Readers of Brigitte, the largest women’s magazine in Germany, voted Sophie
Scholl the most important woman of the 20th century.
You probably do not know Sophie Scholl. She was a founder of the White Rose movement, a tiny group of German students who distributed leaflets opposing the Nazi regime. In 1943 she and two others were arrested, tried and immediately executed for treason. At the trial she simply said, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start.”
A young Munich barrister named Leo Samberger opened his mail one morning in February of 1943, and, as he said afterward, he couldn’t believe his eyes. That was a time when every new day seemed to bring some new event to unsettle the nerves or stun the senses. The war, in its fourth year, had made the unexpected routine and the startling commonplace.
Even so, Leo Samberger was shaken when he opened what he thought was a letter but turned out to be a leaflet. It was neatly typed, singlespaced, with no illustration or typographical flourish of any kind. It was a solid block of type that made no more concession to the reader than a page from a textbook. But Leo Samberger caught his breath as he ran his eye down the page. “The day of reckoning has come, the reckoning of German youth with the most detestable tyranny that our people has ever endured. . .”…
With an intensity that broke through every phrase, the leaflet denounced the “corporal of World War I” whose amateur strategy had just cost the German people three hundred thousand of their sons in the bloodbath at Stalingrad. Here the leaflet, in its bitterness, used sardonically the saying that the Ministry of Propaganda had popularized to hail the achievements of Adolf Hitler: “Führer, wir danken Dir!” (Leader, we thank you!).
Then, at the end, came an impassioned call for revolt: “The name of Germany will be disgraced forever unless the German youth rises up, in both atonement and vengeance, to crush its tormentors and to build a new and nobler Europe.”…
The story circulated that some students had been caught scattering leaflets along corridors on the stairway between floors, and in the central hall under its high, domed skylight. The leaflets had been swiftly gathered up and spirited away by custodians before they could spread their corruption among the students. Copies were being closely examined in the rector’s office, to which, again, the Gestapo had been summoned. The names of the perpetrators were not immediately made known, nor was their fate….
Now it became clear why the chief judge of the People’s Court had been hastily flown from Berlin to preside at this trial and why the courtroom was so liberally seeded with representatives of the armed power of the state. The charges that Freisler had read from the indictments were among the gravest that could be brought against a German by his government in wartime.
It appeared from the evidence that the infamous deeds cited by the prosecution had been perpetrated over a period of many months by an organization with the curiously incongruous name of “the White Rose”. Page after page told of the activities of this group that had secretly and subversively produced thousands of leaflets attacking the government and the war effort and circulated them in many different cities, thereby threatening the very survival of the Reich.
Freisler made no pretense of being judicial. He ranted. He bellowed. He encouraged the prosecution and ignored the defense. At his post in the doorway Leo Samberger turned his eyes from the flaming figure on the bench to the defendants. There were three of them. Though he didn’t know them, he recognized their faces from seeing them many times in the concert halls of Munich that he himself frequented. They were college students, young, educated, clean-cut—his own sort. It seemed hardly credible that they were sitting in the dock with a death penalty over their heads as a consequence of what had happened at the university only three days before….
All three maintained their self-possession in a way that won a grudging admiration even in that room, but Sophie made a particular impression. Not only did she stand out as the lone female caught up in these proceedings, but she had an indefinable quality of her own. She was twenty-two years old, dark, and with a curious aura of mingled girlishness and gravity. Now and then during the trial, her brow would crease into a quick, musing frown, which those who knew her would have recognized as characteristic. Even here, in the courtroom with her life at stake, the frown did not signify anxiety or dismay. It meant that she was turning over in her mind a point, an implication, or a shading and weighing it to get it right.
She was wearing a rumpled and rather mannish sort of coat that contributed little to her appearance. She had endured three days of nearly unbroken interrogation in a Gestapo prison, and she looked worn and tired. But her quiet appeal, hovering always between girl and woman, was unimpaired. It was overlaid, now, with a kind of subdued defiance apparent in the cast of her features and the set of her head. Once Roland Freisler, squirming with fury inside his scarlet robe, demanded to know how any German could possibly do what the indictment charged against the trio in the dock. It was Sophie who responded, clearly and coolly:
“Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare to express themselves as we did.”…
As the proceedings wore on, it became obvious that no defense worth the name would be offered. The court-appointed defense attorneys scarcely troubled to conceal their aversion to their task or to disguise their approval of the charges. The verdict itself was never in doubt. Berlin had not sent Roland Freisler winging down to Munich to preside over an acquittal.
Yet there was, as Leo Samberger noted, a pronounced tension in the courtroom as the words were about to be spoken that would, quite literally, cost three young people their heads. Such a thing had never happened before even in a Nazi courtroom. And the words came from the bench as expected: “. . . for the protection of the German people, and of the Reich, in this time of mortal struggle, the Court has only one just verdict open to it on the basis of the evidence: the death penalty. With this sentence the People’s Court demonstrates its solidarity with the fighting troops!”
Even before the auditorium was drained of its gray, black, and brown uniforms, the condemned trio was hurriedly surrounded by a cordon of police, put in manacles, and led away.
The three of them were taken directly from the court to the place of execution, to Stadelheim, on the outskirts of the city. There, that same afternoon, all three were beheaded, the girl, Sophie, going under the guillotine first. It was all done with a speed and brutality that signaled something like panic in high places.