Now that Easter is behind us, I thought I would take a look at the schedule of worship services for the remainder of this church year. It’s that schedule that starts off in September as a largely blank spreadsheet with about forty Sundays, extending from September through mid-June, over our “High Holy Das” like Thanksgiving and Christmas and Canvass Sunday into spring and Easter, concluding with our last Sunday of the year on Father’s Day (June 16 this year).
It’s always somewhat imposing, as the year begins, to look at that schedule; sometimes, I do wonder, back in September, “How am I going to fill all those Sundays? What will I talk about over all of these weeks?”
Well, I do always find something to talk about. How well—I leave to you all to judge. Almost always, as the year concludes, I find that I have at least one or two (or three) topics that didn’t quite make it into the year’s worship schedule. They either weren’t meant to be, or will have to wait, until some Sunday in the future.
That was true this year; there were a few topics that I thought I might preach on, that I won’t have time to. But this year is different, too, of course. There is no “next year” to which laggard sermon topics can be sentenced. Like an old slugger about to lay down his bat (yeah, right) if I haven’t won the batting title or gotten that World Series ring yet, there won’t be another chance.
Looking at that (rapidly shrinking) worship schedule last week, I saw that there are currently now only eleven Sundays, including this one, remaining in this church year. For some of these, the topic is pretty much pre-ordained: Earth Day; Mother’s Day; Coming of Age Sunday (May 19—save the date!); Children’s Sunday on June 9. So, there are precious few weeks when my mind and imagination (such as they are) can be given free reign, where I can choose the specific topic from that vast universe of sermon possibilities, on which I will preach.
So why then, you might ask, why another sermon on the White Rose? I’ve spoken before about this small group, centered largely at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, who spoke out against Hitler and the Nazis between 1942 and 1943. At least three sermons (probably more) have at least mentioned them. We’ve shown movies about them on our Free Market of Ideas, several times. I’ve told their story on my history blog. Someday, I am in hopes that there might even be a book, by me, on this subject. So why now, with so few Sundays left to enlighten the masses, am I preaching another sermon on the White Rose?
Because, very simply, I think the White Rose is important. Far more important than its small numbers and the relatively limited scope and success of its activities might indicate. This group of students has become something of an obsession (perhaps) for me because I think that its experience has important—even critical—lessons to teach us, in our own times, and for all times.
The history of the White Rose pierces to the very heart of the question of evil, and how we are called upon, as men and women of goodwill, to respond to principalities and powers which seek to perpetuate evil in our world. That question could not be drawn into higher definition than it is today, on Yom Ha-shoa, the day upon which we are called to remember the chief historical evil of modern times: the Holocaust (or, in Hebrew, the Shoa, literally “the catastrophe”) in which, approximately six million Jewish men, women, and children were exterminated during the years of Nazi madness. If we broaden the definition of Holocaust to also include the Nazis' systematic murder of people in other groups-- including ethnic Poles, Romani (or Gypsies), Russian, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian civilians, Soviet prisoners of war, people with disabilities, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other political and religious opponents-- the total number of Holocaust victims rises to between something well over 11 million people, perhaps as many as 15 million.
Interestingly, the official name of this day in Hebrew is Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG'vurah, or "Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day". It’s a day to remember the victims, certainly; but it’s a day to remember and commemorate the heroes who resisted evil, as well. Life isn’t just about what happens to us in these lives we lead; at least as much, it’s about how we respond to the times in which we live.
So, in case you missed it the first few times around, then, here is the basic story of the White Rose:
In the spring of 1942, a handful of students at the university in Munich formed the White Rose resistance group, committed to opposing the government of Nazi Germany and its policies. At the center of the group was Hans Scholl and several of his friends, including Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, and Willi Graf. Later, they were joined by Hans’ sister, Sophie, and eventually by Dr. Kurt Huber, a professor of philosophy.
The group decided to adopt a strategy of passive resistance against the Nazi regime, and published leaflets calling for the restoration of democracy and civil liberties in their country. These leaflets were anonymously distributed by mail throughout central Germany, at first by simply taking names at random from the telephone book. Piles of leaflets were also left clandestinely in public places, and anti-Hitler graffiti was painted on city walls. It was not long before the Gestapo became aware of the group’s activities.
There were six leaflets in all, and they would often end with the pronouncement: “People of Germany! We are the White Rose! We are your guilty conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.” Quoting extensively from the Bible and Greek philosophers, as well as German authors like Goethe and Schiller, the group attempted to appeal to their fellow countryman’s most humanitarian ideals and highest and most aspirations.
The first leaflet begins:
“Nothing is more shameful to a civilized nation than to allow itself to be “governed” by an irresponsible clique of sovereigns who have given themselves over to dark urges – and that without resisting. Isn’t it true that every honest German is ashamed of his government these days? Who among us can imagine the degree of shame that will come upon us and upon our children when the veil falls from our faces and the awful crimes that infinitely exceed any human measure are exposed to the light of day? If the German nation is so corrupt and decadent in its innermost being that it is willing to surrender the greatest possession a man can own, a possession that elevates mankind above all other creatures, namely free will – if it is willing to surrender this without so much as raising a hand, rashly trusting a questionable lawful order of history; if it surrenders the freedom of mankind to intrude upon the wheel of history and subjugate it to his own rational decision; if Germans are so devoid of individuality that they have become an unthinking and cowardly mob – then, yes then they deserve their destruction.”
Words from the group’s second leaflet, distributed in the summer of 1942, were eerily prophetic:
“Since the conquest of Poland [in 1939] … hundred[s of] thousand[s of] Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way. Here we see the most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of history. For Jews, too, are human beings - no matter what position we take with respect to the Jewish question - and a crime of this dimension has been perpetrated against human beings.”
It was the White Rose, a tiny group of simple students from Munich, who uttered the first recorded condemnation of the Holocaust and the destruction of Europe’s Jews, from within Germany—three years before the Second World War ended, and the full range of Nazi atrocities were unmasked in all their vileness. For Germans who claimed after the war that they had had no idea of what Hitler was doing in relation to the Jewish people, the words of the White Rose were, indeed, a refutation of their “guilty conscience”.
In February of 1943, while distributing leaflets in the main classroom building at the university in Munich, Sophie and Hans Scholl were discovered when a janitor saw them throwing leaflets from a balcony of the third floor into the courtyard below. Soon, both of the Scholls were arrested, and shortly thereafter, Christoph Probst was implicated in the writing of the leaflets as well, and placed under arrested.
The three members of the White Rose group appeared before the High Judge of the People's Court, Roland Friesler—brought in from Berlin especially for the occasion—the very next day, on February 22, 1943. They were, of course, found guilty of treason against the Reich, and were executed by guillotine just a few hours later. Just before he was executed Hans Scholl shouted out: "Long live freedom!"
In her speech before the court, Sophie Scholl had said: “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.” Within a few years, she told the judge and jury, "It will be you who will be standing trial. It is you who will be judged by history."
Her words echo sentiments expressed in the group’s third leaflet:
In the months that followed the trial of the Scholls and Christoph Probst, the Gestapo ratcheted up its search for other members of the group and its supporters. Dozens were taken into custody. In April of 1943, twelve members of the group were placed on trial in Munich. Willi Graf, Professor Huber, and Alexander Schmorrel (later declared a religious martyr by the Russian Orthodox Church) were sentenced to death and executed shortly thereafter. Nine other friends and colleagues, who had helped in the preparation and distribution of leaflets and in collecting money for the widow and three young children of Christoph Probst, were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to ten years. Another member, Hans Conrad Leipelt, who helped distribute Leaflet 6 in Hamburg, was executed on January 29, 1945, for his participation.
In a way, the White Rose was like a comet that flashed across the sky of history, incandescent and active for a very short time, less than two years, really. But in other was, their actions had long-term and abiding consequences. Shortly after the trial, the text of their sixth leaflet was smuggled by resistance leader Helmuth von Moltke out of Germany through Scandinavia to the United Kingdom, and in July 1943 thousands of copies of it were dropped over Germany by Allied airplanes, re-titled "The Manifesto of the Brave Students of Munich."
As she was being led away to her execution in February 1943, Sophie Scholl turned to her cellmate, Else Gebel, and said:
“It is such a splendid sunny day, Else, and I have to go. But how many have to die on the battlefield in these days, how many young, promising lives. What does my death matter if by our acts thousands are warned and alerted. Among the student body there will certainly be a revolt.”
History teaches that tiny seeds sewn long before can often flower with great consequence.
History also teaches that, if we are to be true to our deepest human calling, that we must be willing to become seeds in the planting of new tomorrows.
May that revolt for which Sophie Scholl yearned occur right now, in the deepest recesses of our own hearts and minds, when we hear of heroes like the Scholls, and Cristoph Probst, and the other members of the White Rose: A revolt against tyranny in all its forms. A revolt against any leaders—or ideologies—or religious institutions—or prejudice or narrow-mindedness—which exalt one group of people above another. A revolt against all ideas that say we human ones are bound to sin and shame and war and conflict.
These blessed saints of peace and understanding—and hope and courage—speak to us still. May we remember them always, and take up their struggle, and create at last a world which reflects the love and justice for which they lived and for which they died.