28 Apr The White Rose (from 1943 to the present): Valour clothed in gentleness – Part 1 of 2 – Michel Dongois
There are certain stories that follow us all our lives and leave an indelible mark on our souls – inspiring stories that are still being written to this day. For me, the history of the White Rose (in German: Die Weisse Rose) is one such story. This group, made up primarily of medical students, was one of the most famous resistance movements in Germany under the Nazi regime.
I feel it is relevant to raise awareness White Rose’s impulse as we prepare to gather for the annual general meeting of the Anthroposophical Society in Canada, where the question of Evil will be taken up as the main theme.
As a teenager in France, in my German classes I was always excited when I could translate White Rose political leaflets. And when working as a journalist in Quebec, I was delighted to be able to meet with two of the movements’ survivors and with relatives of two of the other students who had been part of the movement. Now in retirement, I have now begun exploring in greater depth what seems to me to be a link, in the spirit of the Michael impulse, between the White Rose movement of that time and the anthroposophy of today.
The White Rose became known to the general public on February 22, 1943 in Munich, with the executions of Hans and Sophie Scholl, brother and sister, and Christoph Probst, all three in their early twenties. Christoph’s wife had just given birth to their third child. Ironically, this city, proclaimed by Hitler in 1935 to be the “capital of the Nazi movement,” was the very city that was originally to house the Johannesbau, the precursor of the Goetheanum.
Everything took place in the space of five days. The youths were arrested on a Thursday and executed on the following Monday. Their crime? To have defied Hitler by printing and handing out six pamphlets between May, 1942 and February, 1943. These were typewritten documents denouncing the inhumanity of the Nazi regime, made public and mailed to targeted groups – intellectuals, writers, teachers, etc. These pamphlets also contained poems and philosophical and literary references. They confirmed facts that up until then had been only rumoured (the extermination of the Jews in the east, the forcing of Polish girls into prostitution in SS brothels).
During the same year, 1943, four other trials followed, resulting in death sentences for other key players of the movement: Alexander Schmorell, 26, Willi Graf, 25, and professor Kurt Hubert, 50, who had written the last pamphlet. In his testimony before the People’s Court (Volksgerichtshof), standing alone in front of his judges, he delivered a moving plea for common humanity. And others would be arrested as well. The White Rose has been the subject of films, several books, and has been extensively documented.
The last surviving member of the movement, Traute Page, néeLafrenz, will turn 100 on May 3rd. She is an anthroposophical doctor who lives in South Carolina, and I had the pleasure of interviewing her in Charleston in 1997 when I was working for a Quebec medical magazine. When I recently asked to visit her a second time to gather more details I needed to finish the article, she said that she was no longer in a condition to receive visitors. She wrote me back saying: “I now live somewhat as a recluse, which is not really in my nature, but that’s how it is.” She has given her spiritual testament in a recent book by Normann Peter Waage, Long Live Freedom! Traute Lafrenz and the White Rose.The Anthroposophical Society in America has paid tribute to her in its magazine Being Human.
Traute Lafrenz was Hans Scholl’s girlfriend during the summer of 1941. She was arrested by the Gestapo and spent nearly two years in prison for helping to produce and distribute the pamphlets and for having organised a student resistance network in Hamburg. She was freed by the Americans shortly before she was scheduled to appear before the Volksgerichtshof, the special Nazi court notorious for its expeditious methods.
The book’s title contains the word Freedom, Freiheit,the word Hans Scholl cried out just before mounting the scaffold, according to the chaplain of the München-Stadelheim prison where the execution took place. Traute Lafrenz was, with the exception of the immediate family, the only one brave enough to attend the burial of Hans and Sophie, since the event was under close police surveillance. She concluded her medical studies in Munich before emigrating to the United States. Traute Page served as Co-general Secretary for the Anthroposophical Society in America from 1987 to 1989, and was its General Secretary in 1991-1992. Looking back over her life, she sees herself as a “witness to history” rather than a hero figure.
During the interview, she revealed how surprised she had been to discover after the fact that there were actually only a handful of friends in the White Rose movement. The principle of secrecy was a priority. Only Hans knew what everyone was doing, no one else was aware of the work the others were carrying out. “The principle was very simple: if you were arrested by the police, it was much easier to know nothing than to lie while attempting to hide what you knew.” Other resistance movements, she said, such as those of the communists, were much better organized and more “politically realistic.”
As for the actual content of the pamphlets, it was generally beyond the grasp of the ordinary German, who was more preoccupied with finding food and struggling to survive. And yet, she adds, it is in part due to its relative “ineffectiveness,” its freshness and gratuitousness, that it has such a powerful moral effect on us today. “Its total spontaneity even today evokes a great gentleness.” After the interview, Traute Page invited me to go with her to hear a performance of The Messiah – one of the truly special moments of my life.
It was in 1991 that I first visited the flower covered burial site of the Scholls, located in the Perlacher Forst cemetery next to the prison, where Christoph Prost is also buried. While there, I was approached by an elderly woman who told me that she often went there to pray, saying that under the Third Reich “Wir waren verteufelt!”(We were possessed by the Devil!). These words immediately brought to my mind a passage from the White Rose’s 4th pamphlet: “whoever still doubts that demonic powers really do exist cannot grasp the underlying metaphysical forces behind this war (…) Hidden behind the temporal dimension there is the irrational power of evil.” I returned to the grave site in 2013; it was still covered with flowers.
A Warm Encounter
As I write this article, I think back to what led me on this life pilgrimage into the impulse of the White Rose. By chance, while browsing through the youth literature section of a Hamburg bookshop in 1989, I picked up a book entitled Die Weisse Rose,written by Inge Aicher-Scholl, Hans and Sophie’s elder sister. It was only one year later that I decided to read it. Something inside me clicked. The narrative touched my soul; I had to find a way to meet the author; time was of the essence.
I found her while she was vacationing on a biodynamic farm in Bichishausen, in the south of Germany. It was a hot July afternoon in 1991. And the meeting was every bit as warm, almost intimate in nature. She spoke very highly of the curative education that had been of great help to her eldest daughter Eva, who was there with her tutor. She told how she had been completely unaware at the time Hans’ and Sophie’s activities, but now realises why her sister Sophie would be so tense when she came home from Munich to the family dwelling in Ulm. “She would need to relax with music and literature.” Inge AIcher-Scholl also described the stifling atmosphere of living under Nazi rule and spoke of the White Rose’s resistance. “They were revolted by the barbarity of the system.” As a thank you to me for having come from so far to meet with her, she prepared a small lunch for me to take on my way. Two months later, she wrote to tell me that her husband had just died, and that she was retiring from public life.
My next meeting was with Franz Müller, a survivor, who at the time was president of the White Rose foundation. The Gestapo had released him due to his young age. We went together on foot to see Willi Graf’s apartment, and then, with the permission of the Bavarian Ministry of Justice, I was able to visit the München-Stadelheim prison, which is still in operation. The hall in which the members of the White Rose and many, many others were executed has now become a place for quiet contemplation.
I had made arrangements to meet several days later with Anneliese Knoop-Graf, Willi Graf’s sister, in Bühl, located near the French border. During the interview, she showed me her brother’s diary, which had been saved from the clutches of the Gestapo. She was arrested along with Willi, and the two found themselves “in the company of two Gestapo officials, sitting in the back of a police car. We held hands in silence – that’s all we had left.”
Hans and Sophie Scholl were arrested while in the process of leaving a pile of leaflets in the atrium of the Ludwig-Maximilians University (LMU), where there is now a memorial to the White Rose as well as the headquarters of the Weisse Rose Stiftung, the White Rose Foundation. The university, which at the time did nothing to defend them, is now the very site where their memory is kept alive. And to better understand what the White Rose opposed so vehemently, I traveled to the place which can be considered the ultimate symbol of evil, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. The first thing that caught my eye as I approached the camp was a rose bush, with red flowers, growing against the barbed wire fence.
A Theater Production
When, years later, I visited the Memorial for the German Resistance in Berlin, it confirmed for me the importance of the White Rose in the collective conscience of the German people. It stands there right alongside the other resistance movements (churches, professions, unions, army). A total of 130,000 Germans died in the resistance. And as a movement with no banner, born spontaneously out of the dissatisfaction of a group of friends who felt they could only act according to their conscience, the White Rose continues to this day to touch our souls. Among these souls is the Montreal based anthroposophist Arie van Ameringen, some of whose relatives suffered under the Nazis.
In 1967 Arie was given an autographed copy of the book by Inge Aicher-Scholl previously mentioned. In 1997, he wrote a play based on the White Rose movement which he staged the following year with his 11thgrade students at the Montreal Rudolf Steiner School. He also presented the play in the Montreal Goethe-Institut, an institution which promotes German culture. “Adolescents identify with the fight for ideals; they are searching for truth and freedom,” says this former Waldorf teacher.
Arie goes on to say that the impulse of the White Rose is a call to awakening, an awakening of conscience that leads to action. Through the strength of the individual self, the human being must make his or her own decisions and personal choices. “This is all the more critical in today’s world, where the boundary between good and evil is increasingly blurred – in this time of fake newswhere lies, when repeated over and over again, take on the power of truth, it becomes much more difficult to determine what the right moral action should be.”
And what still amazes him the most? That a handful of young people, together with their professor, had the courage to take a stand! “They could perceive in the Nazi regime the true face of evil. Exposed for what it truly was, the regime panicked, and acted quickly to crush the spark of liberty ignited by the White Rose. That is proof that we can fight back, though we be but few in number.”
(to be continued next month)