Hartnagel: Fritz Hartnagel Letters

Thomas Hartnagel, ed. Sophie Scholl/Fritz Hartnagel: Damit wir uns nicht verlieren. Briefwechsel 1937-1943. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, 2005.

I was utterly skeptical when I first heard about this new volume a couple of months ago. After all, the Scholl family has a poor track record when it comes to openness and transparency about the famous Scholl siblings, Hans and Sophie. I therefore picked it up, expecting to find infinite ellipses censoring critical passages. And was pleasantly surprised by the completeness of the letters contained in this volume.

Thomas Hartnagel, son of Fritz and Elisabeth (nee Scholl) Hartnagel, does not shrink back from many difficult questions. When Sophie Scholl raves about a specific book, Hartnagel footnotes that it's explicitly anti-Semitic. In her celebrated letter telling Fritz that she's glad the Germans are as "bad" in Holland as they are in Germany, because then the whole world must know, Hartnagel writes, "Sophie Scholl's support for radical proceedings against Jews has a shocking effect. Obviously she wanted the Nazi regime to reveal itself openly as inhuman, clearly and for all to see. Nevertheless, there's a bitter aftertaste here, since in a certain sense the suffering individual is sacrificed to a larger goal."

Those are not words one expects to read in a book edited by a nephew of Sophie Scholl, much less by a nephew of Inge Scholl who spent her life running from those hard truths.

Hartnagel does not censor the letters that talk about his father's affair with a Yugoslavian woman in Amsterdam, an affair he entered because Sophie was pushing him away. He does not censor the letters in which Fritz adamantly defends a soldier's way of life, in which Fritz expresses the (nearly) blind patriotism that led Germany into a twelve-year abyss. He does not censor the letters that reveal a Sophie we like a whole lot less, letters that make us understand how very right she was when she later bemoaned her inability to love, to be loved. She was in fact an emotional shipwreck, and her nephew does not whitewash the manner in which she hurt those around her.

For all the good in the book, there are two gaping holes that Thomas Hartnagel does not address, gaping holes that leave the Scholl family under a cloud of suspicion. Despite the seeming openness.

First, there is not a single letter in the book that mentions Kristallnacht. If you've read my White Rose History, Volume I, you know why this chasm looms so large - because the Scholls were apparently the only non-Jewish family in their apartment building during a terrible night in which so many of their neighbors suffered greatly. There are three "new" letters from November and December 1938, including one dated November 10 (the day after the pogrom). None mentions the Einsteins or the Barths or the Guggenheimers. Why?

A few months later, another gap. No letters from May or June 1939 refer to the Scholls' move into the great apartment on Münsterplatz, an apartment recently "vacated" (unwillingly) by a Jewish family. In fact, Sophie's letters skip from May 10, 1939 to July 16, 1939, though it's clear from Fritz's letters to her that she did not stop writing him during those two months.

These holes are likely explained by the eighty-seven letters that were omitted. Thomas Hartnagel admits in his preface that only 313 of approximately 400 letters were included. Unless and until these two major events - along with a third omitted event, the public humiliation of a girl about two blocks away from the Scholls' home in 1940 - are honestly dealt with, we must continue to assume the worst.

But at least this book seems to mark a turning point - a very welcome turning point - in Scholl scholarship. Thomas Hartnagel has done what no other member of his family has done to date: Portray his "heroic" family members as completely human, prone to debilitating mood swings and hurtful acts, while contemplating unbelievable good.

(c) 2006 Ruth Hanna Sachs. All rights reserved. Please contact us for permission to quote.