Did any Germans resist Hitler?


Announcer Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from www.HowStuffWorks.com.Katie Lambert

Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey.

Katie Lambert: A few months ago, we talked about Hannah Szenes, a Hungarian who opposed the Nazis by parachuting into Yugoslavia in an attempt to save fellow Jews. She was arrested, tortured and executing. This heroic story left many of you wanting to hear more about resistance to the Nazis during World War II. These stories are usually tragic. How could they end well? But they're also pretty inspirational.

Sarah Dowdey: One of the most surprising of these heroic stories comes out of Germany, of all places, where the Gestapo and the SS kept such a close eye on the population. Listening into a broadcast of Radio London could be enough to get you executed. It's in Germany, In Munich actually, that this group of students decide to protest the atrocities of their government and stir up their apathetic countrymen at a great risk to their own lives. They call themselves the White Rose.

Katie Lambert: Before we get into the student movement in Munich, we need to give some background on what life was like for someone who was trying to resist the Nazi government. Some sources that Sarah was reading kept saying that you can't understand unless you've lived under a totalitarian regime, but we hope this will help a little bit. This is what you're up against. Nazi indoctrinations started in preschool. Children were encouraged to denounce their parents from making derogatory comments about Hitler or about the Reich. At age ten, boys would register to join the German Young People after being investigated for racial purity. At 13, they could join the Hitler Youth. At 18, they'd be a member of the Nazi party. It was mandatory to serve either in the armed forces or in labor details until age 21. Girls did the same thing, participating in leagues that taught comradeship and motherhood.

Sarah Dowdey: That's what you're up against in terms of this early indoctrination. In addition to the Gestapo, every block also has a spy who would note down conversations going on, keep track of who was saying what. Maybe you make a joke to your wife about Hitler and your neighbor overhears it. The next thing you know, you've got police knocking on your door. So dangerous times. Consequently, it's pretty difficult for all but the smallest groups to actually protest the government because organized resistance usually involves a lot of people.

Katie Lambert: Socialists, Communists, and trade unionists publish underground literature. Even though the Catholic Church is officially silent on what's happening, some clergy men do work to protect Jews and the church denounces "euthanasia" of the handicapped. We also have the occasional assassination attempt. After the defeat at Stalingrad, German officers attempt to blow up Hitler with a bomb. He was injured, and they were immediately executed. Really, the military is about the only group that could be so bold.

Sarah Dowdey: Because most people who protest against the government have to do it passively, just small measures of noncompliance with Nazi rule. It's pretty easy to imagine that at least a few teenagers were ticked off by the idea of having to enroll with the Nazi Youth and worked to fight against that without getting themselves into terrible trouble.

Katie Lambert: The student heroes of our story grew up in the world of the Reich. They were raised in the 30s, so they're fully indoctrinated. Some are even leaders of Hitler Youth groups. So how did they turn against the regime, and more importantly, why did they decide to risk their lives to denounce it?

Sarah Dowdey: A lot of the eventual members of the White Rose meet in the winter of 1938/39 when they're all finishing up their compulsory two years of army service as part of this medic program. Basically, if you had intended to go to medical school eventually, you could finish up your army service training as a medic to get a little hands-on work before you start your studies. Most of these kids end up enrolling at the University of Munich the following spring. We know that students are the most protest-y group of the population.

Katie Lambert: Exactly.

Sarah Dowdey: It's no different at Munich, even though these kids really have to watch their backs. They have a lot more pressure than most student protestors would have. Still, when, for instance, one of their Nazi student leaders tell them that they'll have to spend their first summer break harvesting the crops in Bavaria, they are very upset. Stink bombs go off in the chemistry building. You can imagine just these acts of protest, still very dangerous in these times, but trying to make their opinions heard.

Katie Lambert: Later, in 1939 when most of the male med students are drafted into the army, they would steal as much freedom as they could, skippin g out on role call or on drill according to White Rose survivor George Wittenstein. By early 1942, two med students, Alex Schmorell and Hans Scholl have started writing leaflets, copying them on a typewriter, and distributing them. Sarah's got the first line from the first leaflet.

Sarah Dowdey: "Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be governed without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain that today, every honest German man is ashamed of his government." Of the first 100 of these flyers that they distribute and mail, 35 are returned to the Gestapo. This means two things: spies and people who get this very incriminating flyer in the mail get very nervous and send it right back to the Gestapo.

Katie Lambert: Writing leaflets and copying them might not sound like a big deal. It is. Paper is in very short supply, so buying huge packs of it is very suspicious. So is buying lots of postage. Think about how dangerous it is to carry such a pamphlet around with you, because if you're stopped and searched, you're done for.

Sarah Dowdey: But the students at Munich are amazed to see these pamphlets. Who's doing this? They're wondering what's going on. The Gestapo are not pleased. The White Rose membership starts to grow. It's interesting that the discipline and order that some of the members might have picked up in the Hitler Youth serves to make them pretty disciplined and ordered when they're fighting the German government.

Katie Lambert: They would graffiti the streets of Munich with slogans like "Down with Hitler," "Hitler the mass murderer," or "Freedom! Freedom!" The initial Munich group expands to students in Hamburg, Freiburg, Berlin, and Vienna. They would mail each other these mimeographed leaflets, and sometimes they would even carry them on trains, which was a task usually left up to the girls. They were less likely to be searched, but they could leave these suitcases full of pamphlets in different cars.

Sarah Dowdey: They'd carry them in another compartment, because you didn't want to be found - you wanted to be separate from the suitcase for as much of the journey as possible. Of course, we have to talk about what the White Rose movement was even all about. Was it really true that Germans didn't know what was going on, what atrocities were being committed, as you so often hear? That's usually the excuse for such enormous inaction that happened. These kids know what's going on. When a lot of the male population of the White Rose movement goes to serve on the eastern front as medical aides in the summer of 1942, they actually see some of the atrocities firsthand. Hans Scholl sees Jewish laborers being beaten, bound for death camps, mistreated. He hears about how the Poles are being deported into concentration camps. Others, like Hans's sister, Sophie, hears about some of the other policies at church in sermons. These kids know what's going on. We can assume that a lot of other people know what's going on too.

Katie Lambert: Must have. Exactly. Sophie gets permission to reprint a sermon against these murders and distributes it to the students. She joins the White Rose after enrolling at Munich and begging her brother to let her in. Many of these members also had Jewish friends who had since been deported. We have to make it clear that they thought what was happening was very wrong. This wasn't just a political protest. This was a very personal thing.

Sarah Dowdey: Definitely. By November r1942, the students who were on the eastern front serving as medical aides are back. The White Rose members are more dedicated than ever to their cause, and they bring on one of their professors, Kurt Huber, who helps them edit the drafts, rejecting one as too communist. I can sort of imagine this mentor relationship between these students who are probably writing radical things, like students do, and this older fellow sort of toning it down, making it more powerful, making it a better way to speak to their audience.

Katie Lambert: And they're not naïve enough to think that their pamphlets will help topple the government. That's not what they're trying to do. They understand that it's only military action that will end the regime, although they do specifically distance themselves as independent thinkers fighting for Germany. They're very patriotic, and they want to make it clear that they're not puppets under allied control. But while they do abdicate sabotage of the armaments industry, their goal is to improve resistance morale and stir these apathetic Germans into standing up for what is right, letting them know there are other people who think that way.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, giving people encouragement. Ultimately, they publish six leaflets between 1942 and 1943 with that little break while a lot of the guys are away on the eastern front. Four were published as the White Rose, and two were published under the name Leaflets of the Resistance. It's that sixth pamphlet that really destroys some of the major members of the movement.

Katie Lambert: It's just after the defeat at Stalingrad when the White Rose publishes its sixth leaflet. Here's an excerpt: "Shaken and broken, our people behold the loss of the men of Stalingrad. Three-hundred and thirty thousand German men have been senselessly and irresponsibly driven to death and destruction by the inspired strategy of our World War I Private First Class Fuhrer. We thank you."

Sarah Dowdey: Another repeated through the leaflet, "For us, there is but one slogan: fight against the party." It says that over and over again, something to try to get it stuck in the readers' head. The Scholls go to this campus building at their university, and they leave stacks of these leaflets outside the doors of the classroom. They're carrying the whole shebang in this suitcase. When they realize that there's still a lot of leaflets left in their bag, Sophie takes them up to the third floor and throws them down a light well. Imagine all these pamphlets showering down. It catches the attention of a janitor, and he turns them into the Gestapo. They're arrested, and the barely involved Christophe Probst is actually implicated because Hans has something mentioning him in his pocket, a draft for a later pamphlet. The three of them are taken into custody.

Katie Lambert: They deliver that last batch of pamphlets on February 18th, 1943. Just days later, they're put on trial. The judge is horrified that three nice German kids could've turned to this and was especially disgusted that Hans was a soldier.

Sarah Dowdey: And that the state has paid for his education. It just seem doubly wrong to this judge. Probst has a wife and three babies, and he claimed psychotic depression after the loss of Stalingrad and because of his wife's difficult childbirth. He's trying to save his life. Sophie explains herself really boldly though. She says, "Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don't dare to express themselves as we did." Later, she actually tells the judge, "You know the war is lost. Why don't you have the courage to face it?" She's being incredibly brave and bold. She'll definitely be charged by this judge. There's no other way out.

Katie Lambert: The Scholl's parents tried to burst into the courtroom in the middle of the trial. Their mother is told that she should've brought them up better. Their father forces his way in and is forcibly escorted out, and as he's escorted out, he shouts, "One day, there will be another kind of justice. One day, they will go down in history."

Sarah Dowdey: Poor Probst family, on the other hand, doesn't even know that he's been arrested. His wife's still in the hospital from childbirth, and he's not visited by anyone before his execution. Unsurprisingly, the judge rules guilty. The court finds "that the accused have, in the time of war, by means of leaflets, called for the sabotage of the war effort in armaments and for the overthrow of the national Socialist way of life of our people, have propagated defeatist ideas, and have most vulgarly defamed the Fuhrer, thereby giving aid to the enemy of the Reich, and weakening the armed security of the nation. On this account, they are to be punished by death."

Katie Lambert: They're executed by guillotine almost immediately. The siblings meet with their parents one last time, and the guards allow the three to meet one last time. Sophie is killed first, then Probst, then Hans, who cries out, "Long live freedom!"

Sarah Dowdey: But it's not over yet. The Gestapo arrest three other members later in the year: Alexander Schmorell, who is 25. I don't think we've mentioned their ages yet. They're all in their very early 20s. They also arrest Willi Graf, who's 25, and the professor who is helping, Kurt Huber, who is 49. Some of them aren't executed until 1944, so this second batch of trials doesn't go as quickly as the first with the Scholls and Probst does.

Katie Lambert: Today, they're heroes in Germany for daring to stand up during the country's darkest years. There's a square at the University of Munich named after the Scholls, and things all over the city that are named after other members. We'll close with another quote from their leaflets. "We seek the revival of the deeply wounded German spirit. For the sake of future generations, an example must be set after the war so that no one will ever have the slightest desire to try anything like this ever again. Do not forget the minor scoundrels of this system. Note their names so that no one may escape. We shall not be silent. We are your bad conscious. The White Rose will not leave you in peace."

Sarah Dowdey: It's especially interesting to not forget even the most minor scoundrels, to note their names so that no one will escape. That's still so pertinent even today. We have an article on that. It's called "Are There Nazi War Criminals Still at Large?" There are, and people are still actively looking for them and looking to bring them to justice. People have not forgotten.

Katie Lambert: If you'd like to look for that article, you can search on our home page at www.HowStuffWorks.com. That brings us to our listener mail for today.

Sarah Dowdey: When we finished our episode in King Ludwig the Second, we mentioned that he's a very popular figure, or so we believed, in Germany still today. one of the things I remember reading about that was that because the 20th century history is so violent, people have embraced this figure who is a pacifist, even if he's crazy and built all these castles.

Katie Lambert: Maybe not.

Katie Lambert: Who's going to say no to a toast?

Sarah Dowdey: They went along with it to Ludwig the Second. When that happened, a group of German guys, who were also sitting in the bar, started to cheer on King Ludwig as well, and they started singing the Bavarian regional anthem.

Katie Lambert: I love it.

Sarah Dowdey: I love this story of all these college kids, study-abroad kids, German guys singing and toasting King Ludwig in a bar.

Katie Lambert: There are not enough national anthems in bars, maybe during the World Cup, but besides that, we really need to step that up.

Sarah Dowdey: Maybe. Thank you, Karen, for answering our question.

Katie Lambert: If you have some really cool emails to send us, our email address is HistoryPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com. We would also like you to make us look good to our boss and follow us on Twitter at MissedinHistory, and join our Facebook fan page. You can find out what we're up to in the variously little trivia bits we find during the week. Remember to check out that Nazi article by searching on our home page at www.HowStuffWorks.com.

Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit www.HowStuffWorks.com. Be sure to check out the Stuff You Missed in History Class blog on the www.HowStuffWorks.com home page.