White Rose, German anti-Nazi group formed in Munich in 1942. Unlike the conspirators of the July Plot (1944) or participants in such youth gangs as the Edelweiss Pirates, the members of the White Rose advocated nonviolent resistance as a means of opposing the Nazi regime.
Three of the group’s founding members—Hans Scholl, Willi Graf, and Alexander Schmorell—were medical students at the University of Munich. While on the Eastern Front, the trio observed the murder of Jewish civilians by SS troops. When they returned to Munich, the three joined with other students—including Hans’s sister Sophie—to discuss their opposition to the Nazi regime. Coupling youthful idealism with an impressive knowledge of German literature and Christian religious teachings, the students published their beliefs in a series of leaflets under the name “the White Rose” (and later as “Leaflets of the Resistance”).
The first of those leaflets, published in June 1942, quoted liberally from the works of Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and it advocated passive resistance to the Nazi war effort. The first White Rose essay concluded with the statement, “Do not forget that every nation deserves the government that it endures.” Using addresses obtained from a telephone directory, the leaflets were mailed to individuals across Munich. Five more leaflets followed over the next eight months, and the Gestapo became increasingly concerned about the potential threat posed by them. By early 1943, members of the White Rose were scattering leaflets by hand, and they began an anti-Nazi graffiti campaign, painting “Freedom” and “Down with Hitler” on buildings throughout Munich.
Those actions increased the risk faced by the students, and on February 18, 1943, a Nazi party member observed Hans and Sophie throwing leaflets from a University of Munich classroom building. They were arrested that day, and an investigation uncovered the participation of Christoph Probst, a fellow University of Munich medical student, in the White Rose. The Scholls and Probst were quickly tried, and the three were beheaded on February 22, 1943. In the months that followed, dozens were imprisoned for their (real or imagined) connections to the White Rose, and some, including Graf and Schmorell, were executed.
Youth protest movements did exist in Nazi Germany. The Nazipropagandists of the time would have had the world believe that the youth population of Nazi Germany was fully behind Hitler. It is true that many did join the Hitler Youth movement but in 1936 membership was made compulsory and all other youth movements were banned so there was no alternative. However, there were some youths who were ideologically against the regime and who were brave enough to make a stand.
In 1937 one such protest movement was started – the Edelweiss Pirates (Eidelweisspiraten). The movement started in the Rhineland and then spread out. Members were mainly working class male youths. They would gather together and act in a manner that they would know would anger the local Nazi leaders. Whereas the Nazi Party required Hitler Youth members to wear a uniform that was semi-military, Edelweiss members wore more bohemian clothing, knowing that it would anger the powers-that-be. They also sang songs that the Nazis had banned and played music that was also banned, such as jazz and blues tunes. They created areas within a town or city where members of the Hitler Youth were not tolerated. At no stage were they ever a danger to the Nazi regime and for years they were seen as nothing more than a youthful irritant – youths going through that phase in their lives where rebellion (as they perceived it) was the order of the day.
Whereas the Edelwiess Pirates were mainly seen as coming from working class backgrounds, youths from more upper class backgrounds formed ‘swing groups’. They too engaged in what would have been perceived as non-Germanic activities, which once again involved the ways they dressed and the music they listened to.
However, the regime’s stance changed during World War Two where it required explicit obedience to the state. This change from irritant to threat is best seen in a series of letters found after the war had ended.
In a letter from Heinrich Himmler to Reinhard Heydrich (January 1942) the head of the SS wrote that a half-measured approach to the ‘swing groups’ was unacceptable and that members of any such groups had to be dealt with accordingly. Himmler told Heydrich that for members of the ‘swing groups’ labour and work camps were inappropriate. They had to be sent to concentration camps for between “2 to 3 years”. Himmler did not differentiate between male youths and “worthless girls”.
“There the youth should first be given thrashings and then put through the severest drill and set to work. It must be made clear that they will never be allowed to go back to their studies. We must investigate how much encouragement they have had from their parents. If they have encouraged them, then they should also be put into a concentration camp and (have) their property confiscated.” (‘Hitler’s Germany’ by Jane Jenkins)
Himmler also advised Heydrich that he should intervene “brutally” to stop any further spread of the ‘swing groups’.
In July 1943, Nazi Party leaders in Dusseldorf contacted the Gestapo with their views on a local Edelweiss group. The letter stated that the “gang” was “throwing its weight around” and that the “riff-raff” represented a “danger to other young people”. It claimed that this particular city group had an age range from 12 to 17 and that members of the army associated with them when they were on leave. The Dusseldorf city leaders also believed that the local Edelweiss group was responsible for anti-Hitler and anti-war graffiti in the city’s pedestrian subways. However, it is clearly stated that these were only suspicions.
One of the most famous youth movements that campaigned against Hitler was the White Rose movement founded by Hans and Sophie Scholl. Members of this movement openly campaigned against Hitler and the continuation of World War Two, which they believed was lost as early as 1942.
“Why do the German people behave so apathetically in face of all these dreadful and inhuman crimes? It is high time we uprooted the ‘Brown Horde’. We shall only do this by cooperation between many convinced and bold men who are agreed on how to achieve their aims.” Leaflet written by Hans Scholl.
Scholl encouraged members of the White Rose movement to engage in sabotage.
In January 1942, Hans Scholl produced a leaflet entitled “A call to all Germans”. It stated:
“The war is approaching its inevitable end. With mathematical certainty, Hitler is leading the German nation to disaster. Now is the time for those Germans to act who want to avoid being lumped with the Nazis barbarians by the outside world.”
It was extremely dangerous to air such views in public but the Scholl’s ensured that their beliefs were put into print and made public. Such was the all-embracing nature of a police state that it was only a matter of time before they were caught. Tried before the ‘People’s Court’, they were put on trial for treason, inevitably found guilty and executed.