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Sophie Scholl, executed by the Nazis 70 years ago, shows the human spirit at its finest

Both Sophie and her fellow German Joseph Ratzinger were inspired by Newman’s writings on conscience

By on Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst, June 1942 (Photo © George (Jürgen) Wittenstein / akg-images)

Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst, June 1942 (Photo © George (Jürgen) Wittenstein / akg-images)

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.

  • Jeannine

    “It is recorded that an hour before their executions Sophie and Hans had wanted to be received into the Church; …

    Are Sophie & Hans Catholic by desire? Would they then be eligible for canonization even though they did not have their official, earthly welcome into the Church?

  • Peter

    I doubt it because they willingly chose not to be Catholic, although they will no doubt have their heavenly reward.

  • Benjamin Vallejo Jr

    Like in the case of Reverend Dietrich Bonhoeffer when some Lutherans proposed to the Catholics to canonize him, it would be better if the Lutherans do the honour of elevating them for veneration and all of us Catholics can honour them at the altar.

  • JFJ

    Three in a row, all inspiriting!  JFK had a book published under his name called Profiles in Courage, intended to highlight the bravery of U.S. Senators who were willing to stand against the popular and stand up for what was right and true, sometimes at great personal expense.  Irrespective of who wrote it, it too was inspiring.  Perhaps, if you had time, you could make a book of these short bios (which are a real blessing to read during Lent).  I find there is much to gain from reading of these people’s sacrifices and accomplishments and to hear of the connections (not to mention the demonstration of sovereignty) with the present (the Holy Father) and also historical greats like the blessed J.H. Newman.

  • Benedict Carter

    These two died as Catholics, even though there had been no formal reception. 

    And let us not forget that the actions of Oscar Schindler, Wilhelm Adalbert Hosenfeld (film “The Pianist”) and Graf Von Stauffenberg were born out of their Catholic beliefs, even if the first of those had lived a bad life until the time when the cries of conscience could be avoided no longer. 

    Hollywood of course edited out the Catholic angle entirely in all three cases.

  • TommyD

    Let’s look seriously at the young people who were in the White Rose

    Sophie and Hans Scholl were martyred as Lutherans.  The Lutheran Church should officially honor them.

    Willi Graf was martyred as a Roman Catholic.  There is a movement to have him canonized.

    Alexander Schmorell was martyred as a Russian Orthodox.  He has been glorified as Saint Alexander Schmorell by his church.

    It is time that we Christians practice an ecumenism that allows us to remember and honor and venerate all Christians who die for the faith.  Why should the Scholls and Schmorell not be remembered at our Mass?  Why should the Scholls and Graf not be remembered at an Orthodox Divine Liturgy?  Why should Graf and Schmorell not be honored by the Lutherans alongside the Scholls?

    With this witness of faith, what do our divisions really matter?

  • Tyrone Beiron

    I have long admired Hans and Sophie from reading a copy of their Letters/Diaries in English. Their disposition and references to finding the Catholic faith attractive to them, even before their capture, is apparent. Munich is a deeply Catholic city and there is no doubt that this helped shaped the resistance movement (White Rose). Yet they both died more as martyrs of conscience and social freedom, then you can ascribe to that of their faith. No doubt their Christian faith and Catholic leaning strengthened their convictions. Christoph Probst was baptised Catholic minutes before his execution. In 1941 Hans had met with the distinguished Catholic editor Carl Muth, through him he was to meet Theodor Haecker (winter, 1941) who was not only a convert himself, but highly distinguished translator of Kierkegaard into the German, whose work was to harmonise existential concepts with Catholic Dogma and thought. I don’t think there is a need for the Catholic Church to assimilate such “martyrs” (any one even heard of talk among American progressive Catholics to petition for the beatification of Martin Luther King?) of conscience. Ultimately, the canon of saints is just one measure of rule (pun intended) for us to look to models of Christian faith and life. Sainthood simply is what every Christian strives for.

  • jdumon

     In the December 23, 1940 (p. 38) issue of TIME magazine, Albert Einstein expressed, “Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what once I despised I now praise unreservedly.”In addition, I was told that Sophie was not beheaded by a guillotine but by a man with an axe.

  • william

    The effort to claim they were #really# catholics is disgusting, I know the history well and there isnt credible evidence for it. Catholics would be better occupied asking why the pope did nothing and said nothing to save the jews.

  • pbecke

    I had heard of the White Rose movement, but knew few details, and nothing about Sophie and Hans Scholl. However, I’ve long held the view that the Austrian farm worker, Franz Jaegerstetter should be recognised as a giant of the Church’s history, that a shrine should be built in his honour, and that popes should make an annual pilgrimage to it.

    These young martyrs did not consider geopolitics, nor would they have done so, I believe, if they had been Pope – any more than Peter (or any of the other Apostles would). Neither were they product of a degraded, triumphalist and worldly, ecclesial culture. A lamp is there to be put on a lamp-stand.

  • pbecke

    With God, motive is everything. In their case, great filial love.

  • pbecke

    Yes, I wish the church showed more enthusiasm for edifying the laity with a fuller understanding of their own sanctity, each one uniquely loved by God as much as any saint or pope.