It passed almost unnoticed but a few days ago we saw the anniversary of the execution by beheading of some of the greatest heroes of WWII.
In 1942 Hans Scholl (24), a medical student at the University of Munich, his sister Sophie (21), Christoph Probst (22), Willi Graf (25), and Alexander Schmorell (25), founded the ‘White Rose’ movement, one of the few German groups that spoke out against Nazi genocidal policies.
Hans and Sophie Scholl with Christophe Probst, March 1942
As children Hans and Sophie had, like most German youngsters, been members of the Nazi youth organisations. Their father Robert, who was later imprisoned for anti-Nazi remarks, tried to teach them that Hitler was leading Germany to destruction. Gradually Hans and Sophie came to understand that their father was right.
With the outbreak of war the great majority of Germans rallied around their country believing that in time of war it is the duty of citizens to support their country. Hans and Sophie thought otherwise. They believed that it was the duty of the citizen to stand against evil.
At great risk, ‘White Rose’ members transported and mailed mimeographed leaflets denouncing the regime. These were distributed to wherever they thought they might be effective, especially the universities. ‘We will not be silent’, they wrote to their fellow students. ‘We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!’
After the German army’s defeat at Stalingrad in late January 1943, the Scholls distributed pamphlets urging students in Munich to rebel. But in the next month, a university janitor who saw them with the pamphlets betrayed them to the Gestapo.
After a show trial, headed by the notorious Roland Friesler, Hitler’s favourite judge, the regime executed Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst on February 22, 1943. Before walking to the guillotine, Sophie observed: ‘How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause?’ She went on: ‘Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?’
Others members were also executed. Amongst them philosophy professor Kurt Huber, who had guided the movement. Huber’s widow was later sent a bill for 600 marks, twice his monthly salary, for ‘wear of the guillotine’. Alexander Schmorell was executed on the same day as Kurt Huber.
These young people saw evil, saw that the great majority of their fellow citizens either supported or acquiesced in it, or were cowed by it. They could not be silent. They would not excuse themselves by saying it was the fault of society, which was true; or that any action they took would have little effect, which was true; or that to stand against Hitler was a path to death, which was true. They accepted personal responsibility for their own actions despite the cost.
Momentous events or movements, actions beyond our control, shape the actions of individuals. What the members of the White Rose, practically all committed Christians, realised was that ultimately it is down to the character and choice of the individual as to how they react to those forces and what they personally choose to do.
The repellent Roland Freisler, rabid Nazi judge, would find few supporters today, few who would argue that he was a product of his upbringing or that he had been radicalised a Nazi by his experiences as a prisoner of the Russians after the Russian Revolution. Freisler was responsible for the man he became and the actions he committed, including the beheading of members of the White Rose.
And yet we find people attempting to ‘contextualise’ the murders committed by the serial killer Mohhammed Emwazi,otherwise known as Jihadi John. Spokesmen for CAGE, a Muslim human rights organisation in the same way that Vladimir Putin is a human rights activist, claimed that the blame for the radicalisation of Emwazi lay solely with the British security services. Seemingly they had the temerity to question this ‘kind’, ‘gentle’, and ‘beautiful young man’, concerning his intent to go to Africa and fight jihad.
This is in part because to claim otherwise would be to admit that he was taught by other Muslims to hate any non-Sunnis, that it was legitimate to enslave Yazidi women, and that beheading aid-workers was an act of piety.
Perhaps it is the doleful legacy of Marxist analysis which see the individual as a grain of sand washed about by the tides of history. Perhaps it is our culture of victimhood which ever seeks to absolve the individual of personal responsibility. Perhaps it is our therapeutic progressive culture which refuses to judge even the judgemental who behead people.
More likely it is the demise of Christianity in the West with the idea that eventually we all have to stand before God as individuals responsible for our own actions. Societal sin exists as does collective responsibility, but ultimately we are responsible as individual for the actions we commit, or allow to pass unopposed.
The White Rose shows us that it evil has to be confronted, named for what it is, and unrelentingly opposed.