On this day, 74 years ago, three young adults placed their heads beneath a guillotine and prepared to die. Their crime? Speaking out against the Nazis with graffiti and hand-printed pamphlets. Their names? Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl and Christoph Probst. It was a violent end to a peaceful student movement known as the White Rose—one that used the power of language to resist the horrors of the Nazi regime.
The White Rose emerged from a core group of students who attended the University of Munich. Hans Scholl, his sister Sophie, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf and a few other friends had spent their teen years under Adolf Hitler’s rule. Most of them were members of the Hitler Youth and the Union of German Girls, youth organizations designed to breed party loyalty and spread Nazi ideals through shared experiences and ideological training. At first, they participated enthusiastically in these groups, but slowly, the friends became more and more disillusioned with Nazism.
They started reading anti-Nazi sermons and attending classes with Kurt Huber, a psychology and philosophy professor whose lectures included veiled criticisms of the regime. They began to talk about how they might resist and formed a group they called The White Rose (historians can’t agree on why).
Then Hans, a medical student, was conscripted into the Army. He served at the Eastern Front for three months as a medic. There, he witnessed the abuse of Jewish laborers firsthand and heard rumors of the extermination of European Jews and Poles. He returned to Germany and spoke of his experiences to his friends, many of whom also served as medics. In the words of Jürgen “George” Wittenstein, a member of the group, the friends’ detachment melted away in the face of their wartime experiences and the growing Nazi terror. It was not good enough “to keep to oneself, one’s beliefs, and ethical standards,” he wrote. “The time had come to act.”
Action came in the form of a printing press and six leaflets. The students got their hands on a manual printing press and began to write texts that encouraged readers to resist the Nazis. They urged readers to engage in passive resistance, reject Nazi philosophy, sabotage the war effort and break through their apathy. "Do not forget that every nation deserves the government that it endures," they wrote in the first pamphlet, peppering calls to rebellion with poetry and historical references.
The White Rose mailed the pamphlets to random people they found in the phone book, took them in suitcases to other cities, and left them in phone booths. They also painted graffiti on the walls of the University of Munich with slogans like “Freedom!” and “Hitler the Mass Murderer!” The society's work quickly spread to other cities, with some of its literature even showing up in Austria.
But the movement was doomed from the start. Anti-Nazi speech was carefully monitored and investigated by the Gestapo, and the danger of a denunciation was ever-present. On February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie took a suitcase filled with leaflets to the University of Munich. They were caught throwing extra pamphlets into a courtyard from a balcony, arrested, and interrogated by the Gestapo. Dozens of the group members were subsequently imprisoned.
On February 22, the Scholls and Christoph Probst stood before the “People’s Tribunal” in Munich. They were tried by Roland Freisler, the court’s infamous "hanging judge," and swiftly convicted of high treason. The verdict stated that they “propagated defeatist thinking and vilified the Führer” and that Hans in particular had been “deluded” into no longer believing in the war. That afternoon, they were decapitated by guillotine. Hans’ last words were “Long Live Freedom!” Other members of the White Rose were executed as well, including Huber. One of the victims, Schmorell, was eventually canonized as a saint by the Russian Othodox church.
The White Rose was active from 1942-1943, but the courage of its convictions has left a lasting mark on history. “We will not be silent,” the group wrote in its fourth leaflet. “We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!”