Witnessing For Peace In A Violent World: I

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:


Views: 30

Comment by Elizabeth Bullock-Rest on 3rd mo. 13, 2009 at 12:51pm
Thanks for the blog and links, Michael. Not only am I married to a Jewish man and therefore gripped by thoughts about the relationship of genocide to the peace testimony, but Fayetteville Friends Meeting has an attender, a well known holocaust biographer, Peter Marchant, who cannot let this issue go either. At Fayetteville Friends Spring Retreat, Peter is going to have the our Quaker teen group, "Q-Life," lead the the adults on a series of improv plays about how one would respond in situations of provocation and violence. I will refer the teenagers and the rest of Meeting to what you have written here.

All blessings to you,
Shalom, Peace, Salaam,
Comment by Martin Kelley on 3rd mo. 13, 2009 at 7:41pm
Sorry for the pop-culture reference, but there was a funny, almost throw-away line on "30 Rock" recently where the Christian Evangelical character Kenneth chides someone giving him a "what if" question by replying that questions like those are "like playing a trick on your brain." It's kind of true. I'm not sure any of us really know what'd we do. And if examples of small scale heroism I've witness hold true, the people who are the biggest talkers are often the first to go while it's the people you least expect who stand up for justice and hold firm.

One of the insights of Quakerism that drew me to it was that the assurance that we can rely on the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit. When the time comes we will know what to do. It seems to me that the best way to prepare is to learn how to listen and to pray that we will be given the strength for both our any daily heroism we may be called to as well as any life-changing ones. Learning about the Friends in Nazi Germany is one way to remember who we are and what is possible with faith.


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