The lessons of the White Rose and of cul­ti­vat­ing knowl­edge, com­pas­sion and courage on cam­pus

It was at a Munich uni­ver­sity that a group of stu­dents formed the White Rose move­ment to re­sist the Nazi regime. Their coura­geous ide­al­ism sets an ex­am­ple that, Ken­neth Asch hopes, con­tin­ues to flower on cam­puses

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

In towns and vil­lages around the world, pe­ri­odic com­mem­o­ra­tions arouse peo­ple to con­tem­plate mo­ments in his­tory that, as we promise our­selves, must never be per­mit­ted to hap­pen again. Among the more sig­nif­i­cant of these is the one held an­nu­ally at the main en­trance of LMU Munich.

This com­mem­o­rates the White Rose, the non-vi­o­lent Ger­man re­sis­tance move­ment whose un­timely demise at the hands of the Gestapo oc­curred 75 years ago this year. Led by stu­dents from the uni­ver­sity, the White Rose pro­duced and dis­trib­uted six re­mark­able pam­phlets de­nounc­ing the Nazi regime and urg­ing their fel­low cit­i­zens to op­pose it, be­fore the group’s prin­ci­pal mem­bers were ar­rested and ex­e­cuted in 1943, just eight months into their cam­paign.

This tragic yet in­spir­ing story has be­come well known around the world, but it is at LMU Munich that its legacy is most cher­ished. Since the end of the Sec­ond World War, the uni­ver­sity has hosted a per­ma­nent White Rose ex­hi­bi­tion and an an­nual me­mo­rial lec­ture.

A stylised white rose is also set into the paving at its main en­trance (pic­tured above), in Hans and So­phie Scholl Square (Geschwis­terS­choll-Platz). Cre­ated by the sculp­tor Robert Sch­midt-Matt, the flower is made up of var­i­ous doc­u­ments pro­duced by the move­ment’s pro­tag­o­nists, in­clud­ing a pam­phlet that was taken to the UK, re­pro­duced in millions and dropped by the RAF across Ger­many af­ter their ex­e­cu­tions. So­phie Scholl, the 21-year-old bi­ol­ogy and phi­los­o­phy stu­dent who is the most im­me­di­ately recog­nis­able face of the re­sis­tance move­ment, in­stinc­tively chose the rose as the em­blem of the re­sis­tance, see­ing in it a sym­bol of hu­man na­ture.

In a 2015 ar­ti­cle, New York Times writer Anna Sauer­brey sug­gested that “in­stead of try­ing to trans­fer a vague feel­ing of guilt to yet an­other gen­er­a­tion” – in other words, she might have added, pe­ri­od­i­cally sooth­ing the sense of shame while singing hymns and cit­ing

facts – “we should change from re­mem­ber­ing what we must never for­get to know­ing why”. Her at­tempt to un­der­stand what it is that drives peo­ple to com­mit the un­think­able thank­fully skirted the tired re­frain that his­tory has lessons to teach.

In these in­creas­ingly dis­qui­et­ing times, such his­tory de­serves se­ri­ous at­ten­tion – not least from stu­dents, to whom such des­per­ate events seem in­creas­ingly re­mote, even as they ev­i­dently slip back into pub­lic consciousness. Are there any who would re­spond with the brav­ery and hu­man­ity shown by So­phie and her brother Hans, along­side fel­low stu­dents Alexan­der Sch­morell, Willi Graf and Christoph Probst, as well as LMU pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy and mu­si­col­ogy, Kurt Hu­ber?

A clas­sic pho­to­graph shows So­phie in a ges­ture of spon­ta­neous af­fec­tion as she reaches out to em­brace the group (see above). Any­one fa­mil­iar with her let­ters and her diaries – in­deed her be­hav­iour to­wards those with whom she worked, notably those in author­ity – could not pos­si­bly mis­take the in­tegrity im­plicit in her ges­ture, her eyes, her smile. It is 1942 – sum­mer, to judge by the agree­able weather – and Hans and his mates are in army uni­form at the Ost­bahn­hof, Munich’s eastern rail­way sta­tion, pre­par­ing to leave for Rus­sia. How­ever re­laxed the lads ap­peared, the busi­ness on their hori­zon was of a deadly se­ri­ous na­ture, in which­ever di­rec­tion they dared to look. That calm fa­cade also con­ceals the ex­cep­tional courage in the ser­vice of their coun­try that has come uni­ver­sally to de­fine their ac­tions and legacy.

But would courage alone, as or­di­nar­ily un­der­stood, have suf­ficed to dis­tin­guish the young men from the cor­rupt sys­tem that had de­liv­ered them here? There is rea­son for doubt.

Com­ing as it does in many shapes and sizes, courage could be thought of as a func­tion of dis­ci­pline, but with no as­sur­ance that it will not mis­carry at the de­ci­sive mo­ment – as hap­pened in 1944 with the failed plot against Hitler’s life. The urge to com­pete and out­shine was in­trin­sic to the camp­ing, hik­ing, games and other in­vig­o­rat­ing ac­tiv­i­ties in which young Ger­mans of the 1930s were com­pelled to take part, save for the en­forced ex­cep­tion of Jews. Par­tic­i­pa­tion fast-tracked a cun­ning path from con­for­mity to fa­nati­cism, via ex­cite­ment and pas­sion. All of which shared a home be­hind a pre­tence of courage. The Hitler Youth was its name.

Nec­es­sary when White Rose mem­bers went off to dis­trib­ute their de­fi­ant leaflets in dis­tant places was courage of an­other di­men­sion al­to­gether. Cus­tom­ar­ily they trav­elled alone, late at night and by rail, ex­posed to spon­ta­neous po­lice in­spec­tions, de­mands for iden­tity doc­u­ments and ques­tions de­signed to in­tim­i­date. Of­ten they would be forced to ex­tem­po­rise an­swers that would ex­plain their pres­ence in places where they lacked per­mis­sion to be. Scru­tiny, sus­pi­cion and pun­ish­ments in­creased ex­po­nen­tially, clearly no­tice­able af­ter the dis­as­ter at Stal­in­grad, as Ger­many’s de­te­ri­o­rat­ing mil­i­tary sit­u­a­tion be­came pub­lic knowl­edge. The chance of ar­rest ex­isted with each word spo­ken: even a tone of voice or fa­cial ex­pres­sion could be mis­con­strued. Courage was in­ter­nalised and in­vis­i­ble; fear was a fact of life.

But such was the case for any­one in those days out in the streets or on the trams, or sim­ply go­ing about the daily or­deal of cop­ing be­hind closed doors. There were con­sid­er­able com­pletely un­her­alded ex­am­ples of nom­i­nally pas­sive re­sis­tance among ev­ery­day Ger­mans, whether tak­ing cover in protest when Brown­shirts were on the march or de­fac­ing prom­i­nent memo­ri­als such as Munich’s Log­gia. These were peo­ple sel­dom lack­ing in what com­monly passes for courage. They, too, risked ex­e­cu­tion for their trou­bles.

What, there­fore, ex­plains the phe­nom­e­non of the White Rose, pro­claimed where other sim­i­lar at­tempts on the sys­tem have in­creas­ingly been rel­e­gated to foot­notes of his­tory – in­clud­ing even the gen­er­als’ plot against Hitler, whose con­spir­a­tors boasted such prom­i­nent names as the aris­to­cratic Claus von Stauf­fen­berg and, prob­a­bly, the “Desert Fox” him­self, Er­win Rom­mel.

Courage – but with a sin­gu­lar twist – was ex­hib­ited by Alexan­der Sch­morell, a name as much to be ex­tolled as any­one’s in this no­table tale. Posted to the Eastern front, the 25-year-old Rus­sian-born med­i­cal stu­dent had long since re­jected the in­doc­tri­na­tions en­dured dur­ing his days with

the Hitler Youth. How oth­er­wise to de­scribe the oc­ca­sion when, out of sheer com­pas­sion for an­other hu­man be­ing, he of­fered a young Jewish girl in dis­tress his partly eaten ra­tions? Had he been dis­cov­ered by his po­lit­i­cally ob­sessed col­leagues in such an overt act of kind­ness, he would have been sum­mar­ily shot.

Want­ing noth­ing to do with any­one wear­ing the feared Ger­man uni­form, the un­for­tu­nate girl let the food drop to the ground. Awake to her sen­si­tiv­i­ties, he de­cided on an even more dra­matic to­ken of his con­vic­tions. Reach­ing for a nearby flower and plac­ing it with what he could res­cue of his food, he made an­other at­tempt. This time, she ac­cepted. Where­upon he turned to board the train that would re­turn him to Ger­many.

Look­ing around to catch a fi­nal sight of her, he was as­tounded by the im­age that greeted him. There she stood, clutch­ing her flower

– the food al­most in­ci­den­tal – and ges­tur­ing in mute ac­knowl­edge­ment of com­pas­sion so ut­terly un­ex­pected un­der the cir­cum­stances. His sim­ple ges­ture, it was clear, had struck a deep chord. Were ev­i­dence ever needed of al­tru­ism cross­ing bar­ri­ers of dis­tance, class, uni­form and pol­i­tics, here it is.

In Lewis Mile­stone’s 1930 film adap­ta­tion of All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Re­mar­que’s re­flec­tion on war, a sol­dier is ob­served dur­ing a brief lull in bat­tle dur­ing the First World War. He reaches out car­ingly to shield a pass­ing but­ter­fly from harm, pro­tect­ing its frag­ile beauty. A con­cealed en­emy sniper is si­mul­ta­ne­ously ob­served tak­ing deadly aim. How very evoca­tive of a rose and its thorns! The film’s ge­nius em­pha­sises the power of silent im­age and in­her­ent mes­sage – om­nipresent in good books, the arts and ex­pe­ri­ence of na­ture, but too of­ten too lit­tle un­der­stood, even by uni­ver­sity aca­demics.

But the mem­bers of the White Rose group would have been alive to such mes­sages. In her diary, So­phie Scholl ex­presses her sense of spir­i­tual well-be­ing “when I turn my head [and] my cheek grazes the rough trunk of the ap­ple tree next to me. How pro­tec­tively it spreads its good branches over me…The sap rises from its roots, nur­tur­ing even the small­est leaves.” Here, clearly, is an evo­ca­tion of the pos­i­tive in­flu­ence that she felt her bet­ters ex­erted upon her: par­tic­u­larly that of her par­ents, whose ex­pe­ri­ence and su­pe­rior knowl­edge were shared even among the fam­ily’s small­est mem­bers, but also beyond. To judge by their off­spring, Mag­da­lene and Robert Scholl must have been out­stand­ing par­ents.

Of his own par­ents, Sch­morell’s nephew, Markus, re­calls “their free­think­ing worldview and the en­light­ened re­spect that they had for their fel­low hu­man be­ings”. His fa­ther es­pe­cially pos­sessed the re­mark­able char­ac­ter­is­tic of “treat­ing every­one with­out any sense of dis­crim­i­na­tion, en­coun­ter­ing all with the same un­fail­ing spirit of good­will – in fact, I should re­ally say spir­i­tu­ally”.

This, then, was a pat­tern that, es­tab­lished early in life, stim­u­lated the learn­ing and wis­dom that the Scholls and the col­leagues they were to en­list to the cause sought out for them­selves as they ma­tured at LMU Munich. In­stances would be found among the wide range of books, art and mu­sic they pre­ferred and those with whom they shared sim­i­lar at­ti­tudes to­wards life, and by whom they would have ex­pected their in­di­vid­ual be­liefs and at­ti­tudes to be chal­lenged. This is as much to say that they all re­sponded to the no­tion of cul­ture – which, ac­cord­ing to Markus, “has new mean­ing with each new day; to help us bet­ter ob­serve and tell, to re­mem­ber and for­get, we study Homer, Tur­genev, Zweig, Kafka, Se­bald and Beck­ett”.

Such think­ing, strongly held and en­light­ened – rev­o­lu­tion­ary, in fact – helped to de­cide the early and vi­o­lent fate of the White Rose mem­bers. But it is ex­actly the think­ing that il­lus­trates the con­nec­tion be­tween learn­ing, wis­dom and good­ness that has been pro­claimed since an­cient times and that uni­ver­si­ties have sought, with greater or lesser suc­cess, to em­body and to im­press upon their stu­dents.

As the fi­nal cur­tain was com­ing down on this tragedy, it is per­haps not sur­pris­ing that lit­tle was recorded of the walk-on play­ers. Some de­serve men­tion, how­ever. They were close wit­ness to the pris­on­ers’ com­mend­able bear­ing, whether en­dur­ing the feared Gestapo in­ter­ro­ga­tions or, there­after, in court and fi­nally at Stadel­heim, the prison where they awaited ex­e­cu­tion.

Hav­ing ob­served with sym­pa­thy – a virtue not cus­tom­ar­ily as­so­ci­ated with the Gestapo – the poise and dig­nity with which she had re­sponded to him, So­phie’s in­ter­roga­tor, Robert Mohr, car­ingly re­turned her to her cell. Here she was greeted by a wel­come that, pre­pared con­trary to the rules by her cell­mate, Else Gebel, must have moved her to be­lieve that White Rose was in­deed mak­ing its mark. Pris­on­ers and guards from ev­ery cor­ner of the prison con­trib­uted what mod­est scraps of food and treats they pos­sessed in a ges­ture of pro­found­est es­teem evoked by the ac­counts that they had heard of the be­hav­iour of So­phie and her fam­ily.

Af­ter the trial, the elder Scholls rushed to Stadel­heim and, de­spite the reg­u­la­tions pro­hibit­ing it, talked their way into vis­it­ing their chil­dren. The prison’s staff, al­ready in ad­mi­ra­tion of them, turned a blind eye, at con­sid­er­able risk to them­selves.

In fact, all who came any­where near to the White Rose pris­on­ers felt im­pelled by their ev­i­dent courage and moral­ity, but most of all by their faith. On the day of his ex­e­cu­tion, the med­i­cal stu­dent Christoph Probst wrote to his mother, with a ma­tu­rity far beyond his 24 years: “Don’t be sad that I sprang over part of [life]. Soon I’ll be closer to you than ever. When I think about it, it’s the only way to God. I am dy­ing with­out any hate.”

But it is So­phie, preter­nat­u­rally sen­si­tive, in­tel­li­gent and mod­est, who could be said to best epit­o­mise the move­ment. Her deeply af­fect­ing and me­morable fi­nal words, as the guil­lo­tine’s blade was about to fall, speak vol­umes about White Rose. “How can we ex­pect righ­teous­ness to pre­vail when there is hardly any­one will­ing to give him­self up in­di­vid­u­ally to a right­eous cause?” she asked. “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?”

Is it pos­si­ble that a na­tion fa­mil­iar to his­tory for its bel­liger­ence can be trans­formed by the ex­am­ple of a hand­ful of such un­af­fected stu­dents? In­deed, could it be ar­gued that the suc­cess of Ger­many’s re­cent na­tional elec­tion, the out­come of peace­ful di­a­logue and com­pro­mise, might be at­trib­uted, at least in small part, to the White Rose ef­fect?

“Broadly speak­ing,” Markus Sch­morell re­flects, “it is true that White Rose was not very widely known [at the time]. But, cer­tainly, there were cir­cum­stances in which the re­sis­tance left its mark, un­sung as it might have been in the mo­ment.”

Stu­dents have typ­i­cally been ide­al­is­tic and more in­clined than most to self­less­ness. But White Rose, a story of the largely com­mon­place yet eter­nal af­fairs of hu­man­ity, could be said to be the archetype. The world hopes that this par­tic­u­lar strain of courage will never be re­quired again. But, equally, we must hope that it is still to be found some­where, some­how: in cer­tain corners of mod­ern cam­puses if nowhere else. Just in case. Ken­neth Asch is a free­lance jour­nal­ist. He stud­ied mu­sic at LMU Munich and pur­sued an opera ca­reer at the Bavar­ian State Opera. He is also di­rec­tor of Peace and Com­mem­o­ra­tion, a project at the Uni­ver­sity of Ox­ford that ex­am­ines the mod­ern rel­e­vance of an­cient Greek tragedy through words and mu­sic.

It is due to be launched at the Uni­ver­sity of Helsinki later this year, be­fore tour­ing the Europaeum net­work of uni­ver­si­ties.

Would courage alone, as or­di­nar­ily un­der­stood, have suf­ficed to dis­tin­guish the young men from the cor­rupt sys­tem that had de­liv­ered them here? There is rea­son for doubt

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