February 22nd, 1943. It was a mild winter’s day in Munich, and the sun was bright against the blue sky. But inside Stadelheim Prison, located in the Giesing district of the city, a 21-year-old German woman was about to face a draconian punishment for defying the Nazi regime. The condemned, a university student named Sophie Scholl, had been convicted of high treason for her role in leading a non-violent resistance group called “The White Rose.” There was to be no mercy for Scholl, or her older brother Hans, that afternoon; both had been sentenced to die before the sun set. At 5 PM, she walked calmly towards the guillotine.
Today, Sophie Scholl is remembered across Germany as a legendary figure who fought the Nazis with the power of the written word, as well as one of the greatest women of the twentieth century. Countless streets and schools bear her name, while public memorials keep the memory of the White Rose alive. Elsewhere around the world, however, Scholl’s story is far less commonly known. Much is made of Holocaust atrocities in school textbooks; less so the brave opposition led from inside the country. At the center of that resistance is the story of Scholl, a young woman who stood up for her convictions when most others were turning a blind eye.
Sophie Scholl never intended to become a martyr for the greater good. But under Hitler’s dictatorship, she found it impossible to ignore the restrictions imposed upon individual freedoms. By the time she arrived at Munich University in 1942, reports of the Nazis’ euthanasia program and horrific genocide of Jews and minorities in Eastern Europe spurred her and her brother Hans into action.
The Scholl siblings soon formed a non-violent resistance group called The White Rose along with friends Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, and Christoph Probst. The intention was simple: to write, print, and circulate leaflets rousing apathetic German people to reject Hitler and the tyranny of the Nazi regime. Between 1942 and 1943, the White Rose produced six radical leaflets calling for active resistance, revealing details of Nazi genocide, and laying out plans for a new order of parliamentary democracy.
As historian Frank McDonagh writes in Sophie Scholl: The Real Story of the Woman who Defied Hitler, the members of the White Rose were not prepared to sacrifice their humanity for the Fatherland. “They wanted individuals to have free choice and not become the tools of the will of a secular dictator, using mass propaganda to dupe the people and trample on basic civil rights.”
Scholl was to prove a valuable asset in helping spread the word of the White Rose. Schutzstaffel officers were considerably less suspicious of women, which helped Scholl become an efficient carrier. She posted hundreds of leaflets to people in Augsburg, stuck leaflets in post boxes around Stuttgart, and travelled by train in the dead of night to distribute copies in her hometown of Ulm. Meanwhile, the Gestapo became convinced that a large resistance network was operating all across the country. A special task force was established to track down the leaders of the White Rose—though it was unsuccessful, for a while. By the end of 1942, the White Rose had evolved from a small circle of courageous students into an organized anti-Nazi resistance group.
"What does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”
Scholl’s activism was especially radical considering the historical context: Women at the time were expected to be building the Third Reich with babies, not dismantling it with resistance efforts. “We should never forget that she was a woman fighting against the extreme values of male domination embedded in Nazi ideology,” writes McDonagh. Even Sophie’s attendance at Munich University was a feminist victory, given the pervasive propaganda of “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (children, kitchen, church), and the fact that the number of female students fell from 17,000 in 1932 to just 6,000 in 1939. According to McDonagh: “For a woman in such a society to even think of going to university was a supreme act of defiance in itself.”
In the end, it was a small moment of impulse that led to the downfall of the White Rose. On February 18, 1943, the Scholl siblings were distributing leaflets at their university campus. As the bell rang, Sophie threw her last stack of papers into the atrium below. All it took was the word of a watching janitor for the pair to be marched away by the Gestapo.
During Scholl’s interrogation, Gestapo Chief Robert Mohr offered her a chance to save her life by betraying her brother and pledging allegiance to Hitler. She refused and took full responsibility, even insisting that she receive the same punishment as her brother and their friend, Probst.
“‘Stand up for what you believe in’ can be much easier to say than to do, especially in a society crippled by fear, inertia, and tyrannous control,” explains Dr Roderick Bailey, a historian of modern war and conflict at the University of Oxford, over email. “Sophie knew what she risked by acting as she did; any German who was prepared to resist the Nazis faced brutal treatment if caught.”
The Scholls and Probst were subjected to a People’s Court show-trial, where Sophie enraged the notorious Nazi judge, Roland Freisler, with her defiant testimony. “Somebody, after all, had to make a start,” she proclaimed. “What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”
Freisler decided to make an example of the dissidents: All three were sentenced to death and executed only a few hours later. With her last breath, Sophie Scholl defended freedom: "Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”
Despite the trio's deaths, a copy of the sixth and final leaflet was smuggled out of Germany to the UK, where it was reprinted as The Manifesto of the Students of Munich. In the autumn of 1943, millions of copies were dropped over Germany by Allied planes.
Now, 75 years later, Scholl’s story reminds us what it means to stand up to injustice and defend basic human rights, even when those around us are indifferent or too deep in denial to act. With two typewriters, one duplicating machine, and several stacks of newsprint, a small group of students showed that it is possible to resist monstrous tyranny and make your voice heard.
As Bailey notes: “Her courage and the honesty of her motives are an inspiring example of how the best respond when confronted with the world at its worst."