Biography of Sophie Scholl, German Anti-Nazi Activist

White Rose Memorial Opening
Chairman of the German Social Democrats (SPD) Hans-Jochen Vogel looks at photographs of the White Rose movement members (L-R) Alexander Schmorell, Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst at the recently established White Rose Memorial on September 14, 2007 in Munich, Germany. Johannes Simon / Getty Images

Sophie Scholl (May 9, 1921–February 22, 1943) was a German college student who, along with her brother Hans, was convicted of treason and executed for distributing propaganda for the White Rose anti-Nazi passive resistance group during World War II. Today, her life and ultimate sacrifice are widely commemorated as a symbol of the struggle for the preservation of freedom and human rights.

Fast Facts: Sophie Scholl

  • Known For: German anti-Nazi activist executed in 1943 for distributing anti-war propaganda
  • Born: May 9, 1921 in Forchtenberg, Germany
  • Parents: Robert Scholl and Magdalena Müller
  • Died: February 22, 1943 at Stadelheim Prison, Munich, Germany
  • Education: Attended University of Munich
  • Notable Quote: “Stand up for what you believe in even if you are standing alone.” 

Early Life

Sophia Magdalena Scholl was born on May 9, 1921 in Forchtenberg, Germany, the fourth of six children of Forchtenberg’s mayor Robert Scholl and Magdalena (Müller) Scholl. Enjoying a carefree childhood, she attended the Lutheran church and entered grade school at age seven. In 1932, the family moved to Ulm, where she attended a girls’ secondary school.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power and began taking control of all aspects of German society. Still just a 12-year-old, Scholl was unaware of the political upheaval, and along with most of her classmates, joined the pseudo-Nazi organization, the League of German Girls. Though she advanced to Squad Leader, her enthusiasm began to erode as she became increasingly concerned by the group’s racist Nazi ideology. Passed in 1935, the Nuremberg Laws banned Jews from many public places throughout Germany. She objected vocally when two of her Jewish friends were barred from joining the League of German Girls and was punished for reading aloud from the banned “Book of Songs” by Jewish poet Heinrich Heine.

Hans And Sophie Scholl
German students Hans Scholl (1918 - 1943, left) and his sister Sophie (1921 - 1943), circa 1940. Authenticated News / Getty Images

Like her father and brother Hans, who had eagerly joined the Hitler Youth program, Sophie grew disgusted with the Nazi Party. Spurning her pro-Nazi friends, she began associating exclusively with people who shared her reactionary liberal philosophical and political views. Scholl’s objection to the Nazi regime grew more intense in 1937, when her brothers Hans and Werner were arrested for having participated in the free-thinking democratic German Youth Movement, banned by Hitler in 1933.

An avid reader of philosophy and theology, Scholl’s deeply held Christian belief in universal human rights further fueled her opposition to Nazi ideology. As her talents in drawing and painting grew, she became known in artistic circles labeled “degenerate” under Nazi doctrine.

Shortly after World War II started in 1940, Scholl graduated from secondary school and went to work teaching kindergarten. In 1941, she was drafted into the women’s auxiliary of the German National Labor Service and sent to Blumberg to teach in a government-operated nursery school. In May 1942, after completing her required six months of service, Scholl was permitted to enroll at the University of Munich, where her brother Hans was a medical student. During the summer of 1942, Scholl was ordered to spend her university break working in a war-critical metal plant in Ulm. At the same time, her father Robert was serving four months in prison for having been overheard referring to Hitler as the “scourge of God.” As he entered prison, Robert Scholl prophetically told his family, “What I want for you is to live in uprightness and freedom of spirit, no matter how difficult that proves to be.”

The White Rose Movement and Arrest

In early 1942, Sophie’s brother Hans and his friends Willi Graf, Christoph Probst, and Alexander Schmorell founded the White Rose, an informal group opposed to the war and the Hitler regime. Together, they traveled throughout Munich distributing pamphlets suggesting ways in which Germans could peacefully resist the war and the government. The pamphlets contained messages, such as, “Western civilization must defend itself against fascism and offer passive resistance before the nation’s last young man has given his blood on some battlefield.”

Once she became aware of her brother’s activities, Sophie eagerly joined the White Rose group and began helping write, print, and distribute pamphlets. Her assistance proved valuable because Hitler’s Gestapo police were less likely to suspect and detain women.

Hans and Sophie Scholl on a postage stamp
Hans and Sophie Scholl on an East German postage stamp in 1961. Nightflyer/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

On February 18, 1943, Sophie and Hans Scholl, along with other White Rose members, were arrested by the Gestapo while distributing anti-war leaflets on the University of Munich campus. After four days of interrogation, Hans confessed. When Sophie was told of Hans’ confession, she tried to save her brother by claiming to have been totally responsible for the group’s acts of resistance. Despite her efforts, Sophie and Hans Scholl, along with their friend Christoph Probst, were ordered to stand trial.

Trial and Execution

On February 21, 1943, the trial began in the German Reich People’s Court, presided over by Chief Justice Roland Freisler. A devoted Nazi Party member, Freisler often loudly vilified the accused and refused to allow them to testify or to call witnesses in their defense.

In the only statement she was allowed to make during the trial, Sophie Scholl told the court, “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.” Then, facing Justice Freisler, she added, “You know the war is lost. Why don’t you have the courage to face it?”

After a single day, the trial ended on February 22, 1943, with Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans Scholl, and Christoph Probst found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. Hours later, all three were executed by guillotine at Munich’s Stadelheim Prison.

Prison officials who witnessed the execution recalled Sophie’s courage. As reported by Walter Roemer, the chief of the Munich district court, her final words were, “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? The sun still shines.”

Graves of Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst in the Munich cemetery Friedhof am Perlacher Forst.
Graves of Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst in the Munich cemetery Friedhof am Perlacher Forst. Rufus46/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl, and Christoph Probst were buried side by side in the Friedhof am Perlacher Forst cemetery, next to the Stadelheim prison where they had been executed. In the weeks following the execution, the Gestapo caught and executed other White Rose members. In addition, several University of Hamburg students were either executed or sent to prison camps for sympathizing with the anti-Nazi resistance.

After the executions, a copy of one of the White Rose leaflets was smuggled into the United Kingdom. During the summer of 1943, allied aircraft dropped millions of copies of the leaflet, titled “The Manifesto of the Students of Munich,” over German cities. Intended to show the German people the futility of continuing the war, the leaflet concluded:

“Beresina and Stalingrad are burning in the East. The dead of Stalingrad implore us to take action. Up, up, my people, let smoke and flame be our sign! … Our people stand ready to rebel against the National Socialist enslavement of Europe in a fervent new breakthrough of freedom and honor.”

Legacy and Honors

Today, the memory of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose remains a compelling illustration of how courageous everyday people can prevail over even the most barbarous dictatorial regimes through peaceful civil activism.

Bust of Sophie Scholl, placed in Walhalla in 2003. Sculptor: Wolfgang Eckert
Bust of Sophie Scholl, placed in Walhalla in 2003. Sculptor: Wolfgang Eckert. RyanHulin/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In the February 22, 1993 edition of Newsday magazine, Holocaust historian Jud Newborn commented on the impact of the White Rose on WWII. “You cannot really measure the effect of this kind of resistance in whether or not X number of bridges were blown up or a regime fell ... The White Rose really has a more symbolic value, but that’s a very important value,” he said.

On 22 February 2003, the Bavarian government commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of the White Rose execution by placing a bust of Sophie Scholl in the Walhalla Hall honoring the most distinguished people in German history. The Geschwister-Scholl Institute for Political Science within the University of Munich is named for Sophie and Hans Scholl. Symbolically, the Scholl Institute is located in the building that had housed Radio Free Europe. In addition, many schools, libraries, streets, and public squares throughout Germany are named for the Scholl siblings.

In a 2003 poll by the German television broadcaster ZDF, Sophie and Hans Scholl were voted the fourth most important Germans in history, ahead of J.S. Bach, Goethe, Gutenberg, Bismarck, Willy Brandt, and Albert Einstein.

Sources and Further Reference

  • “Sophie Scholl.” Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team, http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/revolt/scholl.html.
  • Hornberger, Jacob G. “Holocaust Resistance: The White Rose - A Lesson in Dissent.” Jewish Virtual Library, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-white-rose-a-lesson-in-dissent.
  • Gill, Anton. “Protest of the Youth.” Literature of the Holocaust, www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Holocaust/gill-white-rose.html.
  • Burns, Margie. “Sophie Scholl and the White Rose.” Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, http://www.raoulwallenberg.net/holocaust/articles-20/sophie-scholl-white-rose/.
  • Atwood, Kathryn. “Women Heroes of World War II.” Chicago Review Press, 2011, ISBN 9781556529610.
  • Keeler, Bob, and Ewich, Heidi. “Anti-Nazi Movement Still Inspires: Germans recall rare courage of ‘White Rose’.” Newsday, February 22, 1993.