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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY FIFTY EIGHT The White Rose of Crailsheim

A bit of a sackcloth and ashes day. The Race Marshal insisted on just a plain pretzel with her coffee – which led on to a conversation about martyrdom, not of cake, but in the primary sense of willingness to die for a cause. Are there many obvious martyrs in British history? We have had religious martyrs both Protestant and Catholic - but have we had political or social martyrs? Wat Tyler? Robert Aske?

Perhaps we have not been faced with a challenge on the political or societal fronts that have demanded such sacrifice. Hans Scholl, who was born in Crailsheim in 1918, and his sister Sophie faced such challenges and both were guillotined for their response.

Hans Scholl (c)wikicommons

Hans and Sophie were raised in a political and moral family: their father Robert Scholl was a town Mayor, a Lutheran, liberal and imprisoned for calling Adolf Hitler the "scourge of God". After the war, he founded a left-leaning political party that was Christian, pacifist, and opposed to re-armament.

Parents influence their children. As a boy, I was sent by my father, who had a penchant for painting English road signs green, to the annual camp of the Urdd Gobaith Cymru to learn Welsh, martial arts and a sense of injustice. Robert Scholl sent his son Hans to the Jungenschaft, a particularly independent-minded association of the Bündische Jugend, the German Youth Movement.

The Movement inherited the romanticism of the Wandervogel and instilled morality and idealism in its members. Claus von Stauffenberg, Hitler's would-be executioner, had been one of their number.

Parental influence and peer group learning made Hans into a man who not only recognised injustice but had the courage to act. He was inducted into the Hitler Youth and left. His sister, Sophie, was similarly inducted into the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the League of German Maidens, and similarly left. Her disillusion with Nazi promises was complete when Hans and many of their friends were arrested in 1937 for membership of the Jungenschaft.

The critical point in their evolution was reached in 1943. Hans had been conscripted and sent to Russia as a medic. He saw at first hand atrocities towards Russians and Jews and came home that year intent on action. He and Sophie formed the White Rose Movement which pulled in their friendship group. The White Rose, signifying purity and innocence in the face of evil, was predicated on non-violent resistance which took the form of well-argued pamphlets.

Their six leaflets (that's all they produced) were aimed specifically at intellectuals, with arguments drawn from Aristotle, the Bible, Goethe and Schiller. They were distributed clandestinely - left in phone booths, posted to academics and students, and passed on by hand.

What is remarkable, given the extent to which the Nazis controlled all forms of communication, is that seemingly insignificant pamphlets could still be seen to pose a threat. Challenges to the regime had become more damaging (and more dangerous), of course, after the catastrophe of Stalingrad. Where at first Hans and Sophie had been careful, distributing their literature secretly, they suddenly became rash – perhaps because their father had just emerged from his 'scourge of God' prison sentence. Standing on a high balcony in the central building of the university in Munich, they floated their pamphlets down onto the heads of the students below:

Kommilitoninnen! Kommilitonen! The dead of Stalingrad urge us! … The day of reckoning [has come for] the most contemptible tyrant our people has ever endured.

Hans and Sophie were immediately arrested, interrogated by the Gestapo and brought for 'trial' before Roland Freisler, the most feared judge in Germany. Freisler helped plan the Final Solution at the Wannsee Conference; he later promulgated the Decree against National Parasites; and he manufactured juristic cause for putting juveniles to death. In 1942, Freisler passed the death sentence on 17 year old Helmuth Hübener - who had been writing (and bravely signing) his own protest pamphlets:

German boys! Do you know the country without freedom, the country of terror and tyranny? Yes, you know it well, but are afraid to talk about it. They have intimidated you to such an extent that you don't dare talk for fear of reprisals. Yes you are right; it is Germany - Hitler's Germany! Through their unscrupulous terror tactics against young and old, men and women, they have succeeded in making you spineless puppets to do their bidding. Helmuth Hübener

With Hans and Sophie in his sights, Freisler had no mercy. Theirs was a show-trial – of humiliation and sentence to death by guillotine: but unbowed, as he was led out, Hans shouted 'Long live freedom'. The elapsed time from arrest to death: four days.

Even in those dark years, there was some justice. An increasingly embittered Freisler never had the glittering career he felt his talents deserved, because his own brother, also a lawyer, chose to defend some of these poor unfortunates. And in April 1945, a zealous impulse made him leave his cellar to gather files from his courtroom during an air raid - and a bomb found him.

The Nazis tried to destroy all prints of Hans and Sophie's pamphlets, but they missed one. Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, a descendant of the great von Moltke, hero of the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars, somehow smuggled a sample to England. So Sophie and Hans last words, printed in The Manifesto of the Students of Munich, returned to Germany by the million from the bomb bays of Allied aircraft.

Helmuth von Moltke was involved in resisting the Nazis in his own way:

Certainly more than a thousand people are murdered in this way every day, and another thousand German men are habituated to murder.... What shall I say when I am asked: And what did you do during that time?

His Kreisau Circle debated the prospects for a moral and democratic government after the war and for this was brought before Ronald Freisler. Executed for 'treason' in January 1945, von Moltke was almost the last of Freisler's victims.

Feature film about Hans, Sophie and the White Rose (1 hour 55 minutes) -

A ten minute documentary on the White Rose -

Remarkable silent footage of American troops advancing into a burning Crailsheim on 21st April, 1945 (3 minutes) -

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