The History Place - Points of View

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

The Russian Front

Section Three of Four

By the summer of 1942 the authorities were faced with a dilemma: What to do with thousands of medical students in uniform during the long summer vacation. The obvious solution did not occur to them until much later: namely to change the semester system to trimesters, thus continuing the education during the entire year. Hence, the time required to produce a new physician for the armed forces would have been shortened. Instead they hit on the concept of "Frontbewährung." The idea was to send all medical students to the Russian front for a period of three months, in order for them to experience rendering medical care under fire, and to work as physician assistants in field hospitals.

With us on the train to Russia, on July 23, was Willi Graf, a medical student, who, unlike us, had not had the good fortune of having been placed into a medical student unit, and thus had not been able to continue his medical education until the summer of 1942. He was a deeply religious person, having joined a Catholic youth organization early in life. He had distanced himself from National Socialism to such a degree that he had crossed out in his address book the names of those who had joined the Hitler Youth. In Russia he befriended Hans and Alex, and, upon our return to Munich, became an active member of the group.

The experiences of the long journey and the months in Russia left a deep impression on all of us. On the way to the front we spent a few days in Warsaw. Warsaw had been declared an open city by the Polish government in order to save it from destruction, but in total disregard of the Geneva Convention it was partially destroyed by bombing and artillery fire. I will never forget visiting the Warsaw Ghetto which consisted of several walled off city blocks guarded by Ukrainian soldiers. I was horrified to discover that, for a pack of cigarettes, these Ukrainians would shoot for pleasure anyone looking out of a window, to whom one pointed. The inmates of the Ghetto were permitted to work outside the enclosure, and upon returning to the ghetto their burlap sacks were searched. I witnessed SS officers horse-whipping and kicking many Jews without provocation, and managed to take pictures of that.

Thanks to Alex Schmorell, who spoke Russian fluently, we made direct contact with Russian peasants. Alex reprimanded a guard, who beat a Russian worker bloody, and was almost court-martialed for this. Hans Scholl gave his entire tobacco ration, an extremely valuable commodity, to a Jew in a forced labor column. We felt a profound compassion for and outrage on behalf of those suffering under this ruthless oppression. In Russia, our conviction grew that more had to be done, and we came to realize the terrible truth., that Germany could only be saved by losing the war: a difficult and painful realization for someone who loves his country, his fatherland, which we most certainly did.

Upon our return from Russia on November 6, 1942, the main emphasis was to enlarge the small circle and to find and encourage activists at other universities. By now the public mood had begun to change: the setbacks at the Russian front and the heavy allied bombings of German cities had taken their toll.

Around this time, one more person joined the movement: Kurt Huber, age 50, professor of Philosophy, Psychology and Musicology. He did not become actively involved until November 1942, when he was shown a draft of the fifth leaflet by Hans Scholl which he rejected as too communist.

Professor Huber was an extraordinary human being and teacher. He happened to have a physical handicap, which made it difficult to understand him at times, but when he got carried away in his lecture, he spoke beautifully and in a most eloquent and inspiring manner. He somehow managed to weave into his lectures sarcastic remarks on censored and forbidden topics, books and authors, eventually showing them to be superior to the ruling Nazis and their ideology. In a lecture on Leibniz for instance, he gave a perfect example of linguistic disguise, contrasting the philosophers anti-absolutist concept of state with the reality of National Socialism. I even remember a one hour lecture on the Jewish philosopher Spinoza. Professor Huber had a difficult life: he was never promoted to full professorship despite exceptional achievements, and therefore had to subsist on the meager income of 300 Marks a month with a family of four. One of the reasons given for denying promotion was "......we can only have professors who can also serve as officers.."

On Jan 13, 1943, the Gauleiter of Bavaria (a post akin to governor, but a non elected party-appointed Nazi-position) addressed all university students at a specially called convocation at the famous German Museum in Munich. He chided female students for wasting time and funds by being students, "which they had no right to do." Instead they were obliged to do their duty by giving a son to their beloved Führer. He offered them the services of handsome studs, if they were not alluring enough to attract one themselves. When many female students attempted to leave the hall in protest, under general applause from the other students, the Gauleiter had them arrested. Thereupon, male students, many of them in uniform, rushed the podium and took the student leader hostage, until all women were released. As you can imagine, news of this spread like wildfire through Munich. It also strengthened Scholl and Schmorell in their belief that the time had come to call for action, that the people were now ready to revolt against their oppressors. At about the same time the fifth leaflet was written and distributed - for the first time in an edition of 5000 to 6000, because Alex Schmorell had managed, with great difficulty, to procure a duplicating machine. This leaflet had taken a different tone and was now entitled: "Leaflets of the Resistance Movement in Germany."

Then came the great turning point in the war with the fall of Stalingrad in February, 1943. It inspired Huber to compose a leaflet at the request of Hans Scholl, which was accepted by the group, who made only minor changes. It was mailed between February 16 and 18. Interestingly, neither Scholl nor Schmorell received the copies mailed to themselves, which they had always done to test whether mail would be intercepted. This, and the fall of Stalingrad were the stimulus for more audacious actions: During the nights of February 4, 8, and 15, they painted huge slogans on the walls of Munich's main thoroughfare at 29 sites, including the university. "Freedom" - "Down with Hitler," and crossed out Swastikas, using black tar and stencils for most of them. With police patrols during the nights, this was an extremely risky undertaking. It was my job to write similar slogans in the restrooms of the university.

This sixth leaflet turned out to be the last one written: In the morning of February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie Scholl entered the University with a large suitcase filled with leaflets, placing stacks of them outside each lecture hall. As they left the building, they realized there were many leaflets left in the suitcase. They turned, climbed the stairs to the top landing of the glass roofed inner court, where Sophie dumped the remaining content of the suitcase into the court.

They were observed and immediately apprehended by a senior janitor. Within a few days over 80 people were arrested all over Germany, among them Christoph Probst, whose draft of a leaflet, written on January 31, was found in Hans Scholl's pocket at his arrest. Had it not been for this unfortunate oversight, Christoph Probst would likely be alive today for lack of evidence against him.

It will never be known what drove Hans and Sophie to this action, which, according to statements made by them during their interrogation, had not been planned. It has been speculated that they knew that the Gestapo was hot on their trail, and that they, encouraged by what had happened a month earlier at the German Museum, believed that this last desperate act would result in a general uprising in Germany. Certainly none of us knew about it, Alex Schmorell for instance learned about their arrest while in a street car on the way to the university.

Copyright © 1997 by Dr. George Wittenstein All Rights Reserved

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