World War II: The White Rose

Hans and Sophie Scholl on a postage stamp

Nightflyer/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The White Rose was a non-violent resistance group based in Munich during World War II. Comprised largely of University of Munich students, the White Rose published and distributed several pamphlets speaking out against Third Reich. The group was destroyed in 1943 when many of its key members were caught and executed.

Origins of the White Rose

One of the most noteworthy resistance groups operating within Nazi Germany, the White Rose was initially led by Hans Scholl. A student at the University of Munich, Scholl had previously been a member of the Hitler Youth but left in 1937, after being influenced by the ideals of the German Youth Movement. A medical student, Scholl became increasing interested in the arts and inwardly began to question the Nazi regime. This was reinforced in 1941 after Scholl attended a sermon by Bishop August von Galen with his sister Sophie. An outspoken opponent of Hitler, von Galen railed against the Nazis' euthanasia policies.

Moving to Action

Horrified, Scholl, along with his friends Alex Schmorell and George Wittenstein were moved to action and began planning a pamphlet campaign. Carefully growing their organization by adding like-minded students, the group took the name "The White Rose" in reference to B. Traven's novel about peasant exploitation in Mexico. Through the early summer of 1942, Schmorell and Scholl wrote four leaflets which called for both passive and active opposition to the Nazi government. Copied on a typewriter, approximately 100 copies were made and distributed around Germany.

As the Gestapo maintained a strict system of surveillance, distribution was limited to leaving copies in public phonebooks, mailing them to professors and students, as well as sending them by secret courier to other schools. Typically, these couriers were female students who were able to travel more freely around the country than their male counterparts. Quoting heavily from religious and philosophical sources, the leaflets attempted to appeal to the German intelligentsia who the White Rose believed would support their cause.

As this initial wave of pamphlets was unleashed, Sophie, now a student at the university, learned of her brother's activities. Against his wishes, she joined the group as an active participant. Shortly after Sophie's arrival, Christoph Probst was added to the group. Remaining in the background, Probst was unusual in that he was married and the father of three children. In the summer of 1942, several members of the group, including Scholl, Wittenstein, and Schmorell were sent to Russia to work as physician's assistants at German field hospitals.

While there, they befriended another medical student, Willi Graf, who became a member of the White Rose upon their return to Munich that November. During their time in Poland and Russia, the group was horrified to witness the German treatment of Polish Jews and Russian peasants. Resuming their underground activities, the White Rose was soon aided by Professor Kurt Huber. A teacher of philosophy, Huber advised Scholl and Schmorell and aided in editing text for leaflets. Having obtained a duplicating machine, the White Rose issued its fifth leaflet in January 1943 and ultimately printed between 6,000-9,000 copies.

Following the fall of Stalingrad in February 1943, the Scholls and Schmorell asked Huber to compose a leaflet for the group. While Huber wrote, members of the White Rose launched a risky graffiti campaign around Munich. Carried out on the nights of February 4, 8, and 15, the group's campaign struck twenty-nine sites in the city. His writing completed, Huber passed his leaflet to Scholl and Schmorell, who edited it slightly before mailing it out between February 16 and 18. The group's sixth leaflet, Huber's, proved to be its last.

Capture and Trial

On February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie Scholl arrived on campus with a large suitcase full of leaflets. Hurriedly moving through the building, they left stacks outside of full lecture halls. Having completed this task, they realized that a large number remained in the suitcase. Entering the upper level of the University's atrium, they tossed the remaining leaflets in the air and let them float down to the floor below. This reckless action was seen by custodian Jakob Schmid who promptly reported the Scholls to the police.

Quickly arrested, the Scholls were among eighty people seized by the police over the next few days. When he was captured, Hans Scholl had with him a draft of another leaflet which had been written by Christoph Probst. This led to Probst's immediate capture. Moving swiftly, Nazi officials convened the Volksgerichtshof (People's Court) to try the three dissidents. On February 22, the Scholls and Probst were found guilty of political offenses by the notorious Judge Roland Freisler. Sentenced to death by beheading, they were taken to the guillotine that afternoon.

The deaths of Probst and the Scholls were followed on April 13 by the trial of Graf, Schmorell, Huber, and eleven others associated with the organization. Schmorell had nearly escaped to Switzerland but had been forced to turn back due to heavy snow. Like those before them, Huber, Schmorell, and Graf were sentenced to death, however, the executions were not carried out until July 13 (Huber & Schmorell) and October 12 (Graf). All but one of the others received jail terms of six months to ten years.

A third trial for White Rose members Wilhelm Geyer, Harald Dohrn, Josef Soehngen, and Manfred Eickemeyer began on July 13, 1943. Ultimately, all but Soehngen (6 months in jail) were acquitted due to a lack of evidence. This was largely due to Gisela Schertling, a White Rose member who had turned state's evidence, recanting her previous statements about their involvement. Wittenstein managed to escape by transferring to the Eastern Front, where the Gestapo did not have jurisdiction.

Heroes of the New Germany

Despite the capture and execution of the group's leaders, the White Rose had the last say against Nazi Germany. The organization's final leaflet was successfully smuggled out of Germany and received by the Allies. Printed in large numbers, millions of copies were air-dropped over Germany by Allied bombers. With the war's end in 1945, the members of the White Rose were made heroes of the new Germany and the group came to represent the people's resistance to tyranny. Since that time, several movies and plays have portrayed the group's activities.


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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: The White Rose." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 27). World War II: The White Rose. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: The White Rose." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 12, 2021).