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< 12 Years That Shook the World Podcast

Bad Conscience

12 Years That Shook the World Podcast

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Members of The White Rose student resistance group. Pictured are Hans Scholl (left), Alexander Schmorell (second from left, hidden), Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst (right). —George J. Wittenstein (akg-images.co.uk)

Hans Scholl, his sister Sophie, and his friends at the University of Munich secretly form a resistance group called “The White Rose.” They distribute messages condemning the Nazi regime and speak out on behalf of Jews. Until one morning in 1943, they’re caught. Featuring Dr. Rebecca Dupas.

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Erin Harper
On this morning in February of 1943, Hans and Sophie Scholl don’t realize it’s the last time they will leave their apartment. Hans Scholl is 24, and his sister Sophie is 21. Both are university students in Munich, Germany. As they step out the door, Hans clutches the handle of his red suitcase.

Hans and Sophie wind through the neighborhood streets. They’re due at the University of Munich in a few minutes. They walk under the grand archways, and into the main building. Perfect timing. Their fellow students are still in lectures. The halls are quiet. Not a soul in sight.

Sophie unlatches the red suitcase, to reveal more than more than one thousand sheets of paper. Each is a leaflet with this important message: “Fellow Fighters in the Resistance! … There is but one slogan: Fight against the party!” In Nazi Germany in 1943, comments like this are considered treason. In fact, Hans and Sophie are being hunted by the Gestapo secret police for their ongoing criticism of the Nazi regime.

With minutes before class will end, Hans and Sophie run up the marble stairs and into the halls. They stack leaflets on the ground in front of each classroom—neatly piled, and waiting to be discovered. They empty their hands of the leaflets, and begin to rush out. But wait—Sophie realizes there are more leaflets. So she turns around, and climbs up to the third floor. Sophie looks over the balcony, down into the atrium. This time, she sends the last stack of leaflets fluttering into the air. But at that moment, Hans and Sophie don’t notice that someone is watching.

From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, this is 12 Years That Shook the World. I’m Erin Harper.

Hans and Sophie Scholl are teenagers when the Nazis come to power in 1933. Siblings—growing up in a small city in southern Germany. They’re Christian—so they’re not persecuted the way German Jews are. But their lives are changing in other ways.

Within a few years, the Nazis mandate that non-Jewish German teenagers must join the Hitler Youth programs—designed to win over young people to Nazi ideology. Hans and Sophie join the programs willingly. But initially, they don’t see that there’s no room for individuality.

Germany had only been a democracy for a short time when the Nazis came to power. They quickly dismantled many fundamental democratic rights, transforming Germany to a dictatorship. They suspended the right to free speech, the right to assembly, freedom of the press, and due process of law.

Dr. Rebecca Dupas
German citizens are learning that they, too, are losing rights.

Erin Harper
That’s Dr. Rebecca Dupas, program manager for the Initiative on the Holocaust and Civic Responsibility at the Museum.

Dr. Rebecca Dupas
People are learning often through mistake, that they can’t talk freely about what they heard their parents say over dinner. That the expectation is that they are to keep quiet and to go along with the flow.

Erin Harper
But Hans and Sophie have a unique upbringing. Their parents speak out against the Nazi Party within their home. And expose Hans and Sophie to the work of modern artists, and books that were banned by the Nazi Party. So with open minds—Hans and Sophie start to resist.

In one instance, Hans is chosen to carry a flag in a Nazi rally for his Hitler Youth program. He later reflected that the propaganda, the Nazi pagentry, the whole experience—it felt shallow. So instead, he carries on with friends, and makes his own version of a youth group. This eventually gets Hans in trouble—in 1937—when he and other members are arrested, questioned and forced to disband.

And in Sophie’s program, she proposed the group read the works of Heinrich Heine—a Jewish poet who had been banned by the Nazis. It didn’t go over well. Still, Sophie announced, “Whoever doesn’t know Heine, doesn’t know German literature.”

All the while, Hans and Sophie dream of studying at university. Hans enrolls at the University of Munich in 1939. Sophie joins him there in 1942. At university Hans forms a close group of friends—Alex, Willi, and Christoph. The young men are studying medicine. But together, they also spend hours reading poetry, and discussing literature. They share moral ideals, and a sense of right and wrong. So soon, the conversation turns to politics, and the role of members of society who live under the Nazi regime.

Dr. Rebecca Dupas
And while most of society was going in one direction, you had this very tight knit group of individuals who were supporting one another in their very unpopular opinion about the Nazis.

Erin Harper
Bonded by their trust, the young men form an anonymous group to resist the Nazis. They call themselves “The White Rose.”

Dr. Rebecca Dupas
Certainly, members of the White Rose were already doing dangerous work, so to speak, because they were pushing against a regime at a time where they were not supposed to say or do anything that was in opposition to Nazi ideology. And so it really does speak to the trust, because at any moment they could have been exposed. And then alongside that comes all of the consequences.

Erin Harper
In Nazi Germany, the punishment for speaking out against the regime is imprisonment, or execution. Hans keeps the group secret from Sophie—so she would be safe if they were ever caught. But despite the risks, members of the White Rose are beyond talk, and ready to act. Hans has the idea to write anonymous leaflets, and send them to Germans across the country. And in June of 1942, Hans and Alex load a typewriter with white paper. They go on and write that Nazism has robbed its citizens of spirit, free will and individuality—and turned them into a cowardly mass.

Dr. Rebecca Dupas
I think they were attempting to awaken a people who they deemed to be asleep or inactive at a time when it was quite important to act. They’re essentially saying we are better than this. Members of the White Rose are really expecting German citizens to rise to the occasion to be a better people in terms of their push back to the Nazi regime.

For instance, in that first pamphlet, it’s really a call to action—almost insulting of German people—that they appear to be spineless and will-less at the time. And so they’re using these very, very powerful words that, of course, are going to evoke emotion and move the German people forward.

Erin Harper
The White Rose leaflets turn up all over Munich. And it’s not long before Sophie discovers one of them. As she reads, the words sound familiar. She confronts Hans with her suspicions that he has something to do with it. And that she wants to participate. After debate among the members—they reveal themselves as the authors, and welcome Sophie into the White Rose.

The group steps up their leaflet distribution. They buy a hand-crank duplicating machine to make copies. To avoid suspicion, the group members split up to buy paper, envelopes, and stamps in small quantities. They fold the leaflets, stuff them into envelopes. They mail them to students, intellectuals, and strangers—anyone who might sympathize with the movement. They also mail them to random addresses in the phone book.

Eventually, the White Rose leaflets appear in 16 major cities across Germany—in mail boxes, on parked cars, in phone booths. Sometimes total strangers make copies and distribute them. It gave the illusion of a national campaign against the Nazis. The White Rose operation had achieved the impossible. They were mass communicating their ideas at a time when the Nazis obsessively controlled messaging.

That summer, Hans and Alex write three more leaflets. In their writing, they spell out the truth that the Nazis are killing Jews en masse. They report that, since the invasion of Poland that started WWII, 300,000 Jews had been murdered. The White Rose members heard this from a friend who’d been to war on the Eastern Front, and saw the German killing machine with his own eyes. He witnessed Jews being shot at mass graves.

Of course, many more Jews had been murdered by the Nazis at this point. The Nazis tried to keep their crimes against Jews a secret, but rumors had been circulating for years. So when Germans read Hans’s leaflet—do they believe it?

Dr. Rebecca Dupas
Some people don’t want to believe it. But there is a certain ease in not knowing. There is a lack of accountability in not knowing. And so for many German citizens, making the decision comes with responsibility. Once you have information and you accept that information, there is this internal push to do something about it. It was really, really hard for anybody to wrap their mind around where the Nazis were going, that this would have resulted in the death of six million Jews and millions of others. So I think it's fair to say that many Germans didn't believe it, and didn't necessarily want to believe it.

Erin Harper
In another leaflet, the White Rose calls on Germans to passively resist the Nazis.

Dr. Rebecca Dupas
Often when we hear about resistance, we think about physical resistance, fighting, revolt, you know, killing things of that nature. And those things did happen, if we study the partisans and the uprising in some of the ghettos and the concentration camps. But resistance is also—it’s spiritual. Sometimes it is not this overt action.

Erin Harper
Hans and Alex describe passive resistance—ways Germans can oppose the party non-violently. Such as undermining the war effort by not giving money to the party, or refusing to read Nazi propaganda. And convincing friends to do the same.

By July of 1942, three years into World War II, Hans, Alex and Willi have to face a new reality. As medical students, they’re required to serve a three-month tour-of-duty as medics on the Eastern Front of the war. But before packing their bags, they write their final leaflet of the summer. They focus on the senselessness of the war. Their final line reads: “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.” And the young men board the train bound for the Soviet Union.

Their first stop is in Warsaw, in German-occupied Poland. There, the young men see something that would rattle them to their core. The Nazis have constructed a ghetto, with 10-foot walls all around. Inside, the Nazis confine more than 400,000 Jews—facing starvation, disease, and fear. Hans witnesses this suffering. In a letter to his parents, Hans writes, “It would sicken me to stay in Warsaw any longer. There are half-starved children whimpering for bread. ... A sense of doom is all around.” This same month, the Nazis begin the mass deportation of Jews from this ghetto to the Treblinka killing center. Hans and his friends get back on the train. They arrive in Soviet Union, where they serve for three months. There, they witness a failing war. They return to Germany in November of 1942.

Dr. Rebecca Dupas
Hans’s story is a powerful testament to what happens when we serve as a witness. He leaves changed, and he’s carrying back to his university a reality. I think, of course, in my opinion, that it really just exacerbated his very personal desire for greater action from German people.

Erin Harper
By January of 1943, the White Rose members are back at the University and ready to share a new message. Hans and Alex load the typewriter. They write, “Hitler cannot win the war, he can only prolong it.” They make 6,000 copies.

But the young men are still charged by the image of war. So they sneak out in the middle of the cold nights. They slip through the dark streets in Munich where police are patrolling. With black and green paint, they slather on the side of buildings, giant letters, reading: “Down with Hitler!” “Hitler Mass Murderer!” and “Freedom!” Their graffiti makes headlines, along with a report about leaflets appearing across the city. By now, an estimated 7,000 White Rose leaflets have been found in major cities in Germany. The Gestapo begins a manhunt, and offers a monetary reward for information on who’s responsible.

Dr. Rebecca Dupas
When we reflect on the paint on the wall, when we reflect on the continuance of the leaflets, I think that for them it was about continuing to spread awareness. But I’m also feeling a very, very personal motivation on behalf of Hans and other members of the White Rose where they’re standing in their convictions. And it may feel to them like that's all they have.

Erin Harper
By now, members of the White Rose have invited their philosophy professor—Kurt Huber—into the resistance group. Professor Huber writes what will become the White Rose’s final leaflet. His message is a call to action to German youth. He writes, “Fight against the Nazi Party. Fight for freedom of opinion.” They make more than 2,000 copies, and immediately stuff hundreds in the mail.

But more than one thousand leaflets remain. Hans suggests they get them directly in the hands of students on campus the next morning. Sure, it’s a dangerous move. But they’ll go while class is in session. They’ll lay the leaflets around the hall, and sneak out before anyone notices. Sophie offers to help Hans. So that night, they stuff the remaining leaflets into a red suitcase.

The next morning—Thursday, February, 18. This is the day their lives begin to shatter. Hans and Sophie arrive at the University, and quickly unload leaflets on the ground. Then Sophie heads to the top of the stairs. She sends the last stack of leaflets tumbling down, three stories below.

But Hans and Sophie don’t realize they’re no longer alone in the hall. Jakob Schmidt, the university custodian, has started his morning inspection. Jakob wasn’t like them. He was a loyal member of the Nazi Party. As Jakob looks up, he sees the leaflets fall. He runs up the stairs to see who threw them. When he reaches Hans and Sophie, he sees that Sophie holding the red suitcase. So Jakob corners Sophie and Hans. Students begin to pour out of the lecture halls and into the atrium. They pick up the leaflets and begin reading.

Then the Gestapo arrives. That Thursday morning, Hans and Sophie are arrested, and separated. They’re interrogated for 17 hours. Initially, Hans and Sophie deny any involvement with the White Rose leaflet campaign. But the Gestapo is searching Hans’s room. There, they find hundreds of unused postage stamps, ready to mail out more leaflets. Eventually, Hans and Sophie each confess that they, alone, are responsible for the leaflets. But in another turn of fate, the Gestapo discovers Hans is hiding a paper in his pocket. It’s a handwritten draft of the White Rose’s next leaflet. The handwriting, they discover, belongs to Hans’ friend and fellow White Rose member, Christoph Probst. Christoph is arrested within hours. Hans, Sophie, and Christoph are thrown in separate jail cells on Friday. By Sunday, they’re charged with acts of treason, and told they will stand trial the next day.

It’s Monday, February 22, 1943. At 9 a.m., Hans, Sophie and Christoph are taken to the Palace of Justice in Munich. Tickets to watch the trial were given to high-ranking members of the Nazi Party. The courtroom is full of men in uniform. The presiding judge enters the courtroom wearing a red robe. He leads the proceedings yelling, and ridiculing the accused—saying they’re worthless Germans. At one point, Sophie interrupts him and says “What we said and wrote are what many people are thinking. They just don’t dare say it outloud.” Then, the verdict. For alleged acts of treason—Hans, Sophie, and Christoph are all sentenced to death. They’re handcuffed, and taken back to prison.

Hans and Sophie’s parents have hopes of commuting their children’s sentences. But the Nazis have other plans. At 5 p.m., Hans, Sophie, and Christoph are taken from their prison cells, and led across the courtyard into a room with a guillotine. There, they would be beheaded by the executioner. Sophie is first, then Hans, and Christoph. As Hans is lead in, he yells “Long live freedom!” Three hours after the trial, they were dead.

Dr. Rebecca Dupas
Certainly the swift execution was about continuing to send a message. It sends a message to others about the position of the Nazis and their refusal to tolerate what they deem to be treasonous behavior. And they use the White Rose as an example that there’s a consequence that awaits them.

Erin Harper
It was neither the first nor last time the Nazis executed those who resisted or spoke out against the regime. In the months following, other members of the White Rose were arrested and tried. Alex, Willi, and Professor Huber were also executed. Nearly a dozen others associated with the White Rose received prison sentences.

Dr. Rebecca Dupas
When we think about the White Rose, it teaches us a great deal about conformity. Why didn’t Hans and Sophie and the others in the White Rose go along with the grain? What made it what made them different? They were willing to die for this cause.

Erin Harper
At a young age, Hans and Sophie watched their democracy crumble. And while most members of society kept quiet, they insisted on their right to protest.

Dr. Rebecca Dupas
And their protest was unique. They had their own unique way of protesting a government that they disagreed with. And if anything, I feel that the White Rose serves as an example of being creative in your protest and being committed to that. So in some ways, a story as tragic as it is, it’s still quite inspirational to think that young people were willing to push back at the face of death.

Erin Harper
In the months following their deaths, news about the White Rose resistance movement spread across Europe. British forces obtained the White Rose’s final leaflet, and made thousands of copies. They dropped the leaflets from aircraft, raining them down on cities across Germany. But by this time, the Nazi regime had doubled down—and called for “total war.” They focused every aspect of German life on the war effort, and vowed to severely punish all those who resist. And the war would go on for two more years.

Long after his death, we’ve come to understand something more about Hans Scholl. Remember when Hans was arrested in 1937 for being part of an unsanctioned youth group? Hans was also charged under Nazi laws that targeted gay men and boys, and criminalized their behavior.

A few days after his arrest, the Nazis indicted Hans for having a romantic relationship with a boy in his secret youth group. And, it was true. Hans’ relationship was thoroughly investigated by the Gestapo, and he was held in prison for six weeks. In the prison cell, he wrote a letter to his mother. He said, “I raised myself up against my inner struggles and also discussed it with the boy… I was washed clean. But now ... I must face my punishment.”

On trial, Hans pleaded guilty, and said, “I can only justify my actions on the basis of the great love I felt….” Hans made a positive impression on the court, and his commanding officer put in a good word for him. Ultimately, the judges dismissed Hans, and wrote the charges off as youthful misjudgment.

Hans, too was a victim of the Nazi regime. We don’t know if Hans would have considered himself gay. We do know that after his death, his family didn’t speak of this charge against him. They may have feared that it would be used against Hans, to tarnish his reputation. But it leaves us wondering, was Hans’ persecution by the Nazis, part of his motivation to resist in the White Rose? And did that persecution influence his final words that echoed through the courtyard, when Hans said, “Long live freedom.”

From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, this is 12 Years That Shook the World. I’m Erin Harper.

Joining us today was Dr. Rebecca Dupas, program manager for the Initiative on the Holocaust and Civic Responsibility at the Museum. Our story is informed by the works of authors Toby Axelrod, Annette Dumbach, Ulrich Herrmann, Jud Newborn, Inge Scholl, and Robert M. Zoske.

Our show is produced by myself. Our stories are researched by Meredith Gui. This podcast is funded in part by support from the Crown Family Philanthropies and from Laura Ginns and Family. Listeners, we want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this episode. Send an email to podcast@ushmm.org, or talk to us on social media. We are @HolocaustMuseum. If you love our show, please follow us on your favorite podcast app. Thanks for listening.

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