The pen is mightier: How the Third Reich was fought with words

By: Jocelyn Knorr

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When most people think of white roses, they think of things like love, romance, and beauty. However, in Germany, most people’s minds come to rest on an anti-Nazi organization that sprung up around the early forties; “Die Wiesse Rose”.

One of the group’s two founders, Hans Scholl, was born in Ulm, Germany in 1918. He was the eldest son of a large, forward-thinking family; his father, the city mayor, would eventually be imprisoned for speaking out. The Scholl’s father kept his house well-supplied with banned literature and encouraged his children to think for themselves; despite this, Hans joined the Hitler Youth along with his sister Sophie. He was elected as his group’s leader and standard-bearer, witnessing the most fanatical parts of the National Socialism movement. This is when his loyalties began to waver. He formed an illegal youth group called the Deutsche Jungenschaft 1.11. (d. j. 1.11), in 1934, and stopped going to Hitler Youth meetings altogether. He also fell in love—with a young man named Rolf Futterknecht, a member of d. j. 1.11.

For a while, things seemed to be going well. Hans spent a summer in the company of his illicit friends, leading young men on hikes and camping out in the forest. He passed his final high school examinations, said goodbye to his family, and headed off to his mandatory two years of Reich labor service. Then, midway through 1938, the unthinkable happened—Rolf reported on him.

Hans was arrested and swiftly sent back to Ulm. Though his family begged him not to, he rejected legal counsel and defended himself. He spoke eloquently, managing to convince the judge to dismiss the group as a youthful flight of fancy, and the relationship between Hans and Rolf as a moment of lapsed judgment. He served out the last of his time in the labor force in relative peace, and nobody mentioned the trial ever again.

However, this incident changed him irreversibly—what had once been a distaste for National Socialism had become a boiling hatred.

In March 1939, Hans was released from the Reich Labor Service to aid in the invasion of France as a medical sergeant. The atrocities he witnessed only served to reinforce his distaste.

Finally, he was sent home to Germany, to attend medical school at the University of Munich. This is where he met the other half of the founding duo, Alexander Schmorell. Alexander, or Shurik as he was known to his friends, was born in Russia in 1917, to a German father and Russian mother. After fleeing Russia at four—seeking refuge from the Revolution—he grew up in relative luxury. However, the Nazis continually harassed his father for refusing to renounce his Orthodox Christianity. He and Hans were assigned to the same dorm room; on occasion, they would have conversations, late at night, about the state of Germany, politics, and the war. The two decided something had to be done, before it was too late—this is when the resistance began to take shape.

They wrote the first leaflet together in late 1941, although Hans had the final say on edits. Attempting to appeal to intellectuals, they filled its pages with philosophy and prose, quotations from some of Germany’s best poets. Then, they sent them out, placing them in phone booths and on public benches. Time marched on, and four more members were added to the group—Christoph Probst, a lifelong friend of Alexander’s; Willi Graf, who was recruited from the university choir; and Jurgen Wittenstien, who refused to participate in the pamphlet writing but was eager to help pass them out. He was advantageous in the fact that he was a full-fledged soldier in the Wehrmacht; the uniform lended him legitimacy, and he was less likely to be stopped as he was distributing pamphlets.

That winter and spring was significant for two other reasons; the publication of the second leaflet, and the arrival of Sophie Scholl at the university. As women weren’t allowed into the university’s medical program, she studied philosophy, as well as anything else allowed to her.

Shortly after the second pamphlet was published, Sophie found a copy of it on the campus grounds. Opening it, she was fascinated by the words—she had never seen written material denouncing Nazism before. She ran to show her brother, but found his dorm empty. Instead, she began shifting around the papers on his desk, and when she moved a copy of the Tao Te Ching, a draft of the first leaflet fell out.

Sophie was astonished. When her brother returned home, she demanded answers. Ultimately, she was given all the information and even a spot in the inner circle. She was not the only woman, but she would be the first; Hans’ friends Traute and Gisela joined in late 1942. In addition, they gained an ally in a professor named Kurt Huber, who had been mistreated by the university’s administration because of his disability.

The White Rose now turned their attention to upping the scale of their efforts. They purchased paper, stamps, and envelopes in quantities that made the authorities suspicious, and even acquired a couple of duplicating machines on the black market. All of this equipment was stored in the basement of an architect—another friend of Hans’.

The next two leaflets were much of the same—appealing to the intelligentsia of Germany, who were thought more likely to be persuaded by the arguments the Rose posited. This time, about 1,500 were made. They were distributed not only in Munich, but in Berlin and Hamburg as well, mailed to random addresses picked out of the phone book. 65% of these were turned into the Gestapo, the Reich secret police.

In July of 1942, writing had to be put on hold as Alex, Hans, and Willi were sent to the Russian front as student medics. There, they witnessed the horrors of the Stalingrad fight, and the awful treatment of Jewish prisoners. However, they also spent the time with average, everyday Russians—courtesy of Alex and his Russian fluency—and found that not even Bolshevism and an invasion could break their spirit.

When they got back to Munich, they began writing their fifth pamphlet. This one took on a much more accusatory tone, referring to the Nazis as cowards and drunks and doing away with the flowery prose—this was the first leaflet not to bear the name, instead entitled “An Appeal to All Germans.” They also declared that the downfall of the Reich must start with the loss of Stalingrad, calling upon the people of the Third Reich to renounce the Wehrmacht. This caused tension within the group; Huber actually broke with them because of it, calling the notion Bolshevik. This distancing would not save him in the end—he was to die alongside Alexander Schmorell, who wrote most of the pamphlet that drove him away.

This pamphlet was distributed widely across Germany, with members sometimes traveling across the country to spread the message. But now, they were no longer alone; back in Hamburg, some family friends of the Scholls had gotten their hands on some pamphlets and their own duplicating machine. The result was the Hamburg branch of the White Rose, who would circulate the pamphlets long after the group’s demise. They were also working on linking up with a Germany-wide resistance dubbed “the Red Orchestra,” that had clued them in on Wehrmacht contacts and even an attempted coup.

By the time the sixth pamphlet was published, the tide was turning for Germany—Hitler’s approval ratings were at an all-time low, and people were restless. This pamphlet had even less pretensions, calling upon the men and women of Munich to start sabotaging the war effort; it was duplicated, distributed, and duplicated again, eventually making it into the hands of Adolf Hitler himself. To say he was enraged would be an understatement. He directed the full force of the Gestapo into finding the authors.

He did not have to wait long. On February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie went early into the medical sciences building to pass out leaflets. They left stacks in every lecture hall, on every bench, but found that they still had about a hundred left. Then, Sophie had an idea; she raced up the stairs and dropped the entire stack from three stories up. They scattered, like snowflakes onto the floor below. Unfortunately, a janitor came in at that precise moment. He took it all in—girl, empty suitcase, anti-Nazi propaganda hanging suspended in the air of the stairwell—and decided then and there to make a citizen’s arrest.

Hans, Sophie, and their friend, and collaborator, Christoph Probst were executed on the 22nd of February 1943, after a hasty show trial. The group rapidly disassembled after that—Hans’ apartment was searched, and many members of the Rose were traced back via their handwriting. The entire inner circle was executed; the only member alive today is Traute Lafrenz, although Jurgen Wittenstein died in 2015.

The White Rose’s death only amplified their message; in July of 1943, Allied forces dropped thousands of copies of the White Rose’s final leaflet over Nazi-occupied areas, re-titled “The Manifesto of the Students of Munich”. These were also passed out by the Hamburg branch.

Nowadays, the group are heroes across Germany and beyond; two movies and a stage play have been made out of their story, and high schools, streets, train stations, and more have been named after them. In 2015, Alexander Schmorell was even sainted by the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia. The story of these students and their determination goes to show that even in the darkest of circumstances, hope can, and will, prevail, and if not conquer the darkness entirely, aid in its toppling.

For more information, please visit:

Also, for further reading, I’d recommend:

  • ‘Sophie Scholl and the White Rose’ by Jud Newborn and Annette Dumbach
  • ‘Memories of the White Rose’ by Jurgen Wittenstein (available in PDF form).

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