‘Groβmutter, die Bedingungen haben dich erschossen und deine Kinder vergast. Es waren gar nicht die Deutschen, es waren die historischen Bedingungen und die totalitäre Ideologie.’ L. Fleischmann, Dies ist nicht mein Land, Hamburg 1980, s. 248.
‘Grandma, it was the conditions at the time that shot you dead and gassed your children. It wasn’t the Germans at all, rather the historical conditions and the totalitarian ideology.’
I came across the above quotation yesterday in my reading on the language of National Socialism (another of the topics I’ll be teaching from October). It captures the sentiment that many post-war Germans did not wish to recognise their nation’s guilt regarding the atrocities committed in their name during the Nazi period, focusing instead on their own suffering as victims of war. Indeed, we know that many Germans of the period remained committed to the National Socialist cause to their deaths, denying that ordinary Germans had any role to play in the turn of events.
Joseph Goebbels was certainly one such German. The members of the White Rose resistance group, on the other hand, were very much not. Most British people have heard of Goebbels. Few Brits would, I’d wager, recognise the names Hans and Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf and Kurt Huber, (and they’re just the famous ones!)
So why am I blogging about these Germans from the past? What did they have in common, and how were they different? Why should we care? I want to draw light on the ways in which, on one particular day, they used words very differently, and dwell a little on what those words signified (and still signify today).
Like many, I’ve grown up knowing Goebbels as a household name. We learned about him in school, and even saw films of him wildly gesticulating and screaming out the usual Nazi diatribe. Even as a German student, however, I never once came across the Scholl siblings, to say nothing of the others, even though in Germany the members of the White Rose have in the years since the Second World War almost reached cult status. Although I stumbled across their story a while ago now (having read this brilliant book), it was only when recently reading Goebbels’ diary during a dull moment in the Bodleian a couple of months ago that I was struck by a connection between the Propagandaminister and the Weiβe Rose, and that was the different ways they were using words on one particular day in 1943. I was reading what Goebbels had to say about one of the most important speeches of his career, known as the Sportpalastrede, given on 18th February 1943 in the Sportpalast in Berlin. Yesterday, I happened to come across this speech again in my study of the language of National Socialism. It’s one of his most famous, known primarily by the line Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg? (‘Do you want total war?’) to which all present screamed their approval. You can read the German here, an English translation here, and listen to it here.
It was primarily the disastrous defeat at Stalingrad shortly before that prompted the Propagandaminister to deliver this speech. For the first time, there was an acknowledgement that Germany was in danger. Yet by the end, having appealed to the (very German) notion of war heroism, doled out suitable apocolyptic language and cast blame on anyone as long as they didn’t belong to the Herrenrasse, Herr Doktor Goebbels had his crowd (selected of course by the Nazis) eating out of his hand, sure in their support of total war and holding fast to the concept of the Endsieg.
Down south in Bavaria, on the same day, two students walked into the Lichthof (atrium) of the Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität in Munich while lectures were going on. They quietly distributed anti-war leaflets which had been written and copied thousands of times, leaving them around the hall in obvious places. Hans Scholl, together with the others listed above, had been writing and distributing leaflets across the South of Germany for months. This was the sixth (English), written by Professor of Musicology and Philosophy Kurt Huber, and addressed to students, appealing to their intellect, their sense of morality, and their courage to stand up to the oppressive regime in power. Sophie had joined the others at university the semester before, and was keen to be involved in the action. Their usual pastime was copying the leaflets and sending them to students in different cities. On this occasion, they had a few leaflets left over. She suggested distributing them at the university. In the transcript of her interrogation, she tells how, “in meinem Übermut oder meiner Dummheit“* (‘out of high jinks or stupidity’), she gave one stack of paper on the gallery a shove and the pages wafted down to ground floor level in the atrium. A porter saw her and her brother Hans, and handed them over to the Gestapo. They were interrogated in the days that followed, put on ‘trial’, together with Christoph Probst, in front of the Volksgerichtshof in Munich on 22nd February, and executed on the same day. The other three members were arrested subsequently and also executed.
Hans and Sophie Scholl (along with many others involved in the White Rose movement) were Christians. Their faith motivated them to act. They knew that the world would not let Germany get away with blaming ‘historical conditions’ after the war. They grew up under Nazism and had initially been supportive of the regime. Over time, however, they started to see that Nazism had twisted key truths that they believed in. They met together, read books about philosophy and theology together, sang together and prayed together. Gradually, they came up with a way to respond: on paper. As Sophie said during the trial, ‘wir kämpfen mit dem Wort’ (‘we’re fighting with words’).
In his diary, Goebbels wrote the following about Christianity and Nazism in 1928:
Was ist uns heute das Christentum? Nationalsozialismus ist Religion. Es fehlt nur noch das religiöse Genie, das alte überlebte Formeln sprengt und neue bildet. Der Ritus fehlt uns. Nationalsozialismus muβ auch einmal Staatsreligion der Deutschen werden. Meine Partei ist meine Kirche, und ich glaube, dem Herrn am besten zu dienen, wenn ich seinen Willen erfülle und mein unterdrücktes Volk von den Sklavenketten befreie. Das ist mein Evangelium. (Goebbels, 1999, Bd. 1, S. 327)
‘What use is Christianity to us today? National Socialism is religion. All we’re missing is that religious genius that blows apart old surviving formulas and creates new ones. We’re missing the ritual. National Socialism will one day become the state religion of the German people. My party is my church, and I believe that I’m serving God best when I fulfil his wishes and free my oppressed people from the chains of slavery. That is my gospel.’
The Scholls’ Gospel was a very different one. Hans and Sophie’s parents rushed into the court room in the middle of their trial, and their father screamed ‘Es gibt eine andere Gerechtigkeit!’ (‘There is another kind of justice!) They were removed. They were, however, allowed to see Hans and Sophie for a few minutes each before they were executed. The following dialogue has been recorded in several places, but I’m taking it from a letter from Hans and Sophie’s mother to Sophie’s boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel. Her mother, Magdalena Scholl, looked to Sophie moments before she was led to the guillotine and said ‘Aber gelt – Jesus!’ (‘But remember – Jesus!’) Sophie’s response was ‘Ja, aber du auch.’ (‘Yes, but you must remember him too.’)
A lot can be learnt from the courage and faith of this group of students (all of whom were younger than me) to act in the hardest of situations. Willi Graf, who was one of the second round of members of the group to be tried and executed, had the following to say about the Christian life (which I have very loosely translated). It’s taken from a display in the university in Munich, where there is a small exhibition to their memory. There’s lots to chew over for Christians.
‘In Wirklichkeit ist Christentum ein viel schwereres und ungewisseres Leben, das voller Anstrengungen ist und immer wieder neue Überwindung kostet, um es zu vollziehen.’
‘In reality, Christianity is much more a difficult and unsettled life that is full of struggles and always requires you to keep battling to actually live that life.’
The sixth leaflet continued to be distributed long after the deaths of the key members of the White Rose and made its way to England, where it was copied and dropped by aeroplane over Germany in the closing stages of the war.
You can watch a trailer (with English subtitles) for the film ‘Sophie Scholl – die letzten Tage’ here. It has some shots of the Lichthof where the leaflets were distributed.
Here are some pictures of the Lichthof and the resting place of Hans and Sophie and Christoph Probst in the Friedhof am Perlacher Forst in Munich