Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The White Rose and Living by Principle

For all of those folks who have been checking The Crucible faithfully for the last 4 weeks, I have to extend an apology. I've been in the process of finalizing the sale of my house, buying a new one, moving my entire life over and getting settled. Along with a busy work month, it didn't leave a whole lot of time for blogging. I know some of my fellow Obloggers use their blogs like diaries, but I can't seem to do that. I seem to always want to try to make the posts novel and substantial and that means I have to have the time to use my brain. That's what I want The Crucible to be known for, and that's what I want you to be able to expect. So if it means that I don't post when I don't have the time, I hope you'll understand.

Today's post requires that I tell you a short story.

Back around Christmas time while visiting family in Washington D.C. I spent one day at the Holocaust Memorial Museum with my sister. The experience was nothing short of an emotional wringer. It was hard to keep it together for most of the day. I recommend that anyone who spends time in D.C. devote at least an afternoon to this memorial. For me, it concretized and made real the horror and fiendishness of the Holocaust, especially when you come so close to the actual physical remnants of those acts.

I saw a synagogue ark (where the torah scrolls are kept) defaced on Kristallnacht night, the violent gashes of Nazi axes across the face of it making the violence palpable. I entered a room completely bare but for a floor filled with tens of thousands of shoes, discarded from a concentration camp "selektion", and read a poem which is only a few lines long, but in that room carries the weight of millions of the dead. I stood in a boxcar not much bigger than the 12x14 room I'm in right now, which held hundreds of people for days without food, heat, water, or sanitation as they traveled to their deaths. And I stood in a three story atrium covered in black and white photos of the daily life in one eastern European shtetl, or Jewish community. You pass through the atrium three different times in a chronological journey, first getting to know the families, and learning of their lives. At the final pass, you learn that the entire town of 3,500 was wiped from existence by Nazi death squads. I knew this would be the end when I passed through the first time, but it never prepares you for how you'll feel once you've come to know them in the vibrant midst of their lives.

I bought three books from the memorial bookstore, and it is one of those books, which I just finished that I wish to highlight for you. The book is Newborn and Dumbach's Sophie Scholl and The White Rose. The book tells the true story of a group of student activists in Munich who covertly published and distributed anti-Nazi tracts in late 1942 and early 1943. Members of the group were caught in the act of distributing one of the pamphlets, were arrested, tried and summarily executed. Eventually the Gestapo tracked down the remaining members of the group and all were executed.

I found this story inspirational, as opposed to the other books I bought which focused on the tragedy of the Holocaust. While the narrative is straight forward, the book did an excellent job of taking you into the motivations and growth in the members of the group, the events which inspired them, and the reasons behind their decision to act. Unlike the millions of Germans who witnessed the events unfolding in Nazi Germany and rationalized them, finding reasons not to act, this group of young men and one women held onto their independent judgement, formed their own conclusions, and once convinced of the immorality of the regime decided that they must do something to try to counter it.

Educated children of a liberal father who detested the Nazi's, Sophie's brother Hans, the key leader of The White Rose, served in the Hitler Youth as a boy until becoming disillusioned with its focus on propaganda, hypocrisy and rejection of even rational discourse. Strong-headed Sophie spoke up when she disagreed with the party line and quickly rejected its tenets. Both witnessed Nazi book burnings of the literature they so loved. Though she became a member of the group late in its development it is through Sophie's sensibilities and early writings that one begins to understand the mind of The White Rose. Her words are incredible, and inspirational, rivaling the sense of life of Rand. From a high school journal entry,

I could shout for joy that I am so alone, with the wild, rough wind drenching my body. I'd like to be on a raft, standing upright above the gray river, whose hurrying water the wind cannot disturb... The sun comes out and kisses me tenderly. I'd like to kiss it back, but I forget that immediately because now the wind has leaped on me. I sense the wonderful firmness of my body; I laugh out loud for joy because I can offer the wind such resistance. I feel such strength in me.

The members of the White Rose are models of integrity, independent thought, and the belief that one must act upon ones values in order to be happy. As Sophie wrote in her diary,

After all, one should have the courage to believe only in what is good. By that I do not mean one should believe in illusions. I mean one should do only what is true and good an take it for granted that others will do the same.

The White Rose published only 6 pamphlets in two phases, the first four in the summer of 1942, and the last two after the male members returned from a tour of duty as medics on the Eastern Front, in Winter of 1943. The wrote the tracts themselves and published them on a hidden, hand-cranked mimeograph. The first phase of pamphlets were published each in the hundreds and mailed randomly to people selected from the phone book within Munich. After their return from the front, the members linked up with like-minded groups in other cities, and the last two pamphlets were published in the thousands and the members couriered stashes of pamphlets to other cities for distribution. Hans and Sophie were spotted by a Nazi sympathizer dropping leaflets of the 6th tract from a university window, and they were turned into the Gestapo. They were interrogated, tried and summarily beheaded before their families could even mount a defense.

I was inspired to write of this group because I so often encounter Pragmatists among the ranks of Objectivists. People who believe in the concept that ethics and morality are some sort of survival cost-benefit analysis. That when faced with a mortal threat, life, any sort of life will be preferable to death, and one should act accordingly. To me it's an indication that to value life is to value a certain kind of life and if one dies in the careful attempt to create or preserve that life, that that is preferable to life as a slave. I also loved this story because it highlights the incredible importance of the thing in which The White Rose was dealing, of the importance of ideas. They were not pursued because they were caching arms, or mounting a physical resistance, but because the spread around pieces of paper with ideas on them.

One might look at the fact that the tracts were only published in small numbers and resulted in little immediate outcome and conclude that the acts of The White Rose were merely the futile acts of a suicidal band of idealistic students. But then one reads the following,

News of the White Rose, and the spirit of their resistance, reached the American public as well, despite the blanket of silence and Gestapo intention. On August 2, 1943 -- three weeks after Alexander Schmorell and Kurt Huber had gone under the executioner's blade, an editorial appeared in the New York Times under the title "Young German Martyrs." It concluded with the following words: "... these Munich students, few or many, representative or otherwise, rose gloriously... protesting in the name of principles which Hitler thought he had killed forever. In years to come we, too, may honor [them]."

Once they reached the West, the leaflets of the White Rose were reprinted -- now in the tens of thousands -- and dropped from Allied aircraft over the cities of Germany.


The leaflets made people like Thomas Mann, in exile, weep with happiness. For those who read them or heard about them, inside or outside of Germany, they brought a sense of joy that is hard to express. They were testimony to the fact that there were Germans, locked inside the Third Reich's fortress of death, who still cared, who did not look away, who stood up, who fought back.

and can't help but conclude that even small acts, and simple ideas can have a meaningful impact.


softwareNerd said...

There's a movie too.

Galileo Blogs said...

Thank you for highlighting the story of the White Rose resistance movement. I read of them many years ago and admired their bravery.

As for their actions being ineffectual, the lie to that is given by the tens of thousands of pamphlets reproduced by the Allies and dropped over Germany.

The lie to that is also given by the fact that we are talking about and remembering the Scholls and their comrades.

The lie to that is given by the inspiration that the Scholls' actions will have provided to future fighters against tyranny.

Kendall J said...

Thanks Snerd, the movie is next up on my Netflix queue.

Ruth Hanna Sachs said...

We have spent the last 14 years painstakingly documenting the real story of the White Rose, not the sugar-coated legend you unfortunately read in the Dumbach/Newborn book, or than what is portrayed in the recent Sophie Scholl movie.

The real story is far more challenging and heart-rending than anything you can imagine. Because these students and the adults who learned from them were every bit as flawed as you and I. Hans Scholl was a drug addict and pedophile. Sophie Scholl was in fact suicidal. Christoph Probst - the true moral backbone of the group - suffered from clinical depression. Alex Schmorell - the one who wrote the words in the leaflets most often quoted, the daring words about the murders of Jews and Poles, asking his fellow citizens to SABOTAGE (Hans Scholl wrote the more ineffective leaflets) - was in love with Christoph Probst's married sister.

But despite their very humanness, they did what they could. THAT is the true message of the White Rose story. By elevating them to demigods, the true measure of their heroism is lost. They did not wait until they became "good people" to do something good. They became "good people" because they acted.

Ruth Hanna Sachs
Center for White Rose Studies
To learn more about the White Rose, go to www.deheap.com and click on the Center for White Rose Studies link. Thanks!