The seventy-fifth anniversary of the guillotining of the brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl, executed by the Nazis for their incredibly brave opposition to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, should be celebrated. Their story is an inspiring one, in the way they sacrificed their lives in resisting evil, and it should inspire people all around the world. So it is worth re-telling to a generation who may not have heard of these extraordinarily courageous siblings.
Hand and Sophie Scholl were students at Munich University during the Second World War. They were part of a small, underground, non-violent protest movement called 'The White Rose' which posted six anonymous leaflets to Germans, whom they had randomly selected from the phone book. These gave details of the Holocaust and supported the ideals of democracy, freedom and religious toleration. Meanwhile, Hans daubed anti-Nazi graffiti on public buildings in the middle of the night, with slogans such as 'Down With Hitler' and 'Hitler the Mass Murderer.'
Hans and Sophie were eventually caught after leaving a White Rose leaflet outside the university lecture halls on 18th February 1943. They were guillotine four days later after a swift trial presided over by Hitler's most terrifying judge: Roland Freisler, who later tried and condemned to death all the German officers who took part in the plot to assassinate Hitler on 20 July 1944.
Today there are over 190 schools named after the Scholl siblings in Germany and they have become iconic symbols of youthful defiance against Nazism. In 2003, a public vote in Germany named Hans and Sophie the 4th most popular German, ahead of Einstein, Mozart and Bach. (Stauffenberg did not even make it to the top 12.) In 2005, a German film, based on the last five days of Sophie's life was a major box office success in Germany.
In 2010 Professor Frank McDonough, Reader in International History at Liverpool John Moores University, also produced, after extensive research, the first full-scale biography of Sophie's inspirational story, called Sophie Scholl: The Real Story of the Woman Who Defied Hitler, which drew on her letters and diaries, Gestapo interrogation files, court records and interviews with key eye witnesses. McDonough also unearthed remarkable new evidence, most notably, the full details of a trial involving Hans Scholl, which occurred four years before the White Rose group was formed and which makes clear that Hans was a practising homosexual. McDonough has also unearthed a remarkable love story between Sophie Scholl and Fritz Hartnagel, a high-ranking officer in the Wehrmacht.
Hans Scholl, born in 1918, was outwardly the very model of the ideal member of the 'Aryan Master Race': tall, handsome, athletic, endowed with fine leadership qualities. In 1933, he joined the Hitler Youth and rose quickly to the position of squad leader, in command of 150 boys. He was even allowed to form a special elite 'A-Squad' to act as a training ground for future leaders. Yet the group Hans formed was based not on Nazi principles but on the ideals of a free-thinking non-Nazi youth group called d.j.1.11. They wore fashionable shirts, distinctive cord trousers and sang non-Nazi folk songs. Hans also took them on camping trips, often outside Germany, and a favourite joke around the campfire was to ask: 'What is an Aryan?' with the reply: 'Blond like Hitler. Tall like Goebbels. Slim like Goering.'
Hans was ordered to close down his d.j.1.11 group by his Hitler Youth commander, but he went on meeting in secret. In November 1937, the Gestapo decided to break up all the youth groups in Germany, mounting raids on the homes of all the members of d.j.1.11.
During lengthy and often brutal interrogations, a young friend of Hans Scholl made a startling admission, confessing to a year-long homosexual relationship with him.
In the course of a long confession the boy – referred to as Teenager X, whose name is protected under German law – spoke extensively of the attentions Hans paid to him on five separate occasions, usually on Hitler Youth camping trips. Sharing a sleeping bag on one trip, Hans kisses Teenager X and put his hands down his trousers. On another he masturbated over Teenager X's legs, but never engaged in full gay sex. The copious documentation that came out later – which has been discovered for the first time by Frank McDonough - makes it quite clear that Hans was not being framed by the Gestapo.
Hans was arrested and kept in solitary confinement for over a month, before he admitted the allegation was true, saying he was attracted to his close friend. 'I'm so sorry to have brought all this misfortune on the family', he told his parents. 'I was close to desperation during my first few days of custody. I promise you that I will put everything right when I'm free and I'll work and work so that you can look on me with pride again.'
To be charged with any offence under 175a of the German Criminal Code - which related to homosexuality between people under 21 - was an extremely serious matter. Hans faced the appalling prospect of being sent to a concentration camp wearing a pink star, being expelled from the Army and forbidden to go to university. Through brilliant historical detective work, McDonough has revealed that Hans Scholl's future hung in the balance several years before he helped to form the White Rose group.
During this hugely stressful period, Hans' father Robert Scholl, a tax consultant, often went on long walks with his children. After one such walk in the country, with his daughters Sophie, Inge and Elisabeth, he said: 'If those villains harm my children in any way, I'll go to Berlin and shoot Hitler.'
The trial of Hans Scholl, and the other members of the d.j.1.11 group finally took place in June 1938 in the 'Special Court' in Stuttgart. The whole trial - as was the norm in the arbitrary Nazi legal system - took place in a single day. Hans' commanding officer gave him a glowing reference, and his young friend helped too by saying the same-sex relationship had been brief and amounted to little more than mild teenage fumbling and the details of his interrogations were not mentioned nor the confessions both Hans and Teenager X had given.
The judge, Hermann Cuhorst, summing up the evidence, described Hans' relationship as just a 'youthful failing' of a normally-heterosexual young man, with a promising future, and acquitted him on all charges, using an amnesty that Hitler himself had sanctioned following his takeover in Austria, to acquit all those previously charged with being members of banned youth groups. (Scholl was incredibly lucky: after the war Cuhorst, a committed Nazi, was sentenced to six years for his brutal sentencing policy, which had included 120 executions.)
These dramatic events, previously hidden away in the German archives, reveal an important new personal ingredient in the complex motives that propelled Hans and Sophie Scholl towards outright opposition to the Nazi regime. McDonough proves that the trial had a traumatic effect on the Scholl family, and was not forgiven and never forgotten. During her interrogation by the Gestapo after her arrest in 1943, Sophie Scholl said the long, drawn-out ordeal at the hands of the Gestapo was 'the most important reason' for her subsequent decision to defy Hitler's regime.
In the same year that Hans was going through his terrible ordeal, Sophie began a close relationship with Fritz Hartnagel, a captain in the Wehrmacht. For the rest of her life, Sophie kept up an extensive and truly fascinating correspondence with him. Fritz later recalled: 'We shouldn't make Sophie into a saint. She was not coldly calculating and could be very emotional, but she thought things through with acute intelligence. At first, we did not agree on everything, only after much hesitation and reluctance did I find myself ready to accept her ideas.'
When the war broke out in 1939, Sophie told Fritz: 'I'll never understand it. I find it awful. Don't tell me it's for the Fatherland.' Sophie often vented her feelings against 'Hitler's War' on Fritz, because he was an officer in the German Army. In one letter, Sophie wrote: 'Whatever happens don't turn into an arrogant officer…as that would be a shame.' At other times, Sophie expressed great affection in her love letters to Fritz: 'What I want is love, not friendship and companionship. My greatest hope is that you survive this war. Think of me often, but don't dream about me. I'm often with you in spirit, wishing you well and loving you.'
Sophie increasingly pressed Fritz to oppose the war, even though he had sworn an oath of allegiance to the Führer. She was effectively trying to turn a German officer into a pacifist in wartime. 'Step by step,' Fritz later recalled, 'I came to admit her attitude was correct. What a tremendous plunge for me to say in mid-war: "I'm against this war' or "Germany has to lose this war."'
Sophie also wanted Fritz to share her strong Christian beliefs. On one weekend together, she took Fritz by the hand and said: 'We must pray and pray for each other.' Sophie believed very strongly that Hitler was trying to destroy Christianity and replace it with the secular ideological creed of Nazism. A burning desire to live in a society that tolerated all religious beliefs was another powerful motivation for Sophie’s decision to oppose Hitler.
At the beginning of May 1942, Sophie began her degree at Munich University and soon afterwards Fritz's military unit was sent to the titanic struggle at the battle of Stalingrad. From then on, Sophie led a double life: a hard-working university student and the fiancée of a German officer, but also secretly an active participant in the resistance against Hitler. She never told Fritz about her involvement in the White Rose.
Fritz, suffering from severe frost-bite, escaped from Stalingrad in one of the last flights out of the city, and he was transported to a military hospital. The catastrophic German defeat at Stalingrad, which represented the turning point of the war and paved the way to Hitler's ultimate downfall', was the subject of the sixth and final leaflet of the White Rose organisation. By a strange twist of fate, although Fritz survived Stalingrad and the war, Sophie and Hans Scholl became most its scapegoats. Sophie, was only 21 years old when she was executed; just seconds before the guillotine blade fell on Hans’ neck, he defiantly shouted: 'Long live freedom!'
The truth about Hans Scholl's sexuality might shock some modern-day Germans - and some members of his own family have yet to come to terms with it - but his trial for what the Nazis called 'sexual deviance' was an important reason why the White Rose organisation developed as it did. The story of Sophie's love for Fritz, also revealed for the first time in full in this book, reminds us that however bad the horrors of the 20th century were: Love can conquer all.
In today's world, the example of the Scholls in showing such bravery in the struggle against Fascism is something to be admired. Seventy-five years might seem like a long time since their execution, but in terms of world history it is nothing. Some of the other plotters against Hitler did so becase they feared that his disastrous strategic decisions were about to lose Germany the war, and they wanted to conclude a peace with the Allis that would allow the Third Reich to return some of its conquests. These people are clearly not as admirable as the Scholls.
The guillotine is a monstrous, sinister invention, although in fact it was invented in order to try to make executions less painful for the person who was being judicially murdered. In the days before its invention, executioners would wield axes, and very often not achieve their purpose with the first blow. In the Scholls' case, their fame and glory defeated the intentions of the loathsome 'judge' Friesler, and their names are honoured and admired 75 years later, whereas his is universally despised.