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Sophie Scholl and the youth resistance against the Nazis

Rayna Breuer
February 22, 2023

The Nazi regime was sure it had all young Germans on its side. But a small group around Sophie Scholl did not want to yield. They were executed 80 years ago for daring to defy Hitler's government.

Sophie Scholl
Sophie Scholl was executed for resistance acts against the Nazis Image: AP/picture alliance

We want to be Jungmädel. / We want to have clear eyes / and busy hands. / We want to become strong and proud: (...) too defiant to be cowards.

In 1934, in the German city of Ulm, a group of girls made that solemn pledge to the "Jungmädelbund" (Young Girls' League), a branch of Adolf Hitler's youth movement for girls aged 10 to 14. Sophie Scholl was one of them, and she, too, was given the trademark black scarf to tie around her neck.

Just three years later, she and her brother Werner were confirmed while wearing Hitler Youth uniforms at St. Paul's Church in Ulm. These two examples are often quoted as evidence that Sophie Scholl, who became famous as a member of the White Rose student group and an icon of the anti-Nazi resistance, first had sympathies for the regime.

Werner Milstein, author of a biography on Sophie Scholl, sees different explanations as to why she would have joined Hitler's youth groups.

For Sophie Scholl, the Young Girls' League was "very attractive, because it was where she could do what she enjoyed doing — be outdoors, climb trees," the biographer told DW in 2021. She liked to sit around the campfire, but also read poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke, "which didn't fit at all with Nazi ideology," he added.

Sophie Scholl
Anti-Nazi activist Sophie Scholl participated in Nazi youth groups before actively opposing the regimeImage: Photo12/Archives Snark/picture alliance

An ambivalent young generation

Born on May 9, 1921, in the town of Forchtenberg, Sophie Scholl grew up with four siblings in a politically liberal, Christian home. She liked to spend time outdoors and enjoyed reading and painting. She spent her childhood in the southern city of Ulm, where her father worked as a tax consultant.

Sophie Scholl's parents had little use for the new regime and were upset to see their children react with enthusiasm to the Nazis, even taking on leadership positions in Nazi youth organizations.

For the young people of that time, membership meant personal responsibility, independence and emancipation from home, even if Nazi youth organizations demanded iron discipline and obedience.

But the young generation was split; not everyone was as fanatical as the Nazis would have liked them to be. "They thought they had the youth under control, that they had infiltrated them enough, so they were shocked when things turned out differently," said Milstein.

For the most part, young people in church or political groups were reticent. By dissolving and synchronizing youth associations including Boy Scouts, Socialist Workers' Youth and Christian youth associations, the regime tried to dominate how all youth were influenced and shaped.

Hans and Sophie Scholl
The siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl were guillotined for their acts of resitance to the Nazis Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Late in the 1930s, the Nazis introduced "compulsory youth service," which meant young people were forced to join the Hitler Youth. Those who resisted faced harsh consequences, including jail time.

One of the best-known opposition youth groups at the time were the Edelweiss Pirates, which had branches in large cities across Germany. They rejected the Hitler Youth coercion and drill.

Most students at German universities were not very involved in the resistance. In fact, some helped pave the way to power for the National Socialists before 1933. Munich's "Die Weisse Rose" (White Rose) resistance group, which Sophie Scholl joined, was one of the few exceptions.

Ready to shoot Hitler

Sophie Scholl went from Hitler Youth to uncompromising resistance fighter. Her change of heart was prompted by several events, including her friend Fritz Hartnagel's accounts from the front and her father's arrest for "treachery" in 1941. Cracks had appeared in her world, and she began to recognize the signs of the times.

"If Hitler came along and I had a gun, I would shoot him. If the men don't do it, a woman has to do it," Sophie Scholl told her best friend one day in 1942 when they were sitting in a cafe, according to Milstein's book, which was published in German in 2021 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Sophie Scholl's birth.

Both sides of a commemorative coin, one shows a head, the other the German federal eagle
A commemorative €20 coin to mark Sophie Scholl's 100th birthdayImage: Hans-Joachim Wuthenow/BVA

As part of the White Rose group, she asked Fritz Hartnagel for 1,000 Reichsmark for a printing machine — procuring materials like ink, paper and stamps was her task. The first four White Rose flyers appeared between June 27 and July 12, 1942, before Sophie Scholl had joined the group, so she was not yet involved in these early writings.

"Of course, Hans Scholl [Sophie's older brother] and his friend Alexander Schmorell were much more important; they were the center of the group. Sophie Scholl came later, but as a young woman, she has a special appeal," noted Milstein.

Resistance hero's name misused

To this day, Sophie Scholl is an icon of resistance against Nazi Germany, a symbol of exemplary civil courage.

During the height of the coronavirus, however, her name was misused by a loud minority in Germany. Participants in anti-coronavirus protection policies drew comparisons with the Nazi era, stylizing themselves as victims, and their opposition as being similar to her resistance.

Sophie Scholl would have not have joined the protests, said Milstein: "She was way too smart." 

"Freedom also means responsibility," the biographer added. "Freedom does not mean that we can do whatever we want. Sophie Scholl fought for a different Germany, and the fact that she is now being misused for other purposes leaves a bitter aftertaste."

Activist for a different Germany

The fates of Sophie and her brother, Hans Scholl, were sealed on February 18, 1943. At 10 a.m. they carried a heavy suitcase to a building at the University of Munich. Its contents: flyers. They managed to distribute 1,700 of them before Sophie — intentionally or accidentally — knocked a stack off the gallery. Like doves of peace, the flyers fluttered to the atrium.

That was the Scholls' undoing. "Stop! You're under arrest!" shouted a janitor who had witnessed the scene.

Four days later, on February 22, White Rose members Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst were sentenced to death. Sophie was the first to be executed by guillotine. Reportedly she remained brave, determined and upright to the last — her executioner later said that he had never seen a person die so bravely.

For Sophie Scholl, it was a matter of morality and politics, of ideas and action.

This article has been translated from the German. Originally published on the occasion of her 100th birthday anniversary in 2021, it was updated on January 20, 2023, to reflect the 80th anniversary of her execution.