I first saw the name Sophie Scholl in a public square in Berlin, in 2005. I was strolling around that incredible city, soaking up the architecture, the language, and the ways in which complicated histories were made present at every turn—from the Holocaust Museum to Checkpoint Charlie to the East Side Gallery. As I wandered through a public square I came upon a small plaque dedicated to the White Rose; it included the name Sophie Scholl, along with her date of birth (May 9, 1921, in Forchtenberg, Germany) and her date of death (February 22, 1943, in Stadelheim Prison, in Munich). I wrote her name down in my journal, and I looked her up when I returned home to the States. How had I never heard of this incredible young woman? Where was the story of the White Rose when we learned about WWII and the Holocaust in school?
Sophie’s story stayed with me all those years, and when Miriam Klein Stahl and I decided to create Rad Women Worldwide, the follow-up to our book Rad American Women A-Z, Sophie was the very first person whose story I knew we would absolutely tell. We considered over 200 stories before ultimately narrowing it down to 40—but from the start we knew that Sophie would be in our book. Rad Women Worldwide came out in September 2016, about 6 weeks before the Presidential election. I knew that Sophie’s story of brave resistance in the face of tyranny was necessary and inspiring—but I had no idea how relevant a story like hers would become. Sophie and the White Rose exemplify what it means to stand up for justice; to commit to non-violent resistance; and to refuse to accept corrupt and brutal political regimes.
Sophie and her brother Hans were born to progressive, politically active parents. By all accounts Sophie was a bright, curious, active child. She loved hiking and drawing, and excelled in the sciences and the study of philosophy. And like many German children in the 1930s, Sophie and her brother joined branches of the youth wing of the Nazi party. But by the early 1940s, when Sophie and Hans were teenagers, Hitler’s power and control had increased. The siblings began to question, and then to reject, Hitler and National Socialism. Their father was arrested for criticizing Hitler to a co-worker, and Hans’ brief stint as a medic on the Eastern Front left him committed to non-violent resistance. In 1942, Sophie joined Hans at the University of Munich, where they read reports of Nazi atrocities across Europe and studied texts on non-violent resistance. They soon formed a group: The White Rose.
Their first action of resistance was a one-page leaflet that they secretly distributed around campus. It was an anonymous essay denouncing Hitler, and arguing that the Nazi system was destroying the German people. It called for Germans to rise up and resist their own dangerous government, and at the bottom of the page it said: “Please make as many copies of this leaflet as you can and distribute them.”
The leaflet caused a major stir on campus—it was the first time that anyone had publicly denounced Hitler. It was soon followed by another leaflet. And then another. Each one continued to lay out the case for resisting Hitler. Copies were distributed around Munich, and they were being smuggled and sent to other cities across Germany, and even Austria. Between 1942 and 1943 the White Rose produced six leaflets; one of them read “We will not be silent. We ARE your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!”
So here’s the thing: to the contemporary American mind, a campaign of one-page leaflets may not seem like a huge deal. But keep in mind that any form of public dissent was illegal in Nazi Germany. Just speaking publicly against Hitler could land you in prison (as it did with Robert Scholl, Sophie and Hans’ father). The writing, copying, and distributing of these leaflets took enormous courage, and were, by all accounts, the first widespread public expression of anti-Nazi sentiment in Germany. And it was led by college students. And, of course, the leaflets of the White Rose caught the attention of the Gestapo, who were sent into a frenzy trying to figure out who was behind it all.
One day in 1943, Sophie and Hans were sneaking around the University campus, distributing copies of the final leaflet. Sophie was in a stairwell, holding a stack of the papers, when the bell rang—she didn’t want to waste any, so she threw them into the air. A janitor spotted her, and turned Sophie and Hans into the SS. The other members of the White Rose were soon after arrested, and they were all put on trial, with charges of treason.
At 21 years old, Sophie testified bravely before a Nazi judge. She stood by her actions, and refused to apologize for what they’d done. She told the judge: “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.” At one point during the trial Sophie’s father tried to enter the courtroom; he was kicked out, but the entire courtroom heard him shout “One day there will be another kind of justice! One day they will go down in history!” Sophie and Hans were both found guilty of treason and executed; Sophie was 21 years old.
Sophie, Hans, and the White Rose may not have toppled Hitler, but they made a major impact on Germany, leaving a legacy of courage and honor. They saw injustice occurring, and they refused to wait until it was directly upon them. They were motivated by religious faith as well as deep patriotism—they loved Germany, and didn’t want to see it destroyed by a madman. So deep were their convictions that they took action when the rest of their fellow citizens were too frightened (or too deep in denial) to do so.
The White Rose are models for how youth can organize and act, and how citizens can resist with the resources available to them—these 20 year olds made anti-Nazi sentiments go viral by making and distributing copies. The White Rose is well-known throughout Germany—there are memorials and monuments to them, streets named for them, and children learn about them in school. But here in the U.S., they aren’t mentioned. We learn about the horrors of Nazi Germany, and about the role of American forces in WWII—but we don’t hear about Sophie, about the German people who resisted from inside the country.
Sophie and Hans were executed almost 75 years ago. While much has changed in the world since then, there are deep and frightening echoes reverberating across America right now. In their 4th leaflet, the White Rose wrote: “Pay attention or pay the consequences. A smart child will only burn his fingers once on a hot stove….Every word that comes out of Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war.”
We can learn a great deal from The White Rose. What does it look like to pay attention? To defend your country, not from outside attacks, but from your own government? What does it look like to stand up and speak out, to take a risk on behalf those who can’t or won’t join you?
What does it look like to resist, to refuse to be silent?
What does it look like when you dare to express yourself?