Inge Scholl, the author of The White Rose, was the sister of Hans Scholl and Sophie Scholl, two of the main figures in the White Rose, a small underground organization of German students and professors who distributed leaflets against the Nazis in Munich in 1942.
This article comes about because amongst my mother’s papers I came across this book about resistance to the Nazis in 1942 and 1943. My mother was a refugee and in the same papers I found documents that confirmed her parents’ deportation to the Riga ghetto amongst along with other documents that show what happened to her and her family at the start of World War 2.
This book describes events in 1942 and 1943, at the height of WW2 and at a point when the Nazi empire had come to its maximum extent with the defeat at Stalingrad (which features in the story), and the German and Italian armies, which had been checked at El Alamein in North Africa, were beginning their retreat.
It tells of resistance to a regime, which is a by-word for unparalleled viciousness, repression and mendacity. The book is originally dated 1952, and is by the sister of some of the participants.
Why look at it now and what has it to do with recent events? Well I think there are still lessons to be drawn from it, both because of the coming to power of “President” Trump, described by many as a Nazi, and because of the long wars in the Middle East, with the active participation of world powers; the US, its proxy NATO, the EU and Russia.
The White Rose was a group of students and supporters in Munich that opposed the Nazi regime, printing and distributing leaflets and painting slogans on walls. It only existed between mid-1942 and 1943, when it was discovered, the participants arrested, subjected to summary trial and – mostly – executed.
It had no communist or socialist ideology and its members were largely from the upper middle class. Its demands were solely the end to the Nazi regime and restoration of parliamentary democracy. The White Rose group realised, even by mid-1942, that the military campaign was in trouble and that bloody defeat would eventually occur. It called on the population to mount passive resistance, to refuse to participate willingly in the war effort and to try and sabotage it. It did not call for military overthrow of the regime. It implicitly assumed that this would come about anyway, as it did through defeat, mostly at the hands of the Red Army and also by the US army with the junior participation of the British. And of course the resistance within occupied France, Italy and other countries.
Significantly, they were aware of the extermination of the Jewish people – quoting 300,000 already massacred. Of course they never became aware of the full scale of the Holocaust, coming as it did later in 1943 and up to the end of the war in 1945. But clearly the population of Germany was becoming aware of at least some of what was happening, and some at least felt prepared to resist it.
So what has this to do with current events? Well first of all, we should compare what Trump is proposing (and what is proposed here following Brexit) with the acts of the Nazi regime. Trump has called for the mass expulsion of “illegal” migrants, and there are the implications of Brexit and what might happen to migrants in Britain. While we can’t predict what might occur after these events, the crystallisation of racism that will follow will certainly lead to new inhumanities against migrants. The real practical difficulties in organising mass expulsions (itself a crime) could lead to the setting up of concentration camps. Mass roundups and forcing the non-migrant population to co-operate with the expulsions will occur. This is already happening in Britain with the Tories enacting laws to force public and private bodies such as the NHS, employers and landlords, to cooperate with the Border Agency. Without doubt, Trump and the Republicans will do something similar.
This kind of ratchetting up of racism to new levels will increase repressiveness in society alongside measures against “Terrorism”, real or imagined. This won’t be the same as National Socialism, not least because the word “Socialism” had almost disappeared from the national vocabulary until Jeremy Corbyn burst on the scene in 2015. There isn’t – yet – a world war, although once Trump gets inducted into US official rivalry with Russia, his current love-affair with Putin could lead to a new cold war at least. This is very worrying, as the Putin regime will happily respond in kind. So the kind of militarisation of society that occurred in Germany during WW2 hasn’t occurred and hopefully won’t occur.
What is the other parallel? Well it was clear that in 1942 and 1943 there was opposition in Germany to the Nazis. Nothing could stop it occurring. And moving forward to the 2000s, the Arab Spring showed that the repressive regimes could not stop the eventual appearance of mass opposition with the power to confront their tools. With time, the military regimes in Chile, Argentina and elsewhere also crumbled. Resistance is organic. The demonstrations against Trump may die away, exhausted; the police may crush them again and again. But what this book demonstrates is that resistance is always there and, as in the Arab Spring, can spring up again as if from nowhere.
So why after 1943 in Germany did the resistance not continue and pop-up again elsewhere? Well actually, there was some resistance within the army from 1944. The forced suicide of Rommel, who was one of the architects of German military victories early in the war, was brought about because he turned against the regime and was distantly associated with the 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. This resistance within the military had been going on for a long time. But within the German populace, there was little further resistance.
Only the Edelweiss Pirates can be noted as giving resistance and taking part of an uprising in Cologne in October 1944. There was also a small ineffectual underground SPD (Socialist Party) and KPD (Communist Party).
This lack of organised resistance was in my opinion for several reasons. The complete decapitation of the SPD and KPD by the Nazis and destruction of the labour unions was genuinely effective in removing political leadership of resistance, as well as the political bankruptcy of the SPD and KPD themselves (this is not the place to go into this, but Trotsky had some very instructive analysis of the responsibility of Stalinism for the rise of Hitler). And then there was the pervasiveness of the repressive machine. Nazism actually had roots in fanatical anti-communism, which, with the elimination of any other viewpoint, pervaded the petty bourgeoisie and even parts of the working class. Like Stalin, Hitler’s eyes and ears were everywhere. In fact, the White Rose activists were given away by a concierge who witnessed them distributing leaflets and informed the Gestapo.
But another factor came into play, which has profound lessons for today. From late 1942, the systematic destruction of German cities by British and American bombing began. The populace drew together and the machinery of the German state in my opinion gained popular support. It would become very difficult to suggest resistance to the regime when its tools seemed to the masses, perhaps, to be the only defence against the rain of fire. It was similar to the response of the British masses to the bombing of cities by the Luftwaffe in 1940. It actually strengthened support for the war and made it harder to organise opposition. And then at the very end of the war, there was the practice of the Red Army as it marched into Germany. It was infamous for its methods, particularly rape and looting. These actions sullied the name of Communism and Socialism and to this day are one of the reasons why the Soviet Union isn’t the beacon of hope that it could have been.
Rewind to today and what do we find? The bombing of ISIS in its strongholds in Raqqa and Mosul. Instead of arming the resistance and allowing it to deal with ISIS/Daesh itself, carpet-bombing has been happening by US, British, French and Russian aircraft. I think this is strengthening support for ISIS and making, in the long term, it more difficult to defeat the ideology behind it. The ultra-fundamentalists who lead ISIS, as well as Al-Qaeda and similar movements know this all too well. Every militant blown up becomes a martyr. The shear kidology of our governments, who pin their hopes on the military smashing of the fundamentalist movements, as well as harassment and repression of Muslim populations within Britain, France, the US and elsewhere, will only see them popping up again and again. Sadly, it also makes alternative resistance of a socialist nature even more difficult to build.
The lessons for us must include that military adventures by the imperialists (both NATO/US and Russian) will always ultimately be unsuccessful; unless they are so systematic that they commit complete genocide. That also means we must be anti-war for us and not to lose hope, which must at this point in time with Brexit, Trump and the horrible treatment of migrants, be something that pervades all of us.
The White Rose (Die Weisse Rose), by Inge Scholl, originally published 1952, new edition 1982, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut.