May 1942. Munich couldn’t get much “browner” - swastikas every place you looked. Dissident students hung out in cheap cafes like the Bodega, not able to express subversive ideas out loud, just happy for one another’s company. If you wanted to avoid the obligatory German greeting, you had to take the long way around - behind the Odeon - to bypass the grim guards at the Feldherrnhalle, a military monument co-opted by the Nazis as a sacred place.
Some of those discontents decided they’d had enough of secret whispers about the atrocities of Hitler’s regime. They were beginning to hear disturbing stories of the mass murders of Jewish civilians, can you believe it, 50,000 dead? When the numbers increased to 100,000, and then 200,000, they could no longer keep silent. They bought an inexpensive duplicating machine after Fritz Hartnagel, a Captain in the German army, refused to requisition one from his unit on Sophie’s behalf.
“Sophie,” he admonished her, “you will lose your head if you do this.” To which she merely replied, “I know.”
That summer, Hans and Alexander (Schurik to his friends) wrote long-winded philosophical treatises about the evils of Hitler’s government. Borrowing a catchphrase from a letter that Schurik’s friend Lilo had received, they called these ‘inflammatory pamphlets’ the Leaflets of the White Rose. They managed to publish four leaflets before being shipped to the Russian front as medics. Alex’s best friend Christoph Probst joined them too. Christl’s presence is seen in the addresses to which leaflets were mailed in his quiet hometown in the mountains.
On the way to the front, these young men were confronted with the reality of the Warsaw Ghetto. They saw firsthand the misery of that city. Only Willi Graf had seen it before the high wall was built around the Ghetto. He had spent eighteen months in the hellhole of the “Eastern front” before meeting Hans, Christl, and Alex in Munich in late June.
They saw enough in Warsaw to understand how cruelly and inhumanely their fellow Germans treated the Jewish and Polish population; had they been able to see beyond the wall... Willi’s nightmares only intensified. As Willi, Hans, and Schurik bonded on the Russian front, they knew they had to accomplish even more, widening their scope beyond intelligentsia to the man on the street.
November and December 1942, these three plus Sophie, Christoph, and Traute (a dissident in Hamburg long before there was a White Rose) plotted the expansion that would begin in 1943. Hans and Schurik traveled to Chemnitz to meet Falk Harnack, brother of Arvid Harnack - the same Arvid Harnack who was soon to be executed for his own resistance work with the Rote Kapelle. They discussed combining forces with the remaining dissidents in Berlin centered around the Bonhoeffer brothers.
Over Christmas, all six actively recruited new members. Some pleas fell on deaf ears. Most of Willi’s friends in Saarbrücken refused any discussion of resistance. They did find some who wanted to help. The network was beginning to take shape.
January 1943, the expansion began in earnest. Illegal ‘readings’ by philosophers such as Theodor Haecker could see as many as 25 or 30 gathered in the studio that Manfred Eickemeyer made available to them. The conversations were often raucous, arguing issues such as the responsibility of the churches and clergy to call their congregations to resist. By the end of January, between 10,000-12,000 leaflets had been distributed, either by mail or scattering the leaflets in telephone booths or on public transportation.
They’d also undertaken the risky business of traveling to other Southern German cities to mail the leaflets, so the Gestapo would think a large, well-organized group was behind the seditious activities. Their subterfuge never worked. Even before their arrests, the Gestapo had tracked down paper and envelope sources and identified the brand of typewriter used, and had determined that everything originated in Munich.
In February, Schurik, Willi, and Hans finally managed to infuriate the Gestapo. The leaflets had been bad enough, but three different nights these young men set out to proclaim their message on Munich’s walls. Their primary targets included churches, Nazi office buildings, the heavily guarded Feldherrnhalle, as well as Hugendubel bookstore. Using black tar-based paint, and once a green oil-based paint, they stenciled the words “Down with Hitler!” in man-high letters, in over seventy places!, the Gestapo reports indignantly proclaimed.
The artist Wilhelm Geyer had taught Schurik how to make the stencil – out of tin, so it would not wear out. They gained immense satisfaction when they realized the Gestapo could not eradicate their graffiti. When scrubbing failed, The Powers That Be covered the inscriptions over with white butcher paper, but the paint bled through. Hans began adding the word FREEDOM in freehand - seven or eight times alone on the front of the main university building.
The students had also managed to recruit their favorite professor, Dr. Kurt Huber. He wrote the sixth leaflet, powerful prose calling for liberty and justice. When Falk came to Munich to meet with these rebels, Dr. Huber joined the conversation.
That meeting (dated alternately as February 9, 10, or 11) represented the beginning of the end of the White Rose. Hans allowed his new “girlfriend,” Gisela Schertling, to stay in the room for the entire meeting, though he was fully aware that she was a loyal Nazi. The others protested her presence - Falk Harnack was particularly disturbed by it - but Hans insisted she stay.
Additionally, the conversation revealed that while they were united in their opposition to Hitler, their views about what needed to be done, and what Germany would look like post-war, were too divergent. Falk championed a planned economy, which Huber found ‘Communist.’ Huber insisted that Hitler could only be overthrown by a military coup and that therefore their primary goal should be recruitment within the military, while Hans believed that Hitler would be brought down by the man on the street if only the man on the street could be made to understand the atrocities. Had Hans Scholl lived, the Bonhoeffers would have confirmed Prof. Huber’s opinion, as they were connected to the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt - a military-based operation.
Prof. Huber broke all ties with Hans Scholl after that meeting. Hans refused to print his sixth leaflet with the section about joining the military for the overthrow of the government. Huber wanted none of it, if “it” were to be meaningless. Schurik as well decided it had come time to say goodbye. Lilo assisted him with the burning of his uniform and paybook. Schurik’s last act of friendship for Hans: He agreed to stand guard outside the university when they scattered leaflets on February 18. After that, he was heading to Russia to join partisans fighting the German army. Postwar, Alex planned to work for the liberation of his homeland (he was half-Russian). He would be long gone before the next scheduled rollcall.
Willi likewise spent a long weekend away from Munich to clear his head. It appears that he too had decided to break with Hans. Willi was a level-headed, responsible young man. Hans’ carelessness with the leaflets - leaving them out in plain view in their apartment - was apparently more than he could bear. Josef Söhngen, the bookshop owner who supplied them with banned volumes, likewise warned Hans Scholl that he was taking too many risks and endangering the lives of his friends. That warning came on February 16.
But Hans, being the charismatic young man that he was, convinced all of them to stick it out for one more “operation.” The week of February 18, they worked long hours printing more leaflets, doing their third and final graffiti job. Sophie confided to Wilhelm Geyer that if they were caught, they would not be arrested privately. They would make sure it was very public, so they could not be “handled” quietly.
The morning of February 18, Sophie cut classes. She and Hans carried one briefcase and one suitcase, both filled with leaflets and nothing else, to the university. They entered through the rear (Amalienstraβe) and began placing leaflets on the stairs and in front of classrooms.
Students had already begun leaving lectures. Not only did they run into Traute and Willi, Hans and Sophie also saw two girls from Ulm and a group of soldiers. Despite the risk of being seen, they kept up their work. In one final act, they threw the leaflets over the third floor balcony just as classes officially let out. And Jakob Schmid, the maintenance man, saw them.
It is not clear precisely when Hans and Sophie realized they had been spotted. Sophie had enough presence of mind to dart into a third-floor room - it seems to have been the women’s restroom - and hide the key to Eickemeyer’s studio. Hans remained his irresponsible self and did not ensure that he was “clean.” When Schmid apprehended them, his pockets still contained Christoph Probst’s handwritten draft of a seventh leaflet, and cigarette ration coupons that could be easily traced back to the Geyer family.
As Hans and Sophie were led from the university building, Hans shouted to Gisela, “Tell him I won’t be there for lunch.” The Gestapo arrested Count von Metternich, assuming that Hans was talking to him. But Metternich was able to present his National Socialist credentials, and the Gestapo soon figured out that Gisela was the person they needed.
From the moment Gisela Schertling was arrested, the entire group was compromised. In an effort to obtain leniency, she named every name she could remember, including people who were on the fringe of the fringe. Above all, she named Dr. Huber who was not under suspicion in the least. (They assumed it was completely student-run.)
Most perplexing of all: Hans denounced Schurik and Christoph in his interrogation, and Sophie named Traute. In contrast, Willi Graf did not denounce even one of his friends, and Schurik covered for his friends, especially for Lilo, whom the Gestapo considered very dangerous indeed.
On February 22, 1943, Hans, Sophie, and Christoph were tried and condemned (Martin Bormann officially discharged Hans and Christoph from the military, so that Judge Freisler could preside over the trial). They were executed at 5 pm the same day.
Falk Harnack, Dr. Huber, Willi Graf, Alexander Schmorell, Traute Lafrenz, Katharina Schüddekopf, Gisela Schertling, Hans Hirzel, Susanne Hirzel, Heinz Guter, Franz Josef Müller, Dr. Heinrich Bollinger, Helmut Bauer, and Eugen Grimminger were tried on April 19. Willi, Schurik, and Dr. Huber were sentenced to death; Eugen Grimminger was supposed to receive a death sentence, but Judge Freisler unexpectedly believed the testimony of Tilly Hahn (who herself had donated funds to the White Rose work!) and reduced the sentence to ten years in penitentiary; and the rest received varying prison sentences.
Gisela, Traute, and Katharina had never been indicted and had no defense counsel until the moment they arrived in court. Dr. Huber’s defense attorney quit in the middle of the trial and someone else was appointed to resume his defense. Gisela was given the same sentence as Traute and Katharina, because as a good Nazi, she should have known better!
On July 13, 1943, Kurt Huber (stripped of his professorship) and Alexander Schmorell were executed. The Gestapo requested that Willi Graf’s life be spared temporarily - not because of the clemency requests that poured in on his behalf from top officials in the Nazi government at the request of Willi's father, but because they knew he had not denounced his friends and they could possibly arrest even more people.
And on July 13, 1943, the third White Rose trial finally took place. It had been scheduled for April 20 (Hitler’s birthday). The prosecutors anticipated that all four would be death sentences, and they did not want too many death sentences in a single trial. But the files were lost, as was most of the evidence, and the trial could not proceed.
When it was finally scheduled for July 13, Judge Freisler did not make the trip from Berlin. Without the evidence against Wilhelm Geyer, Manfred Eickemeyer, Josef Söhngen, and Harald Dohrn (Christoph Probst’s father-in-law), the prosecutor had to rely solely on Gisela Schertling’s testimony against the four.
In a moment of redemption, Gisela recanted her previous testimony and said that none of the four had done anything wrong. Add in an elderly gentleman, hard of hearing, carrying an umbrella on a sunny day - a man who had been called as a witness for the prosecution and who could not even hear the questions, much less respond “correctly” - and the case was non-existent. The judge was a slightly more honest person and actually acquitted all four! (Well, Söhngen wasn’t acquitted, but his sentence was lighter even than those the high school boys had received, for a far more serious offense.)
By October 1943, the Gestapo still had not been able to break Willi Graf. He was nearly killed in an air raid in early October, so they set the execution for October 12. For reasons that were never explained, the Gestapo decided to exercise its right to claim his body upon execution. Due to a bureaucratic snafu, his body was lost and not buried for well over a year.
The Gestapo also intercepted his farewell letter to his family and refused to turn over his personal effects, except for one pair of underwear. The Graf family had to call in markers from Gerhard Graf’s years of loyal service to the Party to get the letter and some of the personal effects released. In December 1944 as the end of the Third Reich neared, the Chief Prosecutor of the Reich reamed out the Munich Gestapo for their treatment of Willi Graf’s corpse and farewell letter. It was a bizarre end to a courageous story.
But it was not the end. After the arrests of the original friends of the White Rose, a group of chemistry students at the University of Munich took up their cause. Armed with only a typewriter, they copied out hundreds of the leaflets and continued disseminating them. Traute’s friends in Hamburg likewise used the White Rose leaflets in their resistance efforts. The British RAF dumped plane loads of the sixth leaflet - Dr. Huber’s - on Germany.
Everywhere their story is told, we are challenged once again to stand a little straighter, speak a little louder, and say our NO with everything we’ve got. If you work your way past the superficial telling of this story to get to know these students and their mentors, you realize that they are just like you and your friends, like me and mine, no better, no worse.
They may not have toppled Hitler, but they changed their Germany. They may not have succeeded in overthrowing an evil regime, but they left behind a legacy of honor and courage that gives us hope for the future.
© 2004 Ruth Hanna Sachs. All rights reserved. Please contact us for permission to quote.
This is very short version of their story. The full story - or as full as possible with closed archives and censorship - includes friends who helped out in small ways, friends who provided moral support, fringe people who were impacted by their words and deeds, and family members. We’ve identified about 85 people. Their narrative is included in our White Rose Histories Volume I and Volume II.
The full story includes (in strictly alphabetical order):
Hedwig Aicher, Otl Aicher, Rudi Alt, Mathilde Baez, Oscar Baez, Helmut Bauer, Lilo Berndl, Karl Bisa, Heinrich Bollinger, Willi Bollinger, Harald Dohrn, Manfred Eickemeyer, Gerhard Feuerle, Hubert Furtwängler, Clara Geyer, Wilhelm Geyer, Josef Gieles, Anna Graf, Anneliese Graf, Gerhard Graf, Willi Graf, Eugen Grimminger, Jenny Grimminger, Adalbert Grundel, Heinrich Guter, Wilhelm Habermann, Theodor Haecker, Otmar Hammerstein, Falk Harnack, Hellmut Hartert, Fritz Hartnagel, Ernst Hirzel, Hans Hirzel, Konrad Hirzel, Margarete Hirzel, Peter Hirzel, Roland Hirzel, Susanne Hirzel, Ursula Hirzel, Lilli Holl, Klara Huber, Kurt Huber, Hein Jacobs, Walter Kastner, Alois Kirn, Karin Kleeblatt, Hermann Krings, Traute Lafrenz, Hans Leipelt, Fritz Leist, Hans Leygraf, Adolf Lossen, Martin Luible, Mathilde Luible, Emil Martin, Alois Mauer, Franz Josef Müller, Rose Nägele, Karl Pötzl, Angelika Probst, Christoph Probst, Herta Probst, Ernst Reden, Willi Reiter, Regine Renner, Karl Rieber, Erika Rieck, Josef Rieck, August Sahm, Gisela Schertling, Günther Schmich, Alexander Schmorell, Elisabeth Scholl, Hans Scholl, Inge Scholl, Magdalena Scholl, Robert Scholl, Sophie Scholl, Thilde Scholl, Werner Scholl, Katharina Schüddekopf, Josef Söhngen, Max Stefl. Plus Jürgen Wittenstein.
Any name on this list that you do not know is a life that should be remembered, but that has been marginalized by White Rose mythology.
© 2023 Denise Heap.
To comment on this post, read it here on our Substack.