflet is supplemented by a passage from German poet and philosopher Freidrich Schiller’s “The Lawgiving of Lycurgus and Solon” which declares:

The state is never an end in itself; it is important only as a condition under which the purpose of mankind can be attained, and this purpose is none other than the development of all man’s powers, his progress and improvement. If a state prevents the development of the capacities which reside in man, then it is reprehensible and injurious, no matter how excellently devised, how perfect in its own way. (Scholl 75)

The authors of the leaflet use this passage to express the maxim that government is meant to serve the people, not the converse. In the third leaflet, the authors state that “according to God’s will, man is intended to pursue his natural goal, his earthly happiness, in self-reliance and self-chosen activity, freely and independently within the community of life and work of the nation” (Scholl 81).

Fascism stifles personal growth and expression and stipulates that all members of the state should live solely to serve that state; the Nazi government under Hitler, operating in this fashion, has broken its contract with the people and violated the maxims defined by Schiller and God. Therefore the authors demand that the German people, “must work against the scourges of mankind, against fascism and any similar system of totalitarianism” (Scholl 74).

The leaflets offer a stern indictment of the German people’s indifference to the atrocities and oppressions of the National Socialist Party, calling on them to face their fears and stand up against the government or be remembered as cowards throughout history. The second leaflet asks, “Why do the German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes […] so unworthy of the human race?” (Scholl 78). In that same leaflet, the authors harshly criticize the German people for standing by and even encouraging their fascist leaders to murder thousands.

The leaflet argues that any German who stands by silently as atrocities are committed, “is to blame for the fact that [they] came about at all” (Scholl 79). The authors appeal to the guilt felt by every German, despite their attitudes towards the Jewish race, for allowing so many to be senselessly murdered and for allowing their country to be overtaken by fascism through fear. These harsh assertions are not meant to alienate the readers but rather to convince them of the moral necessity for action.

The primary objective of The White Rose movement was to incite fervor for action in the hearts and minds of the German people. The third leaflet boldly welcomes all to the movement, declaring that “everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of this system” (Scholl 82). However, the authors did not focus on the ability of every German to act, but rather on the necessity that every German act. The authors understood that to eradicate National Socialism from Germany required “the cooperation of many convinced, energetic people – people who are agreed to the means they must use to attain their goal.”

Without enough people behind the movement, the goal would never be realized. The White Rose did not call for a murderous rebellion but rather for passive resistance, a peaceful sabotage of the Nazi machine – sabotage of publications, armories, and all institutions “in pay of the ‘government’ and that defend its ideology and aid in disseminating the brown lie” (Scholl 83). The White Rose understood that it did not have the weapons or military tact for a violent overthrow. Such an attempt would have resulted in the immediate defeat of the movement.

The fourth leaflet appeals to the religious instincts of the German people with a defiant call to action: “I ask you as a Christian […] Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler” (Scholl 86). The White Rose did not exist simply to educate the people of Germany about the philosophical and moral transgressions of its government; it existed to incite them to act out against that government so that the country could be saved from a legacy of disgrace. 

Justice

Robert Scholl’s final words to his condemned son Hans were, “You will go down in history – there is such a thing as justice in spite of all of this” (Scholl 61). Despite the conclusion of the People’s Court of Germany, Robert’s assertion accurately captures the sentiment of the greatest thinkers on justice.

The charges levied against the members of The White Rose movement by the People’s Court of Germany for which they were convicted and executed included the following: “attempted high treason, namely by force to change the constitution of the Reich […], injuring the war potential of the Reich, and […] having attempted to cripple and weaken the will of the German people to take measures toward their defense and self-determination” (Scholl 105-106). The irony of the third of those charges demonstrates so vividly the warped interpretation of justice held by the People’s Court of Germany.

However, the other two charges are accurate; indeed The White Rose was a treasonous group but one must understand that treason against a government which commits treason against humanity is noble. The People’s Court of Germany was the legislative branch of a government whose very foundation was at odds with moral justice; their ruling and sentencing of the members of The White Rose cannot be considered legitimate interpretations of justice. The propagation of truth is never, according to moral law, a punishable offense.

In his work Two Treatises of Government, philosopher John Locke argues “the end of government is the good of mankind,” and questions “which is best for mankind, that the people should be always exposed to the boundless will of tyranny, or that the rulers should be sometimes liable to be opposed when they grow exorbitant in the use of their power, and employ it for the destruction, and not the preservation of the properties of their people?” (Locke).

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