Today in 1943 at 5:00 pm, Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and their friend Christoph Probst were beheaded by the Nazis for their activities with The White Rose non-violent resistance movement. It would be over two more years before the Nazis were defeated. Yet again, fascism is on the rise. In our frustrating and frustrated struggle against evil, we have the opportunity and duty to reach back to the writings of those who resisted before us. The White Rose is a model for our present age.
The White Rose was a university student group in Munich, informed by Christian theology, Eastern and Western philosophy, and great works of literature spanning from the Greeks through Goethe. It was grounded in the humanities in a time when every thought and action was governed by the inhumane Nazi state. They found their duty to act in their faith in God and humanity. In a series of six mimeographed pamphlets, they appealed to the conscience of their fellow Germans to resist. They actively shamed their country-people for their complicity in the Nazis’ atrocities against humanity.
But our present “state” is the dictatorship of evil. “Oh, we’ve known that for a long time,” I hear you object, “and it isn’t necessary to bring that to our attention again.” But, I ask you, if you know that, why do you not bestir yourselves, why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanized state system presided over by criminals and drunks? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right – or rather, your moral duty – to eliminate this system?The White Rose, Pamphlet 3.
The members knew the atrocities taking place in their midst: the murder of the Jews, the brutal conquest against the people of the world, the forced march of Germans to certain death at the front, the suppression of freedom and free speech. They also understood that their actions against their government’s machine could only do so much. They did what they could: they wrote and they shared their writings. They spoke out at their own risk, knowing the best they could do was the spur their fellow Germans to resist.
We are not at the point of 1943, but we are in a time similar to that of a decade prior, when the NSDAP first took real power: Nationalism rears its ugly head against the rest of the world. Grievances are manufactured and blame is assigned. Rights and freedoms are constantly and consistently eroded. Executive power and fiat, especially after the Senate trial, appears unchecked. Disinformation and propaganda flow freely. Armed paramilitary groups who’ve sworn fealty to a demagogic leader flaunt their strength and intimidation. Minorities and marginalized peoples fret about their safety. People are wary of speaking out, of speaking truth to power.
In these dark times, it is fashionable to laud the life and actions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. American Christians like to muse about a “Bonhoeffer Moment”, when individuals will become convicted to act extraordinarily through faith in the face of tyranny. In the last three years there has been a constant cascade of opportunities for such “moments”. And still the Reichskirche that is most white evangelicals remains firmly in support of Trump, his personality and policies. Those white evangelicals who publicly stand up to Trump and his church are quickly pilloried with accusations of disloyalty and ungodliness.
Trumpist apologist Eric Metaxas has done insufferable damage warping the martyred pastor into the image of the American Evangelical, a palatable distortion for those who could not possibly see in their own mirrors and admit their own fascist theology and ethics. Such romantic appeals to Bonhoeffer is cheap grace, indeed. In identifying with Bonhoeffer in his persecution and perseverance, they bestow grace upon themselves. The mass market appeal (and American Evangelical Christianity is always about The Market) of Bonhoeffer has transformed him into such kitsch. Let us let Bonhoeffer rest, even if the printing presses of Metaxas’s powerhouse publisher, Thomas Nelson, will not. Bonhoeffer is not the only writer in our quiver against fascism. The direct narrative and swift message of The White Rose are not so easily twisted by fascist disinformation.
With the echoes of The White Rose in our ears, we must ask ourselves what would we do in 1943? Our romanticism and hagiographies should not blind us to the real risks and consequences of violence and arrest. Bonhoeffer will be arrested in April, almost two months after the Scholls are executed. They did not live to see the end of fascist rule in their country. We may not, either. What do we do in 2020? Can we watch Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Resistance, or any other film or documentary about ordinary people fighting the Third Reich without a new, sharp terror in our racing hearts?
Fighting against an inhuman State and our fellow humans who have transformed themselves into the inhumane should give us pause. They are still our neighbors. Everything is at stake as we resist their inhumane actions and appeal to the humanity of their hearts and minds. We will lose many things and we will remember what and who we have lost. We will create monuments to what we have lost and what was gained through our loss. As we deliberate in our hearts, minds, and hands about how we shall live out our faith at the edge of ruin, let us keep close the memory of and living monument to The White Rose.
The individual who follows Jesus’ teachings understands the perils of aligning with the inhuman State. The Two Greatest Commandments require each of us to resist the tyrannical apparatus of the State and those that aid and abet it. To love our neighbor as ourselves is to defend and aid the oppressed, however we can. Sophie Scholl did what she could with the means she had in the time and place she found herself. It is not yet 1943. When it is, what will we do? Will we love our neighbor as ourselves? What shall we do? What shall you do? What shall I do?