The journalist, the priests and the students who spoke out against Hitler
Resistance in World War II was hugely dangerous, but there were a number of Munich residents who risked everything to express publicly their opposition to Hitler and the National Socialist regime. They include the journalist Fritz Gerlich, the priests Alfred Delp and Rupert Mayer and, best-known today, the White Rose Resistance group, led by brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl. They were both in their 20s when they were tried and executed for their defiance. Here, we describe briefly what each of these people did, then give pointers to where in Munich today you can find memorials to them.
to leave or to stay?
Many Germans, especially Jews, decided to leave Germany altogether. Albert Einstein, who’d won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1920, left for America. When he returned to visit Germany in 1933 he was so horrified at what he saw that he renounced his German citizenship. The author Thomas Mann’s ideas made him a target for Nazi sympathisers and when, in 1933, he was threatened while on a lecture tour, he left for political exile in Zurich, returning to Germany only occasionally after the war. Another author, Oskar Maria Graf, whose books were not among the many burned publicly by the authorities in 1933, denounced himself, writing ‘Burn me’ in a newspaper article before emigrating to America.
Dissenters in Munich
The Munich newspaper editor Fritz Gerlich voiced his opposition to the National Socialists throughout the 1920s, his views underpinned by his catholic faith. He was arrested in 1933 and sent to Dachau, where he was executed. There is a memorial plaque to him on the corner of Sendlinger Strasse and Färbergraben, paid for by the Munich-based newspaper the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which became the successor to his own paper in 1945.
Alfred Delp was a Jesuit priest who began preaching against the Nazi regime in 1941, explaining his vision of a Germany run on Christian Socialist lines. By 1943 he was calling for regime change and organising meetings for those wishing to resist. in 1944 he was arrested after Graf von Stauffenberg’s attempt on Hitler’s life. In 1945 he was executed ‘for high treason.’ There is a memorial to him outside his former church, St Georg.
Rupert Mayer won the Iron Cross for Bravery as a battlefield chaplain in World War I. From 1923, Mayer spoke publicly against Hitler in Munich’s beer halls. ‘A German Catholic’, he explained ‘can never be a National Socialist’. In 1936 he was banned from the pulpit, but continued to preach until he was imprisoned at Sachsenhausen concentration camp for the rest of the war. He died soon afterwards, suffering a stroke while preaching in Munich’s Michaelskirche and there is a much-visited memorial to him at the Bürgersaalkirche in Kapellenstrasse. He was beatified in 1987 by Pope Jean Paul II during a mass held at Munich’s Olympic Stadium. He was, said the pope, ‘a priest of unwavering faith.’
the white rose
The White Rose was a group of Munich students, led by the brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl, which practised ‘Passiver Widerstand’, that is ‘passive resistance’. The other main members of the group were fellow students Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell and Willi Graf, along with Kurt Huber, Professor of Philosophy who joined their meetings and worked with them.
The students went on night-time sorties and daubed slogans onto public walls, for example ‘Freiheit’ (Freedom) and ‘Hitler ist Massenmörder’ (Hitler is a mass murderer) They began producing leaflets – 6 in all – which they sent to important people all over Germany and distributed secretly by hand in Munich and nearby towns. In one was a message to the National Socialists: ‘We shall not be silent, we are your guilty conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace’. Another called for defiance against the Nazis: ‘It is the duty of every German to defy these beasts.’ Hitler, they explained ‘is leading the German people into an abyss. He cannot win the war; he can only prolong it.’
hans and sophie scholl
On February 18th, 1943, Hans and Sophie Scholl took a small suitcase full of White Rose leaflets to Munich University and left piles of them all over the marble entrance hall on every floor so that students emerging from lectures would find them. But, they were seen by the caretaker and the Gestapo were called to arrest them. The notes taken during their interrogation show that both accepted full responsibility for their actions. Indeed, Sophie said ‘I believe I have done my best for the nation. I do not regret my conduct.’ Both refused to name anyone else in the White Rose group.
They, along with fellow student Christoph Probst, were subjected to a show trial, presided over by the infamous Roland Freisler. They were harangued mercilessly and then sentenced to death. Hans Scholl, facing the judge and surrounded by Nazi officials spoke out: ‘Today you will hang us, but soon you will be standing where I now stand.’ Their executions took place that same afternoon, without appeal. They were guillotined and guards watching later stated that the last, defiant words called out by Hans as he lay on the block were ‘Es lebt die Freiheit’, that is ‘Long live freedom.
There’s a memorial museum about the White Rose at Munich University, which is open to the public. At the entrance, embedded into the cobblestones, are small marble plaques containing the text of some of their leaflets and inside, in a small room to the left, is an exhibition of photos, information and realia. Upstairs, there is a memorial, a carving of the figures in the group and a white rose. In Munich’s Hofgarten is a black granite memorial block and at the Justice Palace there is a permanent exhibition about the trials of all the White Rose members. It too is open to the public – see here for details. Over 200 German schools are named after the Scholls.
sophie scholl, the last days
The film Sophie Scholl, the Last Days, is a moving re-telling of their story. Its script is heavily based on records from the time – Hans and Sophie’s interrogation by the Gestapo and the transcript of the trial – and on recollections of some of their contemporaries. It was shot on location in Munich, often in the exact places where the events took place, such as at Munich University and the courtroom at the Palace of Justice. The film shows the students producing the leaflets, their fateful visit to the university, their arrest and interrogation by the Gestapo and the show trial which ended in a death sentence. It is in German, but readily available with English subtitles.
The film, directed by Marc Rothemund in 2010, is factual and chronological, but contains some very poignant scenes. It shows the moment when Sophie, a little overcome, decides to push a pile of their leaflets over the top floor balcony and send them cascading down into the marble hallway. This did actually happen and it was the moment which alerted the caretaker. The scenes showing Sophie refusing to divulge her friends’ names and resisting offers of a plea bargain are heart-rending. The film ends, after the execution of Hans, Sophie and Christoph Probst, by showing showers of leaflets being dropped by British RAF pilots all over Germany. The White Rose was gone, but their message still reached far and wide.