The White Rose: From “Politics” to “The City of God”

The classically-oriented Christian culture in which Sophie Scholl and friends was brought up represents a consciousness profoundly different from either the popular or academic culture of today.

A scene from the 2005 Oscar-nominated film, "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days".

“Only religion can reawaken Europe, establish the rights of the peoples, and install Christianity in new splendor visibly on earth in its office as guarantor of peace.” — Novalis, as quoted in White Rose Pamphlet #4

In one especially memorable scene from Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, the protagonist finds herself imprisoned and awaiting trial.  German authorities have discovered that she is a member of the White Rose, a dissident group of Munich university students who in 1942 and 1943 disseminated pseudonymous pamphlets calling for resistance Hitler’s regime.  As a fleet of Allied strategic bombers rumbles overhead to begin a night-time air raid, Sophie goes to the window of her cell and looks out to a dark sky lit up by bombs and the flashing of anti-aircraft fire.  “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee,” she muses.  It is an extraordinary image of man’s violent passions being translated into history, and of the peace which can reconcile and transcend passions and history alike.

In case the reader is wondering, the real Sophie Scholl was a Lutheran who did indeed have a devotion to Saint Augustine.  After Sophie and her brother Hans were caught distributing subversive pamphlets they were taken into custody for interrogation, and soon so too were the other students of the White Rose’s inner circle.  Along with Catholics Willi Graf and Christoph Probst, and the Eastern Orthodox Alexander Schmorell, the Scholl siblings were convicted of treason and then guillotined.  

Certainly this episode could be taken as an example of revolutionary youth defying the pressure to conform to an unjust society.  Yet it is important to beware of oversimplification, lest too great an emphasis upon the mythology of revolution cause the White Rose to be conflated with protest movements of the present.  Whether he is marching on behalf of reproductive rights, open borders, gay marriage, or gun control, the typical activist of our own time is safely aligned with an elite political orthodoxy representing enormous reservoirs of wealth and prestige.  A “social justice warrior” who purports to battle oppression over Twitter is about as likely to get invited to the White House as he is to get beheaded.

Moreover, the classically-oriented Christian culture in which Sophie was brought up represents a consciousness profoundly different from either the popular or academic culture of today.  In the event his attention span affords him any civic interests at all, the modern student is inclined to calibrate his moral compass via John Lennon, Michel Foucault, and The Big Lebowski, whereas the Munich students looked to Greek philosophers, nineteenth-century Romantics, and the Bible.  It is doubtful that moral imaginations informed by the unfashionable latter set of sources would be welcomed on today’s campus.  If we consider the first White Rose pamphlet, for example, we find every German “conscious of his responsibility as a member of Christian and Western civilization” being urged to sabotage Hitler’s “atheistic war machine.”  In this context “atheistic” is obviously assumed to have pejorative connotations, and obvious too is the assumption that Christendom and Western civilization are real bodies deserving allegiance.  And it is just as obvious that in 2016 the expression of such assumptions by a university student during a class discussion would alienate him from his professor.  Depending upon the tempers of those involved, a refusal to recant might even get the student offender expelled from the classroom.

Unlike most of their modern American counterparts the Munich students were taught to be comfortable with and even proud of their own heritage, as is evident from references in the pamphlets to German thinkers such as Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg – the man better known by his pen name, “Novalis.”  Mystically and aesthetically minded, Novalis extolled the Middle Ages and called for a restoration of the Christian unity which had been shattered by the Reformation.  Like other Romantics, he was repelled by the sterility of European rationalism and sought to revive a richer conception of life as art.  Given how some academics insist that the German Romantic legacy is tainted, the White Rose’s choice of intellectual ammunition should give us pause:  The pamphlets are informed neither by John Stuart Mill nor by Voltaire, but by a neo-medievalist and sworn enemy of the Enlightenment.  

And given how often we are told today that the liberal code is timeless, universal, and non-negotiable, it is interesting to contrast the number of times key liberal terms appear in the six pamphlets with the number of times a certain more conventional, traditional expression comes up.   Inclusiveness, zero, human rights, zero, equality, zero.  God, eight.  In this regard the third pamphlet warrants special attention, as it relates how “the state should exist as a parallel to the divine order, and the highest of all utopias, the civitas dei, is the model which in the end it should approximate.”  To say the least, such an agenda hardly foreshadows that of the ACLU, and in offering a metaphysical framework for the struggle against National Socialism the following passage only carries the Augustinian theme even further: 

Behind the concrete, the visible events, behind all objective, logical considerations, we find the irrational element: The struggle against the demon, against the servants of the Antichrist. Everywhere and at all times demons have been lurking in the dark, waiting for the moment when man is weak; when of his own volition he leaves his place in the order of Creation as founded for him by God in freedom; when he yields to the force of evil, separates himself from the powers of a higher order; and after voluntarily taking the first step, he is driven on to the next and the next at a furiously accelerating rate. Everywhere and at all times of greatest trial men have appeared, prophets and saints who cherished their freedom, who preached the One God and who His help brought the people to a reversal of their downward course. Man is free, to be sure, but without the true God he is defenseless against the principle of evil.

Here the reader is invited to imagine how high pitched would be the hysteria of The New York Times were any prominent foreign (or domestic) public figure to start sprinkling his speeches with phrases like “the order of Creation,” “the true God,” or “the struggle against the demon, against the servants of the Antichrist.”  Like it or not, the pamphlets employed an idiom which would now be immediately identified with “fundamentalism” – which is to say, with religion understood as the fundamental basis for a way of life, as opposed to an ornamental accessory to be unpacked and dusted off for holidays, weddings, and funerals.  

There is one thing just as opposed to progressive ideology as theistic convictions earnestly held, and as it turns out that one thing – classical political thought – also occupies a prominent place in the pamphlets.  “The family is as old as man himself,” proclaims Pamphlet Three, “and out of this initial bond man, endowed with reason, created for himself a state founded on justice, whose highest law was the common good.”  Innocuous though it may seem, this statement is as seditious now as it was in Hitler’s Germany, for neither the idea of the common good nor the claim that the state’s authority is derived from that of the family can be reconciled with the personal liberation cult currently hardwired into Western jurisprudence.  Between a politics based upon “this initial bond” and one based upon the hyperindividualism of Roe v. Wade, there is little common ground.

In the third pamphlet’s conclusion we even see an explicit appeal to the wisdom of the Philosopher himself, by way of an extended quote from his Politics:  

. . . and further, it is part [of the nature of tyranny] to strive to see to it that nothing is kept hidden of that which any subject says or does, but that everywhere he will be spied upon, . . . and further, to set man against man and friend against friend, and the common people against the privileged and the wealthy. Also it is part of these tyrannical measures, to keep the subjects poor, in order to pay the guards and the soldiers, and so that they will be occupied with earning their livelihood and will have neither leisure nor opportunity to engage in conspiratorial acts. . . . Further, [to levy] such taxes on income as were imposed in Syracuse, for under Dionysius the citizens gladly paid out their whole fortunes in taxes within five years. Also, the tyrant is inclined constantly to foment wars.

Most Americans – including even many Catholics – are offended or at least embarrassed by Aristotle’s failure to measure up to modern standards.  Perhaps all along we would have done better to ask ourselves how well our recent presidential administrations measure up to Aristotlean standards?

The point here is not to put the Munich students on a pedestal, much less suggest that their every remark about government and religion was infallible.  Rather, the point is that some ironic and even absurd implications have emerged from the Overton window’s relentless leftward drift.  The pamphlets which cost the Scholls and their companions their lives were motivated by works, ideas, and attitudes that have since been declared suspect if not out of bounds by the myriad cultural watchdogs of the Open Society.  Yesterday’s anti-Nazi utterance is indistinguishable from today’s right-wing micro-aggression.  

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About Jerry Salyer 54 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.