The German Che Guevara
Sophie Scholl, a member of the peaceful White Rose resistance against the Nazis, was born 100 years ago on Sunday.
The birthday comes at a time when Scholl’s legacy is more hotly debated than ever due to a new tendency of the fringe political movements to appropriate her for their goals.
For participants at the anti-lockdown Querdenker demonstrations, she has become a patron saint of their cause.
Back in November, a young student called Jana got up on stage and claimed that the lockdown restrictions made her “feel like Sophie Scholl” - words that were caught on camera and unleashed a wave of outrage across social media. “Jana aus Kassel” has since become a Schimpfwort signifying ignorance and exaggerated self-pity.
That wasn’t an isolated incident. In April a woman was spotted with a placard at a demo quoting Scholl: “The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace,” it said.
One of Scholl’s nephews has even spoken at an anti-lockdown demo on a stage decked with white roses.
The comparisons between Nazi terror and pandemic restrictions have led to condemnation from Jewish groups, who are concerned about the implicit trivialisation of the Holocaust.
Thus the new ARD project “I am Sophie Scholl”, which tells her life through a series of Instagram posts, is seen as a timely corrective to a lack of understanding of Scholl’s life.
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Nonetheless, a deeper look at the issue reveals that Scholl has been treated by the mainstream in a way that is itself problematic and has in all likelihood opened the door for the type of misplaced comparisons seen in recent months.
Over the years Scholl has been turned into a feministic ikon, a pop culture role that threatens to distort the history of the movement she was involved in.
Historical accounts of the White Rose show that Sophie’s brother Hans and his friend Alexander Schmorell were the central figures of the movement.
As teenagers Hans and his five siblings were Vorzeige-Nazis entrusted with leading positions in the Hitler Youth. But Hans’ contact with Catholic dissidents such as Carl Muth during his studies in Munich led him to turn his back on Nazism. Along with Schmorrell, he started distributing anti-Nazi leaflets in the summer of 1942. Younger sister Sophie and a three others joined them in the autumn and winter of that year.
The Scholl siblings were arrested a couple of months later when a janitor at Munich university noticed Sophie throwing pamphlets into the college atrium. He marched them to the Gestapo, leading to their execution along with a third member, Christoph Probst, on February 22nd.
According to historian Maren Gottschalk, a best-selling account of the White Rose written by Scholl sibling Inge led to Hans and Sophie overshadowing the rest of the group in the public imagination after the war. In later decades, a culture hungry for heroines has pushed Hans to the margins.
An iconic photograph of Sophie with short hair has established her as a sort of proto-punk, even though she was a devout Christian. ARD’s “Ich bin Sophie Scholl” is just the latest film project that focuses the story of the White Rose around its single female member; T-Shirts are on sale printed with her face, even a wax figure at Madame Tussauds attests to the fact that Sophie has become a marketable commodity of 21st century pop culture.
In politics, Annalena Baerbock recently chose her as one of her heroines of history. Carola Rackete, former captain of the Sea-Watch 3 migrant rescue ship, has said that Scholl would be a member of Antifa if she were alive today.
In other words, the (mis)appropriation started long before the Querdenker came along.
For historian Gottschalk, the desire to lionise Scholl obscures “a fascinating, contradictory woman, torn between joie de vivre and brooding navel-gazing…. with all our justified admiration, we must ensure that we do not revere her as a saint.”
There is also a little known postscriptum to the Scholls’ story that should give us pause for thought.
Students at Munich University organized a pro-Nazi rally shortly after their execution at which the janitor was brought up on stage and cheered for his actions. The German public weren’t just indifferent, they tried to expunge voices that rattled their worldview. Indoctrinated by the Nazis, they had become incapable of asking “what if I am wrong?’’ When we ask who in democratic Europe of 2021 has the right to associate themselves with Sophie Scholl, that is a question well worth asking.
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Who we are:
Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph. Formerly in the Middle East. Classicist; Masters in International Politics & Arabic from St Andrews.
Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011