February 14, 2008
Somebody had to make a start
'Sophie Scholl: The Final Days' -- trailer in German with English subtitles
Feb. 18 marks the 65th anniversary of the Gestapo arrest of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose in 1943. Then, on Feb. 22, their swift beheading after a show trial in Munich by Hitler's "Hanging Judge," Roland Freisler, who reviled them for daring to call their countrymen to action in the face of Nazi Germany's suspension of all civil rights and its mass murder of Europe's Jews.
This anniversary is hardly another dusty date in Holocaust remembrance or another chance to mouth pious platitudes of "Never Again."
Ulm -- the city where Sophie and her older brother, Hans Scholl, grew up as Hitler Youth fanatics -- is today a hotbed of homegrown Islamic radicalism. Only this past fall, in a story that made worldwide headlines, authorities foiled a terror plot by a young German convert that would have surpassed the carnage in Madrid and London.
Surely today, at last, it is time for the United States to emulate the actions of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose resistance.
This 65th anniversary is also the election year in which U.S. citizens will either choose a fresh vision for the future or further entrench the legacy of an "imperial" administration and fossilized party that has maligned the dissent of its citizens as "unpatriotic" and constantly attempted to bypass Congress at the expense of America's most basic civil freedoms.
Sophie and Hans Scholl, 21 and 24 at the time of their executions, rejected their parents' Christian humanism as youngsters in 1933 to embrace Hitler's offer of racial superiority and the glory of fanatical self-sacrifice to bring about the "Thousand-Year Reich."
But Han Scholl's Gestapo arrest in 1937 at age 19 for a passing gay affair years earlier -- a startling fact suppressed until now for reasons of shame and prejudice -- caused the scales to drop from the siblings' eyes. In the years following his six-month ordeal as victim rather than hero, their distress evolved into outrage over Nazi tyranny. Their thoughts then turned to active resistance.
In May, 1942, dubbing themselves "The White Rose," they joined with friends at the University of Munich to produce a series of impassioned leaflets. Reproducing thousands in their secret headquarters, they made dangerous train sorties, mailing leaflets from Stuttgart to Vienna and from Hamburg back to Munich -- anything to mislead the Gestapo into thinking theirs was a broadly based movement and not just a handful of students.
"Since the beginning of the war," they declared in June in their second leaflet, "300,000 Jews have been murdered in the most bestial manner. This is a crime unparalleled in human history -- a crime against the dignity of Man. But why do we tell you this," they continued, "when you already know it? Everyone wants to be exonerated, but you cannot be, because everyone is guilty, guilty, guilty."
"We will not be silent," they concluded. "We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!"
On Friday, Feb. 18, 1943, Sophie and Hans Scholl mounted a gallery in the University of Munich's vast atrium. From there they scattered hundreds of their sixth leaflet down upon the heads of students milling about during the change of classes. It was the only public protest against Nazism in the entire 12 years of Hitler's rule.
Spotted almost immediately, they were arrested by the Gestapo and subjected over the weekend to grueling interrogation. On Monday, Feb. 22, even as their family and friends were struggling to submit appeals, Sophie, Hans and their comrade, Christoph Probst, were tried, condemned and summarily beheaded.
Long after the war, most Germans considered them traitors. But things are different today. Not long ago, in a nationwide TV competition to choose the 10 top most important Germans of all time, voters younger than 40 catapulted Sophie and Hans Scholl into fourth place -- winning over Goethe, Gutenberg, Bach, Bismarck, Willy Brandt and Albert Einstein!
And a German film, "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days," was nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Film in 2006. At the same time, my co-authored book, "Sophie Scholl and the White Rose," was published, telling their full story.
Despite this, the White Rose remains barely known outside Germany. But the inspiration they provide is something the world cannot afford to pass up. For this reason I've taken their story across the United States in multimedia form, and from Canada to Cape Town.
The German jihadists thwarted in Ulm provide another dangerous indication that Islamic extremism, with Nazi-style anti-Semitism and fanaticism at core, is a phenomenon reaching into the heartland of even the world's most liberal democracies. Like those elsewhere, their eager martyrdom is as false as the unintentional martyrdom of the White Rose was true.
The United States is the world's greatest democracy -- but even here, as everywhere, we need to remember that democracy is fragile. Given the damage it has suffered by the Bush administration, all U.S. citizens entering the voting booth on Nov. 4 must remember what the White Rose said in one of their leaflets about "civilized nations":
"Don't forget that every people gets the government it deserves!"
At the Cape Town Holocaust Centre last May, as I ended my program with the music of a stirring German freedom song, the High School Students of the United Africa Society Against the Dafur Genocide spread facsimiles of the White Rose leaflets among the audience, just as the White Rose did from their Munich University gallery back in 1943.
What is it going to take to get those in power to follow the lead of these students and the example of the White Rose?
"Somebody had to make a start," Sophie Scholl told Hitler's Hanging Judge, looking him straight in the eye.
We are that somebody.
Jud Newborn is co-author of "Sophie Scholl and the White Rose." He served as co-creator of New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage, and today lectures worldwide.