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Women Heroes of World War II
26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue
By Kathryn J. Atwood
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2011 Kathryn J. Atwood
All rights reserved.
HOW COULD THE Holocaust have happened in 20th-century Germany, a society that valued art and philosophy, where university professors were highly esteemed, and where Jews were leaders in every realm of society? There are three main reasons: the Treaty of Versailles, the Great Depression, and Adolf Hitler.
German military aggression had been a major cause of World War I (1914–1918), a conflict that had taken the lives of millions of soldiers and destroyed the economies of many European countries. After Germany surrendered, Great Britain, and especially France — Germany's major combatants at the war's end who had suffered the most casualties — wanted to make Germany pay for the damage. They did so by way of the Treaty of Versailles, signed by German leaders the summer following the armistice (the end of the fighting). The treaty placed tight restrictions on the German military, forced Germany to give up portions of its territory, and, most crushing of all, forced Germany to pay war reparations.
The terms of the Treaty of Versailles caused humiliation and resentment among the German people, and the war reparations eventually led to severe inflation of the German economy. Wealthy Germans spent their life savings just to buy food, while the poor starved. The economy's collapse brought political instability as people lost faith in their current leaders, and an array of political parties vied for the attention of the German people.
No political leader caught quite as much attention as Adolf Hitler, the head of the new Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers' Party), or Nazi for short. When Hitler was arrested for treason in 1923, he spent his nine-month jail sentence writing his autobiography Mein kampf, which eventually became a German bestseller. In the book, Hitler railed against those he blamed for Germany's current problems: Germany's former military leaders, Communists, and especially German Jews.
The book was obsessed with the issue of race: Hitler believed that Germans, as a nation composed largely of blue-eyed blondes, were part of the Aryan race, superior to all others. As such, Germany had a duty to destroy the Jews and to kill or enslave Slavic people such as Poles and Soviets.
Many thoughtful Germans found Hitler absurd and didn't think he would ever be taken seriously as a national leader. But they didn't take into consideration Germany's desperate problems, which were only made worse by the Great Depression of the 1930s (which began in the United States but severely affected the economies of Europe). In the midst of Germany's political turmoil and collapsed economy, Hitler and the Nazi party gained prominence in Germany. In 1933 Hitler was appointed the chancellor (prime minister) of Germany.
Within six months, Hitler bestowed on himself the grand title of Führer (a German word meaning "leader" or "guide"), dissolved the Reichstag (the democratic German governing institution), outlawed all other political parties, and built concentration camps for his political opponents. He established the Gestapo, an organization of plain-clothed secret police ordered to weed out any and all political opposition, which often arrested people simply for uttering a single negative comment about the Nazi party.
He instituted the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth), a state-run program for all children ages 10–18. The Hitler Youth program was geared to make Germany's children proud, militant Nazis. They engaged in warlike games, killed small animals (to become insensitive to suffering and death), sang songs about German streets running with Jewish blood, and were encouraged toward fanatical, personal devotion to Hitler, a devotion that was to take precedence over their relationships with their parents. (Children were encouraged to turn in their own parents to the Gestapo if they heard them say anything against the Führer.)
Schools also became places of indoctrination, where history classes taught that Hitler was descended from great German heroes, math classes discussed how much money the state lost while supporting mentally challenged individuals, and biology classes taught the superiority of the Aryan race and the inferiority of the Jewish race.
Many Germans were blinded to the cruelty and darkness of the Nazi regime. Hitler's policies created jobs, and, in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler was rebuilding the armed forces, something that had long been a source of pride to many Germans. If personal freedom of expression was the cost, so be it, many thought. At least Germany was becoming strong again. This nationalistic pride grew during the summer of 1940 when Germany had conquered nearly all of mainland Europe. It seemed that Hitler's promise of a 1,000-year German Reich was coming true.
But there were some Germans who strongly objected to the loss of personal freedoms in Nazi Germany and to Hitler's treatment of the Jews. Jews had been harassed by the Nazis for years before the Nazi party came to power. But when Nazism became the law of the land, Jews lost their citizenship, and there was no one in the government they could turn to for protection. One November night in 1938, anti-Semitic Germans were given a green light from Hitler to destroy Jewish synagogues, homes, and businesses all over Germany and Austria in what became known as Kristallnacht (Crystal Night, usually referred to as the Night of Broken Glass). Afterward, Jews fled the countries by the hundreds of thousands.
The German Jews who remained eventually began to be shipped out of Germany to be "resettled" in the east, but it soon became clear that they were being shipped to cruel concentration camps. Many Jews were saved by German resisters who risked everything to conceal them. When Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, officially declared Germany's capital city of Berlin to be Judenfrei (Jew-free) in the middle of 1943, there were thousands of Jews still hiding there.
Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra) was the name the Gestapo gave to several Resistance organizations in different countries. The Red Orchestra in Berlin was composed of a small group of people with Nazi affiliations who worked to overthrow the Nazi government from the inside by passing top-secret and high-level information to the Soviets. They also recruited Resistance members and helped hide Jews.
One of the women involved in the Berlin-based Red Orchestra was an American named Mildred Fish Harnack, a scholar, translator, and professor of the German language. After she was caught and tried, she received a prison sentence. But Hitler specifically ordered a new trial for her, which resulted in the death sentence. Just before she was beheaded, she was reported to have said, "And I have loved Germany so much."
Hitler's decision to invade the Soviet Union in 1941 proved disastrous for Germany. When the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944, they met German forces who fought furiously but whose numbers had been depleted from the long and fruitless battle against the Soviets. Finally convinced that his regime would be defeated, Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. The German armed forces formally surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945.
THE WHITE ROSE
ON FEBRUARY 22, 1943, a German university student named Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and one of their friends, Christoph Probst, were all awaiting trial in the Nazirun "People's Court" in the Munich Palace of Justice. The judge who was to preside over their case, Roland Freisler, suddenly swaggered into the courtroom, dramatically dressed in flowing red robes. Judge Freisler was known as the hanging judge because he passed death sentences on nearly everyone tried in his court. This trial, its audience filled with those loyal to Hitler's Third Reich, looked like it would be no exception. Judge Freisler opened the proceedings with a furious and demented tirade, making great billowing gestures with his robes and screaming that the defendants were guilty of treason, conspiracy, rendering the armed forces unfit to protect the German Reich, giving aid to the enemy, and crippling and weakening the will of the German people.
The defendants were not given a chance to speak on their own behalf, but in the midst of the judge's tirades, Sophie Scholl suddenly cried out, "Somebody had to make a start! What we said and wrote are what many people are thinking. They just don't dare say it out loud!"
What exactly had Sophie said — and written — that had caused her to be on trial for her life? That can be answered in three words: the White Rose.
* * *
The White Rose. That was the name on the leaflet Sophie Scholl had just found under a desk. It was June 6, 1942, and Sophie had begun her studies at the University of Munich six weeks earlier. As she read through the pamphlet, Sophie was almost trembling with excitement; there were ideas in it that had often crossed her mind but that she hadn't been able to fully articulate. Although she loved Germany and had even, for a while, been an enthusiastic participant in the Union of German Girls (the female branch of the Hitler Youth organization), she had since come to understand that there was something very wrong with Nazi Germany.
When she was only 12 years old, she had wondered aloud why her Jewish friend, who had blue eyes and blonde hair, wasn't allowed to be a member of the Hitler Youth, while she, with her dark hair and eyes, was. Her father, a staunch opponent of Hitler and the Nazi party, always argued with his son, Hans, about Hans's enthusiastic leadership role in the Hitler Youth program. Sophie listened to these arguments in silence and later observed Hans carefully as he became completely disillusioned with the Nazis.
Sophie almost didn't pass her qualifying high school exam — the Abitur — because she stopped participating in her high school classes when they became more about Nazi indoctrination than about real learning. She did the work and passed, however, and although she was eager to go straight to a university, she was first forced by the state, as all girls her age were, to serve six months of manual labor for the National Labor Service, enduring not only exhausting work but also more Nazi indoctrination administered by fanatical and cruel female Nazis.
She finally had been allowed to enroll at the University of Munich, the same university where her brother Hans was studying, and now, six weeks later, she was holding this White Rose pamphlet in her hand. The third sentence was particularly gripping:
Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes — crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure — reach the light of day?
The "most horrible of crimes" referred to in the pamphlet was the Nazi practice of euthanasia (mercy killing) of mentally retarded Germans and others who were considered "unproductive" because of certain physical defects. The bishop of Münster, Clemens August Graf von Galen, had delivered an impassioned sermon against this practice one year earlier, on August 31, 1941. The sermon was reprinted and then secretly but widely duplicated and distributed.
It is not certain whether Sophie had ever seen a Bishop von Galen sermon leaflet, but it is certain that her brother Hans had, and she wanted to speak to him immediately. Sophie rushed to his rented room. He wasn't there, so she waited for his return, occupying herself by flipping through some of his books. She noticed
that he had underlined a phrase in one of his philosophy books: "If a state prevents the development of the capacities which reside in man, if it hinders the progress of the spirit, then it is reprehensible and corrosive." She quickly looked at the White Rose pamphlet again. That phrase, word for word, was in the pamphlet. She knew at once that Hans was involved with the White Rose.
When Hans returned to his room, Sophie confronted him by showing him the pamphlet in her hand. Did he have anything to do with it? He had, in fact, written it, but at first he wouldn't admit this, telling Sophie instead that "these days it is better not to know some things in case you endanger other people." But Sophie was persistent, and before their conversation was over, Hans had not only told her everything regarding his own involvement, he had also given her permission to join the White Rose.
With Sophie helping them, the six central members of the White Rose created and distributed three more leaflets during the summer of 1942. The leaflets, intellectual in tone and filled with quotes from the Bible and famous philosophers, called upon Germans to resist the Nazi government. The leaflets were targeted toward university professors and students in hopes that the most intelligent thinkers in Germany could not possibly fail to see the evil of the Nazi government. And if the brightest minds could be convinced to resist, surely the rest of Germany would follow.
One associate of the White Rose said later that Hans Scholl and Alexander Schmorell were the minds of the White Rose (because they were the principal authors) but that Sophie was its heart. She helped to copy, distribute, and mail the leaflets and was also in charge of the group's finances, which included buying paper and stamps from many different post offices so as not to create suspicion.
For suspicion there certainly was. The Gestapo (the Nazi secret police) was desperate but unable to discover the pamphlets' authors. They called on anyone who received a leaflet to turn it in or face immediate arrest. The Gestapo thought the perpetrators must be a large group. Little did they know that the most active members of the White Rose totaled a mere six people!
In July 1942, Hans Scholl, Willi Graf, Alex Schmorell, Jürgen Wittenstein, and others — all medical students — received orders to spend their semester break working as medics at the Russian front, the battle zone between Germany and Russia. This meant that the work of the White Rose had to stop temporarily, and the duplicating machines were dismantled and hidden.
When the young medics returned in November 1942, they had a new perspective on the war. Despite the German propaganda that had been declaring glorious victories in Russia, the young medics had seen the truth, that the German army was exhausted and being beaten by the Soviets. And en route to the Russian front, they had seen the horrendous conditions in the Warsaw ghetto, the place where many of Poland's Jews were being slowly starved.
Now more determined than ever to overthrow the Nazi government, the members of the White Rose quickly wrote the fifth leaflet. They wanted to give an impression that the White Rose was part of a much larger network, so they got on trains and mailed the leaflets — 20 percent more than any of their previous mailings — to and from many different German cities.
On February 3, 1943, after the Nazi government admitted to defeat by the Soviets at Stalingrad, Hans Scholl, Alex Schmorell, and Willi Graf went out that night (as well as two subsequent nights, February 8 and 15) and painted slogans such as "Freedom," "Down with Hitler," and "Hitler mass murderer" in public places all over Munich, including city hall and the university.
Then they decided to do something even bolder. On February 17, 1943, Hans and Sophie carried a large suitcase filled with copies of the sixth White Rose pamphlet into a lecture hall at the University of Munich. They placed piles of the leaflets outside the classrooms, on windowsills, and on the large stairway that led down to the main floor.
Excerpted from Women Heroes of World War II by Kathryn J. Atwood. Copyright © 2011 Kathryn J. Atwood. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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