Justice was swift in the case of Hans and Sophie Scholl and their best friend, Christoph Probst. Only four days after they were arrested and accused of treason in the midst of World War II, they were put on trial before the special “People’s Court” that the Nazi regime had established in 1934, during the emergency era of the Great Depression. Four hours after the trial began, the defendants were convicted. Their sentence: death. Hans was 24, his sister Sophie 21, and Probst 22.
Hans and Sophie Scholl came from an ordinary German family. During the 1930s, despite serious misgivings of their parents, they had joined the Hitler Youth, the organization whose mission was to instill a sense of national pride in German youth.
In 1942 — in the midst of World War II — Hans and Sophie came to the realization, however, that the Nazi regime was leading Germany in the wrong direction. Imagine their quandary: All their lives they had been taught that it was the duty of the citizen to unconditionally support his nation during wartime. It was that concept of duty more than anything else, including Hitler’s hypnotic eyes and stirring oratory, that had caused millions of ordinary Germans to come to the support of their nation once Great Britain and France declared war on Germany in 1939.
Hans and Sophie Scholl arrived at a different conclusion. Drawing a distinction between their nation and their government, they concluded that rather than unconditionally support the German war effort, it was morally incumbent on the German people to stand against the wrongful policies and practices of their own government, even in the middle of war.
Thus, Hans and Sophie and several of their friends began surreptitiously publishing a series of essays entitled “The White Rose”, which questioned, criticized, and opposed Hitler, the Nazi regime, the German war effort, and the concentration camps. Their wartime dissent, needless to say, was not a popular thing, especially given that German soldiers were dying daily on both the eastern and western fronts.
In 1943, Hans and Sophie Scholl were caught distributing White Rose leaflets at the University of Munich, where they were enrolled as students. On Hitler’s orders, Judge Freisler traveled from Berlin to Munich to preside over their trial. The verdict was never in doubt.
The trial was held in secret. When the Scholls’ mother tried to enter the courtroom, she told the guard, “I’m the mother of two of the accused.” The guard responded, “You should have brought them up better.” When their father tried to force his way into the courtroom, he was seized and forcibly escorted outside.
In his book A Noble Treason, Richard Hanser describes the trial:
“The proceedings consisted almost entirely of Roland Freisler’s denunciation and abuse, punctuated from time to time by half-hearted offerings from the court-appointed defense attorneys, one of whom summed up his case with the observation, ‘I can only say fiat justitia. Let justice be done.’ By which he meant: Let the accused get what they deserve.”
Sophie, whose leg had been broken during pretrial interrogation, shocked Freisler and everyone else in the courtroom when she declared, “What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare to express themselves as we did.”
Since appeals to higher courts were not permitted, Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst were led to the guillotine on the afternoon of the verdict. One observer described Sophie as she walked to her death: “Without turning a hair, without flinching.” Christoph Probst was next. Hans Scholl was last; just before he was beheaded, he cried out, “Long live freedom!”
Today, every German knows the story of the White Rose. Yet even while commemorating the memory of Hans and Sophie Scholl and condemning the swift “justice” they received, many Germans continue to struggle over the relationship between the citizen and his government during wartime.