Last night I wrote a short piece on the White Rose, a small group of young Germans who organized against the Nazis during the Second World War. Three White Rose leaders — Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst — were discovered leafleting at the University of Munich in mid-February 1943, and tried and executed sixty-eight years ago yesterday, four days after their arrest.
I’ve been thinking about the White Rose a lot recently as I watch young people throughout the Arab world rise up at great risk to themselves to stand non-violently against the governments that have been holding them and their families down. I’ve been thinking about the power of that kind of witness, that kind of organizing, and its fragility. Thinking about the calculus that says “maybe you will decide that there is greater risk to you in killing me than to let me live, or maybe the young people you send to kill me will refuse, or maybe you will kill me and that itself will topple you.”
Because it is a calculus, right? People don’t generally take to the streets of such dictatorships out of pure despair, or pure rage, because when they do they are picked off one by one and disappear without notice. When people set out to stand against such a government they plan, they organize, they weigh the tools they have at their disposal and how to deploy them to be most effective against their targets and most effective in providing protection to themselves.
Which is why I found Malcolm Gladwell’s sniffy dismissal of those tools of communication so infuriating. “Surely the least interesting fact about” the protests in Egypt, he wrote right before Mubarak’s fall, “is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along.”
Yes, they did. And many more protested and failed to bring down governments. They failed and they died. And many, like Hans Scholl and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst (and their friends and comrades Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, Kurt Huber, and Hans Leipelt) died precisely because the tools for communication they had at their disposal were tools that put them at incredibly high risk of discovery and betrayal.
Now, the last thing I want to do here is start getting into counter-factuals like “what would have happened if the White Rose had had access to Facebook?” That’s just silliness. It doesn’t do anyone any good.
But Sophie Scholl was twenty-one when she died in 1943, which means that if the Nazis hadn’t beheaded her sixty-eight years (and one day) ago, she’d be eighty-nine now. I’ve known eighty-nine-year-olds who were sharp and active and engaged with the world.
And that, for me, brings up a question that I don’t consider silly. Would Sophie Scholl agree with Malcolm Gladwell that “how … people with a grievance communicate with each other” is “less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place”?
That seems unlikely.
People who stand up against oppressive regimes don’t always win. Often — most of the time — they lose. And, as we have seen in Egypt and Algeria in recent weeks, when they do win one of the ways they win is by finding ways to communicate with each other and with possible converts.
This basic project was a central pre-occupation of the White Rose. They wanted to get the word out. They wanted to share what they knew. They wanted to let allies and potential allies know that they weren’t alone. And so they scrambled to get access to printing facilities, they mailed their leaflets to random addresses, they scrawled slogans on walls with tar and paint. And — in the act that led seven of them to their deaths — they climbed to the top of an atrium at the University of Munich and scattered papers to the floor below.
Why Hans and Sophie Scholl turned against the Nazis is still only imperfectly understood. Their father was an anti-fascist who was jailed earlier in the war for speaking out against Hitler. As a teenager, Hans appears to have been persecuted by the Nazis for a sexual relationship with a male friend. Many members of the White Rose were radicalized against the Nazis by their experiences of military service.
All of these issues — the “why” of Gladwell’s formulation — are to my mind fascinating and worthy of study. But is the “how” really any less intriguing, any less riveting, any less important? It’s the “how,” after all, for which the White Rose is now known. It’s the “how” that we honor today.
It’s the “how” that made them heroes.