Lessons from the 1943 Anti-Fascist White Rose Movement That Are Yet to be Learned by the Superpowers of the World

Gary G. Kohls, MD

70 years ago today, on February 23, 1943, three courageous German college students at the University of Munich were beheaded by the Gestapo after being arrested five days earlier and convicted of treason earlier in the day. The group included 22-year-old medical student Christoph Probst, 24-year-old Hans Scholl, also a medical student, and Hans’s 21-year-old sister Sophie. They were part of a small group of university students whose code name was the White Rose.

As were many other alert Germans, the White Rose was fully aware of the atrocities that were being committed against certain non-Aryan minorities. They had seen clearly the loss of liberty, the shredding of human rights, and the disturbing reality that the war was probably already lost. By the summer of 1942, these savvy dissenters, who knew that resisting Hitler in any form was a capital crime, were fully aware of the existence of Nazi concentration camps and that hundreds of thousands of Jews had already been murdered in them. They also knew that atrocities were being committed against occupied Poland. Polish intellectuals were being disappeared, military-age Polish men were being murdered, and young Polish women were being forced into prostitution to “service” German soldiers in Norway.

These altruistic young Germans were also alarmed at the fear and apathy that they witnessed in the adults all around them. They were troubled by the fact that no active resistance movements were being organized by anybody that they knew.

The White Rose students, of which there were dozens scattered around Germany, knew that Hitler’s aggressive war-making, torture, and state-sponsored terrorism were making Germany the most hated nation in the world. Being real patriots who loved their homeland enough to have an argument with it, they felt that they had to do something to stop the Austrian-born usurper Hitler.

So, in late 1942, the White Rose started composing and distributing amazingly insightful, well-written leaflets, warning their fellow Germans about the criminal regime that most Germans seemed to be tolerating without objection. These altruistic students were wise enough to realize that they needed to use nonviolent resistance tactics in their efforts. They had witnessed the brutality of the homeland security agencies, the secret police, and the “see something, say something” policies that encouraged folks to snitch on their neighbors.

These students knew that the liberal printing presses had already been smashed by right-wing fascist thugs during the latter part of the “made-to-fail” 1920s Weimar Republic experiment in democracy and that those thugs, mostly angry World War I veterans, had been aligned with militarized, big-business-subsidized groups such as the Nazi Party.

After the Great War (1914-1918) ended, millions of wounded, demoralized, combat-traumatized German war veterans  came home crazy, angry, disabled, unemployable, and looking for someone to blame for having surrendered. Many of these angry white male veterans formed into armed militia groups all over Germany, including the infamous far-right-wing Brown Shirts, who were beholden to Hitler and the Nazi Party. The Brown Shirts obediently followed orders to harass Jews, homosexuals, and assorted leftists who had liberal, democratic, communist, and socialist beliefs.

These not-so-well-regulated but very well-armed militias established their dominative power and influence not by the strength of their ideas, but by intimidating the populace with their weapons while the police and the conservative courts looked the other way. But it must be noted that when the Brown Shirts’ usefulness to Nazism was over, they were abruptly betrayed by Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels, and their leadership extra-judicially assassinated on the night of June 30, 1934 (the “Night of the Long Knives”).

That brutal massacre came about at the urging of the Wehrmacht (the aristocratically controlled regular German army) and the conservative corporate powers that had financial control over Hitler. “He who pays the piper, calls the tune.”

Even nonviolent resistance to tyranny
was a capital crime in Nazi Germany

The major treasonous “crime” that the White Rose members were accused and convicted of was circulating a series of six “subversive” leaflets whose only purpose was to awaken fellow Germans to the atrocities that were being perpetrated by Hitler’s henchmen and to try to motivate them to rise up in resistance.

Of course the major “crime” they may have been guilty of was embarrassing the Gestapo and humiliating the Nazis by successfully evading detection and capture for so many months.

The same thing still happens in the world when a crime is not solved or a suspect is not captured in a reasonable amount of time. The authorities often are so motivated by the possibility of failure that they will stoop quite low, even fabricating evidence and imprisoning and even executing the innocent. Think of the six percent of executed people in the U.S. that are later found out to have been innocent of the crime for which they were convicted.

And think also of the thousands of political prisoners in U.S. history that include Eugene Debs, Sacco and Vanzetti, Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Bradley Manning, among many others.

And think of the case of Jesuit priest Dan Berrigan and the massive 1968 manhunt for successfully evading capture after being convicted of the “crime” of burning paper draft cards with homemade napalm in Catonsville, Maryland.

The Nazis thought that the influence of the White Rose ended with their arrest, trial, and beheadings. The trial, so well portrayed in the powerful movie “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” was orchestrated by the notorious Roland Freisler, the shrieking Nazi judge who had been ordered by Hitler to organize the infamous “People’s Court” show trials that the Nazis then used for propaganda purposes and to instill fear in the people. Little did the Nazis realize that the executions of this heroic group, rather than eliminating them from the pages of history, actually made martyrs of them so that their spirits live on, continuing to inspire modern nonviolent resistance movements to this very day.

Below are excerpts from the first three leaflets. The texts of all six can be found online at http://www.whiterosesociety.org/WRS_pamphlets_home.html.

I recommend that freedom-lovers and anti-fascists read all six leaflets. The best feature-length movie about the White Rose movement is “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.” The movie made extensive use of newly discovered documents of the Gestapo interrogations of Sophie Scholl that had been unavailable for previous documentaries about the White Rose. The official trailer to the film is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XM5A4ETW_Io.

Excerpts from the Third Leaflet of the White Rose - February 1943

“But our present ‘state’ is the dictatorship of evil. ‘Oh, we’ve known that for a long time,’ I hear you object, ‘and it isn’t necessary to bring that to our attention again.’ But, I ask you, if you know that, why do you not bestir yourselves, why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanized state system presided over by criminals and drunks? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right—or rather, your moral duty—to eliminate this system?
”Many, perhaps most, of the readers of these leaflets do not see clearly how they can practice an effective opposition. We have no great number of choices... The only one available is passive [but active] resistance. At all points we must oppose [fascism], wherever it is open to attack. We must soon bring this monster of a state to an end. A victory of fascist Germany in this war would have immeasurable, frightful consequences… The defeat of the Nazis must unconditionally be the first order of business…
“Sabotage in armament plants and war industries, sabotage at all gatherings, rallies, public ceremonies, and organizations of the National Socialist Party. Obstruction of the smooth functioning of the war machine (a machine for war that goes on solely to shore up and perpetuate the Nazi Party and its dictatorship). Sabotage in all publications, all newspapers, that are in the pay of the [fascist] ‘government’ and that defend its ideology. . . The presses run continuously to manufacture any desired amount of paper currency… Try to convince all your acquaintances, including those in the lower social classes, of the senselessness of continuing, of the hopelessness of this war; of our spiritual and economic enslavement at the hands of the National Socialists; of the destruction of all moral and religious values; and urge them to passive resistance! 
“Aristotle [said in] Politics: ‘... and further, it is part [of the nature of tyranny]… that everywhere [the subjects] will be spied upon... and so it is part of these tyrannical measures, to keep the subjects poor, in order to pay the guards and soldiers, and so that they will be occupied with earning their livelihood and will have neither leisure nor opportunity to engage in conspiratorial acts. . . Further, [to levy] such taxes on income as were imposed in Syracuse, for under Dionysius the citizens gladly paid out their whole fortunes in taxes within five years. Also, the tyrant is inclined constantly to foment wars.” 
“Please duplicate and distribute!”

Excerpts from the Second Leaflet of the White Rose Resistance – Fall 1942

“It is impossible to engage in intellectual discourse with (fascist) philosophy... At its very inception this movement depended on the deception and betrayal of one’s fellow man; even at that time it was inwardly corrupt and could support itself only by constant lies. After all, Hitler states in an early edition of his book (Mein Kampf, a book written in the worst German I have ever read, in spite of the fact that it has been elevated to the position of the Bible in this nation of poets and thinkers): ‘It is unbelievable to what extent one must betray a people in order to rule it.’

“If at the start this cancerous growth in the nation was not particularly noticeable, it was only because there were still enough forces at work that operated for the good, so that it was kept under control. As it grew larger, however, and finally… attained ruling power, the tumor broke open, as it were, and infected the whole body.

“The greater part of its former opponents went into hiding. The German intellectuals fled to their cellars; there, like plants struggling in the dark, away from light and sun, gradually to choke to death. Now the end is at hand. Now it is our task to find one another again, to spread information from person to person, to keep a steady purpose, and to allow ourselves no rest until the last man is persuaded of the urgent need of his struggle against this system.
“We are not in a position to draw up a final judgment about the meaning of our history. But if this catastrophe can be used to further the public welfare, it will be only by virtue of the fact that we are cleansed by suffering; that we yearn for the light in the midst of deepest night, summon our strength, and finally help in shaking off the yoke which weighs on our world. 
“…three hundred thousand Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way. Here we see the most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of history.
“…the entire Polish aristocratic youth is being annihilated. All male offspring of the houses of the nobility between the ages of fifteen and twenty were transported to concentration camps in Germany and sentenced to forced labor, and all the girls of this age group were sent to Norway, into the [houses of prostitution] for the SS! 
“Why do German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes? The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals; they give them the opportunity to carry on their depredations; and of course they do so.
“Is this a sign that the Germans are brutalized in their simplest human feelings, that no chord within them cries out at the sight of such deeds, that they have sunk into a fatal consciencelessness from which they will never, never awake? It seems to be so, and will certainly be so, if the German does not at last start up out of his stupor, if he does not protest wherever and whenever he can against this clique of criminals.
“He must evidence not only sympathy; no, much more: a sense of complicity in guilt. For through his apathetic behavior he gives these evil men the opportunity to act as they do; he tolerates this ‘government’ which has taken upon itself such an infinitely great burden of guilt; indeed, he himself is to blame for the fact that it came about at all!
“Each man wants to be exonerated of a guilt of this kind, each one continues on his way with the most placid, the calmest conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty! It is not too late, however, to do away with this most reprehensible of all miscarriages of government... Now our eyes have been opened, we know exactly who our adversary is… It is high time to root out this brown horde.
“Up until the outbreak of the war the larger part of the German people was blinded; the Nazis did not show themselves in their true aspect. But now, now that we have recognized them for what they are, it must be the sole and first duty, the holiest duty of every German to destroy these beasts.”