The White Rose of Conscience

The White Rose of Conscience Sophie's arrest, as depicted in 2005's Sophie Scholl - The Last Days
Cardinal Newman – Special Supplement
Newman had a profound influence on a German anti-Nazi group, writes Greg Daly

“But we know by whom we were created, and that we stand in a relationship of moral obligation to our creator. Conscience gives us the capacity to distinguish between good and evil,” wrote Fritz Hartnagel, a young German army officer on the Eastern Front, to his girlfriend Sophie Scholl in July 1943. “We must submit our reason to these mysteries, and confess the Faith,” he concluded at the end of the letter.

Before Fritz had been dispatched to the front that May, Sophie had given him a gift of two volumes of Newman’s sermons – he told Sophie that amidst the horrors of the front, Newman’s writings were “like drops of precious wine”, and it seems that shortly before penning this July letter he had read Newman’s 1838 homily on ‘The Testimony of Conscience’.


Sophie Scholl may well be the most famous German woman at least of the last century, her courage as – aged just 21 – she faced a Nazi guillotine in Munich’s Stadelheim prison on February 22, 1943, having become proverbial in her homeland. With her brother Hans and several other young like-minded Germans, she had realised that the Nazi regime was an abomination and had taken to holding secret meetings, writing down their opinions, and spreading them about.

“She is regarded as one of the greatest Germans ever,” says Paul Shrimpton, author of Conscience Before Conformity: Hans and Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Resistance in Nazi Germany. “She’s in their hall of fame, the Walhalla, there are about 200 schools named after her, squares and buildings, and at the end of the second millennium one of the German magazines carried out a survey of the most famous Germans of all time, and I think she topped the bill as the most famous German woman. There are lots of surveys and different things like that which indicate the regard they have for her. Every German girl and boy attending school in Germany, they all know her.”

The courage of the Scholls and their White Rose resistance group is remarkable, Dr Shrimpton tells The Irish Catholic, for both its courage and for how it seemed to epitomise the very best of German life at the time.

“During the Second World War there were two main acts of resistance in Germany – one was the July 1944 bomb plot to assassinate Hitler, and this was the other one,” he explains. “Really what’s striking from my point of view, having got to know them through their letters and diaries and things, is that unlike virtually all the other people who resisted who came from the left inspired by Bolshevik ideology, these are upper-middle-class, highly-educated model Germans.

During the Second World War there were two main acts of resistance in Germany – one was the July 1944 bomb plot to assassinate Hitler, and this was the other one”

“When they were being interrogated in court the people dealing with them just couldn’t work it out, because from every angle these were perfect products of the Aryan system: sporting, academic, musical, artistic, everything,” he continues. “So it was a shock – the reverberations went all the way up to Hitler’s cabinet, so in the end Hitler himself was following via his underlings what was going on, and when the trial was taking place, he gave the order that they were to be executed the same day. It struck right to the heart of the Nazi regime.”

In 2010, Dr Shrimpton continues, two articles were published in the German Newman Studien journal arguing that there were significant links between Newman and the White Rose group, and as he followed this up for himself by reading the letters and diaries of members of the group, he was struck by how little attention had hitherto been paid to this.

“All of a sudden I realised that virtually all the people writing their stories had not done justice to the situation,” he says. “They’d skipped over the religious and conscience aspect of them, which was just immense, and really was the only thing that properly explains their actions.”

Indeed, he adds, Pope Benedict XVI may well have had the Scholls in mind when he addressed Queen Elizabeth II during his September 2010 visit to Britain to beatify Newman just a few months after these articles were published.

Recalling how he and the Queen had lived through World War II, the then Pope had said: “Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition to their lives.”


There is no direct evidence that Benedict specifically had the Scholls in mind, of course, but as Dr Shrimpton says, their names are known to all Germans today, the links between them and Newman were being discussed in the months ahead of the papal visit, and Benedict’s own interest in Newman was long established.

“It’s completely speculative,” he says, “but on the other hand, when Pope Benedict entered the seminary in 1946 in Germany, his monitor was a Newman expert, working on Newman and conscience, and he kept bumping into people whose major interest at that time was Newman.

“He’s absolutely saturated with Newman’s ideas and he’s actually spoken in Rome on Newman and conscience, including at least one address in 1990.”

Newman’s ideas were the subject of serious interest in inter-war Germany, Dr Shrimpton says. A Jesuit priest and philosopher named Erich Przywara had done important work on the Englishman, for example, and had asked Edith Stein – then a fresh convert – to translate The Idea of a University.

“There were a lot of people who found it answered a big need there, really,” says Dr Shrimpton, maintaining that the most important figure in promoting Newman in Germany between the wars was Theodor Haecker, who had encountered Newman’s writings in 1917 and who in 1920 wrote to the Birmingham Oratory asking for permission to translate Newman’s Grammar of Assent into English.

“He’s the key,” insists Dr Shrimpton. “There were several people, but he was absolutely key, because he writes off to the Birmingham Oratory asking for a copy of the Grammar of Assent, takes nine months to translate it, becomes a Catholic, and then devotes the rest of his life to translating and promoting Newman’s ideas.”

In time Haecker would become associated with the White Rose group, but the Scholls seem to have been familiar with Newman’s thought even before encountering Haecker in person, although it is not clear how Sophie first got to know his writing.

“The first time recorded is when she and Fritz find one of his books in a bookshop, and the Haecker thing came a year or so later,” Dr Shrimpton says, citing how a friend of hers had later described Sophie in 1941 pressing a book by Newman onto her, saying: “What You don’t know him? There’s a wonderful world awaiting you there!”

One doesn’t know whether Newman was banned or not, because he was a dead English writer. The living ones were certainly banned”

There could, of course, have been indirect links between Haecker and Sophie at that point, Dr Shrimpton concedes, pointing out how second-hand booksellers at the time would often have had both public and private aspects, with the latter entailing them selling banned books to people who they thought might be interested in them.

“One doesn’t know whether Newman was banned or not, because he was a dead English writer. The living ones were certainly banned – anyone from a country Germany was fighting who was living as an author was banned,” Dr Shrimpton says.

“Sophie got keen on him, and what she was keen on, Fritz was keen on too, and Hans. By chance, you could say, they came in touch through Carl Muth, who was a disinherited journal editor, with all his underground friends, people who were former academics, journalists, writers and authors, who met secretly. What’s extraordinary is the amount of cultural resistance going on, with the adults somehow in parallel with Hans and company. When they meet, it’s the most extraordinary thing.”

This was the context in which Sophie gave Fritz two volumes of Newman sermons as a parting gift when he set off for the Eastern Front, Dr Shrimpton says, adding that after Fritz returned home and met Sophie’s bereaved parents, he himself gave them another book of Newman’s sermons.

Sophie’s parents, though Lutherans and despite claims that Sophie shied away from converting to Catholicism at the last because of a concern that it would distress her mother, were not far from unsympathetic to the wise words of committed Catholics. Indeed, in the summer of 1941 they had been particularly impressed by how the Catholic Bishop of Münster, Clemens von Galen, had become Germany’s first major public figure to speak out against the Nazi regime.


Over the course of three homilies, Bishop von Galen spoke about the confiscation of Church property as a forerunner to attacks on personal freedom, about the Nazis’ “deep-seated hatred of Christianity, which they are determined to destroy”, and about Germany’s euthanasia programme.

The Aktion T4 programme had been responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of mentally ill and physically handicapped people, and condemning this, the so-called ‘Lion of Münster’ challenged the “monstrous doctrine, which tries to justify the murder of the innocent, which permits the slaughter of invalids who are no longer capable of work, cripples, the incurable, the aged and the inform”.

The full text of this homily was delivered anonymously to the Scholl family home in August 1941, with a message urging the recipients to make six copies and pass it on. “Finally a man has had the courage to speak out,” Hans said, also remarking, “We really ought to have a duplicating machine.” Sophie, meanwhile, copied the sermon privately and circulated it herself, while the family discussed the bishop’s sermon at length.

“Magdalena Scholl, the mother, was a nurse or had been a nurse when she met her husband. She knew lots of nurses, though at the time she wasn’t working as one, and had heard that lots of handicapped children were taken off and never came back, and all sorts of people realised that something fishy was going on,” Dr Shrimpton says.

“What von Galen did in his third sermon was to point out to Germans that this could happen to injured soldiers coming back from the front, or people hurt in factories, and that I think struck so deeply that they decided to shut the whole operation down in the west and then transported it to the east and used it effectively in the concentration camps. It had to go underground after that,” Dr Shrimpton says. “You could call it, if you wanted to – in modern terminology – ‘pro-life issues’.”

That Summer the Scholls and their friends began publishing a home-made magazine called Windlicht – ‘Hurricane Lamp’ – through which they tried to find a way to live under a totalitarian regime, with this leading to their meeting the Catholic journalist Carl Muth and his circle.


The following summer, joined by Christoph Probst, Hans’s fellow soldier-medics Alexander Schmorrel and the Romano Guardini-influenced Willi Graf, and the academic Kurt Huber, the ‘White Rose’ group began following in the footsteps of Bishop von Galen and the network of – mainly – Catholic priests and altar servers who spread copies of his anti-Nazi homilies by composing, duplicating, and sharing their own anti-Nazi leaflets.

Theodor Haecker was a clear influence on the group during this period, with the veteran Newman scholar convinced that the Nazi regime was a betrayal of Germany’s Christian heritage.

“He was absolutely virulent on this,” Dr Shrimpton says. “His diary, A Journal in the Night, is one of the great war journals. He was a philosopher, a social critic, so yes he’s commenting on all the events going on, tearing into the Nazi regime again and again against their basic inhumanity but also how they detest Christianity as well at root.”

We know that Haecker read from his translations or quoted from them or summed up the arguments of Newman’s idea on the ‘Patristical idea of the Antichrist’”

Newman was certainly discussed explicitly by the group on at least two or three occasions, judging by people’s diaries, Dr Shrimpton says.

“We know that the night before the fourth leaflet was written – the first three had a lot of Haecker influences – we know that Haecker, for example, read from his translations or quoted from them or summed up the arguments of Newman’s idea on the ‘Patristical idea of the Antichrist’, which is quite a mouthful.

“It starts with the first millennium, and he’s writing as an Anglican in these four sermons given in Oxford in 1838, I think it is, on the idea of Antichrist in the first Millennium. These are Advent sermons, so were presumably preached on for successive Sundays. Haecker thinks this is key to understanding what is going on. They actually fall out, because Hans think Hitler is the Antichrist, but Haecker says, no, no, this is one of the many forerunners of the great evil person, the being who will come in at the end of time,” Dr Shrimpton says.

“It’s very, very powerful stuff,” he continues, noting that on another occasion Haecker was recorded as reading from a collection of Newman’s sermons to the group.

Little surprise then, that Haecker’s fingerprints – and through his Newman’s – have been detected in the pamphlets published by the White Rose, and little surprise too that the Scholls’ lives during the war, cut short though they were, were marked by a profound religious awakening leading them towards Catholicism.

“You can see from their letters and diaries that they were very wary of the institutional Church but were absolutely won over with Augustine, Aquinas, Newman, and many, many others, but particular the French Renouveau Catholique,” Dr Shrimpton says, citing also how Sophie and her friends had read George Bernanos Diary of a Country Priest while “Hans ploughs all the way” through Dante’s Divine Comedy.

“And Sophie has attended Mass on quite a number of occasions, and writes beautifully about it. She clearly had lost faith in her own church completely,” he adds.


Sophie and Hans were arrested on February 18, 1943, caught distributing copies of their sixth leaflet at the University of Munich, and the rest of the group were swiftly rounded up. Christoph Probst, raised with no particular religion, requested baptism and was received into the Catholic Church on February 22, 1943, the same day he, Hans, and Sophie were executed.

A deep Christian sensibility penetrated and inspired the group as a whole, Dr Shrimpton says, noting how Alexander Schmorell has been “effectively canonised” by the Russian Orthodox Church, which regards him as glorified as a ‘Passion-bearer’, while work is afoot in the Archdiocese of Munich to open the sainthood cause of Willi Graf.

Praising how serious work is being done now revealing the extent to which a serious Christian Faith inspired and drove the members of the White Rose, Dr Shrimpton wryly observes that there are others determined to suppress this reality.

“There are a certain people who want to bury any religious angle and deny it,” which is not facing up to the facts,” he says.