It is hard to imagine a Jew today who would come to Germany without a profound sense of uneasiness. Considering the agony of the Jewish people at the hands of the Germans from 1933 to 1945, one can well understand the attitude of many Jews today—even forty-five years after the Nazi horror has ended—who simply cannot bring themselves to set foot on German soil. Indeed, my own wife, the picture of whose grandmother and uncles murdered in Lithuania in 1941 hangs on a prominent wall in our house, could not bring herself to accompany me on my first visit to Germany in the spring of 1988. I well understood her decision and did not argue against it. Why, then, did I go?
I was invited by the White Rose Foundation in New York and its German counterpart. Die Weisse Rose Stiftung, to deliver one of the addresses at a conference at the University of Munich commemorating the White Rose Group and its anti-Nazi activities, a conference explicitly designed to see the legacy of this group as the basis for a new relationship between Germans and Jews. The White Rose Group was a small coterie of students (led by the brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl) and one of their teachers at the University of Munich who, beginning in 1942, anonymously scattered leaflets in Munich and some other German cities calling for the overthrow of the Nazi regime. Needless to say, this was an act of enormous courage, and most members of the White Rose Group were eventually caught by the Gestapo and executed. (At the end of the conference. Rabbi Arthur Green and I were privileged to recite memorial prayers at the graves of the leaders of the White Rose at Perlach Cemetery in Munich.)
I accepted this invitation because I believe that the horror of the Holocaust, if it is to have meaning for more than just its immediate victims and their immediate survivors, must be interpreted in moral terms. As my friend Pastor Richard John Neuhaus has so eloquently put it, “the Holocaust is in modern consciousness the icon of barbarity by contrast with which civilization is defined.” This means that the evil of Nazism must be exposed as an option that can be freely chosen by anyone and that it remains, therefore, an option to be condemned. The interest in the White Rose in Germany today testifies to the fact that a large segment of the German people—especially those born after 1945—recognizes the evil of Nazism and wishes to identify with those Germans who so bravely fought it. What motivated these German anti-Nazis to resist the powerful Hitler regime is an important object lesson for more precisely locating the roots of the moral evil of Nazism by understanding the source of its antitheses (malum privatio boni est). Only such location of the basic choice between good and evil at this time and place can make the vow “Never Again!” assume intelligent content.
Hence, for me to refuse to go to Germany under these circumstances would be tacit assent to the assumption that the Holocaust was an eruption of such primordial, unintelligible evil that the human beings who perpetrated it were as powerless as its victims. In effect, then, any such refusal on my part would have signified my judgment that all those Germans horn after 1945—and all those Germans who were not Nazis, let alone active anti-Nazis-have nothing but Nazism upon which to continue their national existence. Thus, as one who firmly believes in Judaism’s teaching of the ubiquity of moral freedom for all humans, I had to suppress my understandable Jewish reticence and accept this invitation.
Moreover, consistent with this moral commitment, I was anxious to meet personally the survivors of the White Rose, who were to be present in Munich for the conference. For they have something important to teach the world, and especially Jews. That might seem odd to say since Jews have rightfully presented themselves to the world as having something important to teach about suffering and victimization. Nevertheless, the choice for most Jews during the Holocaust was not strictly a moral one. They were not confronted by the choice of safety by conforming to evil or danger by resisting it. Jews were victims of the evil regime irrespective of any choice of theirs at all. The only choice for Jews at that time and place was a premoral one: to survive whenever possible.
People like those in the White Rose, on the other hand, did have an unequivocal moral choice. They exercised the moral agency that was theirs to choose good and resist evil. I was anxious to meet the surviving members of the White Rose because Jews today are no longer the absolute victims that they were in the 1930s and 1940s (thank God). As such, we have new, unaccustomed moral and political responsibilities. In the good exercise of these new responsibilities, the White Rose members are inspiring teachers for us, too.
The following is the address I delivered on May 17, 1988 in the Great Hall of the University of Munich. It was my own small attempt to capture the significance of the event. And I was most gratified after concluding my talk when an elderly German woman of impeccable anti-Nazi credentials told me she appreciated the “spiritual intent” of my talk. That remark convinced me that it was right to be there in that time and place. A Jewish soul and a German soul had connected on an occasion of far more than individual significance.
To better appreciate the moral significance of Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friends in the White Rose resistance movement, I began to search my own memory for a point of connection with them and the great decision they made. Empathy can come only from within personal experience. They were university students, and I remember reading in 1957, my first year as a university student, a news report that the son of Hermann Goering had entered a cloistered monastery. He had done so, as I recall, because he could not live in the world any other way considering his name and his family heritage. This news report touched me deeply because so much of our being-in-the-world is not our own decision. We begin to discover in late adolescence the limits of our own existence and, concurrently, the moral possibilities for us within these limits. Hermann Goering’s son did not choose to be Hermann Goering’s son; he did not choose to be born a German in the 1930s. What he did choose, however, was to make his own life in a place where everyone assumes a new name, in a place not of Germany or even of this world.
Indeed, the Talmud recognizes that such a radical existential decision is possible, that morally we can transcend our historical world. This recognition is made by a great rabbi who pondered the seeming injustice of the Scriptural curse that God “punishes the sons for the sin of the fathers” (Exodus 20:5). The rabbi resolved this problem by concluding that this is only so “when they themselves hang onto their fathers’ deeds.” Conversely, it is not so “when they do not hang onto their fathers’ deeds.” (Babylonian Talmud: Berakhot 7a). Hermann Goering’s son chose not to hang onto the legacy of his father’s monstrous deeds by effectively removing himself from the political world to dwell in a contemplative world. His choice was admirable, but only imitable by a very few persons. Still, I have always hoped that God blessed him for this and enabled him to sanctify his life through his choice.
Hans and Sophie Scholl, like Goering’s son, believed they too had to transcend their political world. They too made a fateful choice. In some ways, they made an easier choice than Goering’s son did; in other ways, though, theirs was harder. It was an easier choice because their own father was an inspiring moral example, not a moral degenerate like Hermann Goering. Their father warned them about the Nazi evil at the very beginning of the new regime, and at their trial their father bravely cried out, “There is a higher court before which we all must stand!” Their revolt against the authority of their fatherland at that time was not a revolt against fatherhood, but rather a confirmation of their own family legacy. Yet, theirs was a harder choice for, unlike Goering’s son, they did not remove themselves from the political world, but threw themselves into that world and were, in the end, consumed by it.
What enabled the Scholls, and their friends with them, to do what they did? What enabled them not to hang onto the deeds of the evil regime under which they lived? In asking such questions, we must distinguish between historical interest and moral interest. Historical interest can be the result of mere curiosity, and curiosity looks for the particular, the unique. This interest, then, could be to discover what made the Scholls so different from ourselves. Moral interest, on the other hand, is the result of our desire to find what human beings have in common and what is to be done to enable that commonality to be extended from the present into the future. Moral interest in the Scholls and their friends in the White Rose should be for the sake of what we can learn from them about how we are to act in the face of evil, when our own fatherlands can no longer be trusted as safe dwellings for our souls. Moral interest looks for models to imitate. Clearly, the Scholls and their friends meant themselves to be morally significant for others, even beyond their own time and place. To look at their lives and work from any other perspective than that of moral interest, therefore, is to trivialize their lives and their deaths.
In carefully studying the White Rose leaflets, as well as the moving account of this movement by a surviving Scholl sibling, Inge (The White Rose: Munich 1942–43, 2nd ed., trans. Arthur R. Schultz), a number of important moral points emerged for me.
First, the Scholls’ resistance to the Nazi regime began in their discovery and affirmation that the human person is not made by or for the state, but that the state is made by human persons for the fulfillment of human nature. In their very first leaflet, the Scholls quoted Schiller’s essay, “The Lawgiving of Lycurgus and Solon.” Schiller saw the Spartan king, Lycurgus, as an archetype of tyranny, and the White Rose saw him, as mediated by Schiller, to be a forerunner of the totalitarianism of Hitler. According to Schiller, Lycurgus’ chief sin was to deny that “the state is never an end in itself (Der Staat selbst ist niemals Zweck); it is important only as a condition under which the purpose of mankind can be attained, and this purpose is none other than the development of all man’s powers, his progress and improvement.” (All quotations are from Inge Scholl, The White Rose.)
The inversion in Nazi legality of the true relationship between the human person and the state was such that “the foundation of natural law and morality were destroyed by that law.” The Nazis were, for the White Rose, the successors of Lycurgus. This point is demonstrated in the death sentence pronounced on the White Rose member, Christoph Probst, by the infamous Nazi judge, Roland Freisler, who said, “He is a ‘nonpolitical man’—hence no man at all!” The Scholls and their friends clearly saw that their humanness came from another source, that it could not be destroyed even by the death sentence of a Nazi court.
Second, it is essential to keep in mind the source of that humanness which transcends the power of the state. Some might see it as merely a stubborn form of individualism. Indeed, Inge Scholl’s memoir seems to identify the beginning of Hans’s opposition to the Nazi regime in just that way: “Day and night the talk was about Treue—loyalty. But what was the foundation of Treue, after all, but being true to oneself?” (It is ironic to recall that the famous line of Shakespeare which surely influenced this statement—”This above all: to thine own self be true” [Hamlet, 1.3]-is uttered by Polonius, a rather pompous old man, to his adolescent son, Laertes, a boy who hardly had that much of a “self” to which yet to be true.) But Hans and Sophie Scholl saw that faithfulness to self in a decidedly nonindividualistic way. Here it is especially illuminating to read of their discovery of their Christian heritage. Scripture of course, but most importantly, Augustine—Augustine who so clearly delineated between the City of God and the City of Man. It was Augustine’s prayer that so inspired Sophie in her purpose: “Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless until it reposes in Thee.”
What the White Rose emphasized was not the protest of isolated individuals but rather the protest of persons whose relationship with God and sacred community is always prior to their relationship with the state. It is this that provides a transcendent basis for judging the demands of the state. For individualism, without such a grounding in a higher relationship, can just as easily be the basis of a criminal’s resistance to a lawful regime as it can be the basis of the resistance of a moral hero to a criminal regime. The first White Rose leaflet established the roots of individual opposition in communal grounds: “Therefore, every individual, conscious of his responsibility as a member of Christian and Western civilization, must defend himself as best he can at this late hour, he must work against the scourges of mankind . . . forestall the spread of this atheistic war machine before it is too late. . . .”
The “individualism” advocated by the White Rose was not a romantic declaration of self-creation. It saw itself as part of a larger civilization, one that transcended the absolute Germanness proclaimed by Hitler, and it saw that wider civilization in terms of the ultimate relationship with God. The humanism of the White Rose, then, was a humanism based on Christian faith. As the fourth leaflet put it, “Man is free, to be sure, but without the true God he is defenseless against the principle of evil.”
It was only this faith of the White Rose resisters that distinguished them from anarchists. For anarchists see all governed societies as evil and, hence, leave themselves open to the power of any society—since governed society is inevitable in human existence. Anarchy gives us no standard at all to judge between the inevitable historical situation of better and worse societies. Thus, one should not see the White Rose resistance as a restatement of the anomie so prevalent in the Weimar Republic. The civilization to which the White Rose called Germans to return much predated Weimar.
Third, it was the tradition of Christian humanism which led the White Rose to see the essence of the anti-humanism of the Nazis in their disregard for the sanctity of individual human life. Thus, even though Nazi anti-Semitism was essential to the party’s whole project from the very start, the desensitization to the lives of the Jews made manifest in the Final Solution was preceded by desensitization to the lives of those far easier to categorize as subhuman (Untermenschen)—the mentally retarded and the psychotic. In looking for sources of inspiration for the White Rose, Inge Scholl quotes at length the protests from the 1942 sermons of Count Galen, Bishop of Muenster, who forcefully spoke out against the Nazi death sentence for “life which does not deserve to live” (Unwertesleben). The bishop saw what many Germans were led not to see. The Nazi program could be made to seem justifiable, even humane, if presented as the elimination of lives not on the basis that they were of no use to anyone else (though that was clearly the Nazi view of the matter) but on the basis that they were of no use to themselves. In that view of things, the killing of “defectives” took on the guise of putting a merciful end to lives that were only a pointless misery to those enduring them. Bishop Galen saw through the rationalization and so did the members of the White Rose.
Fourth, this concern with the sanctity of human life per se was at the heart of the White Rose protest against the murder of the Jews. As their second leaflet put it, “We do not want to discuss here the question of the Jews (die Judenfrage), nor do we want in this leaflet to compose a defense or apology. . . . Jews, too, are human beings (Auch die Juden sind doch Menschen)—no matter what position we take with respect to the Jewish question. . . .”
I must admit that this particular statement is rather troubling, certainly to a Jewish reader. When the White Rose was so unequivocal in its condemnation of Nazi atheism, Nazi totalitarianism, and Nazi euthanasia, why was it so equivocal in its stand against Nazi anti-Semitism? Although the Nazis ultimately intended the destruction of a far larger segment of humankind than just the Jews, their murder of Jews was precisely because they were Jews, not undifferentiated “human beings.”
In all fairness to the members of the White Rose, their position may have seemed strategically necessary at the time. After all, by 1942 the deportations to the death camps in the east were already fully underway. Jews had been so removed from ordinary human contact with Germans that their simple humanity had to be reaffirmed before the question of their particular social-political status could be addressed. Perhaps the White Rose, in the limited space available in their leaflets, could do no more than raise the basic point that the Nazi policy of extermination of the Jews was of a different kind altogether from the earlier anti-Semitism, which for all its enormities would never have suggested that the solution to the so-called “Jewish problem in Europe” should be mass murder.
But this is an historical explanation, not a moral one, and the position of the White Rose on the Jewish question needs a moral analysis and critique. The White Rose leaflets do not deal with the fact that without an already existent reservoir of anti-Semitism among Europeans in general and Germans in particular, Nazi ideology could never have been able to establish a policy of genocide against the Jews. The young members of the White Rose seemed to be as yet unable to deal with this moral dilemma. Perhaps it is too much to expect them to have morally transcended their society and their culture in a fully consistent way. But the questions they avoided remain vital questions for those who would identify with them morally. A fully satisfactory expression of the religious humanism that inspired the White Rose must directly confront the issue of anti-Semitism.
To speak as the White Rose did of humanity per se is to remain at the level of abstraction. The German people under Hitler were not so much desensitized to the simple humanity of the Jews as they were over-sensitized to presumed traits in them that seemed to make the assumption of a common humanity impossible. The Nazis did everything they could to emphasize those things about Jews that made them appear different from Germans, that allowed them to be placed, indeed, in the category of the subhuman.
The designation of Jews as “the other” lay at the heart of National Socialist doctrine. This is a point emphasized by the Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, writing in 1942 in America as an exile from his native France, then under Nazi occupation. (Note that these words were written at the same time as the appearance of the White Rose leaflets.) “Nor in the racial type of community . . . is there an object, a common task to perform. . . . It is not for an objective purpose that they assemble, but rather for the subjective pleasure of marching together (zusammen-marchieren). . . . Because [the community] is not defined by a work to be done, it will only be able to define itself by its opposition to other human groups. Therefore, it will have essential need of an enemy against whom it will build itself; it is by recognizing and hating its enemies that the political body will find its own common consciousness.”
Maritain understood that the Nazi project required the fabrication of enemies. Hate was its very elan, and that is why, as events soon made clear, the regime was more devoted to the death of others than to saving the lives of its own people. The Nazi philosophy was made manifest more clearly in Auschwitz than on either the eastern or the western fronts. The members of the White Rose, like Maritain, saw the radical nihilism at the heart of the Nazi project. But they did not see that this nihilism stemmed from the Nazis’ radical hatred of the Jews. The so-called “Jewish question” cannot, therefore, be bracketed in our moral interest in the significance of the White Rose.
The last point that emerges from the White Rose leaflets and the story of their authors is that these were Germans who loved their fatherland. They were Germans who, despite the evil of the current regime and its considerable support in the population, still believed that Germany’s honor was redeemable. They believed that Nazism was not the only version of Germanness ( Deutschtum ). There was, they insisted, another German tradition to be tapped, a tradition of European humanism. It is significant that the most important immediate source of living inspiration for the While Rose were the radio broadcasts of the exiled German author and Nobel laureate, Thomas Mann. Mann’s pure German must have been a source for the White Rose’s contempt for the German of Hitler, whose Mein Kampf is, in the words of a White Rose writer, “written in the worst German I have ever read.” This is much more than a literary criticism. It signifies the White Rose’s recognition that the degeneration of a culture is immediately manifest in the degeneration of its language.
Not only did Thomas Mann help inspire the White Rose movement, he was himself inspired by it. Thus on June 27, 1943, referring to the Munich students, he spoke to his German listeners over the clandestine radio station as follows:
I say to you: Respect the peoples of Europe! Let me add, though at the moment it may sound strange to many of you who are listening, pay respect to the German people and show sympathy with them! The idea that it is impossible to distinguish between the German Volk and Nazism—that to be German and National Socialist are one and the same thing . . . is untenable and will not prevail.
This is an important part of the moral legacy of the White Rose. Indeed, without it the German people would be forever oppressed by the crushing burden of the Nazi past. It is in understanding of this point that major Jewish thinkers such as Leo Baeck and Martin Buber came back to Germany after the war to engage in dialogue with the German people. Many Jews were highly indignant that they did so. However, in our Jewish tradition, the possibility of return—teshuvah—turning away from evil to come back to a more primordial source of good, cannot be denied to any person or to any people on earth. The full moral appreciation of the White Rose is, therefore, a significant part of this process of return to a more primordial source of German good. The White Rose was not an idiosyncratic phenomenon, but instead represented another, better, Germanness. Just as Hitler was a failure in his attempt to destroy the body of the Jewish people, the White Rose, and the moral interest of many Germans today in it, will hopefully show that Hitler also failed to destroy the soul of the German people.
May in that way the memory of the White Rose be a blessing for both Jews and Germans today.
David Novak is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Jewish-Christian Dialogue: A Jewish Justification.