Last Friday, February 22, was a memorial of special significance, although it passed almost without note in this country. It was the 70th anniversary since the execution in Munich on February 22 1943 of Sophie Scholl, along with her brother Hans. They were members of the White Rose peaceful resistance movement against the Nazis and had been writing and distributing leaflets, urging their fellow Germans to join them. Given the terrorist machinery of the Nazi Party at that time in Germany, and in particular the activities of the Gestapo, the behaviour of these young students and their fellow members was either foolhardy in the extreme – or very brave.
As the 2005 film, Sophie Scholl – The Final Days, shows, the authorities acted with customary swiftness and brutality. The siblings were arrested on February 18, the same day that they were seen leaving their anti-Nazi leaflets at Munich University, then interrogated; they were tried in front of the notorious Peoples Court before the rabidly Nazi Judge Roland Freisler on February 22; and guillotined that same afternoon at 5 pm at Stadelheim prison, Munich, along with Christoph Probst, a co-member of the resistance movement.
At her trial Sophie Scholl explained, “Somebody had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others.” Her last words were, “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?” She was aged 21. Today hundreds of German schools are called after her and she and her brother have been jointly voted the fourth greatest Germans of all time.
The anniversary of this exceptionally courageous young woman’s execution matters because it shows the human spirit at its finest during Germany’s darkest period. It is also significant because it provides a link between Sophie and her fellow German, Joseph Ratzinger, who would have been 16 at the time of her death. Both Sophie and later on the young Joseph Ratzinger were led to a study of John Henry Newman’s writings on conscience by the German scholar and convert, Theodor Haecker. The question that concerned the students was “How must the individual act under a dictatorship?” At the time of her death Sophie had been corresponding with her fiancé, who was serving on the Eastern front, about Newman’s theology of conscience. It is also noteworthy that the White Rose movement was formed after the Scholls and their friends had read the widely distributed anti-Nazi sermon of the Catholic Bishop of Munster, Clemens von Galen in August 1941. In it the bishop openly attacked the Nazi euthanasia programme (in which the Pope’s young cousin who had Down’s syndrome was killed) and had written: “There are sacred obligations of conscience from which no one has the power to release us and which we must fulfil even if it costs us our lives.”
The Scholl family – there were five children – were devout Christians and anti-Nazi, as was the Ratzinger family. At the time of the siblings’ trial their father had already been imprisoned for several months for being overheard criticising Hitler. They had grown up in a warm and happy atmosphere of intellectual stimulus and moral responsibility. It is recorded that an hour before their executions Sophie and Hans had wanted to be received into the Church; in the event they chose not to, out of deference for the feelings of their mother who was a Lutheran lay preacher.
When he first spoke of his decision to resign his office on February 11, the Holy Father mentioned having searched his conscience for many months; the same conscience, informed by reading Newman, that had inspired Sophie and her brother to their act of ultimate witness.