This Sunday is an anniversary of the execution by beheading of young SOPHIE SCHOLL, her brother Hans and their school friend Christopher Probst who formed the shortlived anti-Nazi “White Rose conspiracy” in Munich, Germany in WW2. Medical students in their early 20s, they were religiously-inclined skiing and hiking pals caught handing out leaflets asking for passive resistance to the Hitler regime. A school janitor turned them in for tossing leaflets down a stairwell. Although there are streets, schools and plaques to their memory in Germany, none of the White Roses survived to tell their story. In court before the notoriously sadistic Judge Freisler, Sophie said: “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.” As if to prove her words, at the time most Germans kept away from this deeply Lutheran family.
The Scholls and young Probst are what I call contemptible heroes. That is, someone who risks doing a good thing against the collective wisdom of the herd and usually gets punished for it.
Contemptible heroes can be “difficult” and are not always the nicest people to have around. They embarrass or scare us.
Such a man or woman often suffers terrible isolation and feelings of “Am I crazy to do this?” It can be very lonely.
Here are a few more examples.
Warrant officer HUGH THOMPSON, a Vietnam helicopter pilot, who risked landing his plane in the hot zone between the dead and dying My Lai villagers and Lt. Calley’s Company C gone-berserk U.S. army soldiers. Thompson told Calley that he’d shoot any American soldier who fires on the Vietnamese, thus stopping the massacre. For this act of defiance Thompson was called a “traitor”, got death threats, and was nearly courtmartialled and jailed. His fellow officers and some of his neighbors back in Stone Mountain, Georgia do not take kindly to his act of decency.
JULIANO MER-KHAMIS, half Arab half Jewish ex Israeli paratrooper who creates the Freedom Theatre in Jenin to bring together Jews and Palestinians. He makes films and stage plays in the Disputed Territories, and is assassinated by a “fuckedup Palestinian” for trying to bring people together.
EMILY DAVIDSON, the English suffragette, who dies attempting to place a “Votes for Women” scarf around the neck of the King’s race horse during Epsom Derby. She is mourned by militant suffragettes and despised by most men, many women and animal lovers.
Sgt. JOE DARBY, a guard at Iraq’s Abu Graib torture prison, who exposes officers and fellow guards who abuse prisoners. Darby and his wife have to pack up and flee their Maryland home and seek protection in a witness protection program.
ROCKY BRAAT, American hippie who spends three years caring for AIDS children in a village in India. When one kid dies in his care the healthy villagers blame him.
FRANK SERPICO, the first NYPD cop to come forward to expose police brutality and corruption. At the time most other cops detested him and almost caused his death by refusing to back him up in a drug raid. Famous after Al Pacino’s film, a bullet-deafened Serpico went into prolonged exile in Europe.
PAUL ROBESON, internationally celebrated Rutgers University all-American football player, African American singer/actor and socialist. His spectacular career was ruined by McCarthyite blacklisting when he spoke up for “oppressed colonial peoples”. He stubbornly refused to renounce his Cold War pro-Soviet and Stalin-loving politics despite criticism by Jackie Robinson, Eleanor Roosevelt and even Malcolm X. Under brutal intimidation and surveillance by FBI, CIA and foreign security cops, he became paranoid and ill and died in seclusion in Philadelphia.
Sometimes it’s just personal. A NAMELESS FRIEND, a civil liberties activist, married with a loyal wife and family, who on a speaking tour startled himself by falling in love with a married housewife. His family was devastated. When he chose love over obligation many of his friends and associates, who had revered him, treated him as a pariah.
A contemptible hero can be any kid or grownup, male or female, who stands up against the pressure of family, friends and peers. You don’t have to be a whistleblower, just defiant, different and decent. Probably in each of our lives we’ve had such moments.
In the 16th century one of the most widely read and influential books in the English language was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Does it need updating?
Do you have a favorite contemptible hero? Suggestions?
Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives. Sigal and Doris Lessing lived together in London for several years.