The German Anti-War Movement, 1943

    The real Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst    

A measure of the effectiveness of U.S. propaganda during the World Wars is the enduring popular view that the German people are by nature submissive to authority, or worse, bent on aggression. At the lowest level, the disinformation campaign deployed the Argumentum ad Odium in widely distributed posters featuring Teutonic brutes red in tooth and claw.  Only slightly more sophisticated were literary caricatures such as this one by best-selling author William Shirer in his Berlin Diary:

It must also be noted down that Hitler’s frenzy for bloody conquest is by no means exclusive to him in Germany. The urge to expansion, the hunger for land and space, for what Germans call Lebensraum, has lain long in the soul of the people.

This program of demonization pushed any inconvenient facts from the popular consciousness (and, of course, made the fire-bombing of German cities a bit more palatable). Thus today few Americans know of the nearly successful July 20 Plot of 1944 by Colonel Stauffenberg and other German officers to assassinate Hitler. Still fewer know of German student and youth opposition to the war and the Nazi regime.

In The German Opposition to Hitler, Hans Rothfels reports that a Gestapo officer testified in 1939 that over 2,000 boys and girls were organized into opposition to the Third Reich. Rothfels also notes that the concentration camp at Neuweid was reserved exclusively for teenage boys.

  Julia Jentsch as Sophie Scholl      

There was even a campus riot of sorts on January 13, 1943. In a speech to university students in Munich, the Gauleiter of Bavaria took female students to task for wasting their time in the classroom when they should be performing their duty to bring forth sons for the Fatherland. If they were not pretty enough, the gauleiter gibed, then he would provide them with willing studs. At this juncture, a number of women in the audience made for the exit doors. When the gauleiter ordered them arrested, an even larger group of men rose to their feet and secured their release.

News of this little rebellion spread from one campus to another and was particularly inspiring to an underground organization known as the White Rose Society. Composed of Munich University students, including Christof Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie, and a professor, Kurt Huber, the group expressed its dissent in the form of graffiti (u201CFreedom,u201D u201CDown with Hitleru201D) and mimeographed leaflets.

As medical students some members of the society had spent time as doctors' aides on both the western and eastern fronts, where they had been appalled by German atrocities against civilian populations. The German military reversal at the Battle of Stalingrad, which left as many as 400,000 Wehrmacht soldiers dead, convinced the pamphleteers that the public and students in particular would be receptive to an end to the war and a change in German leadership.  

Prior to the uprising at the gauleiter's speech, the group had been quietly distributing leaflets in Munich and other cities. The fliers had been mailed to students and professors or left in telephone booths. But the open defiance of January 13 emboldened the secret society. On February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie carried a suitcase full of leaflets inside Munich University. Working quickly between class changes, they left stacks of their latest pamphlet in the empty hallways. Before exiting, Sophie pushed one of the stacks from the top floor balustrade to float to the bottom of the atrium.

Within minutes, brother and sister were arrested.

The new film, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Germany's 2005 Oscar nominee for best foreign language film, recounts this fateful event and the interrogation, trial and executions that followed within 72 hours. This is not the first movie about the anti-Nazi heroine. Two other German films, The White Rose and Five Last Days (both 1982), also covered the same subject. However, this latest treatment is the first to benefit from court transcripts uncovered in East Germany in 1990.

Sophie (Jentsch) at her show trial

The portrait that emerges is that of a young, middle class woman of strong religious beliefs, committed to the classical liberal ideals of freedom of speech, freedom of belief and the universal value of human life. But we also see she has a boyfriend and loves jazz and Schubert. Clearly this is no fanatic eager for martyrdom. When she is taken to police headquarters for questioning, she denies having anything to do with printing or distributing the seditious pamphlets. She acknowledges only the act of pushing a stack of them off a ledge — which, she says, was just an expression of her impish nature. She convincingly explains away the empty suitcase (she was on her way back home to Ulm to pick up clean laundry) and what she was doing in the empty corridor (waiting to speak to a friend in class).

Only after police discover incriminating evidence in her apartment and exact her brother's confession does Sophie admit to acts of treason. Suddenly, she abandons the alibi and embraces her civil disobedience without apology.

At this critical point, the suspense that has been building is released — we know her prospect is hopeless. But something even more provocative takes over. What we get in the second half of the film is a rarity in moviemaking: a dialogue of ideas between Sophie and her captors. That those arguing against her are puppets of the regime makes her case no less spirited or persuasive.

When the police inspector tells her, u201CThe law protects order,u201D Sophie replies, u201CPeople are imprisoned for speaking freely. Is that order?u201D

When the inspector calls her a child who was not brought up properly, she responds, u201CYou think I wasn't raised right because I feel pity for killing mentally ill children?u201D

In Julia Jentsch's remarkable performance, Sophie's passion burns not as a wildfire but as a votive candle of hope. In her is an abiding sense of a higher justice and loyalty to country above government. In the clutches of the Gestapo and isolated from her companions, she does not waver from principle nor retreat from what a patriot of another land called u201Cthe great responsibility which we hold to God and our country.u201D

One of her leaflets had promised, u201CWe will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!u201D Even in the face of death, Sophie keeps her word. When the Goebbels-like presiding judge pronounces her sentence, Sophie calmly answers, u201CYou’ll soon be standing where I am now.u201D

Yet the most unsettling scene in Sophie Scholl is not the interrogation or the show trial or the execution by guillotine.

No, the most disturbing moment comes when Sophie is read her indictment. Her distribution of mimeographed pamphlets, says the prosecutor, is an act of u201Ctroop demoralization and aiding the enemy.u201D  It is a u201Ccrime against our hard-fighting troops.u201D

That is when this film should hit home with American audiences. Or at least with those who are not mere puppets.

May 10, 2006