Remembering one of history's greats

Thursday, April 16, 2009

"No man ever made a bigger mistake than he who could do only a little and did nothing." Edmund Burke.

One of the greatest persons of the 20th Century is largely unknown in this country.

We are speaking of Sophie Scholl, a German student who was executed by the Nazis in 1943 for her role as a member of The White Rose, a resistance group which bravely stood up to the inhumanity of the totalitarian regime through the writing and covert distribution of leaflets.

Amazingly, we had never heard of Sophie Scholl and her fellow students until we recently watched an Oscar-nominated movie concerning her final days.

One observer correctly points out that Americans are unable to comprehend the terror in which Germans were forced to live on a day-to-day basis during the monstrous reign of Adolph Hitler. The regime had total control of the nation and punished any dissent swiftly and without mercy.

Many have resisted evil in human history, but her youth and bravery is what set Sophie Scholl apart as she was convicted in a mock trial in "Peoples Court" and executed by guillotine in February 1943 in Munich. She was 21.

In a poll of Germans conducted in 2003, she was named the fourth greatest woman in that nation's history and other polls have chosen her the greatest German woman of the 20th Century. Some 200 schools in Germany are named in honor of Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans, who also was executed on that fateful day.

Numerous other members of The White Rose were put to death at that time, as well as in the days to follow.

The Scholls were raised by their parents to question authority and later were compelled by their Christian conscience to peacefully resist Nazism. Their father, the mayor of the town where they grew up, was imprisoned at one point merely for making a negative remark about Hitler to a co-worker.

On the day of their execution, witnesses said brother and sister bravely smiled during a brief visit with their parents, but Sophie later was seen crying in her cell moments before calmly walking to her death. The execution took place only hours after their "conviction" and just four days after their arrest.

In the motion picture, there is a strong implication that other Germans, even members of the military, knew the words of the leaflets were true, but they lacked the personal courage of the Scholls and their friends. Their position was that the nation and the military should be supported unflinchingly, while The White Rose felt it their duty to follow their consciences in standing up against an evil regime.

The actions of The White Rose were the first known internal resistance to the Nazis during the reign of the Third Reich.

At the trial, Sophie Scholl stood firmly and said to the specially-appointed judge (and prosecutor) Roland Freisler -- "You know the war is lost. Why don't you have the courage to face it...somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just do not dare express themselves as we did."

"I am, now as before, of the opinion that I did the best that I could do for my nation," she said at the trial. "I therefore do not regret my conduct and will bear the consequences that result from my conduct."

The actions of The White Rose were termed "possibly the most spectacular moment of resistance that I can think of in the 20th Century," said playwright Lillian Garrett-Gregg. The leaflets distributed by the group later were air-dropped across Germany by Allied forces.

Just shortly before going to her death, Sophie Scholl said to her cellmate, "How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?"

Those who follow Sophie Scholl and her fellow students in the march of history have a responsibilty never to forget the bravery and sense of conscience they displayed in standing virtually alone against a regime of pure evil, representing so clearly and simply that there indeed is good in humanity.