The Story of The White Rose by Adam Bunch

That's Sophie Scholl in the middle of the photo. Her brother Hans is on the left. Their friend, Christoph Probst, is on the right. They're in Munich in 1942 and they, along with a handful of other students at the University of Munich, are the White Rose. For nearly a year, while Hitler's armies raged across the globe and bodies burned in the fires of the Holocaust, the White Rose waged a propaganda war against the F├╝hrer back home in Germany.

The students' first leaflet began appearing in mailboxes in the summer of 1942. It railed against the Nazis and urged ordinary German citizens to rise up and put a stop to the horror. "Isn’t it true that every honest German is ashamed of his government these days? Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes—crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure—reach the light of day?"

The second was even more strongly worded: "[S]ince the conquest of Poland three hundred thousand Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way […] The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals […] now that we have recognized [the Nazis] for what they are, it must be the sole and first duty, the holiest duty of every German to destroy these beasts."

Then the closing lines of the fourth leaflet: "We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!"

And they didn't. Thousands of copies of the leaflets were spread across Germany and anti-Nazi graffiti began to appear on the walls of Munich—the city hailed as the birthplace of the National Socialist Party. The Gestapo launched an investigation, tried to hunt them down, but couldn't figure out who was responsible.

Meanwhile, the tide of the war had been turning. The Battle of Stalingrad was just beginning when the White Rose printed their first leaflet, but by February, the Germans had lost the battle and hundreds of thousands of men along with it. It was a disaster. The Allies were demanding Germany's unconditional surrender and Nazi troops were being pushed back all over the world. On the 18th day of the month, the increasingly desperate Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, gave his most famous speech, calling on the German people to commit to "total war".

That same day, Sophie and Hans Scholl headed to the university with a briefcase filled with copies of their sixth leaflet. "Shaken and broken, our people behold the loss of the men of Stalingrad [...] The day of reckoning has come—the reckoning of German youth with the most abominable tyrant our people have ever been forced to endure. [...] The frightful bloodbath has opened the eyes of even the stupidest German—it is a slaughter which they arranged in the name of 'freedom and honor of the German nation' throughout Europe, and which they daily start anew. The name of Germany is dishonored for all time if German youth does not finally rise, take revenge, and atone, smash its tormentors, and set up a new Europe of the spirit."

They left the leaflets in the hallways, waiting to be discovered as students poured out of class, on windowsills and shelves and ledges. With a few extra copies left at the end, they climbed up to the top of the school's atrium and let them fall.

That's when the janitor spotted them and called the Gestapo.

The whole thing only took a few days: Sophie, Hans and Christoph Probst were arrested, interrogated, tried and executed. They say that Hans' last words came as the blade of the guillotine fell towards him: "Let freedom live." Three more members of the White Rose would soon meet the same fate. Most of the others were sent to prison.

But their story wasn't quite over. A copy of the final leaflet ended up in the hands of a prominent member of another German resistance movement: the awesomely-named Helmuth James Graf von Moltke. He—only a couple of years away from  being executed himself—smuggled the text out of the country, through Scandinavia and into England. There, the English made copies. A lot of copies. That summer, as Allied planes rumbled through Nazi skies, they dropped more than five million of them, the final words of the White Rose raining down to the people below.

Photo: Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst

Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. He's been on the Polaris Prize jury, lectured at Trampoline Hall and written for PopMatters, Crawdaddy!, 24 Hours and a whole bunch of other places. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at


Alex said...

Have you read the biography of her? I think there is a movie, too. What an incredible story.

Adam Bunch said...

I haven't read the biography, but I saw one of the movies about her (which was nominated for Best Foreign Film a few years ago). They're heroes in Germany apparently, with roads and schools and stamps and squares and all sorts of other stuff named after them.

Alex said...

Hmmm... Too little too late?

Post a Comment