Sophie Scholl and the White Rose
They dared to challenge Nazi Germany from within, facing death for what they knew was right. Who were Sophie Scholl and the White Rose?
Shortly before I moved to Germany I saw a film that’s stayed with me for years.
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
recounted a group of German students in Munich in World War II. They non-violently opposed the Nazi regime, were caught distributing leaflets, were tried and executed.
It’s an incredibly moving story that brought tears to my eyes. These guys had the most incredible bravery to stand up to a system they believed was rotten to the core, all the while knowing that the slightest blunder could lead to their deaths.
In this page there are questions and answers about Sophie Scholl and the White Rose and short biographies of the group's "inner circle" members.
On the next page I’ve outlined a self-guided White Rose walking tour
you can do if you visit Munich.
Hans Scholl (left), Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst, three
"inner circle" members the White Rose.
Questions and answers about the White Rose
What was the White Rose?
It was one of the very few German resistance movements to Adolf Hitler and Nazi rule during World War II. The White Rose was fought not with guns, but words. They tried to spread opposition to the Nazis through graffiti and the distribution of leaflets.
Who was in the movement?
There were never more than about 20 people involved in the White Rose. Medicine student Hans Scholl founded the movement among his group of friends at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Other members included fellow students Christoph Probst, Willi Graf, Alexander Schmorell, their philosophy professor Kurt Huber and Hans Scholl’s younger sister Sophie.
What did they get up to?
The White Rose wrote, printed and distributed leaflets condemning Hitler and the war and calling others to actively resist the Third Reich.
They were mostly written by Hans Scholl, Alexander Schmorell and Kurt Huber.
Thousands of copies were made using a hand-operated duplicating machine and distributed via a network of supporters in cities including Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Vienna and Munich. Copies were also mailed to professors, doctors and pub owners.
Over three nights in February 1943 Hans Scholl, Schmorell and Graf grafittied the messages “Freedom!”, “Hitler mass-murderer”, “Down with Hitler” and crossed-out swastikas onto walls around Munich.
Although the group’s aims were political its members were, to different degrees, also friends, who enjoyed mountain hiking, swimming and going to concerts together.
The sixth White Rose leaflet made it into Allied hands after being smuggled out of Germany. The Allies reprinted it with the title “The Manifesto of the Students of Munich” and dropped millions of copies over German cities in July, 1943
Hitler is the devil
“Every word that comes from Hitler's mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed.
“True, we must conduct a struggle against the National Socialist terrorist state with rational means; but whoever today still doubts the reality, the existence of demonic powers, has failed by a wide margin to understand the metaphysical background of this war.” – From the fourth White Rose leaflet
University custodian Jakob Schmid,
How were they caught?
who caught Hans and Sophie Scholl
in the act of distributing anti-Nazi
Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst were the first White Rose members to be arrested, on 18 February, 1943.
On that day Hans and Sophie went to the university with a suitcase full of leftover copies of the sixth White Rose leaflet. They went into the atrium (Lichthof) a grand hall rising over three storeys.
Behind some of the doors on each of the three storeys were lecture halls and classrooms. While classes were in session, Hans and Sophie Scholl hurrily dropped small stacks of anti-Nazi leaflets around the atrium. The Scholls left the Lichthof and then noticed that there were still some leaflets left in the suitcase.
Thinking it would have been a waste not to leave them too, they hurried back inside and went up to the third floor of the atrium, where Sophie, on a whim, tossed them over the balustrade so they would float down to the main floor.
They once again started to leave but they had been seen. As students and professors were beginning to flood out of their classes, university custodian Jakob Schmid approached the pair and declared “Ich verhafte sie!” (I arrest you).
The police soon took them away. Witnesses remarked on how peaceably the Scholls went.
What happened next?
Hans and Sophie Scholl were taken the Gestapo headquarters. Hans was carrying a draft copy of the White Rose’s seventh leaflet implicating Christoph Probst, who was then also brought in for questioning.
Hans Scholl was apparently the first to confess his involvement in the group, and afterwards Sophie tried to assume full responsibility for the leaflets. The trio were interrogated and faced a show trial four days after their arrest on 22 February 1943. They were found guilty, sentenced to death and executed by guillotine the same day.
A scene from Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. Sophie, played by German actress Julia Jentsch,
What was the reaction to the executions?
faces Nazi judge Roland Freisler in the White Rose trial.
Sophie hoped their deaths would disgust Munich’s student population and stir them into action. Instead the executions were applauded by most students. The prevailing public attitude was that Hitler was the only chance for peace and that surrender would entail the utter destruction of Germany.
“It is such a splendid sunny day, and I have to go. But how many have to die on the battlefield in these days, how many young, promising lives? What does my death matter if by our acts thousands are warned and alerted? Among the student body there will certainly be a revolt.” – Sophie Scholl before leaving her cell for execution, reported by her cellmate Else Gebel
What was the fate of the other White Rose members?
Almost everyone associated with the White Rose was gradually found out, arrested and interrogated (some of them named names). The second White Rose trial took place on 19 April, 1943 and as a result Willi Graf, Kurt Huber and Alexander Schmorell were later executed. Others escaped with their lives, but faced jail terms.
What were the motivations of the White Rose?
Some of the White Rose members had strong religious beliefs which they considered incompatible with the totalitarian rule of Nazi Germany and its persecution of the Jews.
Some members must also have been influenced by their parents. The Scholls’ father, Robert, was openly critical of the Third Reich and even spent four months in jail for calling Hitler the “scourge of God”. Christoph Probst’s father also had anti-Nazi leanings.
The members also reacted against how Germany had changed since the Nazis came to power in 1933. Sophie Scholl saw exclusion of the Jews, including some of her friends, from schools and clubs. Hans Scholl disliked the growing cruelty and conformity being drummed into the Hitler Youth while he was a member of that group. Hans, along with other adolescent Scholl siblings Werner and Inge, were arrested and spent a few days in jail for taking part in a banned youth group in 1938.
Prof. Huber saw the Nazi’s gradual degradation of the arts and education system.
Hans Scholl, Will Graf and Alexander Schmorell had all spent time on the Eastern Front as army medics. There they witnessed firsthand the cold-blooded treatment of the Nazis to Russian civilians and prisoners of war, who were often executed and buried in mass graves. The young students also learned of mass killings of Jews, the Third Reich’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”.
A Call to All Germans!
“Germans! Do you and your children want to suffer the same fate that befell the Jews? Do you want to be judged by the same standards as your corrupters? “Are we to be forever a nation which is hated and rejected by all mankind? No. Dissociate yourselves from National Socialist gangsterism. Prove by your deeds that you think otherwise.
“A new war of liberation is about to begin.” – From the fifth White Rose leaflet
Sophie Scholl has become by far the
most famous member of the White Rose.
What is the legacy of the White Rose?
After the war the White Rose members became heroes of the new Germany. Today there are streets, schools and monuments named after the White Rose or the “Geschwister Scholl” – Scholl siblings.
Germans aged under 40 voted Hans and Sophie Scholl fourth in a TV poll of “The Greatest Germans of All Time”, ahead of luminaries like Albert Eienstein, Goethe and Willy Brandt.
Alexander Schmorell was even glorified as a “New Martyr” by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in 2012.
Although she was a relatively minor member of the White Rose, Sophie Scholl has become particularly popular. Busts of her are on display in the Munich University atrium where she and her brother were arrested, as well as at Bavaria’s Walhalla temple. Sophie was even voted the “the greatest woman of the twentieth century” in a German women’s magazine poll. A wax figure of Sophie is on display at Berlin’s Madame Tussauds. Popular books and films including the one mentioned in the introduction to this article have also contributed the cult of Sophie Scholl.
Sophie was undoubtedly very brave, a quality she showed by not only distributing the leaflets but also by trying to take responsibility for the group after their capture.
But more than anything I think the impression of such a small, young woman pitting herself against a huge, formidable enemy in a Joan of Arc kind of way has a certain kind of resonance that little else can match.
“The name of Germany is dishonoured for all time if German youth does not finally rise, take revenge, and atone, smash its tormentors, and set up a new Europe of the spirit.” – From the sixth White Rose leaflet
Did you know?...
The White Rose’s fourth leaflet finished with the words “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!”?
This became their unofficial motto and the line “We will not be silent” continues to be a popular anti-oppression slogan today. Iraqi blogger Raed Jarrer was even stopped from boarding an internal US flight for wearing a t-shirt with the slogan written in both English and Arabic. Pic: Wiki
More biographical information on the White Rose’s “inner circle” members
Sophie Scholl, student of biology
(09.05.1921 - 22.02.1943)
With a sharp mind a carefree attitude, Sophie Scholl was brought by Lutheran parents in and around the city of Ulm.
She chose to join the League of German Girls (the female version of the Hitler Youth) when she was 12. Sophie even had a leadership role in the League and enjoyed the opportunities it gave her to go camping and spend time with other girls. She lost her enthusiasm for the group when its anti-Jewish stance became clear.
Sophie had a few Jewish girlfriends who weren’t allowed to join and she landed in trouble for reading aloud a passage from the “Book of Songs” by German-Jewish author Heinrich Heine.
She withdrew from the League in 1938. An avid reader, the more Sophie learned about philosophy and Christianity the more her anti-Nazi resolve stiffened. She worked as a kindergarten and nursery teacher through 1940/41 before being allowed to join her brother in Munich in 1942, studying biology and philosophy.
Sophie got engaged to her long-term boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel, and the couple had a holiday on Germany’s northern coast.
Hartnagel was then sent to the Eastern Front where he witness the killing of Soviet prisoners and learned of the genocide against the Jews. Hartnagel’s letters to Sophie were just another factor pushing her to active resistance against the Nazi regime.
Hans Scholl initially wanted to keep his sister out of the White Rose to protect her, but she was eventually accepted and became a valuable asset. Sophie didn’t write any of the leaflets but was able to act as a courier. As a woman, she was far less likely to be stopped and searched by the Gestapo.
After their arrest Sophie and Hans were interrogated separately. Sophie initially claimed she had been showing her brother a room on the third level of the university atrium where she had classes when the custodian saw them. After she was told her brother had confessed, Sophie tried to assume all responsibility for the White Rose to protect the others.
“When I saw the leaflets sitting on the balustrade up on the second floor I knew at once they must have been the same leaflets that my brother and I had found on the stairs and in the hall on the first floor.
“As I walked by I gave the leaflets that were on the balustrade a push so that they floated down through the atrium. My brother first saw these leaflets when he saw them floating through the air.
“I can see now that through my behaviour I made a silly mistake, but I can’t change it now”. – Sophie Scholl, from the transcript of her interrogation, to Nazi interrogator Robert Mohr
During the trial she reportedly said to the head judge Roland Freisler “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don't dare express themselves as we did”; and
“You know as well as we do that the war is lost. Why are you so cowardly that you won't admit it?”
Sophie was executed by beheading at Munich’s Stadelheim Prison on 22 February, 1943. Prison guards remarked at how bravely she went to her death.
Hans Scholl, student of medicine
(22.09.1918 - 22.02.1943)
Sophie's older brother Hans joined the Hitler Youth shortly after the rise of the Third Reich in 1933. Hans was an enthusiastic member at first and even became a group leader.
But disillusionment came through little incidents: he was banned from playing certain “un-German” folk songs on his guitar and his group was reprimanded for having emblazoned their swastika flag with a dragon. Disliking the conformity and cruelty he started to see in the Hitler Youth, Hans joined another boys’ youth group, but he was arrested in 1937 because this group had been banned by the Nazis.
Later that year he was conscripted into the army and after two years national service was able to start studying medicine in Munich. Hans served as a medic in the campaign against France in 1940 and during the summer campaign against the Soviets in 1942.
In between he founded the White Rose movement with a few like-minded medicine students.
Hans was arrested along with his sister Sophie and sentenced to death by beheading on 22 February, 1943. His last words were “Es lebe die Freiheit!” which means “Long live freedom!”
Christoph Probst, student of
(06.11.1919 - 22.02.1943)
His father, Hermann, was a well-off intellectual and he passed on the ideals of cultural and religious freedom to Christoph as he was growing up.
Probst became friends with the Russian-born Alexander Schmorell in 1935, and he started learning the Russian language.
After doing military service before the war Probst started studying medicine in Munich in 1939. He got married to Herta Dohrn when he was 21 and they had three children, Michael, Vincent and Katya.
After meeting Hans Scholl, Probst became involved in the White Rose but stayed mostly in the background in order to protect his family.
He was executed along with Hans and Sophie Scholl on 22 February, 1943.
Willi Graf, student of medicine
(02.01.1918 - 12.10.1943)
Graf was born in Saarbrüken and raised deeply Catholic, a belief system he considered incompatible with Nazi rule. As a teenager Graf joined a youth group called the Grey Order which opposed the Nazis and was later outlawed.
Despite threats he refused to join the Hitler Youth and in 1938 he spent three weeks for taking part in camping trips with the then illegal Grey Order.
Perhaps the most vehement opponent of the Third Reich in the White Rose, Graf even crossed out the names of friends who had joined the Hitler Youth from his address book.
Graf started studying medicine in 1937 but was conscripted into the army as a medic in 1940.
Over the next few years he experienced the horrors of the Eastern Front and heard about the massacres of Jews. After resuming his studies in Munich he met Hans Scholl and joined the White Rose. Graf’s main job was to spread the movement from Munich and into other German cities.
Graf and his sister Anneliese were arrested in their Munich flat on 18 February, 1943. Two months later Graf was sentenced to death but the Gestapo held him for another six months of interrogation. Graf refused to betray any other members of the White Rose, however, and was executed by beheading on 12 October, 1943.
Hans Scholl, professor of
Prof. Kurt Huber
psychology and philosophy
(24.10.1893 - 13.07.1943)
A musicologist, psychologist and philosopher, Huber became a professor at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian university in 1926.
Some of the White Rose members attended his philosophy lectures and Prof. Huber started to meet with them privately the summer of 1942.
He wrote the sixth White Rose leaflet which invoked the German defeat at Stalingrad (this was the leaflet Hans and Sophie Scholl were distributing at the university when they were arrested).
Prof. Huber was arrested on 19 April 1943 and found guilty in the second White Rose trial. He was executed by beheading on 13 July that year.
“A return to clear principles, to a constitutional state, to the mutual trust between people, that is not illegal, but the contrary, the restoration of the law” – Kurt Huber at his trial, 19 April, 1943
Alexander Schmorell, student of
(16.09.1917 - 13.07.1943)
Schmorell was born in Russia to a German father and Russian mother. Though his mother died of typhus when he was two, Alexander grew up bilingual thanks to his Russian nanny. The family moved to Munich, fleeing the Bolsheviks, when he was four. After military service before the war Schmorell started studying medicine in 1940.
He became friends with Hans Scholl and helped put together the White Roses’ first four leaflets. Schmorell served as a medic on the Eastern Front during the 1942 summer campaign where he was appalled by the German army’s cruelty to Russian POWs and civilians.
After the Scholls and Christoph Probst were arrested Schmorell tried to escape to Switzerland but was arrested after being recognised at an air-raid shelter. He was sentenced to death in the second White Rose trial and was executed by guillotine on July 13, 1943.
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