Learning from the White Rose

George Weigel

Seventy-five years ago last month, Sophie and Hans Scholl and their friend Christian Probst were executed by guillotine at Munich’s Stadelheim Prison for high treason. Their crime? They were the leaders of an anti-Nazi student organization, the White Rose, and had been caught distributing leaflets at their university in the Bavarian capital; the leaflets condemned the Third Reich, its genocide of the Jews, and its futile war.

How did young people once active in the Hitler Youth come to recognize the evil of the Nazi regime and risk their lives to oppose it?

The 2005 Oscar-nominated film, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, offers a part of the answer. The garish brutality of the Nazis, not least at its Nuremberg party rallies, was a first hint to serious young people that something was wrong here. The White Rose youngsters were also thinkers, and studied Socrates, Plato, and Pascal under the tutelage of Kurt Huber, a philosophy professor who despised the Hitler regime. The leaflets that were their primary resistance tool included references to Goethe, Aristotle, Schiller, and Lao Tzu – further signs of deep and broad reading.

What you won’t learn from the film, however, is that the triggering inspiration for their activism was the “Lion of Muenster,” Archbishop Clemens von Galen, whose anti-Nazi preaching convinced the members of the White Rose that thought and discussion must give way to action. So, between June 1942 and February 1943, the White Rose produced and distributed six leaflets urging others to nonviolent resistance against the Nazi regime. To stand by silently, they claimed, was to be complicit in “the most horrible of crimes – crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure.” To do nothing was to truckle to Hitler; and “every word that comes out of Hitler’s mouth is a lie.”

The fourth pamphlet made a promise: “We will not be silent. We are your bad consciences. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.” And therein lies a clue to another inspiration for the Scholls and their friends: John Henry Newman and his writings on conscience.

In Britain’s Catholic Herald, Paul Shrimpton notes that the youngsters of the White Rose were deeply influenced by Augustine’s Confessions and George Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest. But it was Newman’s sermons, recommended to the White Rose students by a philosopher who had converted to Catholicism after reading Newman’s Grammar of Assent, which prompted that fourth pamphlet with its call to heed the demanding voice of conscience.

Shrimpton reports that when Sophie Scholl’s boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel, was assigned to the Russian front in 1942, Sophie gave him two volumes of Newman’s sermons. He later wrote her that “we know by whom we are created, and that we stand in a relationship of moral obligation to our creator. Conscience gives us the capacity to distinguished between good and evil” – words, Shrimpton notes, that “were taken almost verbatim from a famous sermon of Newman’s called ‘The Testimony of Conscience.’” On the witness stand before the notorious Nazi “People’s Court” judge Rudolph Freisler, 21-year old Sophie Scholl testified that it was her conscience, and her Christian conviction, that had led her to nonviolent resistance against Hitler and his gangsters. That Christian conscience, we now know, was formed in part by a serious intellectual and spiritual encounter with Blessed John Henry Newman.

There is a lot of talk in the Church these days about “conscience,” and Newman is invoked by many prominent personalities in those debates. So it might be useful for all concerned, including Church leaders in the Munich where the White Rose youngsters gave their lives for the truth, to ponder Newman’s influence on these contemporary martyrs.

What did the members of the White Rose learn from Newman about conscience? They learned that conscience could not be ignored or manipulated. They learned that the voice of God speaking through our consciences sets before us what is life-giving and what is death-dealing. They learned that conscience can be stern, but that in submitting to the truths it conveys, we are liberated in the deepest meaning of human freedom.

They learned that obedience to conscience can make us courageous, and that to strive to live an ideal with the help of grace is to live a truly noble life with an undivided heart.

COMING UP: Parsing the “T”

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About five years ago, a friend took her son with her when she went to a beauty shop to get her hair cut. The hairdresser was snipping away and the boy was engrossed in reading on his Kindle when another mother came into the shop with her daughter in tow. The daughter was carrying an American Girls doll, and the mother announced to the entire beauty shop, “We’re here to get the doll’s hair cut. We’re transgendering her!”

Thankfully, my friend’s son, a big-time reader, missed all this. But if her seven-year old had asked, “Mommy, what’s ‘transgendering’?” what, my friend asked me, was she supposed to say?

What, indeed?

Many people seem tongue-tied when it comes to the “T” in “LGBT.” The virtue-signaling mother in that beauty shop notwithstanding, there’s an intuitive understanding that we’re dealing here with real psychological distress – “gender dysphoria” in the technical vocabulary – and that this and similar problems ought not be political ping-pong balls, because lives are at stake. Unfortunately, that reticence to discuss the “T” storm inside the broader “LGBT” tsunami leaves the field to partisans of “gender reassignment” in all its forms, which now include prescribing puberty-blocking drugs to pre-pubescent children claiming to be something other than what they are. Moreover, nine states, the District of Columbia, and thirty-three local jurisdictions have laws banning mental health professionals from offering “conversion therapies” to minors on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. California, leading the Gadarene rush over the cliff as usual, now provides state-funded “sex-reassignment surgery” to prisoners; the first recipient of this “benefit” was Shiloh Heavenly Quine, a first-degree murderer/kidnapper serving a life sentence with no chance of parole.

No one familiar with the relevant literature denies that gender dysphoria is real, or that the formation of gender identity is sometimes a complicated and tortuous business. In today’s cultural and political climate, however, to suggest that the current stampede to accept claims that a decade ago would have been regarded as signs of serious psychological disturbance – and that are still regarded as such by eminent psychiatrists – is to risk being shamed and cast to the margins of society as a bigot. Like the rest of the “LGBT” phenomenon, the “T” has become thoroughly politicized, indeed weaponized.

For those concerned that men, women, children, and their future happiness are being seriously wounded in all this – and that grave damage is being done to medical ethics and law – a good place to begin examining the whole “T” phenomenon is Ryan T. Anderson’s recently published study, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (Encounter Books).

Anderson (whose accomplishments include playing the hammered dulcimer) is one of America’s most engaging young intellectuals. And his virtues as a scholar – solid research, rigorous thinking, careful judgment, and a profound compassion for troubled human beings – are on full display in his book. So is his courage, having taken a public bludgeoning for his defense of marriage rightly understood prior to the Supreme Court’s imposition of “same-sex marriage” on the entire country. Ryan Anderson has now tackled another fevered social issue from what today’s cultural tastemakers and enforcers regard as the wrong side of a red line. He did it, he tells us, because of stories “from people who had detransitioned” (i.e., had recognized that their “sex-reassignment” was a terrible mistake). Those stories, he writes, “are heartbreaking. I had to do what I could to prevent more people from suffering the same way.”

Would that a medical profession increasingly cowed by politically-correct bullying would display a similar compassion. Or a similar integrity, for, as Anderson writes, “the largest and most rigorous academic study on the results of hormonal and surgical transitioning . . . found strong evidence of poor psychological outcomes.” But as on euthanasia, as first on abortion and now on “transgendering,” the Hippocratic Oath seems to have fallen into the dustbin of history.

Lent is a good season to reflect on the givens of life, and how denying those givens inevitably leads to unhappiness, sorrow, and even self-destruction. The revolt against Things-As-They-Are began in Eden; it continues today, and it always leads us away from the beatitude for which we were created. Ryan Anderson’s book is a thoughtful reminder of that hard, but ultimately redeeming truth, and an oasis of sense in a desert of nonsense.