100th birthday of Sophie Scholl

A 100 years ago / Jahr100Wissen interview with sociologist Prof. Dr. Peter Imbusch

Sophia Magdalena Scholl, later known as Sophie Scholl, was born in Forchtenberg (Baden-Württemberg) on the 9th May 1921. She died at the age of 21 at the hands of the National Socialists. Who was this woman?

Imbusch: Considering her short life, the biography of Sophie Scholl is quickly told. This woman was first and foremost a young girl who slowly became politicised in the face of the increasingly visible injustice of the National Socialists and whose life, today, stands for resistance, courage and the will for freedom. She grew up together with her siblings Inge (1917-1998), Hans (1918-1943), Elisabeth (1920-2020) and Werner (1922-1944) in Forchtenberg until 1930, later in Ludwigsburg and from 1932 in Ulm in a middle-class conservative home. She was brought up in Christian values by her mother Magdalena, who had been a deaconess until her marriage, and her father Robert Scholl, who was liberal-minded.
Sophie Scholl was clever, fun-loving, multi-talented and stood up courageously and uncompromisingly for her personal and political convictions. She enjoyed music, played the piano herself, was interested in art and was a good drawer herself. She was a woman who lived, loved, doubted and could also be moody, As we know from the biographies of Maren Gottschalk and Robert Zoske.
After graduating from high school in 1940, she first began training as a kindergarten teacher in order to escape the Reich Labour Service, but she did not succeed. In 1942 she then moved to Munich to study biology and philosophy. There, she quickly became part of the circle of friends of her brother Hans, who rejected Hitler and his regime. From there, it was not far to the resistance group "White Rose". Ultimately, her involvement in this group cost her her life.

How did her political commitment arise?

Imbusch: Their political commitment developed gradually at first, although their Christian humanist upbringing certainly contributed to this. The members of the "White Rose" all came from rather conservative middle-class homes with a Christian upbringing. Sophie Scholl, like her brother Hans, was initially an enthusiastic supporter of the National Socialist youth movement. They were particularly attached to the communal ideal propagated by the National Socialists, so that she joined the Ulm Young Girls in 1934 and soon also took on 'leadership tasks'. However, this commitment successively collided with the ideals of the Bündische Jugend, which was banned in the Third Reich and played a major role in her life and thinking. Because of their 'Bündische Umtriebe' they soon came into conflict with the law and were briefly arrested by the Gestapo in 1937. A year later, Sophie Scholl lost her position as group leader. Now she increasingly discovered contradictions between the party line and her own liberal thinking, so that it is perhaps fair to say that it was personal convictions and negative experiences with the Nazi state that made her a critical observer of the regime at an early stage. The final consolidation of her convictions then took place during her studies in Munich, where she attended lectures by philosophy professor Kurt Huber, in which such fundamental questions were discussed as to whether and to what extent Christians, as politically thinking people, are also required to be acting subjects. Sophie Scholl was also influenced by the works of the Catholic publicist Theodor Haecker, who was no longer allowed to publish under the National Socialists. All of this eventually combined in her new circle of friends to form an alliance in the fight against the National Socialist dictatorship.

She is considered a co-founder of the student resistance group "White Rose", which had a strong Christian orientation. What did they do?

Imbusch: In addition to Hans and Sophie Scholl, the innermost circle of the "White Rose" consisted of Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst, Willi Graf and Kurt Huber. In addition, there were a number of other collaborators and a larger circle of supporters so that they could carry out their action. The group wrote and distributed a total of six leaflets through secret channels, first in the Munich region and later via couriers in other cities in southern Germany, in which they addressed the crimes of the regime and called for resistance to National Socialism. In the final phase of its existence, the "White Rose" also tried to establish contact with other resistance groups and opposition circles.
They initially called for passive resistance in the leaflets in which they opposed Hitler and the National Socialist regime and distributed in the summer of 1942 and at the beginning of 1943. But they soon also called for the overthrow of the government. The first four "White Rose leaflets" were written and distributed by Hans Scholl and Alexander Schmorell between the end of June and mid-July 1942. With 100 copies each, the edition was still relatively minor. They were sent mainly to writers, professors and booksellers from Munich and the surrounding area. While Scholl and Schmorell still demanded "Offer passive resistance wherever you are," in the first leaflet, the second leaflet was more brutal: it was past time to "exterminate this brown horde", it said. They gave concrete instructions for overthrowing the government through sabotage in all areas of public life in the third leaflet. In view of the mass murders of Jews and Poles, which they also denounced in the second leaflet, they at the same time made the complicity of the Germans clear, who silently endured this injustice instead of actively fighting it. At the end of January 1943, the fifth leaflet was published, in which Christoph Probst and Sophie Scholl as well as Willi Graf and Kurt Huber were now involved. as well In it, they once again called on the population to act, stressing in view of the course of the war that "Hitler ... cannot win the war, (but) can only prolong it!" Now, in painstaking nightly work, a total of 6000 to 9000 prints were produced. The group distributed the majority of leaflets in one night in a risky action in Munich. The rest was distributed in six southern German and Austrian cities. However, the hoped-for reaction failed to materialise.
The defeat in Stalingrad and the public protests at the University of Munich in the face of a speech by the Gauleiter in mid-January were the occasion for the Resistance members to produce a sixth leaflet with which they wanted to mobilise their fellow students. In it, the young people were called upon to revolt against the Hitler dictatorship. While some of the leaflets were sent out again by post in mid-February, Sophie and Hans Scholl transported the rest to the university on 18 February, where they laid them out in front of the lecture halls and also threw stacks of them from the second floor into the university atrium. During this action, however, they were discovered and arrested.

For what reason was she and her brother, Hans Scholl, arrested?

Imbusch: At that time, the "White Rose" was a serious subversive force and the student Sophie Scholl had become a resistance fighter against National Socialism. However, the Nazi regime strove to nip any opposition or resistance in the bud. The group's leaflets were highly political and diametrically opposed to the ideology of National Socialism. They wanted to stir up the population and the leaflets were blatant calls for resistance. Dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, especially when they are in decline, usually only tolerate this kind of action until they finally get hold of its authors. After the police and secret services began an intensive search for the possible authors of the fourth leaflet, it was only a matter of time before the members of the "White Rose" were discovered and arrested.

The show trial against Hans and Sophie Scholl took place after four days. The so-called blood judge Roland Freisler sentenced both siblings to death. What did they achieve?

Imbusch: All the trials against the members of the "White Rose" and later also against their supporters took place before Roland Freisler's so-called People's Court. The People's Court was a political court whose task was not to dispense justice but to hunt down the political opponents of the Third Reich. It was a prime example of political justice, in which people were punished not for specific crimes but for their attitudes. The People's Court was an instrument of political power, and proceedings under the rule of law were basically ruled out.
After their arrest, Hans and Sophie Scholl initially denied their involvement in the "White Rose", but later confessed to having been the authors of the leaflet actions. Four days after their arrest, the People's Court put them on trial and charged them with "traitorous support of the enemy", "preparation for high treason" and "subversion of military strength". The accused had "called in leaflets for the sabotage of armaments" and the "overthrow of the National Socialist way of life", "propagated defeatist thoughts" and "insulted the Führer in the vilest way and thereby favoured the enemy of the Reich". Accordingly, it was hardly surprising that both were sentenced to death and executed on the same day by the guillotine. Sophie Scholl was just 21 years old. After her execution, the Gestapo persecuted other active sympathisers of the "White Rose" and also pronounced death sentences or long prison sentences against them.

We remember these courageous people today. What did they achieve? What about the memory of Sophie Scholl and the "White Rose"?

Imbusch: Sophie Scholl would have turned 100 on 9 May. The memory of the resistance group "White Rose" and of Sophie Scholl's courageous actions has been very much alive over the years and is still relevant today. Several streets, squares and paths in Germany are named after the Scholl siblings. As early as 1968, the Institute of Political Science at the LMU Munich was renamed into Geschwister Scholl Institute. Their work has been recorded in films, plays and exhibitions. To mark the 100th anniversary of their birth, there is now a 20-euro commemorative coin and the post office is issuing a special stamp.
However, recent publications on Sophie Scholl have also pointed out that she has become a clichéd person who is often reduced to a few catchwords (such as freedom, resistance, courage), which does not do justice to Sophie Scholl's complex personality. As a rule, the iconisation of a person always includes a mythical exaggeration, which usually goes hand in hand with a simplification that is not able to adequately capture the contradictions and ambivalences of a personality. The further such processes progress, the greater the dangers of instrumentalisation and appropriation of their person, as we have experienced more frequently in recent times. The commemoration of a person is always a struggle for interpretive sovereignty. And today, unfortunately, this must be defended against perfidious attempts of appropriation by the AfD, the lateral thinkers' movement or the self-proclaimed and famous victim "Jana from Kassel".

Uwe Blass (Interview on May 3, 2021)


Prof. Dr. Peter Imbusch studied Sociology, Political Science, Social and Economic History as well as Economics and did his doctorate on the Social Structure Analysis of Latin America. He habilitated in 2001 and has been a professor of Sociology, especially the Sociology of Politics, at the University of Wuppertal since 2011.

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