Sophie Scholl, born on May 9, 1921, would have turned 100 today. She was executed by the Nazis at age 21, after she and her brother Hans distributed anti-Nazi leaflets at the University of Munich.
Today, some 200 schools in Germany are named after Sophie Scholl or the Scholl siblings, as are 600 streets. For the centenary of Scholl’s birth, German public TV is spending millions to produce an elaborate Instagram series.
Scholl’s legacy is claimed across the political spectrum. Carola Rackete, a Sea Watch ship captain who has saved numerous immigrants from drowning in the Mediterranean, has said that if Sophie Scholl were alive today, she would be part of Antifa. Annalena Baerbock, the Green Party’s candidate for chancellor in the upcoming elections, has a long record of support for neoliberal policies and German militarism — but calls Scholl a political hero. Even far-right Covid denialists see their “resistance” against public health policies as part of the Sophie Scholl “tradition.”
So who was Scholl? The young woman joined her brother Hans in a resistance group named Weiße Rose (White Rose). Its members had previously been in the Hitler Youth or the League of German Girls. But they were shocked by the atrocities of the German army in the East and began calling on Germans to passively resist the Nazi regime. On February 18, 1943, the group was arrested at the University of Munich after throwing leaflets down into the atrium.
Scholl is remembered for her brave defense before the Nazis’ so-called People’s Court:
Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others.
After a brief trial, she and her brother were sentenced to death by guillotine. Her last words were:
Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go … What does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?
Studying official German history today, one could easily believe that the Scholl siblings were just about the only resistance fighters in Germany — alongside, perhaps, the fascist army officer Claus von Stauffenberg, who “to save the Reich” attempted to assassinate Hitler at the bitter end of the war. (This fanatical antisemite and anti-communist, who was portrayed by Tom Cruise in the Hollywood film “Valkyrie” — is held up today in capitalist Germany as a hero.)
The truth is that by 1943, the Nazis had imprisoned hundreds of thousands of resistance fighters. A handful were Christians of various confessions. A tiny number were conservative German nationalists who did not agree with Hitler. But the vast majority of them were communists and socialists from different organizations.
What makes the Scholls unique is that they appealed to German nationalism and did not oppose the capitalist system. While the White Rose showed unimaginable courage in distributing its six different anti-Nazi flyers, we can nonethless say that these fliers are confoundingly vague, full of Goethe quotes and Bible stories but almost entirely lacking a political program. What is the central statement from the group’s final flier — “We demand from Adolf Hitler’s state the return of personal freedom, the most precious good of the German” — even supposed to mean?
The group called on the German people to rise up against the Nazi dictatorship in 1943 just as it had risen up against Napoleon in 1813. What kind of system, though, would replace the fascist regime after such an uprising? Most resistance fighters, reminding the German people that the big capitalists had brought Hitler to power in a desperate attempt to prop up their tottering system, called for the expropriation of these collaborators. The White Rose, in contrast, provided no such clear slogans. This explains why the Scholls have been treasured by the post-war German bourgeoisie.
The hagiography of the Scholls strongly implies that there was virtually no resistance to the Nazi regime — a convenient lie in the post-war period for capitalists, politicians, military and police officers, and judges in the Federal Republic of Germany. Most of them had served the Nazis in one way or another, thus participating in the greatest crimes in the history of humanity. In their own defense, they claimed that resistance had been basically impossible — limited to this one exceptional, saintly woman.
The masses of resistance fighters were thus erased — or worse, given their communist convictions, dismissed as “totalitarian” and basically the same as the Nazis. Many communists who were persecuted by the Nazis but survived the war ended up being persecuted again in the new capitalist “democracy” — often by the very same judges!
So while honoring Sophie Scholl today, it is important to honor the many other resistance fighters who do not get state-sponsored commemorations. Let me suggest another set of siblings.
The Berger Siblings
Hans Berger was just 19 when he was arrested by the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police. He had grown up as a child of Jewish immigrants in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin. Along with two of his sisters, he first joined a Socialist-Zionist group that was recruiting young people at his synagogue. But they and a group of friends soon broke with Zionism to join the Communist Youth League.
The Berger siblings wanted to be part of the struggles of all working people, rather than just helping the Jewish people emigrate to Palestine. As soon as they became active in the official communist youth movement, however, they realized there was a terrible problem. The party had been taken over by a Stalinist leadership. Given the growing threat of fascism, there was an urgent need to form a united front of all workers’ parties. But the Stalinist leaders insisted that fighting the Social Democrats was more important than fighting the Nazis.
The Bergers called for united workers’ self defense — which got them expelled by the Stalinists. Soon they joined the German Trotskyist organization: the International Communists of Germany (IKD). Their critique proved correct: the passive and sectarian policies of both the Social Democratic and Communist Parties allowed the Nazis to come to power. The Bergers had to go into hiding — not only were they known to the police as Jewish communists, but the Stalinists were also denouncing Trotskyists by name in leaflets.
Hans Berger, one of the IKD’s youngest leading members, volunteered to work as a courier. He would transport documents between IKD branches in different cities. The Trotskyists were organizing workers underground, and preparing for a revolutionary uprising that would topple the Nazi regime and create a socialist Germany based on workers’ councils, as part of a socialist Europe. They even managed to organize rank-and-file German soldiers to support the resistance.
On November 2, 1935, Hans Berger was arrested in Hamburg while bringing information to comrades. He was tortured in Berlin’s first concentration camp and then sentenced to eight years of forced labor. Before completing that sentence, he was deported to Auschwitz in late 1942, where he was executed in the gas chamber on February 18, 1943. (His two sisters survived the war by incredible luck: one in concentration camps in the East, the other in the French province.)
Hans Berger, by a weird coincidence, was murdered the same day that Sophie Scholl threw her fliers into the air. He had turned 25 one day earlier, but had already been a militant opponent of fascism for more than a decade. Trotskyists in the concentration camps were renowned for recruiting other prisoners to the cause. Those who survived the war in Buchenwald put out a revolutionary statement.
The Bergers do not have a single school or street named after them in modern-day capitalist Germany. Why would they? They fought against the Nazis, but also against the capitalists who brought the Nazis to power. Had the Bergers been successful, the German capitalists would have been swept away alongside Hitler and his lieutenants.
So, on the 100th anniversary of her birth, let us honor Sophie Scholl. But let us also commemorate hundreds of thousands of other resistance fighters in Germany who fought against the Nazis. Let us, above all remember the program they stood for to eliminate fascism forever, as the Buchenwald survivors wrote:
Only the successful, independent action of the working class against capitalism is capable of eradicating the evil of fascism, along with its root causes.