Analysis: On her 100th anniversary, the memory of Sophie Scholl has been used as a counter-image to vicious Nazi thugs responsible for World War II and the Holocaust, and an active cornerstone for European political activities.
Sophie Scholl was a 21-year-old student at the University of Munich when she was sentenced to death by infamous Nazi judge Roland Freisler in a show trial on 22 February 1943. She would have been 100 years old on 9th May 2021.
Together with her brother Hans Scholl, Sophie was part of an anti-Nazi resistance group called 'Weiße Rose' (White Rose). Growing up in Southern Germany, she was one of six children raised in a politically liberal home dominated by values commonly associated with Christian Humanism.
Principles like universal human dignity, individual conscience and freedom, however, were incompatible with life in Germany after Adolf Hitler had been appointed Chancellor on 30 January 1933.
Following the Reichstag fire, the Enabling Act legally equipped Hitler with plenary powers and effectively established a Nazi dictatorship within two months of his appointment.
Sophie and her siblings initially embraced National Socialism due to the ideologically aligned education system, even though their parents regularly if carefully challenged their views. Their mother Magdalena was a former deacon, their father Robert was a politician who had served as a mayor during the Weimar Republic.
Sophie joined the youth group for girls ‘Bund deutscher Mädel’ (BDM) in 1934 and was initially quite active in the organisation. As she became more aware of the government’s prohibition of non-Nazi organisations or parties, she gradually withdrew from the BDM, as Barbara Beuys notes in her biography.
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After completing her leaving certificate, she first trained to become a Kindergarten teacher and did work placement in a children’s hospital. When she was ordered to work in the Reich Labour Service (Reichsarbeitsdienst, RAD) in 1941, it was her older sister Inge who gave her a book to take along. It was a compilation of the writings of Saint Augustine in German translation, edited by Erich Przywara.
As Sophie noted in her diary she secretly read ‘in the evenings, when the others are making jokes’, under the covers in her top bunk in the unheated room, which she shared with nine other women.
Books were generally unwelcome at the RAD, but St. Augustine, the important scholar of the early Christian church who advocated critical thought and pacifism, or Sophie’s other night-time read, the novel Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain, 1924) by Thomas Mann, the Nobel laureate who chose exile over life under a fanatically racist and anti-Semitic dictator, would both have been cause for serious reprimand.
Two years into World War II, St. Augustine’s thoughts on the existence of evil, the suffering of the righteous, and the meaning of free will inspired young Sophie.
She understood, despite unending enthusiastic reports about military victories in newspapers, newsreels and on the radio, that this was everything but a ‘just war’, and she and her siblings were all cogs in its terrible machine.
When she discovered that her brother Hans was already active in the anti-Nazi resistance, she joined him and the other members of the White Rose’s non-violent fight against the inhumanity of war and fascism.
On 18th February 1943, a member of the maintenance staff saw Hans and Sophie dropping leaflets down the atrium at University in Munich and, with anticipatory obedience, ensured their arrest. Together with fellow student Christoph Probst, the Scholl siblings were beheaded only hours after having been sentenced to death for ‘aiding the enemy and preparing high treason’ by Hitler’s ‘People’s Court’.
The other members of the White Rose resistance group - Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf and Kurt Huber - were also sent to the guillotine by this special kangaroo court empowered to deal swiftly with any political opposition.
Thomas Mann, in a speech recorded in exile for the BBC and transmitted to those courageous enough to illegally turn on enemy radio, called them ‘martyrs’ of Hitler’s ‘revolution of lies’. He was certain that they would not be forgotten.
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Indeed, post-war Germans, struggling with their nation’s Nazi past, gratefully embraced the memory of Sophie Scholl as a counter-image to vicious Nazi thugs responsible for World War II and the Holocaust, and as a sign that not all Germans had been either enthusiastic supporters of or passive collaborators within Hitler’s brutal regime.
Beginning with her own book about her siblings’ resistance, Die Weiße Rose in 1952, Inge Scholl created the foundation for a memory culture imbued with a spirit of reconciliation.
Since then, numerous books about the resistance group have been published. Frank McDonough (2009), Bernd Aretz (2013), Maren Gottschalk (2016), Simone Frieling (2021) and others have devoted biographies to Sophie Scholl as the unlikely face of resistance within Germany.
Schools, streets, and squares are named after her or the Scholl siblings, and the Department of Political Science at the University of Munich is called the Geschwister Scholl Institut.
Films like Die weiße Rose (1982), Fünf letzte Tage (The Five Final Days; 1982), and the Academy Award nominated Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage (2006) contributed significantly to the remembrance of this young student and the sacrifice made by the group.
To this day Sophie Scholl remains an active cornerstone for European political activities. At a pro-democracy rally in Moscow on 27th July 2019, schoolgirl Olga Misik read aloud passages from the 1993 Russian constitution on the right to peacefully protest, to freedom of speech, to participate and stand in elections. She said she was inspired by Sophie Scholl. Olga was arrested and now faces two years in prison.
In sharp contrast to Olga’s courageous engagement, Jana, a 22-year old German woman from Kassel, speaking at a ‘Querdenker’-rally in Hanover recently, compared her activism against Covid-19-restrictions to Sophie Scholl’s resistance.
Her statement ‘I feel like Sophie Scholl’, however, caused significant irritation across Germany. Instrumentalising a victim of Nazism to puff up her own annoyance at having to wear a mask during a pandemic was simply unacceptable. Unlike Olga, or Sophie Scholl for that matter, Jana had nothing to fear.
She could get up on that stage and voice her opinion, however misguided, her right to free speech being protected by the German constitution since 1949. The public’s reactions reflected the value still placed on the memory of Sophie Scholl as a symbol of resistance to war and inhumanity, and of the non-violent struggle for democracy, equality, and peace.
Dr Christiane Schönfeld is Head of the Department of German Studies at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick. Her research on German-language literature and cinema focuses on a wide range of cultural representations and sheds light on their significance for society.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ