In the summer of 1942 a small group of German students began to speak out against the Nazi regime. Because any criticism of the government was illegal, they distributed their writings anonymously and in secret. Calling themselves the White Rose, they tucked leaflets into phone books, mailed them to randomly chosen recipients, and left them to be found in public places, particularly on high school and college campuses. They produced six pamphlets in all, printing several thousand copies of each.

On February 18, 1943, siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl took a suitcase full of their latest leaflet to the University of Munich, where they were both enrolled — unlike those which had gone before, this leaflet was written specifically for a student audience. Two excerpts:

“Get out of the lecture rooms of the SS corporals and sergeants and the party bootlickers! We want genuine learning and real freedom of opinion. No threat can terrorise us, not even the shutting down of the institutions of higher learning.

“The name of Germany is dishonoured 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. Students! The German people look to us. As in 1813 the people expected us to shake off the Napoleonic yoke, so in 1943 they look to us to break the National Socialist terror through the power of the spirit.”

Acting quickly during classes, Hans and Sophie left stacks of pamphlets in corridors for their fellow students to find. As one class session was nearing an end they realized they had a few copies left, and climbed to the top of the building they were in. Leaning over the balcony of a floor-to-ceiling atrium, Sophie threw the remaining copies out into the air, leaving them to float to the lobby below.

For the first time in Hans and Sophie’s eight month campaign they had been observed. A college custodian saw them, and reported them to the Gestapo. They were arrested that afternoon, and tried four days later. At the conclusion of their trial, which lasted just a few hours, they were allowed to visit briefly with their parents and then beheaded.

Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friend and comrade Christophe Probst were executed seventy years ago today.

In all, seven members of the White Rose were executed by the Nazis, and more than a dozen others were imprisoned for their activities. Seven members of a Hamburg student resistance group who were inspired by the White Rose died in Nazi jails.

Note: Two years ago I wrote some thoughts on the lessons the White Rose offers for youth organizers today. They can be found here.