On New Year’s Eve, Clare and I saw the 2005 German film Sophie Scholl: Die Letzen Tage (The Last Days). The film tells the incredible true story of Hans and Sophie Scholl, a brother and sister who were students at the University of Munich in 1943 and who with several other brave young people formed the White Rose resistance movement against the Nazis. Hans, who had served on the Eastern Front, had witnessed with horror the execution of Jews by members of an Einsatzgruppen unit, and Hans’s and Sophie’s father had served a prison term for criticizing the war. The resistance of these young White Rose heroes was as futile as it was courageous. Unable to do anything more, they wrote and distributed leaflets denouncing Hitler and his regime, expressing pacifist sentiments, and criticizing the war effort. They were executed for distributing these leaflets.
I’d read about the White Rose before, but the film raised disturbing questions for me as a new Friend. As a Quaker, I am a pacifist. It’s fine for me to say this: I live in a relatively democratic state that is, theoretically at least, committed to freedom of speech and thought, and that has traditionally recognized conscientious objection to war. But at a time when America is becoming increasingly militarized and civil liberties are being sharply curtailed, would I ever be willing to pay the price Sophie and Hans and their friends paid? I remember doing little more than writing letters during the months before the Iraq War and, while I opposed that war from the beginning and was always disturbed by the propaganda barrage that acommpanied it, I was unwilling to do much except that which put me to the least trouble. If another U.S. administration were to start a war of choice again, would I be willing -- as I was not during the mad rush to war in the months leadng up to March 2003 -- to brave the opprobrium of my fellow citizens for resisting or criticizing the war efforts of my own government?
I did a bit of research after seeing the film and learned that there were small groups of Quakers in Nazi Germany. Some British and American Friends did relief work prior to the war and were expelled once war was declared in 1939 and 1941. But I hadn't previously realized there were German Quakers as well who, incredibly, continued to witness to the Light and try to see that of God in everyone, even while living inside the most monstrous police state in history.
These Friends faced crises of conscience on a daily basis: they had to decide whether or not to return a Hitler salute, (until 1938) patronize Jewish shops, or participate in an economy that was completely oriented around the subjugation of the people of Europe. Amazingly, Quakerism in Germany survived the war, although of course many Quakers did not. The faith and everyday heroism of these Friends is awe-inspiring. Can we in the United States or Britain, faced with the increasing authoritarianism and militarism of our country, do any less than they did?
Here are some links on the experiences of Quakers in Nazi Germany: