There is a light that sometimes blinks beautifully and ahead of time, a light we come to capture days, months, years or decades later. This year we remembered Sophie Scholl, a young 21 year old German woman who stood with her brother Hans Scholl at the brink of a precipice, between moral self-accountability and cowardice, fear, wilful ignorance and indifference. During the height of Nazism, she chose, as a member of the White Rose Movement to warn the German people of the genocide committed against Jews, gypsies, communists, the mentally ill, and how German apathy would only embolden the Nazi machine.
The White Rose publications sought to tug at the conscience of German people and remind them that silence, in the face of such gross injustice was criminal and a betrayal of all moral and religious codes.
Theirs was a courageous act, one that Hitler in fact feared was a Russian conspiracy. They persisted in their work until on the 18th February 1943, exactly seventy years ago, Hans and Sophie Scholl with her brother Hans travelled to Munich University to secretly distribute their leaflets. They were caught, interrogated, charged with high treason, sentenced to death, and then on the 22nd of the same month, executed under the guillotine.
For the Nazis, they had stopped a small student group of activists in their track and reminded the German people of the strength of the Nazi machine. For the ordinary German the execution of those young men and women might have represented something else, maybe they secretly held them up in their hearts as paragons of justice and courage. Maybe they represented a struggle to reclaim a waning human spirit. Maybe they saw them as ignorant, foolish and over zealous youngsters who should have known better. Whatever the psychology of those people, today Sophie Scholl is heralded as a champion of defiance in the face of tyranny. She was voted, accordong to Der Spiegel polls as the greatest woman in German history and more than 290 schools in Germany have been named in her memory. The motto of her old school Ulm Gymnasium, subsequently renamed Hans & Sophie Scholl Gymnasium, stands as a testament to the decency and courage of a few in the midst of a chronic indifference – ‘We stand up against injustice’. Sophie chose to die for her principles and to stand with her brother. She represented what the German people should have done.
Today the memory of Sophie and the White Rose Movement lives on as a challenge to imperial power. A power that can kill, torture and falsely imprison with impunity. Sophie speaks for all who dare speak the truth of justice in the face of imperial power, for those who know deep down that collective indifference is never an excuse for personal apathy. She speaks for those who know that history testifies for the ones who put self-sacrifice over self-interest, who refused to be silent, well adapted to indifference and well adjusted to injustice.
This year it was through Sophie that we remember the courageous men and women from our time who dared challenge the might of an imperial machine, the ones who, like Sophie, are initially cast aside as traitors, insane, foolish or overzealous but who, like Sophie, might be remembered in time, maybe even heroised for doing the right thing.
“Today you will hang us, but soon you will be standing where I now stand” (Hans Scholl).