The year was 1942. While the Battle of Stalingrad would begin later that summer, the horrors of the Holocaust were far from over with the mass, systematic murder of Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau just beginning.
That same year, however, 20-year-old University of Munich student Sophie Scholl was coming to the conclusion that she could no longer sit idly by and watch the expanding crimes against humanity that Hitler and the Nazi party were commintting. In June of that year, Scholl made a commitment to what activists of today might call active allyship, joining the White Rose resistance group and in turn stirring thousands of German students and civilians into action.
Sophie was born the fourth of six children to the mayor of Forchtenberg, Germany in 1921. Like most non-Jewish youth, Sophie was required to join the Bund Deutscher Mädel, or the League of German Girls, in 1933 when the Nazis took power. At first, Sophie accepted the ideals of the Hitler Youth without question. Her father, Robert Scholl, on the other hand, actively criticized the National Socialist Party, even serving time in a Nazi prison later in his life for calling Hitler “God’s scourge on mankind.”
It wasn’t until her brother, Hans, was arrested in 1937 for participating in an illegal non-Nazi group that Sophie would begin her awakening, fully turning against the Nazi Party and making her way into the resistance. In 1939, both of Sophie’s brothers were drafted into the war, with Hans being stationed at the Eastern Front. It was here that he witnessed some of the atrocities being committed against the Jews first hand, and what would inevitably inspire the founding of the White Rose.
After serving her required six months of auxiliary war service as a nursery teacher, Sophie enrolled at the University of Munich alongside Hans in 1942, majoring in biology and philosophy. That same summer, Sophie, Hans, their friends Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, Christoph Probst, and a professor of philosophy, Kurt Huber, began printing and distributing anti-Nazi Party leaflets around the city of Munich under the name of the White Rose. The group was inspired by the examples of passive resistance they had heard about in the United States, where groups of students were beginning to fight in the name of civil rights and racial justice.
The White Rose would eventually write and distribute six pamphlets in total, sending them out to professors, fellow students, friends, and even cultivating a network of supporters that would help them distribute the leaflets throughout all of Germany. The leaflets asked many questions of their readers, but above all else, they asked the same question Sophie asked of herself as she began to grow suspicious of the National Socialist Party and their values: If you know what is happening, then why don’t you act?
Along with educating German students and calling for “freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and protection of the individual citizen from the arbitrary action of criminal dictator-states,” the White Rose’s activist materials implored civilians to engage in forms of non-violent resistance by sabotaging weapon plants and war industries, disrupting Nazi rallies and gatherings, and attempting to obstruct the overall actions of the Nazi Party.
After Germany was defeated at the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, it seemed that more and more people were beginning to listen to Sophie and the White Rose’s call to action. They had successfully distributed between 6,000 to 9,000 copies of their fifth leaflet. Graffiti calling for an end to Hitler’s reign began popping up throughout Munich, inspired by the work of the White Rose. Their sixth and final leaflet, released in February of 1943, specifically called for the German youth to take responsibility, stand up, and begin the founding of a new Europe. Leaving a number of copies of the sixth pamphlet throughout the empty hallways of the University of Munich, Sophie made the decision to fling the remaining leaflets off the staircase and into the main hall. It was then that a janitor and supporter of the Nazi regime saw Sophie and her brother and called the Gestapo immediately. The two of them, along with their friend, Christopher, were swiftly arrested.
“Somebody, after all, had to make a start,” Sophie said while standing on trial for the White Roses’ supposed crimes. “What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just do not dare express themselves as we did.” Sophie, Hans, and Christopher were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death on February 22, 1943. Dedicated to profound action until the very end, she used some of her final words to shed light on her fundamental goals, saying, “Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go… What does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?” She was 21.
The efforts of the White Rose did not die with Sophie. Later that year, their sixth leaflet was smuggled into the United Kingdom where it was reprinted and later dropped all over Germany by Allied planes.
Sophie was not Jewish, but she refused to sit and watch as her country stole the rights of and murdered the Jewish people as well as the several other marginalized groups that were targeted during the Third Reich. It is for this reason that Sophie’s bravery and actions can only be described as what social justice fighters of today would refer to as active allyship. Sophie was acutely aware that claiming ignorance or looking the other way is an act of violence during times of injustice. “The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t like to make waves — or enemies,” Sophie stated. “But it’s all an illusion, because they die too… Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.”
As we bear witness to perhaps one of the largest civil rights uprisings in modern history with the Black Lives Matter movement, non-Black allies must ask themselves the same question Sophie and the White Rose asked of the German people: If you see what is happening, then why don’t you act? Sophie’s courageous actions remind us of how important it is to speak out against injustice and to engage in passive resistance not only when our own rights are being threatened, but as an ally when the lives of others are at stake. She’s a symbol of allyship and resistance, and her story is something we would all do well to remember.
Header image of Sophie via National World War II Museum; flowers via CSA Images/Getty Images.