Courage is often varied and difficult to define, some people have physical courage, others moral and emotional but to speak out and fight back when all that you see, experience, and bear witness to horrifies and exists in direct violation of everything you believe in takes a special kind of courage.
Sophie Scholl had that courage and in due course it would cost her, her life.
Sophie Magdalena Scholl was born in the small town of Furchtenburg in Germany on 9 May 1921, where her father was Mayor.
Her family were liberal, middle-class, well-off and fortunate for Sophie had been born into a country brought to its knees by and still trying to come to terms with its catastrophic defeat in the First World War.
Sophie would have been too young to remember much of the trauma of hyper-inflation, mass-unemployment, and starvation. She would barely have remembered at all the brief artistic flourishing of the Weimar Republic, of the birth of German Cinema, and the architectural brilliance of the Bauhaus, as this fledgling democracy sought for itself a new cultural identity. But she could re-call all too well the coming to power of the Nazis, the incessant speeches and constant hectoring, the marches and parades, the silencing of dissent and the presence on the streets of the Party’s Brown-Shirted thugs.
At least in the confines of her home Sophie could remain untainted by Nazi ideology.
But away from the comfortable embrace of her family things were very different and she was forced at the age of 12 to join the Bund Deutscher Madel (League of German Maidens).
She initially enjoyed the sports and outdoor pursuits but soon began to voice criticism of its lack of intellectual freedom and the enforced regimentation. Everyone was expected to think the same and to sing constantly from the same hymn sheet and even at such a young age Sophie found this intolerable. She more and more stayed at home where she indulged her latest passion for what the Nazis referred to as degenerate art.
Following the outbreak of war in September 1939, Sophie, now aged 18, became a kindergarten teacher in an attempt to avoid having to do war work. However, she wished to attend University and one of the prerequisites for entry was being able to show her patriotic zeal and commitment to the National Socialist cause. So she volunteered to do work for the Reichsarbeitodienst (National Labour Service).
In May 1942, she enrolled at the University of Munich to study Biology and Philosophy. She was already conversant of her brother, Hans’s dissenting political views and would often join in his discussions about the war but she was unaware of his involvement in an organisation that had already begun to passively resist the Nazi regime by printing and distributing anti-war leaflets.
Hans tried to shield his sister from knowledge of and involvement in the ‘White Rose Movement’ but as soon as Sophie discovered its existence she was eager to participate.
Sophie actively sought out other students she thought might share similar views to her own in an attempt to engage them in discussions about the war and the future of politics in Germany while at the same time surreptitiously distributing anti-war leaflets, leaving them in drawers, on desks, and strewn around classrooms. She also pinned posters to walls.
But all the time she was taking her life in her hands.
It was while throwing copies of their sixth published anti-war pamphlet from a third floor window of the University into the courtyard below that they were spotted by a fellow student, Jakob Schmidt, a Nazi Party member who reported what he had seen to the College Authorities.
A little later Christoph Probst, a friend and fellow member of the group was discovered to have a copy of the pamphlet on his person.
On 18 February 1943, he, Sophie, and Hans were arrested, all three being hastily summoned before the People’s Court.
It was here that Sophie came face-to-face with Hitler’s Hangman, the odious and vituperative Roland Friesler whose understanding of the law was based on the Fuhrer Principle and the concept of justice as propaganda.
He had founded his presence in the Courtroom on the behaviour of Andrei Vyshinsky who had presided at Stalin’s Show Trials and had bullied, humiliated, and finally cowed those brought before him.
Friesler was to take his hysterical denunciations to a whole new level.
Sophie was to remain remarkably calm in the face of Friesler’s vitriolic abuse and increasingly violent harangues as he screamed at her, accused her of treason, and threatened the most-vile retribution upon her person.
Sophie rarely got the opportunity to speak but when she was permitted to answer a question she replied:
“Well, someone had to make a start. What we wrote and said is believed by many others they just did not dare to express themselves as we did.”
On 23 February, Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl, and Christoph Probst were sentenced to death.
Sophie who had endured many hours of intense interrogation lost her composure only once when being informed that she was to be beheaded by guillotine, one of the 16,000 Germans who were to share a similar fate, and that the executions were to be carried out right away.
Those who witnessed the executions commented upon how bravely they all went to their deaths.
Hans’s last words were “Long live freedom.”
Sophie was to speak at greater length:
“How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give themselves up to a righteous cause – it is such a fine sunny day and I have to go – but what does my death matter, if through us people are awakened and stirred into action.”
Sophie Scholl was just 21 years of age.