Historian Jud Newborn Remembers The White Rose Nazi Resistance, 75 Years Later

Jun 26, 2018

On February 22, 1943, Sophie Scholl, was beheaded in Berlin. She was 21-years-old. Her crime: protesting against the Nazi regime and its brutal policy of genocide.  

Her brother, Hans, and their friend, Christoph Probst, were also executed. They were students at the University of Munich and founders of the White Rose – a non-violent group that distributed leaflets and scrawled graffiti on walls.  

To mark the 75th anniversary of their deaths, a new edition of the book, Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, has been released. It was written by Annette Dumbach and Jud Newborn, who is also the curator of Special Events at the Cinema Arts Center on Long Island.

Newborn recently spoke with WSHU’s Bill Buchner about the White Rose Society.

Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Jud, could you explain what Sophie and company did that made them so significant in history?

They staged the only public protest by Germans against Nazis ever to occur. Very simply they were at the end of their ropes. They knew the Gestapo was on their trail. And their sense of reality was being compromised by working day and night taking amphetamines, they were pep pills, so they could keep themselves going, cranking out these thousands of leaflets. And so their judgment was impaired perhaps, but they did something that was still in keeping with what they were all about. Which was to say to Germans, all over the place, what they said in one of their leaflets. “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.”

So Hans and Sophie went into the University of Munich atrium. It was empty. All the students were in class. They came in with a suitcase of 2,000 in two stacks. And they put leaflets outside of every classroom on the way up to the highest gallery and floor. Then they left and they were at the entrance to leave and they saw they had 300 left over. And they had this impulse, which was to go back up stairs to the highest gallery. And just as the bell rang for the change of class and hundreds and hundreds of students poured into the courtyard and the stairways, Sophie, and maybe Hans too, it’s not totally clear, pushed, tossed, these hundreds of leaflets down so that they came floating down over the heads of students, astonished, mulling about in the change of class.

That was a public protest. That was a spontaneous act of political theater. And it was in keeping with what they really, truly wanted to do. They tried to merge with the crowds of students. But a custodian, he saw the leaflets come down, and he ran up and he saw Sophie and Hans, when they still weren’t totally surrounded. And he made a citizen’s arrest, which wasn’t usual. They were dragged off. If they hadn’t made this public protest, nobody would have found out about them.      

The Nazi regime tried and then executed all three students in one day. Was that common?

No, it was not. Normally, if you were sentenced to death by the Volksgerichtshof, the People’s Court as it were, you were allowed 90 days to submit an appeal. And so Sophie and Han’s parents, Robert Scholl and his wife, came down to court where there was a show trial. Amazingly, her father burst into the chambers into this show trial, with all of these Nazi elite gathered around and others, and he said, “The father is here to defend his children.” And the judge, who was Roland Freisler, whose technique, which he learned under Stalin as well, was to abuse and harangue not to try, said, “What kind of parent could have garbage like this for children. Throw the bum out.” And he said, as they were pulling him out, “They will go down in history.”

And then when Sophie and Hans, and their friend Christoph, who was also arrested with them, were taken to the Gestapo prison, their mother and father had just a very brief chance to speak with them. And they were terrified, they didn’t know what was going to happen, but they were going to definitely submit the appeal. What they didn’t know was that as soon as they left, Sophie, Hans and Christoph were taken to a room where they wrote their last letters and then they were each led, one by one, across the prison cobblestone courtyard to a small room, and there they were beheaded.

Mug shots of Sophie and Hans Scholl after their arrest by the Gestapo on February 18, 1943.
Credit Unknown, likely German Federal Archives

Jud, you’ve been recognized for your work. You were just awarded the Spirit of Anne Frank Award for your multimedia presentation that features Sophie’s story but also includes current events. How do you incorporate all this into one presentation and have these components relate to each other?

Oh, that’s a great question. By the way, the Anne Frank Center’s Spirit of Anne Frank "Human Writes" Award, is actually for my entire career and everything that I’ve done, which takes many forms. What I do with Speaking Truth to Power: The White Rose Resistance and Heroes in the Fight for Human Rights Today, it’s a work of theater really. I tell the story of the White Rose and I do this with music and with 80 compelling images and with dramatic and suspenseful storytelling. 

Dr. Jud Newborn delivering his presentation, "Speaking Truth to Power: The White Rose Movement and Heroes in the Fight for Human Rights Today."
Credit Mark Corliss

And then I come to the heroes today. So for example, I’ve added in the MeToo movement. And then I added in the students in Parkland, Florida, who went from being huddled, terrified teen victims into being able to pull together 800,000 people on the Mall in Washington. That’s extraordinary. And these kids have to tell their representatives to stop being cowards. It’s about freedom of speech. It’s about freedom of the press.

When Donald Trump talks about fake news, he’s using techniques that were used in dictatorships. I won’t call him a Hitler, and it’s not the Holocaust and it’s not going to become that, but democracy is fragile. The Weimar Republic fell apart and the Nazis managed to get in, those in power, thinking he was a clown, that they would co-opt. And it was the Nazis who co-opt the power of those in power.    

So now we have Donald Trump, who we thought was a clown, and now we find out he’s a vulgarian, who has an affinity to dictators, uses his Twitter account as his own private propaganda channel, which is truly outrageous from a president, going straight to the people, but with lies. And his comment about fake news, that’s like a fad term. It’s been picked up by dictators and autocrats around the world now. They use it too. So, all of this relates to today. This story of the White Rose. Couldn’t be more relevant.

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