‘Towards a New, Spiritual Europe’:

The White Rose and the Orthodox Martyr Alexander Schmorell

Introduction: The White Rose

Alexander Schmorell was one of five Munich University students who in 1942 formed an idealistic anti-Nazi resistance group known as the ‘White Rose’. However, today the most famous of the members of this group is probably Sophia Scholl. What was the White Rose and what were the roles of Sophia and Alexander?

Sophia Scholl

Sophia Magdalena Scholl was born on 9 May 1921, the daughter of the mayor of a small German town and the fourth of five children. She was brought up a Lutheran and had a carefree childhood. In 1932, her family moved to Ulm. Here, at the age of twelve and like most of her friends at High School, she had to join the Nazi-controlled League of German Girls. Her enthusiasm soon gave way to criticism, as she grew aware of the differing political views of her father, friends and also some teachers. Political attitudes become essential in her choice of friends and the arrest of her brothers and friends in 1937 left a strong impression on her. A keen reader, she also developed an interest in philosophy and theology.

In the spring of 1940 she finished High School, the subject of her final essay was ‘The Hand that Moved the Cradle, Moved the World’. Being fond of children, she became a nursery school teacher. She also chose this job in the hope that it would be recognized as an alternative to National Service, a prerequisite for admittance to University. This was not the case and in the spring of 1941, she began a period of six months doing her National Service as a nursery teacher. The military-like regime of the Service made her think hard about the political situation as well as begin passive resistance.

In May 1942 she went to the University of Munich to study biology and theology. Her brother Hans, who was studying medicine there, introduced her to his friends. Although this group of friends came to be known for their political views, they were initially drawn together by a shared love of the countryside, art, music, literature, philosophy and theology. Here Sophia also met artists, writers and philosophers who were important contacts for her. The question that they pondered the most was how the individual must act under a dictatorship. During the summer holiday in 1942, she had to do war service in a factory in Ulm. At the same time, her father was in prison for making a critical remark about Hitler.

In the early summer of 1942, a group of young men, including Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, Christoph Probst and Hans Scholl, wrote six anti-Nazi resistance leaflets. Calling themselves the White Rose, they instructed Germans to show passive resistance to the Nazis. They had all been horrified by the behaviour of the Germans on the Eastern Front, where they had witnessed a group of naked Jews being shot in a pit. In February 1943 Sophia and rest of the White Rose were arrested for distributing the sixth such leaflet.

On 22 February 1943 Sophia and Hans Scholl, and their friend Christoph Probst were found guilty of treason and condemned to death. They were all beheaded in Munich. Prison officials emphasised the courage with which she walked to her execution. Her inspiring last words were: ‘Die Sonne scheint noch’ - ‘The sun still shines’. She also said before this: ‘How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually for a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day and I have to go. But what does my death matter, if thousands of people are awakened by us and stirred into action?’

Following her death, a copy of the sixth leaflet was smuggled out of Germany to England, where it was used by the Allied Forces. In mid-1943, they dropped millions of copies of the tract over Germany. Today the Geschwister-Scholl-Institut for Political Science at the University of Munich is named in honour of Sophia and her brother Hans. Many schools as well as many streets and squares in Germany have been named after them. As described in the English-language book on the subject, Sophie Scholl and the White Rose (Oneworld, Oxford, 2006), in 2003 Germans were invited to choose the ten most important Germans of all time. Voters under the age of 40 put Sophia and her brother Hans into fourth place, winning over Bach, Goethe, Gutenberg, Bismarck and Einstein. If the votes of the young alone had been counted, Sophia and Hans Scholl would have been ranked first.

Alexander Schmorell

There is an Orthodox connection to the White Rose movement in the figure of Alexander Schmorell. His father, a doctor, was German but born and brought up in Russia, where Alexander was also born on 16 September 1917 in Orenburg. His mother was Russian, the daughter of an Orthodox priest and Alexander was baptised in the Russian Church. His mother died of typhus during the Civil War in Russia, when he was only two. In 1920 his widowed father married a German woman who had also grown up in Russia. Fleeing from the Bolsheviks, they left Russia and moved to Munich in 1921. Alexander’s Russian nanny came with them and she took his late mother’s place in his upbringing. Alexander Schmorell grew up speaking German and Russian. He was Russian Orthodox, but considered himself both German and Russian.

After passing his Abitur (the German High School diploma), he was called up to do his National Service and then into the German Army. In 1938 he took part in the annexation of Austria and then in the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1939 the artistically gifted Alexander Schmorell began studying medicine in Hamburg. In autumn 1940 he went back with his student corps to Munich where he got to know Hans Scholl. Together with him, Alexander put together the White Rose’s first four anti-Nazi leaflets. In the second leaflet Alexander wrote a passage protesting against the persecution of the Jews.

In June 1942, Alexander took part as a medic in the Russian campaign, together with Hans Scholl, Willi Graf and Juergen Wittenstein. He came to oppose the Nazis’ outrageous and brutal treatment of enemy soldiers and civilians in Russia, including the mass rape of Russian women. As Hitler had said, the Slavs were subhuman and were to be treated in the same revolting and genocidal ways that other Western European nations had treated and enslaved the native peoples of the Americas and Africa.

Back from Russia, Alexander continued his studies in Munich. In December 1942, together with Hans Scholl, Alexander contacted Professor Karl Huber. Together in 1943 they wrote the fifth White Rose leaflet ‘Aufruf an alle Deutschen!’ (‘Appeal to all Germans!’), which Alexander gave out in Austrian towns. Together with Hans Scholl and Willi Graf, he also wrote words such as ‘Nieder mit Hitler’ (‘Down with Hitler’) and ‘Freiheit’ (‘Freedom’) on walls in Munich.

After the arrests of Christoph Probst and Hans and Sophia Scholl, Alexander attempted to escape to Switzerland, but was eventually arrested on 24 February 1943. He was sentenced to death on 19 April 1943 in the second trial against the White Rose. In the letters he wrote from prison he tried to console his family and assured them that he was at peace with his destiny and did not fear death. On 13 July 1943, at the age of 25, Alexander was beheaded by guillotine in a prison in Munich.

Extracts from some of the six leaflets that the White Rose published in Nazi Germany.

Who of us can imagine the extent of the shame that will descend on us and our children, when finally the veil falls from our eyes and the awful crimes which are beyond human measure become visible to the whole world?

For it is (the average citizen's) apathy which has given these sinister men the chance to act as they have; ... indeed, (each citizen) is himself guilty, for the fact that they could have come to power in the first place! Everyone wishes to exonerate himself from this complicity, and everyone then does so and then can sleep again with a clear conscience. But he cannot exonerate himself, everyone is guilty, guilty, guilty!

Many of you, perhaps even most of you, reading this leaflet are not sure how to resist. You cannot see any ways. We would like to show you that everyone can help bring the system down. Individual opposition, like that of a bitter recluse, is not going to help prepare the ground for the fall of this ‘government’, or bring about the revolution as soon as possible; rather, what is required is the co-ordinated and vigorous activity of many dedicated people, people who agree on the means to achieve their goal...

We will not shut up, we are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.

Freedom and honour! For ten long years, Hitler and his friends have sickened us with their overuse and misuse of these two wonderful German words, squeezing all meaning out of them, as only amateurs can, casting a nation’s highest values before swine ... Germany’s name will be forever dishonoured if German youth does not finally rise up, in vengeance and atonement, to destroy its tormentors and establish a new, spiritual Europe. Fellow Students! The eyes of the German people are on us!

Conclusion: A New Europe

Today, not surprisingly, Alexander is venerated by many Orthodox in Germany as a martyr. His cause, as a refugee from both the genocide of Soviet Communism and as a victim of the racism of Nazi Paganism, reminds us how all Orthodox in the last century suffered from the post-Christian extremes of Western European ideologies. Only when Europe returns to its Christian roots, of being a ‘Spiritual Europe’, will the White Rose’s vision of genuine ‘freedom and honour’ and a New Europe be realised.