Tomorrow, February 22, at 5:00 pm, I’ll close my office door and take five minutes to quietly reflect upon heroism, honor, courage and fealty to truth.
And I’ll grieve about the sometimes tragic consequences of correctly answering Patrick Henry’s historic question: “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?”
Knowing the dearness of life and the sweetness of peace, Mr. Henry’s answer was: “Forbid it, Almighty God!” He then concluded, “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Yet, rest assured, cowardly deals with devils were not forbidden then, nor are they today. Spinelessness has been the rage all throughout human history. Saving one’s hide just generally beats out doing what’s right. Even when one’s life is nowhere close to being on the line.
Which is why tomorrow’s date matters to me. Sixty-seven years ago, three German youths — Sophie Scholl, her brother, Hans, and their friend Christoph Probst — were put to death by the Nazis. They were decapitated — guillotined — within hours of being found guilty in a sham trial.
Their crime? Standing up against the most evil crime imaginable.
The charge was treason — treason committed courageously against the Third Reich. Richard Hanser’s 1979 book on the subject is aptly titled, A Noble Treason: The Revolt of the Munich Students Against Hitler. Sadly, it’s now out of print.
The Scholls had a history of standing up to the Nazis. Hans was arrested in 1937 for involvement in the German Youth Movement, an unapproved group. In 1942, Hans and Sophie’s father, Robert, the former mayor of Forchtenberg, was imprisoned for several months for telling his secretary, “This Hitler is God’s scourge on mankind.”
So, perhaps it was no surprise that the Scholls helped organize a group known as The White Rose, comprised mainly of students at the University of Munich. These young people saw Hitler and the Nazis as pure, unadulterated evil — as a threat to all that is good and true.
They were convinced that most Germans felt the same way. But they knew most were too afraid to speak up, to stand up, and to resist the evil in front of them. After all, the price would almost assuredly be death, and life is mighty dear.
The White Rose dissidents found the courage to put the “lovely intangibles” of justice and decency and truth ahead of safety and life itself. In addition to painting “Down with Hitler” graffiti on buildings in Munich, the group produced six pamphlets from June 1942 until February 1943 urging Germans to rise up against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The leaflets were distributed to students at the University, where they caused quite a stir, as well as throughout Germany — some even made it to German-occupied countries.
The White Rose leaflets and anti-Nazi graffiti unnerved the Gestapo, which feared this brazen public rebuke to their authority might inspire others to rise up in opposition. In a state otherwise tormented into silence, the totalitarians were frustrated in their inability to find and crush this resistance.
Then, on February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie Scholl were caught distributing leaflets at the University, and promptly arrested. Hans was only 24 years old, Sophie just 21. Hans also carried a paper on him that implicated Christoph Probst, a 22-year old medical student, who was quickly arrested as well.
Afraid of public sympathy for these young people, the Nazi state moved quickly, putting the three on trial just four days later, on February 22. Roland Freisler, chief justice of the People’s Court of the Greater German Reich, came in to preside at the show trial. He lambasted and screamed at the three as traitors. At one point, the judge asked how the three could have been brought up in German society and yet turn against it. Sophie stoically responded, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare to express themselves as we did.”
The judge sentenced all three to death. Hours later, after the Scholls’ parents had visited Hans and Sophie at Stadelheim prison, and before Christoph Probst’s wife, who was in the hospital having their third child, could see her husband one last time, the three were taken to the guillotine. Hans Scholl’s last words were: “Es lebe die Freiheit!” (Long live freedom!).
The Scholls and Probst were not the last of The White Rose activists to die for speaking out. Co-conspirators Alexander Schmorell and Willi Graf were put to death later in 1943, as was University of Munich Professor Kurt Huber, who had helped the students. Others involved in the effort were sent to prison.
Professor Huber, less sure than his young friends (many of whom had witnessed the Eastern Front) that Germany would lose the war, said at his trial, “We do not want to fritter away our short lives in chains, even if they are golden chains of prosperity and power.”
Tomorrow, I’ll think about the revolt of the Munich students against Hitler. And I’ll think of Iran’s Green Revolution, where this very day people young and old risk their lives for freedom. And I’ll think of all the soldiers who have fought and died for our freedom. And of the heroism of folks you may not have read about in the history books and newspapers.
In remembering the tragic deaths of the White Rose fellowship, let’s take inspiration from their defiance of extravagant evil. We must never forget that, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.”
Townhall.com, February 21, 2010