Conscience Before Conformity by Paul Shrimpton, Gracewing, 328pp £15.99
This book provides a detailed exploration of the religious and cultural background of the principal players in the White Rose resistance movement in Nazi Germany. The movement’s fame rests partly on the success of the film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days and partly on the understandable German need to honour the Munich students as martyrs, thus showing that despite their country’s moral degradation during the Third Reich, it had its own principled critics.
The particular value of Shrimpton’s work is in his extensive quotations from the letters and diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl. Thus he shows the gradual development of their moral and spiritual understanding of what ordinary Germans might (and should) do in the face of a blatantly evil state. As representatives of the best of German culture – the Scholl family loved music and literature, as well as hiking in the countryside and winter sports – they were not alone in the outrage they felt at the Nazi treatment of the Jews and the disabled, as well as the murderous activities of the Waffen-SS on the Eastern Front during the war. The difference is that the White Rose students were prepared to pay the ultimate price for their passionately held convictions.
As Shrimpton argues in his preface, the religious aspect at the heart of the White Rose movement “has probably never been fully addressed”. The Christian faith of those involved has been “downplayed” or “ignored”, perhaps because to be prepared to live out one’s religious convictions is barely understood today. Yet, as the author shows in the excerpts he selects from the letters and diaries of the siblings, the writings of John Henry Newman on conscience, translated by Theodor Haecker (a Catholic-convert publisher and academic who lived in Munich and who provided clandestine seminars and discussion groups to a small circle of student dissidents), were central to their growing awareness and decision to act.
Haecker believed that “England had bequeathed Newman, a prophet of apostasy, to a Germany deeply in need of a response which was adequate to the prevailing anti-Christian totalitarianism”. Between 1941 and 1943 he shared his convictions and knowledge of Newman with Hans, Sophie and their circle.
Indeed, Sophie gave her boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel, a Wehrmacht soldier, two volumes of Newman’s sermons in May 1942 when he was sent to the Eastern Front. Influenced by her and his own reading, Fritz came to see that the war he was fighting in was unjust.
Shrimpton also provides a picture of the attractive family life of the Scholls. Hans was born in 1918 and Sophie in 1921. They were two of the five children of Robert Scholl, a businessman, and his wife, Magdalena, a dedicated Evangelical Christian. Both parents were influential in their children’s lives, Magdalena for her biblical convictions and Robert for his encouragement of independence of mind.
All the Scholl children, including Inge, Lisl and Werner, shared the same esprit and were vehemently anti-Nazi. Influenced by Bishop von Galen’s sermon condemning the Nazi euthanasia programme, they felt that he “radiated an astonishing aura of courage and integrity” in the face of the Nazi regime. They were also inspired by Carl Muth, the publisher of Hochland, a journal for the discussion of social and philosophic questions, who influenced two generations of educated German Catholics before his journal was suppressed in 1941. He raised the question: how do good people survive under an evil system without compromising their conscience?
The leafleting campaign undertaken by Hans, Sophie and their friends, urging their fellow citizens to take a moral and political stand against Hitler, began in June 1942. By July, four leaflets had been distributed. The fifth and sixth leaflets, posted and distributed in January and February 1943, were to seal the fate of Hans and Sophie. Arrested on February 18 at Munich University, they were tried by the notorious People’s Court and executed by guillotine four days later, along with White Rose member Christoph Probst. Two months later, their friends Willi Graf, Alexander Schmorell and Karl Huber, a courageous Catholic lecturer in Munich, were also condemned to death. Both Hans and Sophie had wanted to become Catholics before their execution; they were dissuaded for their mother’s sake by the prison pastor.
What emerges from this detailed, sympathetic portrait of Hans and Sophie is their courage, their idealism and their determination to set an example of non-violent protest to their peers and fellow citizens. Fritz Hartnagel had told Sophie: “Do you realise this could cost you your head?” She knew, and accepted the price to be paid with unflinching composure.
Shrimpton has provided a thoughtful contribution to a story that should be more widely known.