After WWII as the reconstruction of Europe took place, it was considered impolite – or perhaps merely futile – to ask Germans of military age “What did you do in the war?” The standard answer was, “I fought the Soviets on the eastern front.” There’s enough distance from the war to see the humor in the lie. But here are two answers to the question – deadly serious – provided by two young German women.
Sophie Scholl was a German college student and underground anti-Nazi activist. The Nazis executed her and her brother Hans in 1943 after they were caught distributing subversive flyers. Oblivious to Nazi propaganda, they saw the lies, the contempt for human life, the manipulative hold on the citizens, and the useless murderous wars. The magnificent 2005 German historical film, “Sophie Scholl – The Final Days,” tells her story.
The film chronicles the arrest of Sophie and her brief trial. The drama begins with the sensitive and frightened young lady under brutal interrogation and concludes with the regime on trial, indicted by Sophie’s strength of character and prophetic witness. As the judge pronounces the defendants guilty, Sophie makes her final statement. Before her death sentence, she tells the court that “where we stand today, you will stand soon.” In the final scene, thousands of leaflets fall from the sky from Allied airplanes over Munich, copies of Sophie’s “Manifesto of the Students of Munich.”
But this great film falls short in identifying Sophie’s Christian motives. Sophie and her brother were devout Lutherans but attracted to the Catholic faith because of their interest in John Henry Newman. The writings of Saint Augustine, Pascal, and Catholic scholasticism all influenced them. With minds steeped in Christian thought, they understood that the crisis in Germany was spiritual.
Here are a few quotes from their treasonous flyers: “Man is defenseless against evil without God … he is like a ship without a rudder, abandoned to the storm.” They deplored the apathy of people who expected others to rescue them from the “dictatorship of evil.” “… for with every day that you still hesitate, that you do not resist this spawn of hell, your guilt increases like a parabolic curve higher and higher.” They called the extermination of the Jews “the most horrific crime against the dignity of man, a crime, that is unlike any in the history of mankind.”
The story of young Traudl Junge, a contemporary of Sophie Scholl, provides a striking contrast. Sophie was executed in 1943 when she was 22. In 1942 when Traudl Junge was 22 years of age, she became Adolph Hitler’s youngest secretary. Decades after the war she said, “I was 22 and I didn't know anything about politics; it didn't interest me.”
Another gripping historical film, “Downfall,” tells the story of Traudl Junge and describes Hitler's last days in his Berlin underground bunker. The movie is unnerving because it accurately depicts moral monsters – like Hitler, Eva Braun, and others – with capacities for ordinary human kindness and tenderness. We need our Hitlers to be scary and larger than life. We cannot bear that they might have human faces like ours.
Later in life, Junge said she felt great guilt for “...liking the greatest criminal ever to have lived.” She said, “I admit, I was fascinated by Adolf Hitler. He was a pleasant boss and a fatherly friend. I deliberately ignored all the warning voices inside me and enjoyed the time by his side, almost until the bitter end. It wasn't what he said, but the way he said things and how he did things.”
She continues: “Of course, the horrors, of which I heard in connection of the Nuremberg trials; the fate of the 6 million Jews, their killing and those of many others who represented different races and creeds, shocked me greatly, but, at that time, I could not see any connection between these things and my own past. I was only happy that I had not personally been guilty of these things and that I had not been aware of the scale … .”
In 2002, an elderly Traudl Junge looked back at her life and concluded an interview with this stunning self-revelation:
“One day, I walked past a plaque on the Franz-Joseph Straße (in Munich), on the wall in memory of Sophie Scholl. I could see that she had been born the same year as I, and that she had been executed the same year I entered into Hitler’s service. And, at that moment, I really realized that it was no excuse that I had been so young. I could perhaps have tried to find out about things.”
Shortly thereafter, Junge died from cancer in Munich at the age of 81.
The account of Sophie Scholl’s death is reminiscent of the serenity of the martyrs of the early Church. The executioner, Johann Reichhart, who carried out capital punishment on 3,000 people during the Third Reich (and after the war continuing his work for the Americans executing Nazi war criminals until the end of May 1946), said he had never seen anybody die as bravely as Sophie and her brother. Their parents had only ten minutes with their children shortly before the execution. They said the faces of their children were luminous.
In our day, many of us are prone to change the subject when politicians claim the right to infanticide, before and after birth. Our public schools have become moral cesspools because of the neglect of parents. And much of the clergy have become complacent – at times notoriously so – in their chanceries, rectories, and parsonages.
But this time, we cannot plead: “I cannot see any connection between these things and my own past.” Nor can we be consoled that we “have not been personally been guilty of these things.” Who among us can deny that we are aware of the scale of these things?
Someday, we will be asked by the Divine Judge, “What did you do during the war?” “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44)
Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.