Scholls died for their anti-Nazi stand Students' deaths 50 years ago revered in Germany today

February 23, 1993|By Dallas Morning News

BERLIN -- Fifty years ago yesterday, Hans and Sophie Scholl, two young students condemned for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets, died on a Gestapo guillotine.

Their contemporaries say the Scholls, brother and sister, helped launch a revolution in German thinking -- a sense of individual political responsibility that now counterbalances tendencies toward violence or blind nationalism.

Though initially despised by many of their fellow citizens (and little-known outside Germany), the Scholls have become near-mythic heroes to postwar Germans.

As President Richard von Weizsaecker recently said, their daring and doomed "White Rose" resistance circle has become a symbol of the need to call evil by its name and to act against it.

And Germans have acted, said Franz J. Mueller, who was a high school student when he was arrested for distributing the group's anti-Nazi fliers.

Germany saw more than 2,200 attacks by right-wing extremists last year. The extremists are blamed for the deaths of 17 people, including seven foreigners.

Yet millions of Germans last year held candlelight vigils and marches in a number of cities throughout the country protesting right-wing violence and urging the government to crack down. The demonstrations prove that the message of the White Rose has been heard by modern Germans, Mr. Mueller said.

"This is the first time that the people here have forced the politicians to do something," he said. "This is fantastic. When before has that happened in Germany, where the citizens always wait for orders from above and then obey?"

The German government reports that right-wing hate crimes have fallen in the past four months after a series of police sweeps aimed at breaking up neo-Nazi organizations.

The Scholls were not the only German war opponents. Individual soldiers were executed by the German military for refusing to commit wartime atrocities. Individual citizens helped save thousands of German Jews from extermination, even at the risk of their own lives.

The most important resistance plotters were within the German military. Wehrmacht officers headed by Col. Claus von Stauffenberg repeatedly tried to assassinate Hitler.

The White Rose ring, by comparison, seems both impossibly brave and hopelessly naive.

The group's core consisted of only five students and one professor at Munich's Ludwig-Maximilian University. But from the summer of 1942 until February 1943, they bore powerful moral witness against the Nazi regime.

Most Germans claimed, and still claim, to have had no wartime knowledge of the evils committed by the Nazi regime. But the White Rose told them, in 10,000 fliers they printed and distributed by hand. (Some of those papers reached the British Royal Air Force, which printed and dropped 800,000 copies, said Mr. Mueller.)

The fliers serve as clear proof that people knew a great deal about the evils of Nazism, even during the war, said Professor Peter Steinbach of Berlin's Free University.

"Since the invasion of Poland, 300,000 Jews have been murdered in bestial fashion," one of the fliers reported. "Here we see the worst possible crime against humanity, the likes of which have never been seen in history. For Jews are certainly human. You can address 'The Jewish Question' as you wish, but these things are being done to human beings."

Whether from fear, hate or apathy, the fliers declared, all of Germany had allowed these things to happen. "One wants to acquit oneself from this guilt. One wants to do this and to sleep soundly again, with a good conscience. But one cannot acquit oneself. One is guilty, guilty, guilty."

Sophie Scholl was 21 when she died. Her executioners asked her why she risked her life to denounce Nazism.

"Someone finally had to start," she said.

Hans and Sophie Scholl grew up in a firmly republican, Protestant, anti-Nazi family. Their father, Robert, served as chief administrator of a series of small towns until the war, when he casually derided Hitler in a comment to his secretary -- who reported him to the Gestapo. For that remark, he was jailed.

Even privileged students periodically had to serve military duty. Hans Scholl and his friends did and saw lines of naked men, women and children marched off to execution pits in Poland. As a medical student, Hans also was forced to operate alone on wounded soldiers from the Eastern Front, who told him how brutal the war was.

Back home, he heard rumors of resistance groups, virtually always run by communists or socialists.

"It is high time that finally something appears from the Christian side," Hans told his friends. "Or at the end of the war, shall we stand empty-handed before the question, 'What have you done?' "

Over Christmas 1941, he received an anonymous flier from a friend denouncing the government. He resolved to buy or steal a printing press and to form a resistance group based on intellectual and moral resistance to the regime.

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