The White Rose: An Anniversary of Three Executions

Today marks an anniversary of true bravery for the cause of liberty. On February 22, 1943, Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and Christoph Probst were executed by guillotine in Munich, Germany. Their crimes? Anonymously distributing leaflets criticizing the German government at the University of Munich. They were members of the White Rose, an underground student group that should inspire every American who loves the cause of liberty.

The three who were executed on February 22, 1943

The White Rose was comprised of a dozen or so University of Munich students, including Probst and the Scholls. They were active when very few participated in opposition to the Nazi regime. After German defeats at Stalingrad, many Germans silently feared for the future of Germany, but scant few ever put their lives on the line through deeds.

It is no coincidence those who were willing to actively oppose the Nazis were motivated by devout religious views. Like the martyrs of early Christendom and the American civil rights movement, those who have nothing to fear in this world are well suited to oppose evil and injustice.

The religious origins of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s active opposition to the Nazis are well-known and inescapable. But even Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the man who planted a bomb that almost killed Hitler, was a devout Catholic. He was active in a religious and philosophical dissident group called the Kreisau Circle. He struggled with the questions and contradictions of taking a life to oppose black hot evil. Of course Hollywood devotes exactly zero screen minutes to the religious motivations of von Stauffenberg.

Active opposition to Hitler inside Germany was a deadly and lonely affair. Yet today, we view these few souls, most of whom would meet gruesome deaths, as plainly right and heroic. Pope Benedict XVI captured this idea of justice revealed over time when he observed: “usually it is the creative minorities that determine the future” -- another lesson for today’s defenders of liberty.

Between March 1942 and February 1943, the White Rose wrote and secretly produced anti-Nazi leaflets. They copied them on mimeograph machines and literally left them lying all around Munich. They stenciled anti-Hilter messages on the sides of buildings. The Gestapo went wild. Nobody else in Germany was doing anything of the sort.

White Rose leaflet four captures the totalitarian corruption of language as well as a view of Hitler justified by hindsight:

Every word that proceeds from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war. And when he names the name of the Almighty in a most blasphemous manner, he means the almighty evil one, that fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the stinking maw of hell and his might is fundamentally reprobate. To be sure, one must wage the battle against National Socialism using rational means. But whoever still does not believe in the actual existence of demonic powers has not comprehended by far the metaphysical background of this war.