Recreating scattered leaflets, memorials outside the University of Munich commemorate White Rose members. (Photography by Adam Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Rose up

Jud Newborn, AM’77, PhD’94, tells the story of Munich’s anti-Nazis.

On February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie Scholl entered the University of Munich carrying a suitcase filled with 1,000 leaflets calling for Germans to resist Adolf Hitler, “the most abominable tyrant our people have ever been forced to endure.” Leaving pamphlets in front of classrooms and on stairways and windowsills, the siblings climbed up to a gallery above the university’s long inner courtyard, and Sophie tossed the remainder over the balustrade into the atrium. A janitor appeared below them and bellowed up, “You’re under arrest!”

Thirty-seven years later, Jud Newborn, then a UChicago doctoral student in anthropology, arrived in Munich to research his dissertation on the cultural origins of the Holocaust. He left an expert on an additional topic: the Scholls and other Germans in the White Rose resistance network. Newborn’s chronicle of the movement, Shattering the German Night, was published in 1986. Seventy years have now passed since the Scholls and four fellow resisters were caught and executed.

Studying abroad on a Fulbright, Newborn, AM’77, PhD’94, spent 1980 to 1983 traveling in Germany and to Holocaust sites in Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. Searching for the seeds of Nazi culture, he traced the camps’ symbolic elements to the late medieval period, examining artifacts from woodcuts to films. He also interviewed former SS officers in prison.

As a researcher, Newborn was intent on objectivity. As a Jew who vividly remembered his childhood discovery that some of his mother’s relatives were killed by the Nazis, he experienced Germany with heightened emotions. Riding on the Munich U-Bahn to the Platz der Opfer des Nationalsozialismus for a 1980 rally to protest a neo-Nazi bombing, he noticed two women of the WW II generation dressed in expensive loden coats, talking and laughing. “Where were you when the Jews were hauled off?” he thought. When he saw them again at the protest site, walking arm in arm, Newborn asked why they were there. “We were imprisoned as anti-Nazis in the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp for Women,” they  said. “The chip that had materialized on my shoulder,” he says, “was knocked off.”

From then he began paying close attention to Nazi resistance movements, including the White Rose, a network of around 35 people. He had heard about the movement and its core participants while at UChicago: the Scholl siblings; Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, and Traute Lafrenz, all University of Munich students; and professor Kurt Huber. In Germany he began to sense the significance of their story. Riveted by the 1982 film Die Weiße Rose, and knowing that in 1983 a subtitled version would be released in the United States, where the group was little known, Newborn collaborated with American expat writer Annette Dumbach on a trade book.

Shattering the German Night (Little Brown and Company) recounts how White Rose members began in the spring of 1942 to duplicate leaflets using a hand-cranked mimeograph machine.  “For Hitler and his followers, no punishment on this earth can be commensurate with their crimes,” proclaimed one leaflet. “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience.”

To give the impression of a broad network, the resisters took trains from Munich to mail the pamphlets from other cities. With newsletters circulating throughout Germany, the Gestapo took notice. Days after being spotted by the janitor, the Scholls were beheaded, along with Probst, whose leaflet draft was in Hans’s pocket during the arrest. The other key players were caught in 1943, and all but Lafrenz were executed.

In 2006 Shattering the German Night was revised and expanded as Sophie Scholl and the White Rose to complement the 2005 German-language movie Sophie Scholl: Die letzten Tage. Newborn wanted the 2006 edition to incorporate new information about Hans Scholl. Hans and Sophie had been Hitler Youth leaders; for years people had asked Newborn, “Why did they change?” Expanding on research by sociologist Eckard Holler, he now argues that Hans’s 1937 arrest by the Gestapo for having a same-sex relationship is key to explaining their transformation.  Hans “discovered what it was to be one of the persecuted,” he says. The material didn’t make it in, but “I believe firmly the White Rose would have wanted this to be told today.”

Newborn published his argument in a 2006 pamphlet, which also addresses another mystery: how the group got its name. Hans told his Gestapo interrogator that “White Rose” was selected randomly. But Newborn thinks the resisters were far too thoughtful and literate for that to be true. He theorizes that Hans and Schmorell, who started the group, read Die Weiße Rose, a 1929 novel banned in the Third Reich that portrays Mexican Indian peasants fighting American oilmen to save their hacienda, called La Rosa Blanca. It would have “resonated powerfully” with the students, writes Newborn.

The founding historian and curator at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage until 2000, Newborn is now the special programs curator for Long Island’s Cinema Arts Centre. He incorporates the pamphlet material into his White Rose multimedia lecture, which he’s delivered throughout the United States and in South Africa. The presentation ties White Rose members to 21st-century figures like Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani activist shot by the Taliban in 2012. Students often approach Newborn after a lecture and note that they are the same age as the White Rose members were. They ask: “I wonder if I would have the courage.”

Updated 09.19.2013, 01.20.2018