The young students who formed the anti-Nazi movement called ‘The White Rose’ were, at first, like many other young people of their day-- energetic and enthusiastic in an era when a new kind of leadership had just taken hold it their country.
Esther Bauer teaches German language and culture at Virginia Tech. “Some of them had even been part of the Hitler youth in the beginning. And then, as they realized what was really going on and what was really going on they started to ask questions.”
At the beginning they were just a social group, doing what college kids do, playing music, going to art exhibits, hiking the mountains together, and talking philosophy late into the night. But as rumors of death camps and atrocities turned into substantiated facts from people they knew, they put their education and their ideals to work.
Hans and Sophie Scholl, brother and sister, along with others in their circle began distributing anti-Nazi leaflets. They wrote and printed them and secretly dropped them in places where people would find them. And it went without a hitch, until they leafletted the University of Munich.
“And the maintenance person, the caretaker, saw them, grabbed them and held them until the police came and they were arrested.”
Nazi officials interrogated brother and sister for three days.
“And they were all extremely serious, they did not budge, especially Sophie, who was very adamant about what she believed in. And when the interrogator tried to build her a ‘golden bridge’ to get out, he suggested, that maybe she didn’t really know what was going on, suggesting, ‘perhaps you were just influenced by your brother,’ she kept saying ‘no, I was very aware. It was my decision. I wanted to do this.’
Twenty-one years old, planning to marry her long-term boyfriend, she opted to stand trial in a country, which had recently passed laws removing civil liberties, including freedom of speech and association.
“Hitler and the Nazis had come to power perfectly legally; they had been elected, so the democratic process had worked, but once they were in power, they were no longer committed to actually supporting this process.”
They gutted the courts and undermined the legal process.
“There was a trial, but it was a complete show trial, in front of what was called ‘The People’s Court.”
There was no testimony allowed for the defendants but, according to court transcripts, these words were spoken by Sophie Scholl. She told her accusers, “We are not the only ones who think this, we are just the ones who said it.”
Bauer explains “They were all sentenced to death and executed a few days later. "
It wasn’t until 1985 that Germany officially declared the Nazi’s ‘People’s Court’ illegal and the members of the White Rose movement, no longer traitors, but heroes.
Bauer explains, “Now there are schools and squares and streets named after them.”
The exhibit that opens tonight in the Newman Library at Virginia Tech is from a foundation established at the urging of the U.S. And today there is a permanent exhibit in Munich that is dedicated to sharing their ideas about standing up for what’s right.
Bauer says, “They really show you what a humanistic education can teach you and that playing music, being interested in the arts, studying philosophy, talking to people about ideas and about the big ideas is really something that shapes people, how they think, and in this case how they act.”