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In June 1942, a pair of German university students formed The White Rose, a German resistance movement that used a series of leaflets to decry Nazi militarism and call for an end to the war. Hans Scholl and Alexander Schmorell wrote the first four leaflets between the end of June and beginning of July. In the fall, Hans’ sister, Sophie Scholl, discovered that her brother was one of the authors of the pamphlets, and joined the group. Shortly after, Willi Graf, Christoph Probst, and Kurt Huber became members.
More than twenty others offered technical support for printing, supplies of paper and ink, funding, and distribution of the leaflets. These leaflets were left in telephone books in public phone booths, mailed to professors and students, and taken by courier to other universities for distribution. The fifth (and final) leaflet was produced in 6,000–9,000 copies, using a hand-operated duplicating machine.
Their activities were highly dangerous. One White Rose member later reflected:
“The government – or rather, the party – controlled everything: the news media, arms, police, the armed forces, the judiciary system, communications, travel, all levels of education from kindergarten to universities, all cultural and religious institutions. Political indoctrination started at a very early age, and continued by means of the Hitler Youth with the ultimate goal of complete mind control. Children were exhorted in school to denounce even their own parents for derogatory remarks about Hitler or Nazi ideology.” –George J. Wittenstein M. D., “Memories of the White Rose,” 1979.
The leaflets were designed to appeal to the moral and logical sensibilities of the German intelligentsia, and later, to those of the broader populace. The White Rose picked a pivotal time for this effort: in the wake of defeats, the German populace was becoming aware of the dangers and damages of war.
The Nazis reacted swiftly to try to identify the creators of the illicit and illegal leaflets, which contained remarks such as this:
“Why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanized state system presided over by criminals and drunks? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right – or rather, your moral duty – to eliminate this system?”
The fifth and final White Rose leaflet was printed and distributed in January 1943. Hans and Sophie Scholl brought suitcases of the printings to the university, and when Sophie threw a handful of leaflets over a balcony, a maintenance man saw them. When Hans and Sophie Scholl were arrested, the regime reacted brutally. The members of the White Rose were interrogated, tortured, and condemned to execution. On February 22, 1943, Sophie, Hans, and Christoph Probst were beheaded.
On the day of her death, Sophie said, “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?”
How do we honor such courage and sacrifice? By doing everything we can stop wars. In our contemporary times in the United States, it is not forbidden or dangerous to distribute leaflets . . . consider taking a day of action on International Day of Peace to carry on the legacy of the White Rose, and handout leaflets promoting an end to war, and the establishment of a culture of peace and nonviolence.