The History Place - Points of View

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

The Leaflets

Section Two of Four

Hans Scholl's evolution - was perhaps typical for many young Germans: In 1933, in a spell of youthful enthusiasm, he had joined the Hitler Youth, as had his older sister, who even became a leader. In due course, he became disillusioned when the organization's true aims became apparent, and formed a separate group within the Hitler Youth, based on the principles of the aforementioned Bündische Jugend. (For this he was briefly arrested in 1937.) Though Lutheran himself, in 1940/41 he met two important Catholic men of letters: Carl Muth, and Theodor Haecker, who gave his life a new direction, to the point where he began to neglect medicine and immerse himself in religion and philosophy; as a matter of fact, Scholl, for a while, even considered converting to Catholicism. At that time he and his friends initiated "Leseabende," where they read relevant modern and classical literature to each other which they then discussed until late into the night. Concurrently, but unknown to each other, I started my own circle, to which we invited well known writers, playwrights, performers, poets, and musicians, to share their work with us, and where we read our own poetry to their critique. In both groups the discussions never touched on politics, rather, they were centered on our consuming interest in all aspects of art, music, and philosophy. All of us frequently attended concerts and important plays.

What later developed into what is now known as the White Rose, began as an ever deeper personal friendship between young people who shared profound interests within and beyond medicine. For sure, all were of the same political conviction: against Hitler and the Nazi Regime. But, in a way typical for millions of Germans at the time, we withdrew into our own private sphere, in our case the arts, philosophy, our circle of friends. This was a course taken by many, who were unable to emigrate and it was aptly called "INNERE EMIGRATION" (inner emigration).

However, as the brutality of the regime became more and more apparent, when deportations of Jews began, and the remaining ones were forced to wear the yellow Star of David, when German atrocities in occupied Poland and Russia became known, and when the copies of Bishop Galen's sermon, condemning the killing of inmates in insane asylums, were circulated in secret, for us this detachment gave way to the conviction that something had to be done; that it was not good enough to keep to oneself, one's beliefs, and ethical standards, but that the time had come to act.

Thus, during early summer of 1942, Alex Schmorell and Hans Scholl wrote four leaflets, copied them on a typewriter with as many copies as could be made, probably not exceeding 100, and distributed them throughout Germany. These leaflets were left in telephone books in public phone booths, mailed to professors and students, and taken by courier to other universities for distribution. All four were written in a relatively brief period, between June 27 and July 12. As far as is known today, Hans Scholl wrote the first and fourth leaflets, Alex Schmorell participated with the second and third (the third and fourth were edited by me). All leaflets were also sent to the members of the White Rose, in order that we could check whether they were intercepted. Significantly, of the first 100 leaflets, 35 were turned over to the Gestapo. That does not necessarily mean that the recipients were Nazis. Being recipients of such highly dangerous material, one had reason to fear that one was on the sender's mailing list, which, if intercepted by the secret police would invariably place one in serious jeopardy. By turning the leaflets over to the secret police one hoped to be beyond suspicion. It might even have entered one's mind - and it certainly would not have been unthinkable - that such leaflets could have actually been produced and mailed by the Gestapo in order to test one's loyalty to the party and state.

Producing and distributing such leaflets sounds simple from today's perspective, but, in reality, it was not only very difficult but even dangerous. Paper was scarce, as were envelopes. And if one bought them in large quantities, or for that matter, more than just a few postage stamps (in any larger numbers), one would (have) become instantly suspect. Taking leaflets to other cities carried great risk, because trains were constantly patrolled by military police, who demanded identification papers of any male of military service age. Anyone traveling without official marching papers was AWOL - and the consequences predictable. Some of us traveled in civilian clothing, hoping for the best, some with forged travel orders, I myself used false identification papers (my cousin's with whom I shared a certain resemblance). We left the briefcases which contained the leaflets in a different compartment, for luggage was routinely searched. Mostly, however, leaflets were taken by female students who were not subject to such scrutiny.

By now Hans Scholl's sister Sophie had enrolled at the University of Munich to study biology and philosophy. When she discovered the secret activities of her brother, she begged to participate, which he refused in order to protect her. Upon her insistence Hans eventually relented. Thus Sophie became an active co-conspirator.

The leaflets bore the title: "Leaves (leaflets) of the White Rose." (To this day the origin of this title is unclear, although we know that it was probably coined by Hans.) All four leaflets carried the same message: They mentioned the mass extermination of Jews and Polish nobility, as well as other atrocities committed by the Nazis and the SS. They called for action against National Socialism, for passive and later, active resistance. They were suffused with idealism, almost ecstatic enthusiasm, and were laced with quotations by Goethe, Schiller, Lao Tse, Novalis, Aristotle and others. They called for "self-criticism," - "liberating German science," - "freeing the spirit from the evil," - a "rebirth of German student life to make the university again a living community devoted to the truth." In other words, the leaflets were directed at the intellectual elite, students and university faculty. The leaflets even contained comments on how Germany had to be reconstructed "after the war" and re-integrated into Europe.

To forestall any suspicion that the White Rose was somehow financed by Germany's enemies, the Allies, instead of being a purely German movement, the fourth leaflet states:

"...We emphatically point out that the White Rose is not in the pay of any foreign power. Although we know that the National Socialist power must be broken by military means, we seek the revival of the deeply wounded German spirit. For the sake of future generations, an example must be set after the war, so that no one will ever have the slightest desire to try anything like this ever again. Do not forget the minor scoundrels of this system; note their names, so that no one may escape...We shall not be silent - we are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace..."

Soon, Christoph Probst was included in this circle of friends, although he did not participate directly in the writing of the leaflets, having been transferred to the University of Innsbruck. He was the only one among us who was married - most unusual in those days - and had three children. He was, perhaps, the most apolitical of all of us: Literature and philosophy being his main interests next to his love of medicine. Of all the members of the White Rose, he was my closest friend.

To live under the Nazi system was extremely taxing and frustrating. One never knew when the Party would next transgress into one's personal life or education. A popular professor of philosophy was Fritz-Joachin von Rintelen whose lectures were attended by students from many different disciplines. One day he did not appear for his appointed lecture and rumors were rife that his right to lecture had been revoked. We all agreed to meet again for the next scheduled lecture the following week. When von Rintelen did not show up, the entire class marched to the office of the president of the university to demand an explanation. After a while, the president, pale and obviously shaken, opened the door a slit and said: "I refuse to give any information," and slammed the door shut. Headed by a painter friend of mine, Remigius Netzer, and myself, we then decided to go to Professor von Rintelen's apartment for a sympathy demonstration. Thus it happened, that in the middle of the war, in broad daylight, some eighty odd students, some even in uniform, marched along the main boulevard of Munich to the utter amazement of the bystanders.

Copyright © 1997 by Dr. George Wittenstein All Rights Reserved

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