A leader of the rebel student group, The White Rose, who fought against the Nazi regime and was ultimately arrested and executed for his actions- alongside his sister Sophie and friend Cristoph- Hans Scholl is undoubtedly a hero of history.
But in recent years Hans story has largely been overshadowed, at least in terms of the popular historical narrative, by his sister, Sophie. And that make sense. Sophie Scholl has become one of the most well known women in modern history. Growing up she pretty much the first (non royal) female figure from history that I learnt about in depth; she was on my school curriculum, there were countless books and films about her and every year on her death social media goes into a flurry remembering this incredible young woman. So is it unfair that when raising up women in an incredibly over saturated historical narrative, sometimes those men that stood with them will become a footnote. Of course. Is it understandable? Sadly, yes.
But we can’t let that happen to Hans Scholl. Here’s why:
- We’re just realising that a huge part of Hans story has been intentionally buried. He was most likely bisexual, and before his work with The White Rose he had actually been arrested for homosexuality.
- More importantly – because Hans challenges what we think a hero is.
He didn’t just start on the wrong side of history, he was at the 1936 Nuremberg rally as a poster-boy for the Nazi regime.
It’s so easy to look at history and say ‘I would have been the one to stand up, risk it all and fight’, it’s much harder to do. And that’s why we need stories like Hans, especially in the current global political climate! So, without further ado, lets dive into the hidden history of Hans Scholl.
Born in 1918 in Forchtenberg Hans was the second oldest of his siblings, Inge, Elisabeth, Sophie, Werner and Thilde.
He joined The Hitler Youth, with his brothers and sisters all following suit. But though the siblings all revelled in their roles in this new nation creating youth group, their parents weren’t so keen.
Their father, Robert, was incredibly against the rising Nazi Regime. A former mayor, he’d actually been kicked out of office for his progressive views. But this didn’t stop him from still vocalising his thoughts against Hitlers rise to power. And so the Scholl children joined the Hitler Youth against their parents wishes. No matter how much Robert debated Hitler and his government’s policies with his children, they just rolled their eyes. As Elisabeth later said, the reason behind the kids refusal to budge was one as old as time:
‘We just dismissed it: he’s too old for this stuff, he doesn’t understand’
Their dad was from a different generation, one whose future ambitions were limited, a hangover from the nationwide social and economic scarring from Germany’s defeat in WW1. And so, his children thought that there was just no way he could get the kind of bold promises that were being made by Adolf Hitler under the guise of National Socialism.
Hans believed in the promise of the Nazis. A future lay before him full of opportunity and better yet it was a future where he was more than wanted. Tall, strong, smart, blonde and blue eyed, Hans was the ideal young man for Germany’s future. Even being chosen as a flag bearer at 1936’s Nuremberg Rally.
He was prepped as a potential high ranking official in the parties future. Hans natural leadership skills nurtured and honed.
But that’s not to say that Hans hadn’t started to notice things that jarred. At the Nuremberg Rally, he met party leaders whose extreme views shocked him. With these men there was no room for debate or discussion on how things should or could be. Their world view was set in stone, the Nazi ideology the only true answer. They would even dictate what Hans could read, with a leader snatching a book by one of the era’s most popular authors, the Jewish born, Stefan Zweig, out of Hans’ hands, declaring it to be banned.
Still Hans continued. He returned to his normal life, now a Hitler Youth troop leader.
Though his day to day was struck through to the core with the Nazi ideals, their ever rising power everywhere, Hans life felt a world away from the zealotry of the Nuremberg Rally. But then Hans allowed his troop to create their own banner. Intertwining the organisations existing banner with meaningful tributes from the boys own lives and community. And the unbudging might of the Nazi Regime came crashing down. Hans was out, his role as a Hitler Youth Leader gone.
At the same time, as Hans run in with the regime, the Scholl siblings noticed that their Jewish classmates were leaving school. Sophie, was disciplined for performing a poem by a Jewish poet. And all the while there were whispered stories of young people being spirited away to camps after speaking out against the party.
Suddenly they realised their parents had been right all along. As the new order that the Scholl siblings had believed in so deeply mutated into something entirely different, all they could do was huddle ever closer together as the world around them span out of control.
Possibly seeking some escape, teenage Hans and Werner both joined a chapter of the German Youth Movement. For a few hours they could lose the harsh realities of home and flee to the woods; hiking, swimming and singing round campfires.
But the respite didn’t last long and in 1937, at nineteen, Hans was conscripted to carry out mandatory military duties.
By all accounts Hans did well in the army. Just like in his Hitler Youth days he was held in esteem by his superiors. He joined the Calvary and it was expected that he despite his previous indiscretions, this young man would achieve great things.
But that didn’t happen. Because on December 13 1937, Hans was arrested by the Gestapo.
Hans was arrested along with his brother Werner and sisters, Inge and Sophie, as well as several other youths. They were accused of being in an illegal youth group, which was true.
In 1936 most youth groups outside of government sanctioned ones, were outlawed. So those days Hans had spent in hiking and camping with his friends were illegal.
Still, this was a minor infraction committed by well behaved middle class kids. And so Sophie, Inge and Werner were released.
But Hans was kept incarcerated. It had come out during the investigation that he had committed a far greater crime:
Hans had fallen for another boy in his youth group, Rolf Futterknecht. The two shared an teenage romance; the kind of idlic first love whose relationship blossomed throughout their weekend camping trips.
There’s little to suggest that this relationship outlived the typical teenage relationship, but as with any first love, it left a lasting impact. Which could explain why, despite Rolf having admitted to the affair under questioning, by the time Hans was interrogated he still sought to shield Rolf from the full criminal impact, saying:
‘I must admit I am the guilty party. To some extent I was seen by (Rolf) as someone in a position of authority to who he subordinated himself.’
Though later in the interrogation saying:
‘I can only justify my actions on the basis of the great love I felt’
Rolf was spared being charged, in return for testifying against Hans.
Ultimately Hans was found guilty.
But he was lucky. Thanks to his previous roles in the Hitler Youth and already strong military record, a lot of people came out to bat for him during sentencing. All of this combined meant that Hans’ judge was persuaded to let him go free. Putting it all down to youthful ‘indiscretion’.
Hans was lucky. His friend, Ernst Reden was not. A fellow member of the illegal youth group, Ernst was also put on trial for homosexuality and was sentenced to a term in a concentration camp, where he would join hundreds of other men and women, all guilty of the same ‘crime’. By the end of the Nazi regime, thousands of those branded with the pink triangle badge would perish inside the camps.
Much later, Hans surviving family would choose not to let this part of his life become public knowledge, perhaps scared that his sexuality and arrest might in some way stop people from remembering him as a ‘hero’. This chapter of Hans’ life was missing, glossed over and was only uncovered in full recently when historians started re-examining the Gestapo transcripts from the trial.
Following his trial, Hans wrote in his diary:
‘If you tear our hearts from our bodies, you yourselves will burn to death for it’
Inwardly, he may have started to battle against the dictatorship he now lived under, but that’s not what Hans was portraying to the outside world.
He was a young man who had just gone through a hugely traumatic experience. He now knew the full ramifications that being ‘caught’ in love could cause. Yes, he wanted to speak out -after all he’d done so before – but at what cost? Hans knew full well that you didn’t get three strikes in Nazi Germany – one more arrest and he’d be out.
So he quietly continued his life. He gained a place to study medicine in Munich and when World War Two kicked off, he worked as a medic on the front line.
Here he met other young men, who like him had hopefully believed in the Nazis promised utopian future and were now getting their legs blown off for their trouble.
He slept in homes whose families had been thrown into the street, shipped off or now lay dead nearby. He saw not only the horrors of war but realised the emerging scale of the atrocities that were now being carried out at home.
Then, in 1942 Hans’ father was arrested. Robert was reported for speaking out against Hitler and the war, and was sentenced to four months in prison. The family rallied around their father as best they could. They wrote to him every two weeks (all they were allowed to do) with Sophie attempting to see her father by playing music for him under the prison window she believed him to be in.
Hans was on the front line when the arrest happened. Away from home, he hoped he might be able to help by using his position in the army to plead for clemency on behalf of his dad. But he was talked out of doing so by a senior in the army. Feeling powerless he wrote to his mum:
“…I think so much about father, and in the way it can only happen in Russia, I shoot up the whole tone-scale of my personality to the highest tone of rage”
That rage boiled inside him. Hans knew how unstoppable the Nazi regime was. The unthinkable damage it would do if allowed to continue. Yes he knew the risks, but someone had to speak up. To fight tyranny with fact and freedom of thought. Slowly his rage evolved into resolve. And by the time Hans arrived back in Munich to continue his studies, he was a fully changed man.
The White Rose was ready to bloom.
The White Rose has gone down in history as arguably the most well known civilian resistance group to fight the Nazi regime. Primarily made up of students, they were the antithesis to the brutality they sought to bring down. Utilising intellectual passive protest to both oppose and spread awareness of the atrocities being committed by the regime.
There is no true historical consensus on exactly how the White Rose was formed. However we do know that Hans was at the heart of its conception, along with fellow students, Alexander Schmorell, Juegen Wittenstien, Christopher Probst, Will Graf and Hans younger sister, Sophie. The group committed themselves to turning the tide against Hitlers regime. And unlike the Nazis they vowed not to change minds by brute force, but by arming people with the truth.
Protest graffiti was painted in the dead of night, secret meetings held and an illegal printing factory created.
The groups numbers swelled, secretly assisted and advised by one of the university’s staff, Professor Huber. Hans soon emerged as the leader of the White Rose.
Time and time again, Hans was warned of the grave risk his actions put him in. That if caught, he’d pay the ultimate price. But Hans remained undeterred. He had a duty to tell people about the atrocities happening under their noses, to reach people that were, like he had once been, tied up into the Nazi regime. To show that there was another way.
And so when the White Rose’s printing press whirred into action, it marked hundreds of papers with the words:
‘We will not be silenced. We are your bad conscience.’
The group secretly organised to spread their leaflets through multiple German cities and targeted them both at the general population and directly mailed them to influential higher ups.
Their message was heard far and wide, as the group exposed hidden atrocities, and called for people to stand up and be heard in the struggle for freedom of speech.
On 18 February 1943, Hans and Sophie joined forces to arrange another leaflet drop. They set their sights on the main Munich University building, leaving bundles of leaflets outside lecture halls for students to come across after classes had finished. As they were about to leave, they realised a number of leaflets were leftover and so in the final push of the day, tossed them over a staircase onto the universities atrium floor. The leaflets lying as an inescapable carpet of protest for anyone entering or exiting the building.
But the pair were seen and quickly captured.
Evidence was gathered and Hans and Sophie were arrested, along with fellow White Rose member and a young father of three, Cristoph Probst, after a draft leaflet signed by him was found in one of the siblings rooms.
Four days later on 22 February 1943, Christoph, Sophie and Hans were all made to take part in a show trial. The judge, Roland Freisler was notorious for both his harshness and for deciding sentencing before a trial had actually begun.
Hans and Sophie were both fortunate enough to be able to see their families in court. Christoph pleaded for the judge to think of his three children and now sick wife.
It fell on deaf ears. Freisler found all three guilty of treason and sentenced them to death. The sentence would be carried out that evening.
Before being rushed out of court, Hans managed to say goodbye to his parents, and urge his brother Werner, who was on the verge of tears to:
“stay strong. No compromises.”
That evening, after being allowed to briefly meet again one last time, brother, sister and friend, were all beheaded by guillotine. Hans’ last words were a defiant:
“Long live freedom”
- Hans Scholl, Cristoph Probst and Sophie Scholl
But the story doesn’t end there. The rest of the Scholl family were arrested whilst they ate breakfast. It was an act of Sippenhaft, a German term that means families take responsibility for the action of their kin. Thousands more families like the Scholls would be arrested as WW2 marched on.
Professor Huber, along with students and White Rose members, Hans Leiput, Willi Graf, Alexander Schmorell were all executed after quick show trials.
This was quickly followed by more of the members being rounded up and either sent to the front line or to prison.
Then in late 1943, a group of Hamburg students who’d been inspired by The White Rose and were attempting to keep the movement alive, were captured. Reinhold Meyer, Katharina Leipelt, Elisabeth Lange, Greta Rolfe, Kurt Leiden, Friedrich Rudolf Geussenhainer, and Margarethe Mrosek, would all die, either from disease or hunger in prison, or hastily executed without trial as the war came to a close.
- Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, Katharina Leipelt, Friedrich Rudolf Geussenhainer, Margarethe Mrosek and Professor Huber
Shortly after Hans, Sophie and Cristoph’s deaths, the White Rose sixth, final and censored leaflet was liberated. Mass printed and released with the heading:
‘Despite everything their spirit lives on’
It was spread across Germany. Copies dropped as a form of peaceful bombing by The Royal Airforce. The leaflets wound their way around Europe before going trans Atlantic. They showed a side to the German people many on the allied side had forgotten. With anecdotal evidence, historians believe that the word of the White Rose even found its way into concentration camps.
To this day the White Rose remains a key part of world history, taught in school and a constant reminder that even the quietest voice can be heard through the darkness.
And that brings me back to why Hans Scholl’s story is so important.
‘Heroes’ aren’t born a’la Harry Potter. There’s no crack of green light and suddenly you’re the chosen one. It’s just normal people, with mistakes and pasts, but who make that difficult choice. And sometimes those people are remembered and celebrated. But sometimes, like Hans, they’re an ‘and’; parts of their history glossed over. Their story is just to spikey, there’s too much grey, there’s no clear hero moment. But the difference they made, big or small, still echoes.
So here’s to not only Hans, but all of the forgotten members of the White Rose. Whose true stories may just be being discovered, but whose legacies live on.
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