Hans Scholl and his younger sister Sophie entered the atrium of the University of Munich with about 1,700 copies of their sixth anti-Nazi leaflet packed into a suitcase. It was February 18, 1943—the same day Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, seeking to boost morale after the German Army’s defeat at Stalingrad, held a fanatical rally calling for “total war.” The hall, with its classical colonnades and skylight, was empty but would remain so for only ten more minutes. Quietly, the siblings placed stacks of leaflets outside classroom doors on every floor.
On their way to the exit, the Scholls realized they still had around 100 pamphlets left. Mounting the stairs again, they reached the atrium’s highest gallery. From there, the pair pushed the flyers over the balustrade, sending them floating down to the floor. Below, a janitor named Jakob Schmid spotted the leaflets. As he bounded up the stairs, determined to catch the culprits, the bell rang for the change of class, and students began pouring into the atrium. Schmid reached the third floor, where he stopped Sophie and Hans. “You are under arrest!” he cried out. The two siblings froze.
On the morning of February 22, 1943, just four days after their arrest, Sophie, Hans and their comrade Christoph Probst stood before the notorious People’s Court during a show trial—a mock proceeding designed to influence public opinion rather than deliver real justice. The three were found guilty of treason and beheaded that afternoon by guillotine, a method of execution revived for broader use under the Nazis. Hans was 24 and Probst 23; Sophie was 21.
Today, the Scholls are celebrated for their pivotal role as members of the White Rose, a small, clandestine, anti-Nazi resistance group. They joined the activist network after becoming disillusioned with the Hitler Youth, in which they were both leaders as teenagers. Castigating the German middle class for abandoning its Christian values and leadership roles, the White Rose set out to rouse the masses from their “slumber” and encourage passive resistance against the fascist regime.
The White Rose’s core consisted of six University of Munich students—Hans, Sophie, Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf and Traute Lafrenz—and a philosophy professor named Kurt Huber. (All except Lafrenz were eventually executed by guillotine.) A loose network of supporters and sympathetic acquaintances aided the group’s resistance efforts by distributing leaflets and providing money to purchase supplies, among other contributions.
By all accounts, the White Rose activists were among the first within Germany to speak out widely against the mass murder of Jews, in their second leaflet in June 1942. Their legendary distribution of flyers at the University of Munich appears to have been the only fundamentally political public protest against Nazism to be staged by Germans during the 12 years of Adolf Hitler’s rule. The last words of the group’s fourth leaflet became its legacy: “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!”
Eighty years after their executions, the leaders of the White Rose are counted among the greatest Germans of all time. Numerous schools, streets and plazas are named for them, and monuments honoring their activism appear throughout the country. They have been the subject of plays, documentaries and feature films. One of these movies, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2006 Academy Awards.
Yet two mysteries about the White Rose long bedeviled laypeople and scholars alike: What motivated the 1937 transformation of the teenaged Hans and Sophie from fanatical acolytes of Nazism to passionate anti-Nazis? And why did Hans and his friends choose the “White Rose” as the name of their resistance organization?
The answers to these two questions appear to be interwoven. According to previously ignored Gestapo interrogation transcripts, along with my own subsequent research, anti-gay Nazi policies played a pivotal role in the radicalization of the Scholl siblings, helping to turn them into exemplars of civil courage.
On December 13, 1937, Hans, then a fresh-faced, 19-year-old cavalry recruit and Nazi stalwart, was suddenly arrested by the Gestapo. Another 20 teens from his hometown of Ulm were also rounded up. Of the charges against Hans, the most serious was that of homosexual activity, “perpetrated” when he was 16.
The files surrounding Hans’ first arrest have been accessible in Düsseldorf since the Nazi era. But they remained largely unexamined for almost six decades. Only in 1999 did German sociologist Eckard Holler discover the documents, which he discussed in an obscure booklet on the German Youth Movement that attracted little notice. Then, in 2003, the Center for White Rose Studies published English translations of the transcripts in book form.
Even after these titles were published, Inge Scholl, the siblings’ oldest sister and the self-proclaimed keeper of their story, remained the main source of information on the arrest. She’d thoroughly misled the public in her 1952 book, The White Rose, and consistently thereafter, creating the false narrative that Hans was arrested solely for joining the illegal youth group d.j.1.11 (short for “Deutsche Jungenschaft vom 1.11.1929,” or “German Boys’ Federation from November 11, 1929”) in 1937.
Gestapo records show there was much more to the story. Prior to December 1936, when all youth organizations other than the Hitler Youth were declared illegal, many young Nazis felt no contradiction in belonging to alternative groups like the d.j.1.11. Hans, for his part, became involved with the d.j.1.11 well before it was outlawed.
Homoeroticism, but not outright homosexuality, was a fundamental element in all-male groups like the d.j.1.11., evolving out of the turn-of-the-century Wandervogel (“Wandering Birds”), an anti-bourgeois movement formed in response to the industrial age.
Hans Blüher, the primary proponent of the Wandervogel, described homoeroticism as a kind of glue that bound these young men together as they wandered through nature, its energy sublimated and directed outward for the vital task of cultural renewal. As one of Blüher’s own nature-loving mentors put it: “Where does the vitality that is capable of giving rise to such a movement of masculine youth come from, if not from men who, instead of loving a wife or becoming the father of a family, loved young men?”
For most members of such youth groups, these adolescent attachments were simply a phase that passed as they grew older and began dating girls. For Hans, however, things were different.
Sexual relationships between men were anathema to Nazism. The notorious Paragraph 175 of the German criminal code, which outlawed such behavior, was made far more stringent in September 1935. Mere allegations led to wide-scale persecution, including the arrests of more than 100,000 men, as well as the imprisonment of at least 50,000. Some 5,000 to 15,000 of these individuals were sent to concentration camps, where they were treated with contempt, subjected to punitive labor and sometimes castrated, all while wearing a pink triangle on their uniforms.
Up until his 1937 arrest, Hans had thought himself the ideal Nazi youth: decisive, devoted, even fanatical. He hadn’t even known that same-sex intimacy was a crime, or so he claimed in his Gestapo interrogations. Nonetheless, he admitted to continuing his relationship with a “special friend,” the younger Rolf Futterknecht, for nearly two years. He described it to the Gestapo as “an overpowering love … that required some means of relief.”
Only 6 of the approximately 20 boys rounded up were indicted, and just 2 were ultimately tried and convicted. One of them was Hans, whom the Gestapo had entrapped in a web of corroborating evidence from which he could not extricate himself.
The Gestapo transcripts reveal remarkably candid testimony in which Hans strove to justify himself while protecting Futterknecht. “I am inclined to be passionate,” Hans said. “I can only justify my actions on the basis of the great love I felt for [him].” Later in the interview, Hans added, “I can hardly comprehend my behavior today.”
The circumstances of Hans’ arrest raised unexpected concerns in his mind about his sexuality. Indeed, in the very first letter written to his parents from prison in Stuttgart on December 14, 1937, Hans revealed that he had long carried a deep, secret burden regarding his sexual urges. “Through my tireless work on myself,” he told them, he thought he’d managed to be “washed clean again.”
Hans was found guilty on June 2, 1938, with the state’s prosecuting attorney asking for a one-year prison sentence. But the normally harsh judge decided on just one month, which he counted as time already served. The judge cited Hans’ exemplary record, a general amnesty for members of illegal youth groups and the many strong testimonials offered in his defense, ruling that the teenager’s same-sex relationship had amounted to an adolescent aberration.
The traumatic experience of having the Gestapo dig into the most intimate details of his life and put him on public trial for something he thought he’d successfully suppressed fed a gradual transformation in Hans’ views. Soon, his feelings about Nazism turned from admiration to loathing. As early as December 18, 1937, in a letter to his parents from prison, Hans vowed to redeem himself by becoming “something great for the sake of mankind.”
Beyond the roots of Hans’ radicalization, one of the longstanding mysteries surrounding the White Rose was the origin of its name. Though scholars can’t say for certain, many have good reason to believe a banned novel called The White Rose, first published in Germany in 1929, found its way into Hans’ hands. Its left-wing author, who wrote under the pseudonym B. Traven, was most likely an actor and communist revolutionary who used the stage name Ret Marut. He fled from Germany to Mexico following the collapse of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919.
The reclusive Traven, who had a dozen passports with different aliases, never revealed himself to the public. He wrote at least eight novels in exile before the Nazi takeover in 1933, though only one was a resounding success: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which inspired the classic 1948 film by John Huston, with Humphrey Bogart as its star. Once the Nazis came to power, Traven’s radical writings were deemed so inimical that his entire oeuvre was tossed onto bonfires. Still, his novels were widely read by members of youth groups like the d.j.1.11. The White Rose may also have been known to Schmorell, Hans’ closest collaborator and a co-founder of the resistance group.
In Traven’s novel, the White Rose is the name of an idealized hacienda, or large estate, where mixed-race mestizo peasants live in harmony until a ruthlessly exploitative American oil executive arrives on the scene. The businessman orders the murder of the village’s illiterate leader, then presents the dead man’s signature on a bill of sale for the oil-rich lands. The local governor tells the villagers he will try to win back their freedom, even though he knows his efforts against the imperialist juggernaut will fail.
This story would have resonated powerfully for Hans and Schmorell as the idea of creating a group to resist the Nazis coalesced in their minds. (Hans was by no means a communist, but Schmorell was decidedly socialist in inclination.) Its rejection of racial prejudice, as well as its denouement, shared a kinship with the spirit and message of the German White Rose. As the governor tells the displaced citizens toward the end of the book:
I promise you I’ll do everything in my power to discover the truth. And I promise you that when I’ve found the truth, the White Rose won’t have been plucked for nothing. If, perhaps, it can never bloom again in all its beauty, it shall certainly not fade away, never. It shall bear fruit that will ripen. And that shall be the beginning of the liberation of the country and its citizens.
When asked about the origins of the “White Rose” name during his Gestapo interrogation on February 20, 1943, Hans offered a rambling response, adding, almost offhandedly, “It is possible that I chose the name on an emotional basis because at the time, I was under the influence of Brentano’s Spanish ballad ‘Die Rosa Blanca.’” This explanation has been widely accepted in Germany. But there are no Spanish romantic ballads by Clemens Brentano of that name.
There was, however, a decidedly romantic poem titled “La Rosa Blanca,” and it was the epigraph to the 1929 and 1931 German editions of Traven’s The White Rose, a leftist, utopian novel about deceit, exploitation and oppression:
Along the edge of the barranca,
Bathed daily by the Golden Sun,
Caressed by Lady Moon at night,
Faithfully blooms the White Rose.
Every day at dawn,
The birds sing thy praise;
How thou’st bloomed since God created thee,
Forever flourish, White Rose.
And though one day I too must wither,
White Rose, may’st thou bloom on,
And my last life’s breath
Will be my farewell kiss to thee.
If, as now seems likely, Traven’s novel was a primary inspiration for the group’s name, why did Hans give the Gestapo such a vacuous explanation? Perhaps he didn’t want the secret police to know he’d been influenced by a communist author. But another intriguing explanation comes to mind. Hans may well have been trying to divert the Gestapo’s attention away from Josef Söhngen, a 47-year-old gay bookseller who secretly nurtured the White Rose by providing a meeting place, a cellar in which to hide the group’s duplicating machine when needed and an endless supply of banned books from his secret cache.
Though other members of the White Rose frequented Söhngen’s bookstore, it was only Hans who became close friends with him. Hans often would turn up outside the door to Söhngen’s apartment late at night, seeking solace through the kind of intensely intimate conversation he almost certainly could not share with others.
From July to November 1942, Hans, Schmorell and Graf were forced to take a break from their studies—and their burgeoning activism—to serve as medics on the Eastern Front. There, they witnessed with their own eyes the misery of Jewish prisoners in the Warsaw Ghetto. “Warsaw would sicken me in the long run,” Hans wrote to his parents in July. “Half-starved children sprawl in the street and whimper for bread. … The mood is universally doom-laden.”
Appalled by the violence and injustice they’d witnessed, the friends returned to Munich determined to step up their resistance efforts by distributing leaflets throughout Germany and Austria. Ultimately, the White Rose circulated at least 7,000 leaflets in 16 major cities, from Munich to Frankfurt to Vienna to Berlin, conveying the impression that the group’s membership was widespread, not just a handful of indefatigable students hand-cranking out pamphlets in Munich.
The leaflets were like nothing the Gestapo had ever seen—not rigid ideological tracts aimed at the working classes, but passionate, erudite manifestos that quoted Friedrich Schiller, Plato and Laozi. “The guilt of Hitler and his accomplices goes beyond all measure,” read the group’s fifth leaflet. “Tear up the cloak of indifference you have wrapped around your hearts. Make your decision before it is too late!”
Hans regularly showed drafts of the White Rose’s leaflets to Söhngen. While Hans had previously suggested distributing leaflets at the university to other group members, he only confided in Söhngen and Sophie after deciding to execute the plan. The bookseller sharply warned Hans not to take such a dangerous risk.
When the Gestapo ransacked Hans’ apartment on February 18, they found a letter from Söhngen that Hans had hidden under clothing in a bureau drawer. The discovery led the Gestapo to search Söhngen’s apartment, where they found every missive the bookseller had received from Hans from the time they first became acquainted in Munich. Söhngen was arrested soon after.
The Gestapo already had a file on Söhngen as a gay man who’d had a soldier visit him at night in the months prior to his arrest, presumably for a sexual liaison. During Söhngen’s interrogations, however, investigators focused narrowly on the White Rose. They attempted to intimidate the bookseller by asking repeatedly if he was aware that Hans’ record had been “besmirched” by his 1937 arrest and 1938 conviction. Söhngen, of course, denied it.
It was only in August 2018, when she was almost 100 years old, that Traute Lafrenz, a member of the White Rose and a former girlfriend of Hans, felt able to speak openly about her frequently discussed romantic relationship with the resistance leader. Along with my colleague Robert Zoske, a Lutheran pastor and the author of a 2018 German biography of Hans, Be a Flame! Hans Scholl and the White Rose, I’d been encouraging Lafrenz to discuss her past. In a recorded phone conversation with Zoske, Lafrenz explained that Hans had had a “deep problem” that “tormented him greatly”—one that he kept “dreadfully secret.”
Hans had attempted “to eliminate this conflict by focusing on higher ideals,” she said, but he could “never free himself of it.’” This burden was “so significant for him” that it “formed his character profoundly.” Lafrenz further confirmed that, contrary to legends about their supposedly passionate but short-lived relationship, the pair had never engaged in any sexual activity.
As for Hans and Söhngen, there is no evidence indicating the two shared a sexual relationship. But they both felt deeply marginalized by Nazi society and politics. Hans’ feelings of being stigmatized for his earlier arrest would only have increased his trust in the bookseller as a key confidant.
In a 1946 account submitted to the Munich Institute for Contemporary History’s collection of postwar eyewitness testimony, Söhngen said that Hans had “simply [been] the young friend who came to me to escape the constant stress.” The two would discuss poetry or religion, “or often relax in silence with a glass of wine.”
Their correspondence while Hans was on the Eastern Front was warm and deep but careful given the military’s censorship of letters. In one missive written toward the end of his service, on September 9, 1942, Hans ecstatically praises the wide-open expanses of Russia, saying they are “as boundless as love itself.” He writes exuberantly about the liberating effect of this environment, which allowed him to acknowledge “fantasies” he had not dared give voice to in the stultifying confines of Germany. And he tells Söhngen how eager he is to share his experiences in full when they are finally together again, as his feelings are “far too weighty for a mere piece of white paper to bear.”
When the Gestapo later ransacked Hans’ flat, they found Söhngen’s careful reply hidden in a bureau drawer. “Such a radiantly beautiful autumn day it was when your so very lovely letter arrived—so beautiful that this day will remain with me as the pinnacle of all that which I hold beautiful,” he’d written. “Moreover, it opened up your innermost being to me, and I now believe I can see clearly that of what I had only before had an inkling. I have grown very reserved in my readiness and so take joy to find confirmation.” Söhngen seemed to have read between the lines, interpreting Hans’ words as a willingness to finally accept his own sexuality and (perhaps incorrectly) consider pursuing a deeper relationship with the bookseller himself.
Hans’ final words before his execution included messages for each of his closest friends and family members. In his sister Inge’s original unpublished eyewitness memoir, submitted, like Söhngen’s, to the Institute for Contemporary History in 1946, she states that her brother’s last message was directed to an unnamed individual, shared while a “tear ran down his cheek” as he bent over to hide his emotions. Inge avoided stating the gender of that anonymous person, but later on, in her 1952 book, she identified them as a woman. By then, she’d taken to presenting Hans as a lothario, so many readers and researchers presumed she was referring to one of his girlfriends.
Inge didn’t publish the words of this last, mysterious farewell. Söhngen, however, knew the precise contents of this message, as Hans’ mother had conveyed it to him personally. The bookseller included it in his memoir: “The most beautiful and yet sorrowful acknowledgment, from his mother … mere minutes before his execution: ‘If I should survive these times, I would want to be as ready as [Söhngen] was, to help students—even at risk of my own life.’”
Hans’ strategy of downplaying the duo’s relationship seems to have worked. Though Söhngen was sentenced to six months for failing to turn in two leaflets he’d admitted to receiving anonymously by mail, he was only required to serve three months and was otherwise judged to be an unimportant figure in the White Rose investigation.
Only minutes after delivering his final message, Hans—long tormented for loving men, who had promised to become “something great for the sake of mankind”—called out as he crossed the Gestapo prison’s cobblestoned courtyard on the way to the guillotine, declaring, “Long live freedom!”
This article was adapted from an essay previously published on Jud Newborn’s website.
Editor's Note, March 3, 2023: This article previously stated than Söhngen's case was dismissed. In fact, he served three months.
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