Remembering the White Rose
Daring to defy a murderous regime
Refusing to look the past in the eye can cloud one’s view of the present: LMU commemorates the members of the White Rose group and LMU student Hans Leipelt, who was executed 70 years ago.
In his 2015 White Rose Memorial Lecture, the Director of LMU’s Institute of Modern History, Professor Andreas Wirsching, pointed out that, in our society, the prevailing moral climate provides an adequate guide for personal decisions – for we are seldom faced with unpalatable options that force us to make fundamental moral choices. During the Nazi period too, it was possible for each individual to decide whether to support or oppose the regime, he said. But this decision was fraught with consequences, and would inevitably have an irreversible impact on the subsequent course of one’s life.
In his lecture, Wirsching considered the range of choices available to people at that time. There were those who consciously decided to side with the regime and wholeheartedly adopted – and even profited from – its barbaric ethos. There were others who elected not to choose at all, but went along with the crowd and, in their indecision, risked complicity in the horrors perpetrated by the regime’s committed supporters. And then there were those who – in full awareness of the awful risks it entailed – decided to actively oppose the Nazi regime: The members of the White Rose, the speaker said, clearly realized that inaction and delay would mean that they too would share in the collective responsibility for an ever-increasing list of crimes. In their second flyer calling on their fellow-citizens to resist the Nazis, they wrote: “All of us wish to be acquitted of complicity, so everyone exonerates himself, and his conscience is clear. But one cannot absolve oneself of blame. Every one of us is guilty, guilty, guilty!”
For Wirsching, the texts of the leaflets produced by the group not only constitute a powerful appeal to moral principles, they also provide a clear-sighted analysis of the relationship between the Nazi dictatorship and the society it dominated, and underline the absurdity of continuing to fight the war – a fact which the defeat at Stalingrad had made perfectly obvious.
The moral imperative to take a conscious decision not to share in the mounting burden of guilt is the central theme of all of the group’s pronouncements. The White Rose hoped to stir the consciences of the mass of the German people but, above all, they wanted to persuade their fellow-students to challenge the Nazi regime. In January 1943, a sexist speech by Paul Giesler, the Gauleiter of Munich, in which he rejected the right of women to higher education, had provoked protests, and the group obviously felt that the students would now be more susceptible to an appeal for active resistance to the Nazi regime.
In their sixth leaflet, they wrote: Students! The German people looks to us! As in the year 1813 when the Napoleonic terror was broken, they expect students in 1943 to end National Socialist terror with the weapons of the spirit. As Wirsching emphasized, they were speaking the plain truth, and that is why they had to die.
And their spirit lives on …
The efforts of the White Rose failed to trigger a revolt by the student body, but a few of their contemporaries at LMU did respond to the call: “We had the [sixth] leaflet in our possession, but its authors had been executed by the Nazis. Who was now prepared to open people’s eyes? Who would now dare to speak the truth about this criminal regime? Our decision was a quite spontaneous one: We would continue the fight! We had no thought for the risks …, writes Dr. Marie-Luise Schultze-Jahn in her memoirs. She and her friend Hans Konrad Leipelt, whom she had met in Professor Heinrich Wieland’s group in LMU’s Institute of Chemistry, were determined to follow the example of the members of the White Rose, none of whom they had known personally. They took it upon themselves to type copies of the sixth leaflet and distribute it, although they were fully aware of the risk they were taking. Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friend Christoph Probst had just been sentenced to death and executed forthwith.
At the top of the leaflet, Leipelt added the words ‘And yet their spirit lives on …’ and he and Jahn arranged for its dissemination to locations as far away as Hamburg University. Not only that, following the execution of Professor Kurt Huber on 13. July 1943, Leipelt and Jahn collected money for his widow and his two children, who were left without any other means of support. For this initiative they were betrayed to the Gestapo, arrested and tried. Jahn was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment, Leipelt was condemned to death.
He was put to death 70 years ago, on 29. January 1945, and was the last political prisoner to be executed in Munich’s Stadelheim Prison. Yesterday, on the anniversary of his death, the Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy held a ceremony of commemoration in the foyer of the Faculty Building in Grosshadern. In the course of the event, the foyer was formally named after Hans Leipelt. He had moved to the Institute of Chemistry at LMU to study under the Nobel Laureate Professor Heinrich Wieland, after experiencing increasing harassment at Hamburg University on account of his status as a so-called Halbjude (his mother was Jewish). On the same grounds, he had previously been dishonorably discharged from the Wehrmacht, after having served with distinction in its campaigns in Poland and in France.
Wieland accepted several students of Jewish ancestry as members of his research group, thus saving them from the clutches of the Gestapo. He also testified on behalf of the accused at Leipelt’s trial – sadly, to no avail.
“During the period from 1941 to 1943, in Munich and in Hamburg, the defendant Leipelt regularly listened to foreign radio stations and disseminated subversive Bolshevist propaganda among his fellow-students. He is therefore found guilty of undermining military morale and aiding the enemy, and is herewith sentenced to death and perpetual loss of honor.” This was how Nazi “jurisprudence” framed its verdict in Leipelt’s case. But what had the student Leipelt actually done? He had made the right, the honorable decision!