Thursday, 17 February 2011

"Sophie Scholl - the Final Days"

Germany has produced some powerful films in recent years - "Downfall", "Goodbye Lenin" and "The Lives of Others" are perhaps the best known. But this week I watched the less well known "Sophie Scholl - the Final Days".

Sophie Scholl
Born in 1921, Sophie was one of six children of a Christian couple who became dissenters in Nazi Germany. Although Sophie had to join a Hitler youth group as part of her education, she became disenchanted with the hardline Reich and its persecution of minorities and individuals who did not conform - quite the contrary to her own view of the essential worth and dignity of all people. Her older brother Hans was arrested in 1937 for joining an opposition youth group, but it was when she was at university in 1943 that the two of them became associated with the non-violent White Rose Movement, which advocated passive resistance to the Nazis and the ending of the war.

Shortly after the disaster at Stalingrad, where tens of thousands of German troops were left to perish by Hitler, the White Rose began to distribute thousands of illicitly printed leaflets denouncing the Fuhrer and the war, leaving them in phone boxes or posting them at random through doors or through the post at huge risk to themselves. Hans and Sophie were arrested after being caught distributing leaflets at her university in Munich - and the rest, as they say, is history. In case you want to see the film, I won't explain the subsequent events, unsurprising as they may be.

What was so striking was how something as simple as distributing a leaflet questioning the policy of the Nazi Government could have become such a forbidden and forbidding act, a mere ten years after the last free elections in Germany. The Weimar Republic had seen an upsurge of free thought and activity in its brief life - that this could be squashed so totally and so quickly is a lesson to us all: here in our country, where we take for granted the right to issue any number of missives through people's doors, political, religious, commercial and other, to the point that many are heartily sick of them. Contrast this with Sophie and Hans, skulking around the corridors of the university, empty during classes, to distribute their message in sheer terror and utter fear.

The most chilling moments in the film have to be in the court scene, where Hans, Sophie and their friend, Christophe Proebst, are harangued by the rat-like Nazi Gauleiter, who, in a grotesque parody of a judicial process, spits out his charges against them and screams over their brave attempts to challenge him in front of a room filled with army officers. And yet, underlying their apparent isolation, the uncomfortable silence and glances of their audience mark out how in terms of genuine belief in the Nazi cause, the Gauleiter may have in fact been virtually alone. Still, no one spoke up for the accused, and even the state-appointed defence lawyer told his clients that they were a disgrace to the German nation.

Christophe Proebst, Sophie Scholl and Hans Scholl
British people, even supposedly learned historians, like to portray the Germans under Hitler as essentially passive, willing executioners of the Nazi Will. Yet whether Pastor Niemoller, or the White Rose, or the many military conspiracies which culminated in the Valkyrie assassination attempt that came so agonisingly close to success, there is a wealth of evidence to the contrary. Yes, Germans on the whole did comply with their Government - just as most British people would in similar circumstances. But among the crowds, many brave people stood up and out, and most paid the highest price of all - and in many cases, huge suffering was inflicted on their families too.

Monday coming marks the anniversary of Sophie's death: if you have not seen it, try to take some time soon to watch the story of her, and of Hans and Christophe. In a political landscape where even now there is often so much revision of the Nazis and rolling back of the extent of their evil regime and beliefs, remember the dark truth of the warning that all that is needed for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing.

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