What I found most interesting in the book The White Rose (1952) were the leaflets you produced and distributed, together with your brother and a group of like-minded friends: those leaflets were at once abstract and passionate; concrete and mystical. They read very much like a combination of different (sometimes even dissonant) voices set in a strange harmony; a kind of a capella song, calling for passive resistance against Hitler’s regime. The leaflets are essays on dissent, civil courage, and honour, appealing to the citizen’s moral sense and intellect.
Rather than offering an interpretation of the events involving the anti-Nazi group you belonged to, the book is, primarily, your sister’s account of your life and of the activities led by the eponymous non-violent resistance movement, in Munich, over the period between June 1942 and February 1943. Targeted at students, Inge’s book not only collects the movement’s leaflets, but also court documents and transcripts, statements by people who knew you, and a couple of newspaper articles. It doesn’t discuss in detail how the leaflets were written, nor what prompted you and Hans to act as you did. However, as an introductory book on the White Rose, I prefer it to be so – instead of being led by an author’s perspective, we are driven to read four ourselves the primary sources on the subject.
The first leaflet, written in June 1942, opens with a punch direct in the face: “Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be ‘governed’ by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct.” Quoting from Friedrich Schiller’s “The Lawgiving of Lycurgus and Solon” (“The state is never an end in itself; (…) If a state prevents the development of the capacities which reside in man, then it is reprehensible and injurious”), you condemn fascism as a form of government that stifles personal growth expression and oppresses the weak and the different. “Goethe speaks of the Germans as a tragic people, like the Jews and the Greeks, but today it would appear rather that they are a spineless, will-less herd of hangers-on, who now – the marrow sucked out of their bones, robbed of their center of stability – are waiting to be hounded to their destruction.” In a direct indictment of Hitler’s regime, you argue that, by means of systematic abuse, it has “put every man into a spiritual prison”. Highlighting that “every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure”, the leaflet urges the citizens to take action: “If the German people are already so corrupted and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand (…) if they surrender man’s highest principle, that which raises him above all other God’s creatures, his free will (…) if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass – then, yes, they deserve their downfall.” The leaflet closes with a quote from Goethe’s “The Awakening of Epimenides”, Act II, Scene 4: “HOPE: Now I find my good men/ Are gathered in the night,/ To wait in silence, not to sleep./ And the glorious word of liberty/ They whisper and murmur,/ Till in unaccustomed strangeness,/ On the steps of our temple/ Once again in delight they cry: Freedom! Freedom!”
In the second leaflet, written in 1942, the indictment of the regime continues: “It is impossible to engage in intellectual discourse with National Socialism because it is not an intellectually defensible program” – at its very beginning, the regime depended on deception and betrayal, and could support itself only by constant lies. It goes on to criticize Hitler’s ‘book’: “a book written in the worst German I have ever read, in spite of the fact that it has been elevated to the position of the Bible in this nation of poets and thinkers.” Criticising the regime’s persecution of its opponents, the leaflet compares the Nazi-movement to a cancer spreading and a tumour braking open. It goes on to openly address the atrocities against Jews, stating that hundred thousands of them have been murdered “in the most bestial way”, in “the most frightful crime against human dignity”. It questions why German people have behaved so apathetically in face of all this, and the document closes with a quote by Lao Tzu.
The third leaflet, written between 1942 and early 1943, begins by claiming that “all ideal forms of government are utopias”, and the state must grow in the same way human being mature. “The state should exist as a parallel to the divine order, and the highest of all utopias, the civitas dei.” It goes on to argue that everyone has a claim to a fair state, “a state which secures the freedom of the individual as well as the good of the whole.” It then denounces the Nazi regime as a “dictatorship of evil”, and calls for passive resistance: “Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right – or rather, your moral duty – to eliminate this system?” Furthermore, the leaflet gives practical advice on how to contribute to the overthrow of the system by the cooperation of many like-minded people: sabotage in war industries, in public ceremonies, in areas of scholarship which further the continuation of war; sabotage in “all cultural institutions which could potentially enhance the “prestige” of the fascists”, and in all publications, all newspapers that defend the Nazi ideology. “Do not hide your cowardice behind a cloak of expediency, for with every new day that you hesitate, failing to oppose this offspring of Hell, your guilt, as in a parabolic curve, grows higher and higher.” It ends with a quote of Aristotle’s “Politics”: “… and further, it is part [of the nature of tyranny] to strive to see to it that nothing is kept hidden of that which any subject says or does, but that everywhere he will be spied upon,… and further, to set man against man and friend against friend, and the common people against the privileged and the wealthy. Also, it is part of these tyrannical measures, to keep the subjects poor, in order to pay the guards and the soldiers, and so that they will be occupied with earning their livelihood and will have neither leisure nor opportunity to engage in conspiratorial acts…”
The fourth leaflet, written between 1942 and early 1943, begins by stating that the group is trying to bring about a renewal from within the “severely wounded German spirit”, a kind of rebirth that must be preceded by a recognition of guilt and “an uncompromising battle against Hitler and his all too many minions, party members, Quislings, and the like…” It admonishes: “He who won’t listen will have to feel.” Then, the leaflet goes on to mention the war efforts (“It is the time of the harvest, and the reaper cuts into the ripe grain with wide strokes”) and to criticise the regime’s attitude to its losses (“Hitler feeds with lies those people whose most precious belongings he has stolen and whom he has driven to a meaningless death”). Furthermore, it states boldly: “Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed.”
Then, the leaflet goes on to more mystical territory, and argues that, although the group aims to conduct resistance through the use of rational means, they do not doubt that the Nazi regime incorporates demonic powers: “Behind the concrete, the visible events, behind all objective, logical considerations, we find the irrational element (…) Everywhere and at all times demons have been lurking in the dark, waiting for the moment when man is weak; when of his own volition he leaves his place in the order of Creation as founded for him by God in freedom; when he yields to the force of evil, separates himself from the powers of a higher order; and after voluntarily taking the first step, he is driven on to the next and the next at a furiously accelerating rate. Everywhere and at all times of greatest trial men have appeared, prophets and saints who cherished their freedom, who preached the One God and who His help brought the people to a reversal of their downward course. Man is free, to be sure, but without the true God he is defenceless against the principle of evil. He is a like rudderless ship, at the mercy of the storm, an infant without his mother, a cloud dissolving into thin air.” The leaflet then quotes Novalis and the Ecclesiastes, and closes by making a bold admonition: “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!”
The following leaflet (‘Leaflet of Resistance’, written in February 1943) begins by stating that the war is approaching its end and retribution is near: “It has become a mathematical certainty that Hitler is leading the German people into the abyss. Hitler cannot win the war; he can only prolong it.” Then, the group urges the German people to act, and not to “follow their seducers into ruin”, not to act according to the motto ‘Victory at any price’: “Cast off the cloak of indifference you have wrapped around you. Make the decision before it is too late.” The leaflet then denounces imperialism, and argues that large-scale cooperation among European nations must be the foundation of the post-war world: “Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the protection of individual citizens from the arbitrary will of criminal regimes of violence – these will be the bases of the New Europe.”
Finally, the last leaflet, written in February 1943, stresses that, for the group, there is but one slogan: “fight against the party!” They urge people to leave the party organization (“used to keep our mouths sealed and hold us in political bondage”), and leave the lecture rooms of Nazi supporters (“We want genuine learning and real freedom of opinion”). The leaflet goes on to mention the loss of men in Stalingrad (“Will we continue to entrust the fate of our armies to a dilettante? Do we want to sacrifice the rest of German youth to the base ambitions of a Party clique?”), and urges people to oppose the regime through the power of the spirit: “Beresina and Stalingrad are burning in the East. The dead of Stalingrad implore us to take action. “Up, up, my people, let smoke and flame be our sign!””
That you were arrested and executed merely for writing those essays and distributing them at the University is further proof of the regime’s insanity. As Inge highlights at the beginning of the book, you were normal people, making use of non-violent means, and asking for a simple thing: freedom. On the day of your execution, you said: “What does my death matter if through us thousands of people will be stirred to action and awakened?” Sadly, your resistance was short-lived, your essays did not inspire immediate mass action, and your death was followed by a deafening silence. Nevertheless – the fact that you were willing to pay with your life for such a small achievement remains as a flickering flame. It might not have inspired the people then, but it is certainly a guide for us now. Or it should be.
The leaflets offer a direct indictment of the moral failure of German people, their indifference and inaction; as well as a defence of the primacy of the individual moral conscience over the state. In a context where people were alienated from one another by fear and distrust, you not only have called on them to face their fears and stand up against the regime, but, more importantly, you have reminded them that they were not alone in their dissent: “Now it is our task to find one another again”, proclaims the second leaflet.
And this, to me, was like the muffled noise of a waive, building up momentum over time, and finally coming to us, from the past, with much more strength than at its beginning: may we find one another, again and again; may we never give up trying.
“Nothing is so unworthy of a civilised nation as allowing itself to be governed without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes — crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure — reach the light of day?” – First leaflet of The White Rose
“It is impossible to engage in intellectual discourse with National Socialist Philosophy, for if there were such an entity, one would have to try by means of analysis and discussion either to prove its validity or to combat it. In actuality, however, we face a totally different situation. At its very inception this movement depended on the deception and betrayal of one’s fellow man; even at that time it was inwardly corrupt and could support itself only by constant lies.” -Second leaflet of The White Rose
“We took everything upon ourselves. What we did will cause waves.” – Sophie Scholl
Many, perhaps most, of the readers of these leaflets do not see clearly how they can practice an effective opposition. They do not see any avenues open to them. We want to try to show them that everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of this system. – Third leaflet of The White Rose
Wir schweigen nicht, wir sind Euer böses Gewissen; die Weiße Rose läßt Euch keine Ruhe! (We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!) – Fourth Leaflet of The White Rose
About the book
- Wesleyan, 2011, tr. Arthur R. Schultz, 176 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1952
- Original title: Die Weiße Rose
- My rating: 4 stars
- I read this book for German Lit Month & Nonfiction November