Alphen, Netherlands. 22 February. Seventy years ago today three young German students were led to a guillotine by the Gestapo in Stadelheim Prison and brutally executed. Siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst faced death with immense courage, something even the Gestapo acknowledged. As the blade began its death fall Hans Scholl shouted out “Let Freedom Live!” With that single act of defiance Hans Scholl created modern, democratic Germany.
The White Rose movement offered peaceful resistance against the Nazis at the height of World War Two. Centred on the students of Munich University the group’s members understood full well that if caught they would face certain torture and death at the bloody hands of the Gestapo. And yet between June 1942 and February 1943 they bravely distributed six leaflets and scrawled defiant graffiti denouncing the Nazis. One of my heroes Helmuth James Graf von Moltke managed to smuggle the sixth and final leaflet out of Germany and in July 1943 the Royal Air Force dropped thousands of them over Germany retitled, “The Manifesto of the Students of Munich”.
One of the leaflets was sadly prophetic, “Isn't it true that every honest German is ashamed of his government these days? Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes– crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure– reach the light of day?” The White Rose movement clearly knew of the Holocaust and the crimes being committed in the name of Germany at Dachau on Munich’s outskirts.
Germany and its people bear a heavy burden of history. Clearly the crimes of Nazism must never be forgotten. Last year I visited Auschwitz and Auschwitz II Birkenau and its evil mark will be with me for the rest of my days. However, there is also much said and written about modern Germany that not only misses the point but is plainly wrong. Sadly, that is often the case in Britain my own country which still counts the cost of its heroic defiance of the Nazis in the name of Europe’s freedom (something too often other Europeans seem to forget).
Modern Germany is not the heir of Nazi criminals but the heir of Liselotte Bendl, Harold Dohrn, Manfred Eickemeyer, Wilhelm Geyer, Willi Graf, Eugen Grimminger, Falk Harnack, Kurt Huber, Marie-Luis Jahn, Trante Lafranz, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Katharina Schueddekopf, Helmut and Sophie Scholl, Josef Soehngen, and Jurgen Wittenstein. They are heroes of Europe one and all.
It is their Germany from which Chancellor Angela Merkel takes her inspiration. It is an inspiration that the rest of Europe would do well to understand and respect as she grapples with the Eurozone crisis. Yes, Germany can be heavy-handed from time to time. That is partly a function of a modern Germany that is simply powerful, although that is not something most modern Germans feel. It is also a function of Abraham Lincoln’s famous dictum that one can please some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but one can never please all of the people all of the time. This is especially so in a place as diverse and complex as modern Europe.
Germany’s war history will always be told and rightly so. One only has to zap television channels to find some documentary or film telling the story of Nazi atrocities and the eventual victory of the Allies over Nazism. Indeed, I am intensely proud of my own country’s role in that victory. However, it is now time to tell the story of Germany’s heroes for they are also OUR heroes and one is far more likely to understand and appreciate modern Germany if one understands their struggle and sacrifice.
As Scholl uttered his famous cry not only modern Germany was born, but modern Europe. The American, British and Canadian armies in the vanguard of democracy came to liberate the ideas they stood for. White Rose Freedom called for “…freedom of speech, freedom of religion and protection of the individual citizen from the arbitrary actions of criminal-dictator states”. They are the very principles of modern Europe.
In all seven members of the White Rose group were executed by January 1945 and as a Briton, European and a democrat I honour them all.
“Let Freedom Live!”