The History Place - Points of View

Memories of the White Rose
by George J. Wittenstein, M. D.

Introduction and Background

Fifty-four years ago three German students were arrested. A few days later they were hauled before the Volksgerichtshof ("People's Court"), sentenced to death and executed by beheading the same day. Within a few months many more arrests were made, and, in a second trial, three additional death sentences were handed down. (The "People's Court," I should add, existed outside the German constitution. It was created by the NSDAP, the National Socialist Party, in 1934 for the sole purpose of eliminating Hitler's enemies.)

How can one explain that after ten years of Nazi rule, with its incessant political indoctrination beginning as early as in preschool, and in the midst of a "great patriotic war," these students, who had largely grown up under the influence of this regime, resolved to take a stand against Nazi tyranny? To accomplish this it will be necessary to expand somewhat on the historical background.

It is my firm belief that no one raised in the United States can fully comprehend what it is like to live under an absolute dictatorship. For it is quite different from what we generally associate with this term as it relates, for example, to the typical Latin American situation. Never before has there been such absolute control, except for Soviet Russia, which Hitler actually emulated to a large degree. The government - or rather, the party - controlled everything: the news media, arms, police, the armed forces, the judiciary system, communications, travel, all levels of education from kindergarten to universities, all cultural and religious institutions. Political indoctrination started at a very early age, and continued by means of the Hitler Youth with the ultimate goal of complete mind control. Children were exhorted in school to denounce even their own parents for derogatory remarks about Hitler or Nazi ideology. My own teenage cousin, for instance, threatened to denounce his father; and I was barely able to deter him by pointing out to him that he himself might end up destitute, if his father were arrested and incarcerated.

Organized resistance was practically impossible. One could not speak openly, even with close friends, never knowing whether they might not be Nazi spies or collaborators. So well organized was the control and surveillance by the party, that each city block had a party functionary assigned to spy on his neighbors. This "Blockwart" was ostensibly responsible for the well being of the residents of his city block, but in reality had to monitor, record and report on activities, conversations, and remarks of each person, as well as on their associations. Even the privacy of one's home was not assured: a tea cozy or pillows placed over the telephone were popular precautions against eavesdropping by bugging. Nor did one ever know what mail had been secretly opened.

I remember only too well an incident in a cinema: someone sitting a few rows in front of me was led away by the Gestapo. Apparently he had made a derogatory remark to his companion about Hitler during the preceding news reel. Whoever had overheard him must have, as a patriotic duty, tipped off the secret police.

Sure, there were individuals, and small, local groups who were opposed to the regime. As a matter of fact, we now know that there were over 300 of them; but because of the conditions described above, it was nearly impossible to establish contacts, let alone to maintain communications. Thus the existing groups were small, isolated, and did not know of each other. Any successful resistance could only have come from the Military; they tried, very late, on that fateful July 20, 1944 - and bungled it badly.

With that, I am coming back to the question: how was it possible that a group of university students defied this powerful regime - and, against all odds, called for open resistance?

The answer is twofold:

1. We were students, and students, throughout history, have been idealistic, rebellious, and willing to take chances: rebellious against existing order, against old and empty conventions (the United States and Europe experienced their share of it in the Sixties). Most of our group had been members of the "Bündische Jugend." These were youth organizations (somewhat similar to the Boy Scouts,) which had come into being around 1908 in Europe and were particularly strong in Germany. In essence they grew out of a disillusionment of young people with the old established order, and with schools, which had failed them badly, as well as rebellion against overbearing parents. They were infused with typically German romanticism. Their ideals and stated goals were: personal freedom, self-imposed discipline, and strict adherence to highest moral and ethical principles.

2. These students came from bourgeois families. Their parents were opposed to Hitler, which must have influenced them to a large degree.

3. Most of us were medical students, except for Sophie Scholl, who majored in biology and philosophy. We shared a common interest in and a deep love for the arts, music, literature, and philosophy. Most of us had Jewish friends or classmates, who were evicted or deported or who had suffered in the "Crystal Night" pogrom.

It all began, if you will, in the winter of 1938/39: Those who served their compulsory two year army service and planned to enter medical school were consigned to a "Sanitätskompanie," a training school for medics, for their final six months. This is where I met Alexander Schmorell: he was multi-talented, a gifted sculptor, deeply interested in literature and music; he was born in Russia, to a German father, a physician, and a Russian mother. We soon discovered our similar political leanings, and became close friends. Some of you may have read in one of the books about the White Rose, what Alex Schmorell said to me, pointing to the door of our room in the barracks: "Maybe ten years from now there will be a plaque on this door which will read: 'This is where the revolution began'."

By the following spring (1939) most of us enrolled at the University of Munich. There were two days of required political indoctrination, which no one took seriously. Although fraternities had been dissolved and incorporated into the National Socialist Student Organization, we felt exhilarated by the degree of freedom one enjoyed as a student, compared to what lay behind us: namely six months of "Arbeitsdienst" (a compulsory paramilitary work service in uniform), followed by two years of military service. Yet, most kept their opinions to themselves in view of the palpable sense of oppression, of being watched, and the ever looming threat of concentration camps.

Still, student unrest was smoldering. For example, at the end of the summer semester, the leader of the Nazi student organization (for the state of Bavaria) ordered a convocation, in which he informed us that we were ordered to spend our summer vacation bringing in the harvest, otherwise we would not be permitted to re-enroll for the fall semester. There were demonstrations, students at the chemistry department set off stink bombs, and the Gestapo (secret police) was brought in.

Shortly after World War Two was unleashed by Germany's invasion of Poland (in Sept. 1939) most medical students were drafted, housed in barracks, and required to attend classes in uniform. In the beginning, this was carried out in typically Prussian manner: students were crowded into barracks, up to ten to a room, which made studying extremely difficult; marching to class in columns in the morning, returning the same way in the evenings. Eventually the absurdity and impracticality of this became obvious, and more freedom was permitted; we were allowed to live in private quarters, and to even wear civilian clothes during our senior year. Only Saturday morning roll call and drill remained mandatory. Many of us would not show up, and friends would respond for those missing during roll call, shouting "here" when their names were called.

In this student company I introduced Alex Schmorell and Hans Scholl to each other.

Copyright © 1997 by Dr. George Wittenstein All Rights Reserved

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