Hans Schöll, Sophie Schöll, Christoph Probst, 1942
SOPHIE'S CHOICE: CHRISTOPH PROBST & THE SCHÖLL SIBLINGS
"We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!" - Motto of the White Rose Movement (Munich, 1942-1943)
I first learned of "The White Rose" movement in my teens, when reading one volume of a lurid, British-made multi volume paperback picture book series on the Second World War, which was then specifically marketed to teenaged males with an unhealthy interest in Nazi Germany: it was entitled "Hitler’s War Volume 24: Resistance In Nazi Europe" or some such. Bright red cover, lots of swastikas, endless garish black and white photographs of barbed wire and prisoners, etc etc. Very un-PC.
I can still remember vividly the book's laconic description of the execution of the leaders of The White Rose circle. Hans and Sophie Schöll, two college students, were arrested by the Gestapo for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets on the campus of the University of Munich in February, 1943, only two weeks after the destruction of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Their friend and co-conspirator, Christoph Probst, was arrested shortly thereafter. "They were convicted after a show trial and sentenced to death; they were executed the same day. Sophie went first, beheaded in the city prison. Next went her brother. As the blade fell, Hans Schöll shouted, ‘Es leibe die Frieheit!’ (Long live freedom!) Probst followed."
And that was all I ever knew of the White Rose.
I recently encountered a movie in the foreign language section of the our local video shop--in German, with English subtitles. It was entitled "Sophie Schöll: Die Letze Täge" ("Sophie Schöll: The Final Days"), a 2005 German language film starring Julia Jentsch.
(I suppose that I should say 'spoiler alert' here; however, it's like saying 'spoiler alert' before reviewing Titanic. The ship sinks; the girl dies; if you don't know that going in, why are you even watching the movie?)
I have to admit I was a little suspicious of the movie before I started it. From what I read, Hans, not Sophie, had been the leader of the Rose, under the direction of their philosophy professor, Kurt Huber (who was eventually also executed for his involvement, along with a number of others).
Sophie was a junior partner in the White Rose, notable only because she was the only woman actually executed therefor (the other women involved all went to prison). To make her the chief martyr in the story when she was not the leader struck me as somehow attempting to romanticize a horror.
I thought it possible that they were emphasizing her participation for some ideological reason or, worse, as a marketing tool. And to some extent I was right: Sophie had been a very pretty girl with a winsome manner, and Julia Jentsch, the actress portraying her, is very shapely; the movie took advantage of this by showing her in various stages of undress that, while not nudity, still struck me as a little .... unseemly, given the subject matter.
But. How little I knew about Sophie Schöll.
It seems that the transcripts of both the Gestapo investigation and the trial itself had been in the hands of the East German Stasi from the end of the war. In 1990, they were recovered from Stasi archives. Although the transcripts themselves are as yet unpublished, the script writers were given access to them -- and they used it as the basis of the film. Almost every single word in the movie is drawn from the historical record. They took exacting pains to make the movie almost a picture perfect reproduction of that dark time of the winter of 1943.
The portrait of this eminently intelligent, deeply faithful young woman so revealed is stunning. The Nazis, in executing this young woman, barely 21 years old, clearly killed not merely a martyr and a saint, but also a first class intellect and a most gifted philosophical mind.
The only comparison I can draw to her battle of wits with her Gestapo interrogator is to A Man for All Seasons, another story of a Christian soul beheaded for "treason." But while St. Thomas More was in the flower of his manhood when he died, a trained attorney of the highest order and fully capable of self defense, this girl was barely out of her teens: and yet she argued valiantly, first in defense of her friends, and then in defense of her ideas, in a stream of oratory that would have done St. Thomas proud.
The movie begins with Sophie and her best friend, Geselle, singing a Billie Holliday song as it plays on the grammaphone: the volume turned down, not to not disturb the neighbors, but rather to avoid the neighbors reporting them to the secret police.
As one reviewer put it: "This is not a period piece, but a horror film." Indeed. Who can imagine being put in a camp merely for listening to jazz? But that was the reality of the day.
Then Sophie leaves her friend’s apartment and joins her circle of friends, the White Rose, as they prepare leaflets for distribution – by mailing them to public persons (bar owners, barbers, doctors, folks who would come in contact with many people). When it is discovered that wartime shortages have made envelopes scarce, the decision is taken to distribute the flyers on campus.
Sophie and Hans volunteer: the scene where they are surreptitiously placing the flyers in the lecture hall atrium was amusingly familiar to this old univerity radical. But it was also an exercise in shaming the proud. Now this was courage! Never once did any of us face the headsman for publishing our (now rather embarrassingly) trivial opinions on campus; we were merely ridiculed.
Naturally the pair are caught; a janitor sees them and turns them in–-both out of loyalty to his Nazi regime, and out of annoyance at having to clean up the leaflets.
At first she resists the interrogation, trying to convince the Gestapo policeman interviewing her that she was just an innocent bystander going home to get her laundry.
Eventually, after her mask breaks and she admits that she helped write and distribute the leaflets, it becomes clear that her fate is sealed. The group’s efforts to shield one another –- in particular their fellow Christoph Probst, whose wife had just had a child –- were a failure.
The heart of the movie, indeed the heart of the entire incident, is her interrogation by the Gestapo functionary, one Inspector Robert Mohr. Mohr, it must be said, was not explicitly a monster; at no point was the girl tortured physically, as you might expect (another inmate at the jail later wrote that "he was actually relatively humane by Gestapo standards"). In point of fact, his actions are not unlike that of Pilate; he tries very hard to give Sophie an out, to allow her to denounce her brother's actions as misguided and as such to avoid execution.
He was, nevertheless, a pathetic functionary. He could not see beyond the end of his nose, beyond obedience. The Nazis, he said, had made him, taken him from his old job as a low level border policeman and made him Somebody. "I owe loyalty to the Party and to the Fuhrer," he says, in an argument (essentially, loyalty by bribery -- 'Stay Bought!') that would be repeated in various forms by everyone confronting the White Rose.
Her answer rang to the heavens. Because the German people are not mere slaves to the party. They don’t want victory. They want peace -– compassion –- empathy! Hitler cannot win this war. He can only prolong it. Somebody must take the first step back to sanity. No. Someone must say ‘no.’ We were merely the first.
And again: when Mohr asserts that the retarded children executed by the Reich were "unworthy of life," her answer is immediate and sharp: "Jede Leben ist kostbar!" Every life is precious! "Nobody knows what goes through the mind of the mentally ill." This, a lesson we have now forgotten.
When we think of the Nazis, we often think of them as a sort of cartoon character--the dreaded "SS Colonel Von Sippenhaft" You know, monacle, stiff right arm, robotic characteristics, the kind of Nazis one finds in the Indiana Jones movies.
The reality is far more prosaic, depressing, and terrifying. Inspector Mohr was, truly, much more typical of most Nazis: a pathetic droid, perhaps well meaning sometimes, but certainly not enough to deter him from committing horrors beyond imagination, and then forgetting having done any such thing. As Nietzsche put it: "My memory says, 'I did this.' My pride says, 'I did not do this.' Eventually, pride prevails."
In the end, Mohr clearly fails in his attempt to get the girl to renounce her actions; appropriately, he signals his abjuration of further responsibility by washing his hands.
Next follows a trial scene that can only be described as something out of a nightmare. The Nazis were still reeling from the surrender at Stalingrad only two weeks earlier, and were terrified of a dolchstoss, a ‘stab in the back’ (that is, a revolt) from the folks back home of the sort that led to the collapse in November 1918. They decided to pull out all stops and make public examples of these three.
They accordingly sent to Munich their most demonic prosecutor: one Roland Freisler, "President of the People’s Court", who must have be the source of the stereotype of the evil overbearing Nazi. He it was who sentenced the July 20 Hitler assassins to death by piano wire the following year; he it was who, I am pleased to report, was killed during an American bombing raid on Berlin in 1945.
Resplendent in a blood red robe, he sat on the bench and screamed at them. The trial (if you can call it that) of the three leafleteers by Freisler essentially consisted of each of the three being berated by a shrieking hysteric. (I should also add that the court-appointed weasel they called a "defense attorney" made this sometime court-appointed defense attorney's stomach turn.)
The first of the three, Probst, having three children for whom he was responsible, tried to escape the death penalty through self abasement. (To tell the truth, watching him beg for his life was one of the most painful parts of the movie.) Hans came next, holding himself up well – he was, after all, both a combat veteran and only a few semesters short of his MD and more than held his own against Freisler.
But it was Sophie, the last of the three, who shone like the sun. "Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don't dare express themselves as we did...Are we to be an outcast nation, forever scorned by the peoples of the world?"
There is a moment in the movie that will always haunt me: Sophie standing before her prosecutor, her judge, her useless defense attorney: Nazis before her, Nazis behind, she glows like an angel before the faceless lemures that presume to judge her.
It is an Ecce Homo moment, where an unarmed prophet confronts armed sheep. Moments like this resound through history. We see Moses before Pharaoh, and Daniel outside of the lion's den; we see it with John the Baptist, in his dungeon, looking up at the weeping Herod who begs him to let himself be released. We see Thomas More before his royal judges, or Gandhi before General Smuts, asking for a shilling for a ride home. We see Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow before the Soviets, or any of a thousand saints and heroes through history whose "guilt" shines like a beacon to all mankind as they are "judged" by mindless authoritarians unworthy to unloosen their sandals.
For their courage, Sophie Schöll, along with her brother Hans Schöll and Christoph Probst, were given the ultimate punishment that the Nazis could give forth: death by guillotine.
They were executed the same day. As "citizens" of the Reich, they was granted certain small comforts denied most Nazi victims: they allowed Sophie and Hans to see their parents for a few minutes, before the execution. And when her father looked into her eyes and said, "You did the right thing. I am proud of you," the gratitude in her eyes in response, and the stiffening of her spine, showed how much it meant.
It was made clear that these two youths were not merely made heroes: they were raised to be heroes by parents who knew what they were doing. Their martyrdoms redounded to the full credit of their parents, who deserve to share in their glory. (I wish I could take credit for this insight, but I found it in a review of the movie somewhere or other on the Web. Nevertheless it bears repeating.)
So, then, let her parents, too, be remembered as Tattered Remnants: their names were Robert and Magdalena Scholl. (Robert was mayor of the city when he was driven from office for refusal to become a Nazi; he and Magdalena bore much suffering in their own right. They also lost a third child in the war: Werner, who went missing in action in June 1944, and a fourth child, Thilde, had died in infancy.)
As Sophie was led away (by two executioners dressed, most incongruously, in top hats and tails, looking like funeral directors), her last words expressed her hope both in the future and in the Christ she clearly adored. "The Sun is still shining!" she said as they took her to meet her God.
The final scene was filmed in the very room in which the real Sophie was executed, using the very guillotine that brought the real Sophie to her death, a room, perversely, now used as part of the Munich city morgue.
I have compared Sophie’s self-defense to Thomas More’s. I should however note that not all is parallel between the two cases. More’s dilemma was that he could neither lie in his self defense (by signing the King’s loyalty oath) nor could he speak the truth lest he die for it: hence his ‘prophecy by silence.’ Anything he said would have been used against him, so he did not speak. ‘But Man God made to serve Him wittily, in the tangles of the mind!’ His enemy Thomas Cromwell got around this by the simple expedient of finding a toady willing to lie under oath about More.
Sophie, on the other had, did not hesitate to lie, and lie quite convincingly at first, to avoid execution for her involvement with the White Rose. She almost managed to talk her way into release. Nevertheless, the time came when her facade broke and she was forced to admit the truth to Inspector Mohr: "Yes, I did it. And I’m proud of it."
While More did everything he could to avoid martyrdom, after a certain point it became clear that Sophie was actively embracing it. (More did, too, but only after it became clear that his execution was inevitable.) I do not know whether daring the Devil to crucify you is morally permissible, but I daresay it’s very, very risky, and not just to your flesh.
Inspector Mohr, himself an actual historical personage, is also an interesting character in his own right. He clearly comes to respect this young woman, and not merely because she is pretty. But he cannot understand her involvement, her active choice of death over loyalty to her people. What could possibly have perverted this admirable Aryan girl, he wonders, to turn away from the Volk? The possibility that she was motivated, not by racial loyalty, but by loyalty to the higher ideal we used to call Man, seems never to have occurred to him. And yet, in spite of his acting as an agent of her destruction, his admiration for this girl became clearly manifest, both in the interrogation room and in her final minutes, when he came to silently salute her prior to her execution.
Sophie Schöll, aged 21 when she died, now has more than 100 schools named after her in the new united Germany; she and her brother have a square named for them at the University; another, Professor-Huber-Platz, is named for their mentor. Sophie's small but significant place in history seems secure. To paraphrase M. Scott Peck, she, like Christ, was raised on a crosstree by the Evil One, and this was allowed by God so that we might see her from afar.
Sophie and Hans and Christoph are, in the words of blogger Jeannette Pryor, "the patron saints of the independent media". I would indeed nominate them at the very least as the patron saints of bloggers (along with St. Joan of Arc).
At the end of another excellent German-language movie concerning the period, Der Untergang ("Downfall"), about the final collapse of the Nazi regime, there is a film clip of an aged woman, remembering. Her name is Traudl Junge, and she was a young woman during the Nazizeit; she had been Hitler's personal secretary and typist. That movie closes with a quote which is as magnificent a tribute to Sophie as can be spoken:
I was shocked, deeply shocked, by what I heard from the Nuremberg trials, but I was satisfied that I had no personal responsibility, and I could not trace what happened to the Jews and other races to anything I had personally done.... not until many years later, when I was walking past the memorial to Sophie Schöll--I saw that she and I were born in the very same year, and she was executed the same month I began to work for the Fuhrer, and it struck me, that I could have found things out, that I should have found things out, if I really had tried.
Allow me also to recommend that you examine this article on the subject: The Line.
I should note that others were later executed for their participation in the White Rose.* However, the Scholl siblings and Probst are the most prominent. Of the three, there is a reason I list the most obscure first. I mentioned that Christoph Probst’s attempt to save his own life (for the sake of his children) through self abasement was painful to watch. Nevertheless, it should be said that history records that his demeanor at his own execution was as courageous as those of his friends.
ADDENDUM: ON CHRISTOPH PROBST
Anyone who might consider themselves martyr material ("she thought she might make a martyr if they killed her quickly" - Flannery O'Connor) should consider Cristoph Probst as both a warning and as an example. As we discussed above, he attempted to avoid execution by invoking his children and, in essence, begging Roland Friesler for mercy. But there was no mercy, there and then, to be had.
Perhaps he debased his martyrdom somewhat by begging as he did. Perhaps: but he had three children to raise and raising them remained his responsibility. But history remembers that even Thomas More did his best to dodge martyrdom. There is no sin in wanting to live, particularly when one has the responsibility of parenthood at hand.
He was conditionally baptized shortly before his execution and accepted into the Catholic Church. His last words were said to be, "Now my death will be easy and joyful."
When the time came, he still went to his death with his head held high. He too is seen from afar. His sacrifice was not in vain. And his name, too, is remembered with honor: Probststraße runs near the Geschwestern-Schöll-Platz in Munich.
*Other members of the White Rose were executed later, including Alexander Schmorell and Prof. Kurt Huber who were beheaded on 13 July 1943, Willi Graf who died on 12 October 1943, as well as others. Still other members of the group were sentenced to prison.