16 February 2008

Someone Has To Make A Start

I fear my sleep patterns shall never recover from the last few weeks. Wednesday and Thursday nights saw me sleeping two full nights in a row for the first time since mid-January, and I'd hoped to make it three from three when I finally nestled under the covers last night. Alas, it was not to be, as I'd slept barely three hours when my phone woke me, bearing a transatlantic text from NMRBoy, desperate to know how yesterday's meeting had gone.

Unhappy though I was to have slept so little, my Comrade in Arms deserved to know how things had gone, so I texted him, and he called me, and somehow my throat obliged us both as I described yesterday's meeting at length.

I wished him a good night, and shut my eyes afresh, but sleep was not to bless me this time, and after a futile hour I sat up, rooted in my bag, crawled over to the television, stuck in a disc, and settled in to watch Sophie Scholl: Die Letzten Tage, which I'd picked up for a song yesterday afternoon.

To my shame, I'd never heard of Sophie Scholl until just before Christmas when, on the website of The Times, I watched a marvellous short film of Clive James reading from Cultural Amnesia, his astonishing distellation of a lifetime's reading. I've been dumbstruck since.
Not long after the battle of Stalingrad, the key members of the little resistance group called the White Rose were all arrested. One of them was Sophie Scholl. During the showtrial staged at Hitler's order, she said something apparently simple, but its implications go on unfolding, even into our own time.

'Finally, someone has to make a start. We only said and wrote what many people think. They just don't dare to express it.'

Sophie Scholl was guillotined by the Nazis at Stadelheim prison in Munich of February 22, 1943, at five o'clock in the afternoon. She was but twenty-one years old. In life she had been reserved with strangers but full of fun with those she loved. Without being especially pretty she had radiated a moral beauty that left even her Gestapo interrogators self-consciously shuffling their papers, for once in their benighted lives hoping that the job of killing someone might pass to someone else. If there can be any such thing as a perfect person beyond Jesus Christ and his immediate family, Sophie Scholl was it.

Sophie's brother Hans, the leader of the little resistance group that called itself the White Rose, was already pretty much of a paragon. The Scholl family weren't Jewish and Hans could have had a glittering career as a Nazi. Yet in spite of a standard Third Reich education, including membership of the Hitler Youth, Hans figured out for himself that the regime whose era he had been born into was an abomination.

The only means of resistance open to Hans and his like-minded fellow students was to hold secret meetings, write down their opinions and spread them surreptitiously around. Long before the end, Hans had guessed that even to do so little was bound to mean his death. He died with an unflinching fortitude that would have been exemplary if the Nazis had let anyone except his executioners watch.

You would have thought that to be as good as Hans Scholl was as good as you could get. he did what he did through no compulsion except an inner imperative, in the full knowledge that he would perish horribly if he were caught. Yet if moral integrity can be conceived of as a competition, Sophie left even Hans behind.

Hans tried to keep her ignorant of what he was up to but when she found out she insisted on joining in. Throughout her interrogation, the Gestapo offered her a choice that they did not extend to her brother. They told her that if she recanted she would be allowed to live. She turned them down, and walked without a tremor to the blade. The chief executioner later testified that he had never seen anyone die so bravely as Sophie Scholl. Not a whimper of fear, not a sigh of regret for the beautiful life she might have led. She just glanced up at the steel, put her head down, and she was gone.

Is that you? No, and it isn't me either.

She was probably a saint. Certainly she was noble in her behaviour beyond any standard that we, in normal life, would feel bound to attain or even comfortable to encounter. Yet the world would undoubtedly be a better place if Sophie Scholl were a household name like Anne Frank, another miraculous young woman from the same period. In addition to an image of how life can be affirmed by a helpless victim, we would have an image of how life can be affirmed by someone who didn't have to be a victim at all, but chose to be one because others were.

But part of the sad truth about Sophie Scholl is that nobody remembers a thing she said, and in her last few minutes alive she said nothing at all. If she had said something, the man who bore witness to her bravery would have remembered it.
Johann Reichardt, the executioner who had testified to Sophie's bravery, had seen more than his fair share of executions. He'd begun working at Stadelheim in 1924, and under the Nazi's twelve year reign he'd executed more than three thousand political prisoners; after their downfall he was reinstated and sent to the war-crimes prison at Landsberg, where he hanged Nazis who had been found guilty of crimes against humanity.

So I learned from Annette Dumbach and Jud Newborn's Sophie Scholl & The White Rose, which I read last week, starting it almost as soon as I finished Bleak House. It's a fascinating read which gives full credit to all those other members of the White Rose who are so easily ignored next to Sophie. It reads like a novel, and is packed with all manner of curious observations, such as this remarkable aside about Hans Scholl, Christoph Probst, and Willi Graf:
The rather free and casual style of life of these young men during wartime -- attending concerts, taking fencing lessons, and joining Bach choral societies -- is surprising. Nothing like it happened in the United States during the Second World War, and one would expect even less to find that such freedom and informality existed in Nazi Germany.
The book's one serious flaw, I can't help feeling, though, is that it downplays Sophie's Lutheran faith, something which makes no sense in light of the attention paid to Willi Graf's Catholicism. That's not to say that the authors ignore it altogether, as they most certainly don't. They include extracts from diaries and letters where Sophie's Christianity is clear, and they make a point of describing how -- in her last meeting with her parents, just hours before her execution -- her mother asked her to remember Jesus, and she, with her last recorded words, replied 'Yes, but you too.'

So yes, you'd be a fool to read Sophie Scholl & The White Rose and not realise just how important her faith was to her, but you'd be hard-pressed to realise that she was a Lutheran. Granted, she'd rightly have seen her relationship with Christ as far more significant that her Lutheran confession, but that doesn't change the fact that it's odd that her Lutheranism is played down.

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