compulsory reading, Germany, USA

Sophie and Hans Scholl, Our Best.

I’m still not writing much these days because of my broken elbow, but today I just had to say something. Today, Papascott links to Bill Dawson, a US expat, living in and blogging from Vienna, who has written a wonderful post about Sophie Scholl and others who lost their lives in the almost hopeless struggle for human decency during the Nazi regime. For all of you who might not know how and why Sophie Scholl died, I’ll quote from Bill’s post –

“A man lifted her small body and placed it flat on a platform, and a blade from high above came crashing down and severed her twenty-one year-old head from her twenty-one year-old body. Yes, she died on the Guillotine, as did her brother and a close friend on that same day. Her murderers are well-known to us: Die Geheime Staatspolizei, the Secret State Police, the Gestapo. Sophie Scholl was a young lady both of words and of action. She was arrested with her brother Hans on February 18, 1943, one day after that final letter of hers cited above. Their friend Christoph Probst was arrested soon thereafter, and all three were murdered on the same day, February 22, 1943. The Gestapo, though they didn’t know precisely who their prey was, had been hunting them for some time, because leaflets from a group calling itself Die Weisse Rose, the White Rose, had been distributed on multiple occasions in Munich and other cities since the second-half of 1942. On February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie Scholl were observed by a custodian of the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich as they quickly distributed leaflets inside an otherwise empty hall of the university. This “loyal” janitor, Jakob Schmied, raised the alarm, and the resistance movement called the White Rose came to an end.”

Bill’s post comes as a reply to the least creative Kraut Bashing article I have come across in quite some time, written by a certain Ralph Peters for the New York Post, the newspaper which started the sophisticated “Axis of Weasels” campaign back in February. On the surface, Mr Peters is concerned with the bulls**t talk given on October 3rd by soon to be former CDU MP Martin Hohmann, but the gist of his argument can safely be induced from the following statement –

“The whopping difference between the Allied occupation of Germany and our occupation of Iraq is that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis welcomed their liberation. We had to force freedom and democracy on the Germans at gunpoint.”

Tell that to my mother and my father, who, just like millions of other German kids, took chocolate bars from GIs. Anyway, Mr Peters’ article is not worthy of any extended refutation, which is the only objection I have with respect to Bill Dawson’s otherwise great post – he tries to rationlize Peters’ article by explaining that –

“[i]t’s the disgusting mindlessness of anti-Americanism here in Europe that offends Peters, myself and many others and which makes us want to hit back. With this gargantuan post I simply mean to show that one can both express disgust and disapproval towards the mindlessness here in Europe and at the same time recognize that the condition is not entirely universal.”

Here I can’t quite follow. By putting his post in this context, by saying that there are exceptions to the “current mindlessness of anti-Americanism” in Europe just like Sophie Scholl was an exception to the appaling cowardice that held this country, and much of Europe, in grip during the Third Reich, he – I am almost certain accidentally – gives the impression that these two things were actually comparable – which could not be further from the truth.

Last Friday, ZDF tv broadcast “Unsere Besten” (“our best”), the local version of a BBC programme, that allowed tv viewers to cast votes for 300 “cultural Germans”, including celebrity PR nominations like “German Idol” juror Dieter Bohlen, who was ranked 30th, but excluding Hitler and those in his gang. Sophie and her brother Hans made it to the top ten shortlist from which “the best” German will be chosen, once more fulfilling Thomas Mann’s prediction that one day Germany would build monuments to commemorate the courage of these young people – although putting them on the shortlist of a meaningless tv show was probably not what they had in mind.

Just as the other nominees, from Albert Einstein to Johann Sebastian Bach, Sophie and Hans Scholl were primarily exceptional humans, not Germans. But there is something about them that stands out. Something that Bill captures rather well by saying –

“[W]e tend to learn about such people – who by all accounts seem fairly normal to their contemporaries – only via extraordinary circumstances. Were it not for the fact that she lived – and died – when she did, she may never have become so remarkable that we would know anything at all about her today.”

More than for anyone on the list, for Sophie and Hans Scholl, just as for those whom they represent in our collective memory, being exceptional humans meant being exceptional Germans. They were truly “our best”. So go and vote for them. I did.