Many adventurers become world famous. Some never get the chance. The memory of Sophie Scholl is revered in her birth country of Germany but she is barely known in other parts of the world. Tim Edwards explores the short life of one of the world’s greatest unknown adventurers and describes how a tiny tomboy sports-lover stared evil squarely in the face and refused to be cowed by it.
Sophie was never a run-of-the-mill child. From a young age she impressed her mother and father with her thoughtfulness and fluency in arguing what she thought to be key points during family discussions around the dinner table. Her keen intellect and articulateness were only a small part of the story. Sophie was also an adventurer. She had several pastimes that sent shivers up and down the spines of her parents. One of her favourites was to climb a tree so high that the wind would cause the trunk that she clung to, to bend over dramatically as if it were going to snap. Another was to swim across the river that flowed past the house where her family lived years before most people of her age had even learned to swim. During a school excursion into the mountains, once, she was noted to be missing by her classmates and teacher. Sophie, bored with the hike, had decided to climb a rock wall that she had seen on the track. The teacher was horrified when she eventually spotted Sophie waving down at her from the top of a cliff that she had scaled.
Always up for a wrestle or a race
Sophie was a tomboy. Always up for a wrestle or a race either on land or in the water, Sophie was, physically, miles ahead of her sisters and girlfriends. In truth, she was pretty much on par with the most athletic of her brothers and their friends despite her diminutive stature. She was very much a product of the Swabian region where she had been born and was raised. Swabia had hills, trails, forests, caves and mountains. Sophie, along with her brothers and sisters, took advantage of the beautiful and challenging natural environment where they lived by spending their time hiking, camping, climbing and cycling whenever possible. Unlike the clichéd image of German children being highly discipled, orderly, ready to accept authority and willing to do as they are told, Sophie was an independent thinker and doer! She was also an adventurous and wild child!
When the German federal government instituted a new girl’s scouting program in the town where Sophie and her family had moved (Ulm) Sophie was one of the first to join. Her mother and father were not supportive of her decision to join the BDM but, atypically for German families of the time, neither were they willing to give orders to their children as to what they should and should not do. They believed that once the children had been given reasonable moral instruction they should be left to make their own decisions. Sophie was excited by the BDM’s promise to help her to become a strong, resourceful and courageous leader so that she could grow into a citizen that would assist her country into the future. After years of economic depression, Sophie, like many other German children, was enthusiastic about the promises of the new Government to make Germany great again, to provide a job for every German and to provide food on the table for every German family.
While Sophie wasn’t particularly fond of the patriotic songs, flags and marches that the BDM were famous for (and she absolutely hated the nerdy, frumpish, uniform that they sometimes had to wear at meetings), she loved the long forest hikes, the overnight camp-outs in the mountains, the cycling tours, the gymnastics sessions and the swimming and athletic competitions that were part of the BDM training. With her reputation for being intelligent, courageous and athletic it wasn’t long before Sophie was promoted to a leadership role within her youth organization. Other than the daggy uniform, the only other thing that bothered Sophie, initially, about the BDM was that her dear friend Louise was not allowed to join! She couldn’t understand how being Jewish could be a problem for a wonderful young German like Louise.
Club wasn’t quite what she originally thought
As time passed and Sophie grew from an athletic child into an adventure-loving and independent young woman, Sophie’s views began to change. The BDM no longer held its charm. The adult leaders of the club constantly told Sophie that her choices of books and poems to read, songs to sing and music to listen to were unacceptable for a good German girl. As time passed it seemed to Sophie that membership of the BDM was becoming less about physical training and adventure and more about nationalistic and political instruction and any discussion of a range of views in relation to the political dogma presented at meetings was not allowed. In the BDM you thought and did what you were told!
While Sophie was suffering disillusionment with her girl’s youth organization, her brother Hans, who had initially embraced the male equivalent boy’s organization in town, was also realizing that the youth club that he had previously loved, was becoming more about obedience, marching, flags and political indoctrination than it was about teaching genuine leadership. Even though Hans had been a senior leader on the rapid path of promotion he decided that he wanted out.
Hans and his friends decided to form their own secret boy’s club where marching, carrying flags, saluting and singing patriotic songs were not allowed… but jamming folk songs around the camp-fire late into the night after day-long exploratory treks into the high mountains was encouraged. No doubt Hans and his mates would have had a pretty little tomboy with short dark hair following their every move as they pushed into the wilderness.
Coming of war!
Soon school was over for Han and, being an excellent student, he won a place in the medical school at Munich University. Life at university in the beautiful town of Munich should have been marvellous for Hans and his student friends. Forests nearby to gallop their horses through, mountains nearby to climb, hike, camp and ski upon, beautiful lakes nearby to row on and swim in… plus theatres, cinemas and opera houses to enjoy. Life should have been grand. Well, it was in some ways, but along with the grandeur came horror and misery. Germany had gone to war with the rest of Europe and Hans, along with his student friends, were called upon to do their duty. As medical students they found themselves conscripted into army medical units and while they were permitted to continue with their studies for part of the time, they were posted close to the most horrendous wartime action in places like Poland and Russia for large parts of the year.
Despite Hans earning the rank of Sergeant in the army, and despite his loyal service, the German government’s secret police arrested Hans while he was at his barracks because they had gotten wind that, in his civilian life, he had been a member of a secret (boys club) organization. Any clubs other than official party-sanctioned clubs were strictly forbidden. Not only did they arrest Hans and several of his friends, but they also raided his family home at Ulm and arrested Sophie and two of their siblings as well! If the political party wanted to turn several of Germany’s brightest and youngest stars against the government, they were going about it the right way. Sophie could forgive the foolishness taught within her former girl’s club and her school. She could even forgive the school dismissing the best and most popular teachers. She couldn’t forgive the secret police attacking her family, however! Sophie had only been held by the police for one day, Hans for a few days and one of his friends for a few weeks but this was enough. The German government had now made enemies of its own loyal citizens. Sophie returned to her home and Hans returned to his barracks to continue his service but two adventurous spirits were now turned against the Nazis.
Hans and his friends not only saw his fellow Germans die horrible deaths and suffer horrendous injuries while they served in the war, but they saw their fellow Germans meet out cruel and inhuman treatment to innocent foreigners (enemies) for no better reason than that their racial, religious or political standing was considered unacceptable by the German government. Every time Hans returned to Munich to continue his studies after a posting at the front line, he became more and certain that he was fighting on the wrong side. Hans became convinced that the German government was evil and leading his fellow Germans into an abyss.
Sophie… the trouble-maker
Things were not going well for Sophie at school either. In earlier years, she had been a successful student but, over time, as the German government had replaced hard-working, dedicated and intelligent teachers with political party hacks who only taught political propaganda and would allow no dissent from students, Sophie became a problem student at her high school. As an intelligent student with an enquiring mind and as a superior athlete with the skill, strength and speed of an Olympian and the courage of a lion she should have been the living picture of the ideal young German. Instead she was branded as a trouble-maker… a trouble-maker who spent as much time in the principal’s office as she did in the class room. More problematically for officialdom in Germany, two young risk takers, athletes and adventurers were about turn their adventurous talents towards stopping the government rather than assisting it!
Sophie’s poor school record, initially, prevented her from gaining admission into university but after a brief stint in training as a childcare worker Sophie felt blessed to be granted her wish to study at Munich University along with her brother and his mates. While she intended to eventually move into medicine, she commenced her studies in the fields of biology and philosophy.
Sophie quickly formed strong friendships with many of Han’s friends. This group of students had much in common with Sophie. While she was attracted to their passion for the arts, literature and philosophical and theological debate she was also excited by their love pf adventure and sport. Sophie found herself exploring and climbing high mountains, camping in forests, skiing the nearby alps, riding horses and swimming with her university friends whenever her studies permitted it. On the major university break of 1941, Sophie and Hans and several of their friends braved a raging blizzard to climb to the Coburger Hutte in the Mieming Range of the Tyrolean Alps where they spent the New Years Eve of their lives!
Joins the “White Rose”
Sophie was very much part of Hans’ crew of university mates in every way but one. When this informal club (which the group members came to call the “White Rose”) were up for a new physical challenge, Sophie was always at their centre. The “White Rose” had also commenced a range of even more dangerous activities which Hans, and the other members, kept a strict secret from Sophie. Despite her intelligence, courage and daring they didn’t want Sophie involved in anti-government subversive activities that could cost Hans’ little sister her head. Sophie’s sports-mad friends, Willi, Alex, Christel, and her brother Hans of the “White Rose” had commenced a campaign of secretly writing, publishing and distributing anti-war and anti-Nazi pamphlets to encourage fellow Germans to overthrow their government and stop the war that they believed evil and anathema to decent German people.
It didn’t take long for Sophie to figure out what her friends were doing in their spare time and despite initial objections from her friends, Sophie was welcomed into the group of plotters. While they didn’t want Sophie to put her life in danger, they admitted that having a very young woman in their midst, while they were carrying out dangerous subversive activities, made their group look less suspicious to the secret police (Gestapo) who had spies everywhere.
The group managed to produce and distribute by mail, tens of thousands of treasonous brochures to people in cities all over Germany much to the horror of the Gestapo. Despite modern day claims that the German people “did not know” what the Nazi regime were doing during the war the “White Rose” pamphlets spoke of the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent Jews, artists, intellectuals, gypsies, communists and mentally ill people. The brochures also spoke of the hundreds of thousands of loyal German soldiers who were dying for a cause that was evil. The “White Rose” asked loyal and brave German’s to overthrow their government and stop the war.
Pushed their luck
All went well for the group until Sophie and Hans, hoping to launch a student rebellion, decided to push their luck further than merely mailing out the brochures. They felt that their pamphlets might have more impact if they were to leave the brochures at prominent places all over Munich University. Prior to classes one morning they left thousands of copies of the brochure outside lecture halls and in prominent thoroughfares and hallways. They might have even gotten away with it if Sophie hadn’t launched a hand full of the flyers into the air from a balcony several floors above hundreds of students flocking into the main quadrangle of the university. She was seen by a Gestapo spy who worked as a building maintenance person at the university. Within minutes the university was put into lockdown and Sophie and Hans were arrested.
The “White Rose” sister and brother, along with their friend and co-conspirator Christel, were taken to Gestapo Headquarters where they were interrogated for three days and nights. While they initially denied involvement in subversive activities all three decided that it would be better if they confessed to their “crimes” to remove suspicion from any other members of the group that the Gestapo might come after.
There are no surprises as to the events that were to follow. The President of the “People’s Court” (the special court only convened for the most serious matters of treason), Roland Freisler, was immediately flown down from Berlin to conduct the trial. Defence lawyers were appointed by the court but their unwillingness to speak or act on behalf of the accused couldn’t have been more obvious. Freisler didn’t even bother to make the proceedings seem judicial or just. Dressed in a scarlet gown and flanked by two silent judges in black, one on either side, he waved his arms about and ranted for several hours about how the accused were traitors to the German people and traitors to their beloved Fuhrer, before finding them guilty and sentencing them to death. No testimony was offered at any stage. The accused were not even allowed to speak in their own defence.
“Kiss my arse!”
At sentencing, Sophie fixed a steely glare at the presiding judge and made the one short statement, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.” Despite her fate, Sophie did not appear remotely afraid of the bullying judge. Swabia, the region of Germany where Sophie and Hans came from, is known to produce Germans of a more anti-authoritarian style than most of their countrymen. In fact, there is a rude expression that locals use when being harassed by officialdom that other Germans call the “Swabian greeting.” While Sophie was far too well-raised and polite to use such a greeting to the judge, her demeanor, her glances and her single statement express the sentiment of “kiss my arse” as well as if she had actually said it!
Christel, Hans and Sophie were removed from the court under the gaze of a shocked and somewhat admiring court-room full of witnesses from the Army and the Gestapo and taken to the nearby prison. Three hours later they were executed by guillotine. Just before being removed from her cell for her date with the executioner Sophie turned and said to her cell-mate, “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?”
Sophie Scholl, sports-lover and adventurer, died at the age of twenty-one.
I am an American. Too me there is no bigger hero than Sophie Scholl. She definitely deserves more recognition and admiration around the world.