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White Rose, Red Orchestra: the German Resistance to Hitler

By James Aitchison

Courage in a society controlled by secret police was a rare commodity.  In Nazi Germany, the party controlled the news media, police, armed forces, judiciary, travel, and all levels of education from kindergarten to university.  Indoctrination started from childhood with membership of the Hitler Youth.  Yet in July 1942, a clandestine group of students at Munich University — signing themselves the White Rose (Die Weisse Rose) — began circulating anti-Nazi pamphlets calling for active resistance to Hitler’s regime.  The white rose symbolised purity and innocence in the face of evil.

In all, fifteen thousand copies of six pamphlets, printed on a duplicating machine, appeared anonymously in German cities.  The timing was disastrous for the authorities.  After initial success, the war on the Russian front was failing.  The German people were learning of humiliating losses.  The last thing the Nazis needed was “defeatist” propaganda from within.

Like most German youth, some White Rose members had originally embraced Nazism.  Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie were swept up in the intoxicating mood of fellowship, marching with banners held aloft, eyes fixed straight ahead.  Being a young Nazi was a heady experience.  As their sister Inge later commented, “We entered into it with body and soul, and we could not understand why our father did not approve, why he was not happy and proud.”

Hans Scholl, Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst and Willi Graf were medical students at Munich University.  Their disillusionment with the Nazi regime grew after terms of compulsory service in the Army medical corps on the Eastern Front.  There, they witnessed the horrors of war, mistreatment of Jews, and atrocities against Polish and Russian civilians.  Compelled to expose the evils of Nazism, Hans and Alexander wrote the first of four White Rose leaflets.  It began, “Isn’t it true that every honest German is ashamed of his government these days?”  The second leaflet described the murder of 300,000 Polish Jews and argued, “The German people slumber on in dull, stupid sleep and encourage the fascist criminals”.  The third leaflet ramped up the pressure: “Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right — or rather, your moral duty — to eliminate this system?”

Copies were left in telephone books in public phone booths, mailed to professors and students, and taken by couriers to other universities.  Despite its stranglehold on German society, the Gestapo was unable to trace the origin of the leaflets.

In autumn 1942, when Sophie Scholl learned that her brother was one of the White Rose authors, she became a core member of the group.  By December 1942, Kurt Huber, a professor of philosophy and musicology at Munich University, also joined and served as the group’s mentor.

In early January 1943, nine thousand copies of the fifth White Rose leaflet were circulated across Germany, including Berlin.  Signed by the “German Resistance Movement”, it denounced the regime.  “Hitler cannot win the war,” it stated, “he can only prolong it”.  It urged every German to resist the regime and restore “freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and protection of the ordinary citizen from the arbitrary action of criminal dictator-states”.  Despite its inflammatory text, the Gestapo appeared powerless to arrest the authors.

By the end of January, the Battle of Stalingrad ended in near-total loss of the Sixth Army.  German morale was devastated.  Hans Scholl, Alexander Schmorell and Kurt Huber wrote the sixth and final White Rose leaflet.  It announced that “the day of reckoning had come for the most contemptible tyrant our people have ever endured”.  

Tragically, the day of reckoning had come for the White Rose.  When Hans and Sophie brought a suitcase full of leaflets to the university, maintenance worker Jacob Schmid saw Sophie fling leaflets from the top floor down into the atrium.  He called the Gestapo.  Hans, Sophie and Christoph Probst were arrested and tried for treason.  They were sentenced to death and executed by guillotine the same day.  Sophie was first to die under the blade.

The remaining members of the White Rose group, and dozens of supporters, were rounded up.  Some were denounced.  All were sentenced to death.  

In 2003, Germans were invited to choose the top ten most important Germans of all time.  Sophie and Hans Scholl finished in fourth place, above Bach, Goethe, Gutenberg, Bismarck and Albert Einstein.  Some years earlier, readers of a German magazine for women voted Sophie Scholl “the greatest woman of the twentieth century”. 


The other significant resistance group opposing Hitler was known collectively as the Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle).  Defamed by the Nazis as Communist-controlled traitors, hence the name “Red”, the 400-member group was not directed by Soviet agents, although many members were certainly Communists.  Others were Catholics and Protestants.  Members were students, artists, scientists, journalists and civil servants, many of them women.  Like White Rose, the Red Orchestra distributed leaflets to stir public unrest.  It also helped Jews and resistance workers escape, documented Nazi atrocities, and transmitted military intelligence to the Allies.  Other so-called Red Orchestras operated in Belgium, Holland and France, but were generally independent of the German group.

The term “Orchestra” originated with the Gestapo monitoring illicit radio transmissions.  In secret service jargon, a radio operator who tapped Morse Code characters with his fingers was a pianist.  A group of pianists formed a band; a large group, an orchestra.

The German Red Orchestra was centered around Luftwaffe officer Harro Schulze-Boysen and his wife Libertas, and the economist Arvid Harnack and his American wife Mildred.  Initially, groups met for Marxist discussions.  As war approached, their active Nazi resistance grew.  Meetings were held on Sundays and holidays when the police were considered less alert.  Post offices, churches, museums and racecourses were preferred venues; railway stations were avoided.  Leaflets calling for resistance were produced on different typewriters, five copies at a time.  Typists wore gloves and destroyed the carbon paper.

In February 1942, a 6-page pamphlet delivered a scorching criticism of the Nazi regime: “All who have retained their sense of genuine values see with a shudder how the good name of Germany is falling into disrepute under the swastika symbol.  Never yet in history has a man been so hated as Adolf Hitler.  The hatred of tortured humanity burdens the entire German people”.

Confronted by such incendiary messages, Hitler was furious, yet the Gestapo sought the culprits without success.  Ironically, blunders by Soviet intelligence eventually unmasked the orchestra.  

Over 250 radio messages had been intercepted by the Nazis.  By tracking the transmissions to a house in Brussels, the Gestapo arrested the operators.  From scraps of paper found at the scene, German cryptographer Wilhelm Vauk painstakingly set to work cracking the code.  In July 1942, he finally decrypted a message which contained the names Harro, Arvid, and gave Libertas Schulze-Boysen’s address in Berlin.

The Gestapo pounced.  More than 130 people were arrested.  They were taken to the basement cells in the most feared address in Germany, Gestapo headquarters at 8 Prinze-Albert Strasse, Berlin.  Harnack and Schulze-Boysen were whipped and tortured with calf clamps and thumbscrews.

The trials of Red Orchestra members were little more than travesties.  Prisoners would meet their lawyers only minutes before their cases started, trials lasted only hours, with verdicts pronounced the same day.  Treason was punished by the death penalty.  A special room was divided by a black curtain. The judge sat in the front part of the room.  Prisoners were led in, their sentence announced, and the curtain opened to reveal the guillotine.  On the evening of 22 December, eleven executions took place, one after the other, every three minutes.

Some prisoners suicided in prison, others were murdered without trial.  The worst torture was reserved for two members who had their legs shredded by dogs.  In all, fifty members of the Red Orchestra were murdered by the Nazis.

After the War, a divided Germany viewed the Red Orchestra from two different perspectives.  They were viewed as traitors and paid Soviet spies in West Germany, while Communist East Germany hailed them as heroes.  However, in a 1954 speech, theologian Karl Barth challenged the West’s viewpoint: “No matter whether it suits us today or not, we shouldn’t hide the fact that … there were communists who were also involved in this struggle and also fell as victims of Nazism.  No matter what their ideological background was and what one might think of their particular motivations and actions: these people didn’t want to be part of what the Nazis wanted; they wanted to set a limit to their depraved and ruinous regime, to put an end to it…”  

Today, the controversy over the Red Orchestra has subsided.  Its members are now recognised for their bravery and have been celebrated by books, films and memorials.

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