Remembering the White Rose:
German Assessments, 1943-1993

by Prof. Harold Marcuse
(homepage, Presentations page, Publications page)
Department of History, University of California
Santa Barbara, CA 93106-9410

Written version of presentation at White Rose conference,
UCSB, 2 October 1993; revised for publication 17 July 1994, uploaded 1997
published in: Soundings 22:9(1994), 25-38.

(8 page pdf)

October 2014: Natalie Harmann created a French version:
"Se souvenir de la Rose Blanche: Les évaluations allemands, 1943-1993."

December 2017: Artur Weber translated this into Portuguese:
"Lembrando a Rosa Branca: Avaliações alemãs, 1943-1993"

I. (back to top)

Remembering acts of resistance against an established state power brings with it a number of difficulties. When those remembering are citizens of the caliber of those who resisted, they must face uncomfortable questions about their own behavior, about their own dedication to the causes for which those they recall to mind summoned their utmost courage. In avoidance or such unpleasant questions many West Germans referred to anti-Nazi resistors as "traitors to the fatherland;" former chancellor Willi Brandt, who had emigrated to Norway and fought against the invasion of Hitler's armies, was a recipient of that epithet in the 1960s and 70s.

On the other hand, when acts of resistance are recollected by official organizations, unwanted parallels and potentially delegitimizing situations may arise. Eulogizing past resistance may present opportunities for present resistance. The late East German government experienced this very directly at commemorative ceremonies for the radical democrats Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, when demonstrators bearing banners with Rosa Luxemburg's words "Freedom is always only the freedom of those with dissenting views" disrupted the official commemoration.

In this paper I will address primarily the latter type of commemoration: the official ceremonies for the White Rose at Munich University, which had been the center of their activities. The speeches held at those ceremonies, and the public monuments established to recall the White Rose, are indicative of the second, official type of remembering. The first, more private type is less tangible in historical retrospect, although, as we will see, various wrestlings of conscience became manifest over the years. It is perhaps expedient to introduce several terminological clarifications.

Remembering is most basically the process of recalling to mind by an act of memory actual experiences or acquired information. Since this is a fundamentally individual action, I will make a semantic distinction and use the term recollection, which has the additional meaning of "gathering together again," to denote the group or collective action of remembering. This may take the concrete form of commemoration, the symbolic, ritual recollection of an individual or event; or it may arise in a more diffuse way in the interaction between individual and shared personal memories of lived experience, and the decentral dissemination of information about historical persons or events in the public realm, as in school instruction, popular novels and films, or scholarly histories and documentaries. The distinction between the two is fluid: ritual commemoration is practiced with the express intent of reinforcing or redirecting preexisting diffuse historical images.

It is important to further distinguish between collective memory as the underlying picture of a past event shared by a group of individuals, and public memory, which can denote the amalgam of images of the past which dominate the public sphere, whether by their use in the mass and print media, or in representative official commemorative ceremonies. Although collectively held images of the past are shaped by the interpretations available in the public sphere, the two are by no means identical, and the former, which are often rooted in lived or acquired experiences, may prove highly resistant to change. Thus we will focus here on the public memory, the public recollection of the White Rose in Munich.

II. (back to top)

The students of the White Rose were thorns in the flesh of their contemporaries in Nazi Germany. They wanted to be thorns in the flesh of their fellow Germans. They hoped that the words in the leaflets they clandestinely distributed in Munich in the Summer of 1942 and in early 1943 would rouse those contemporaries out of a presumably fear-inspired moral lethargy. In the second of six leaflets readers found the reproach that any Germans who tolerated through complacency a government with "an infinitely great burden of guilt" were themselves "guilty, guilty, guilty." The fourth leaflet concluded with the words:

'We [the White Rose] will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!'

It has often been noted that intellectuals and artists, and even the mass media, should play the role of the "bad conscience" in political life. And it is almost trivial to note that no one likes to have a bad conscience.

When the Munich Gestapo uncovered and swiftly eradicated the White Rose resistance group in 1943, its activities elsewhere came to an abrupt halt, with one sole exception. Hans Scholl's girlfriend Traute Lafrenz had brought the third leaflet back to her home town, Hamburg, where a group centered around Heinz Kucharski and Hans Leipelt, a Hamburg student with a Jewish mother who had also been in Munich that winter, duplicated and distributed the last leaflet. After the execution of Professor Kurt Huber in July, they collected donations for Huber's widow, but were soon denounced and arrested.

But that exception only underscores the rule: There was no public outcry. Indeed, the disappearance of the self-proclaimed "bad conscience" met with fairly widespread satisfaction, if not to say relief. It was only outside, spatially and temporally beyond the ideological reach of National-Socialism, that the words and deeds of the students found positive resonance. Within Germany oppositionals such as Ruth Andreas-Friedrich and Ulrich von Hassell made hopeful notes in their diaries, but in the Reich no broader movement was sparked.

Helmuth James von Moltke, international law expert and grandnephew of the famous German general, had organized a discussion group of opponents to the Nazi regime on his estate in eastern Prussia. On a visit to Nazi-occupied Norway in early spring 1943 Moltke gave a copy of the last flier, and a report about what he had gleaned from channels at home, to the Bishop of Oslo to bring to London. In the summer of 1943 the Royal Air Force dropped thousands of copies of the leaflet in the Ruhr area, and on 27 June emigré German novelist Thomas Mann dedicated his regular BBC broadcast for Germans to the White Rose. He quoted words Sophie Scholl was supposed to have levelled at her ranting Nazi judge: "Soon you will be standing where I am standing now" (Freisler was later killed in an air raid on 3 Feb. 1945), and Mann concluded with a statement he had used as a kind of motto for the broadcast: "A new belief in freedom and honor is dawning."

But that, too, was more a hope than a prediction. It took two full years before the utmost exertion of the Allies broke the physical and moral strictures and allowed a "new dawn" to emerge. Even the last-gasp attempt of military circles to assassinate Hitler and install a new government on 20 July 1944 met with dismal failure and found no echo in the German public sphere.

III. (back to top)

It was not until the first "Day of the Victims of Fascism" in early November of 1945, six months after the fall of the Nazi regime, that the first commemorative service for the executed members of the White Rose group was held. The Italian-German theologian and moral philosopher Romano Guardini was invited to speak at that ceremony. Guardini did not mention the deeds of the White Rose, which he referred to obliquely as attempts to "overcome the pollution of spiritual values" and resurrect the "true" orders of human existence. He ignored the broad, social morality that had prompted the students to act, imputing the origin of their motivation to "the heart of God, ... brought into the world by Jesus Christ." That absolved his listeners from the necessity of introspection, from the call of the authors of the leaflets to examine their own consciences: "the means by which they became conscious of the ultimate values is not for us to investigate." Indeed, Guardini ignored the impassioned call to "prove through deeds that you disagree!" (fifth leaflet), reasoning that the meaning of the White Rose's resistance activities "did not depend on their realization," but on where "God, in his omniscience ... will enter it into the great balance sheet of the world."

This first speech prefigured the two main motifs that soon emerged in the official German commemoration of the White Rose: on the one hand it was claimed to have been quasi-religious sacrifice that purged collective guilt; on the other hand its failure was taken as evidence of impotence and futility of opposition to Nazi rule, as a post-factum alibi for the silent, presumably lethargic majority addressed in the leaflets.

Karl Vossler, a specialist in Romance languages who had been appointed temporary rector of Munich University, spoke at the second commemorative ceremony for the White Rose in November 1946. In contrast to Guardini, as well as to most of his successors in the next decade, he emphasized the exemplary nature of the White Rose's acts, but he limited the scope of the example of the "sacrificial death of heroically brave martyrs," as he called it, to the continuing, personal fight for the "freedom and authenticity of academic pursuits." That freedom could not be inherited or purchased, Vossler said, but could only be gained, nurtured and defended in individual, personal exertion. Vossler, too, absolved the students in his audience of lacking courage, because "the attempt to turn the course [of political events] and establish freedom and peace had to seem extremely reckless, even impossible."

In the next several years the commemoration of the White Rose was overshadowed by the heightening East-West conflict. Brief, more religiously-oriented speeches were held in front of purely academic audiences. First the cares of life in war-ravished Germany, then the return to normality after the 1948 currency reform, or even to incipient prosperity in the early 1950s dominated public consciousness. In 1952 Robert Scholl, the father of Hans and Sophie Scholl, complained in a letter to the editor that the Munich newspaper did not even report about the ceremony at the University.

In those years, however, the newspapers did usually report about the White Rose, sometimes in great detail. As the years progressed, the motif of exoneration through the sacrifice of the students became stronger and stronger. Even as material conditions improved and physical deprivation disappeared from daily life, German self-pity remained strong. The climax of the exonerative interpretation is marked by a critical indictment of the tendency of many Germans to perceive themselves as victims in a Munich Merkur newspaper report in February 1950:

"The White Rose has expiated the crimes of the Third Reich for the German people, because not suffering for the suffering of others brings justification, but only acts of free will."

In February of 1953 West German president Theodor Heuß, one of the fathers of the West German constitutional bill of rights, sent a statement to the Munich ceremony. He, too, ignored the political nature and implications of the resistance and emphasized the White Rose as a symbolic beacon in the "darkest hour" of the "German tragedy."

These examples should suffice to illustrate the apolitical, quasi-religious, guilt-cleansing nature of official remembrances of the White Rose in Germany from the end of the war until the late 1950s.

In July 1958, on the 15th anniversary of Professor Huber's execution, Romano Guardini was once again the speaker at this 15th anniversary ceremony. Once again, Guardini did not mention any of the historical acts of the White Rose, but took Hans Scholl's last words, "Freedom shall live," as the motto for his speech. He warned against two types of unfreedom: the modern subjugation through bureaucracy and technology, and the danger emanating from the "inner enemy" residing in each individual. This was an allusion to the situation in East Germany at that time, and is indicative of the speeches held during the next few years, which were marked by increasing tension between East and West Germany, culminating in the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961.

In February 1959 the rector of Munich University ordered the ribbon of a wreath presented by a delegation from an East German university to be rolled up. He saw its innocuous inscription, "Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl -- to the fighters against fascism and war," as an insult aimed at West Germany. The literal meaning of "against war and fascism," he explained, was beyond reproach, but it was part of a slogan used by organizations in the "Eastern Zone" (an epithet used in the West to denigrate the East German state) to disparage West Germany. Students overeager to fulfill his will removed the ribbon entirely, drawing criticism from East German and left-wing West German student groups.

A few months later, on the anniversary of the 20 July assassination attempt, protest from the general public and several student organizations forced the dedication of a university war memorial to be postponed. Its inscription read:

"A monument of pious memory, dedicated to the dead of three wars, who, crushed by fate, did not die in vain."

This was clearly a slap in the face of the legacy of the White Rose, whose members had explicitly condemned the "vainness" of the victims of the war (esp. leaflet 6). Typical of the propensity at that time to lump all anti-Nazi resistance together, regardless of the political goals of its perpetrators, the student government had also planned a commemorative ceremony for the White Rose with its humanistic-democratic tradition on the anniversary associated with the elite conservative-military coup attempt.

In 1960 the wreath incident was repeated, whereby right-wing Westerners now carried off the Easterners' entire wreath. The rector reprimanded the students for their behavior but once again defended their action as preserving West German honor. Because of such incidents the University Senate decided that henceforth the White Rose ceremony would be open only to members of Munich University.

IV. (back to top)

In the early 1960s there was a tendency to link the legacy of the White Rose to resistance against the division of Germany. This was also the time in which the student movement was taking root. Two commemorative speeches during this period are especially noteworthy, because they signal a change in the public and collective memories of the White Rose.

On the 20th anniversary of the executions of the core members of the White Rose in 1963, the eminent Lutheran theologian and rector of Tübingen University, Helmut Thielicke, spoke to the Munich students. Thielicke did not leave out references to "the brothers on the other side of the wall," but he also admitted that there were still "(Nazi) murderers living and working" in West Germany. He criticized the self-righteous way West Germans were clamoring for the return of former eastern territories and the increasing subservience of politicians to public opinion polls, but he also chastised the students who had vehemently protested against the blatant censure of the press in what has become known as the "Spiegel Affair." Thielicke told his listeners that the White Rose would have "looked ironically" at the "hysterical indignation" of those "professional oppositionals" presently defending the freedom of the press. He penetratingly discerned a "retroactive need to compensate for not having resisted [during the Nazi period]," a problem still plaguing oppositional social movements in Germany today (as seen, for example, in the arguments mustered during the Gulf War in 1991). Thielicke concluded by noting that it would be a "cheap show" to try to emulate in the present what had required true heroism in the case of the White Rose.

In 1967 Peter Müller from the Max-Planck-Society for the Advancement of Science in Berlin held another noteworthy speech in commemoration of the White Rose. It was titled "German Universities between Resistance and Collaboration." Müller discussed both the historical dimension of student resistance and the present situation at German universities. He said that there was one sole retrospective reproach one could make: student resistance had not begun until it was too late; bye the early 1940s fundamental political change could no longer have been expected. He made specific bourgeois intellectual traditions, namely mistrust of democracy and trust in authority, responsible for the lateness and inefficacy of university-based resistance. He called for an end to the strict separation of "objective scientific pursuits" and the "awareness of political and social responsibility."

1968 marked the 25th anniversary of the execution of the Scholls and their compatriots, but it was also the year in which neo-nazi parties were elected to the state legislatures in Bavaria and Hesse. It was also the high point of post-war student activism. Walter Bußmann, a recognized German historian of the contemporary period, was invited to speak at the annual University ceremony. His words, which echoed the dominant motifs of the early post-war period, were disrupted several times by his listeners. He traced the White Rose members' will to resist back to their individual, personal development, since, he claimed, it did not originate with political considerations, but from spiritual, moral and Christian principles. He pointed out that the leaflets were not suited to appeal to the masses because they were too intellectual.

Left-wing Munich student groups called for a boycott of the official event with Bußmann, where they unfurled banners proclaiming slogans such as "Those who celebrate resistance are repressing it." Instead, they offered an alternative "Anti-fascist week of the Scholl Siblings" with, for instance, a teach-in about "Neo-fascism in West Germany." After the debacle with Bußmann, the University did not attempt to sponsor any memorial ceremonies until 1979. It was not so much a problem of whether or even how the memory of the White Rose was to be kept alive, but who was to preserve which memory.

Left-oriented groups such as the Association of the Victims of Nazism and a Protestant student group, as well as more radical socialist and Marxist groups, kept the commemorative tradition alive during the 1970s and in Hamburg. The University did its best to hinder their efforts with measures such as denying the groups the use of university rooms. Mirroring his predecessor's support of anti-communist wreath thieves, the rector feared the "abuse of the memory of the Scholl siblings for Communist party politics."

An attempt to reestablish the official university tradition failed in 1979 for fear of disruption by "a minority of extremist and violent anarchists," which caused the co-sponsoring German Trade Union Association to withdraw its support. But the political climate was changing. In 1979 the TV broadcast of the film "Holocaust" galvanized a younger generation with no experience of the politically charged 1960s and early 70s to inquire about and investigate the Nazi period. In 1980 the ceremony was bolstered by additional public-relations measures, such as the publication of a brochure written by a student for students under the auspices of Munich University. Manes Sperber, a left-wing writer who, however, took a hard-line stance in the Cold War, spoke about the "Dialectics of Collaboration and Resistance" at the first University-sponsored ceremony in 12 years. His thought-provoking comments probed the difference between the bonds of untruth that unite collaborators, and the respect for and love of truth that fuels resistance, including that of the White Rose. Two generations after the demise of the White Rose, its official commemoration was finally freed from expiatory religious mystification and feeble attempts at Cold War ideological functionalization, to focus on fundamental questions of human behavior and its political consequences.

V. (back to top)

Finally, on the 40th anniversary of the executions in 1983, a second, as yet unbroken series of official commemorations at Munich University set in. The 40th anniversary of the executions in 1983 was marked by the premiere of Michael Verhoeven's documentary film about the White Rose. Willi Graf's sister Anneliese Knoop-Graf presented a biographical account of the group's members, and University President professor Hermann Krings interpreted what he saw as "the political meaning of the sign of the White Rose." True to expiatory tradition, the University President saw the White Rose as evidence that even during its deepest humiliation a force for renewal was alive in the university. For him, the predetermined failure of the White Rose was its most important aspect. He attributed what he called the "pointlessness" of the attempt to the downfall of democratic society before the Nazi period. The moral of his story was that the democratic state, by implication 1983 West Germany, should be defended in all crises.

Professor Krings argued at length that the resistance of the White Rose was a sign, not an example to be followed. The White Rose was an uprising against evil, he said, and since evil could not be countered by normal political means (as opposed to injustice, which could be), the movement was unpolitical. Again we see the official attempt to depoliticize the White Rose, which in actuality, at the latest by early 1943, had developed concrete political goals.

Every year since 1983 Munich University has hosted an official memorial ceremony, all with speeches from widely recognized academics who gave highly personal accounts of what they saw as the relevance of the White Rose. Their individual emphases ranged from the discussion of religious issues (Michael Wyschogrod, 1986; Hans Maier, 1988) to more concretely political assessments (Hermann Krings, 1983; Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, 1987; Peter Steinbach, 1989; Hans Mommsen, 1992), to philosophical contextualizations in the framework of moral theories (Arthur Kaufmann, 1990; Gotthard Jasper, 1991). Common to all of them is the personal coming to terms with the lives, deeds, and writings of the members of the White Rose. They are characterized as much by introspection as by retrospection.

This change vis-à-vis the commemorations 20 years earlier is evidence of a change in the underlying collective memories of the White Rose. No longer were the speakers addressing an audience that shared the direct experience of Hitler's Germany and seeking to deduce abstract meanings from the White Rose about that experience. By the 1980s the lectures aimed to revivify the White Rose and imbed it into a politically meaningful context in the present.

The story of remembering the White Rose does not end there, however. For about a decade there has been a parallel series of commemorative events sponsored by student groups. In the late 1970s the officially institutionalized student government ("ASta") was abolished by the Bavarian state, but an independent, grass-roots organization grew to take its place ("u-ASta"). Since the early 1980s that group has lobbied, unsuccessfully, to have the "Ludwig-Maximilian" University at Munich renamed after the Scholl siblings. In the tradition of the 1968 teach-ins, it has sponsored lecture series about problems of contemporary German society, for instance in 1993 on German racism and hatred of foreigners. At each event the student organizers explained to the audience that they were representatives of the "Geschwister Scholl University," and were committed to supporting the discussion of contemporary topics the University administration did not deem important enough to sponsor.

VI. (back to top)

Looking back over 50 years of remembering the White Rose, Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker said in his address in 1993 that the decisive issue was how today's students reflect upon the legacy of the White Rose. The White Rose's hope that a broader public would follow their example was bitterly disappointed at the time of their actions, leading Weizsäcker to ask whether the group could be seen as the beginning of a new political tradition. He argued that freedom is responsibility, the responsibility to defend human rights whenever they are endangered. As a sign of the readiness and capacity to assume that responsibility, the White Rose is a sign of hope, he concluded, but ultimately each generation decides anew whether it will preserve a tradition.

And that is perhaps why we are here today, half a world and half a century away from those Munich students in Nazi Germany: to reflect on how remembering might help us to continue a tradition of preserving a humane world from the encroachments of power. In the words of the Czech author Milan Kundera, "the struggle of humanity against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

text published 1994, added to web site 1997, formatting updated 3/17/05, 1/8/10;
French translation 10/20/14, Portuguese translation 4/30/18
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