Sophie Scholl — Proto Flower Child?
Sophie and Hans Scholl were two siblings who wrote for the pacifist White Rose collective in Nazi Germany. They were convicted of high treason by the Nazis after being caught distributing the collective’s anti-war leaflet. After a trial, they were both executed on the same day with their friend, Christoph Probst, in Munich in 1943. Several months later, millions of copies of their leaflets were dropped over Germany by British airplanes. With the recent publication of their collected letters and diaries in English, non-Germans can now have more insight into their lives…
The first time I saw a photo of Sophie Scholl, she had been edited out of her wartime background. I thought I was looking at a typical early hippie from San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury in 1967. Her gentle stance against Nazism and her dress style makes for an unsettling image. Despite having no connections to psychedelic culture, we could say that she was a proto flower child of her time.
Sophie Scholl grew up in Ulm, Germany. Her father — a pacifist — had served as a medic in the first world war. Her mother was, in her youth, a nurse. Both Sophie and her brother had been in the Hitler Youth movement (along with 4 million other children), but both became quickly disillusioned with the far right. Hans’ views became more entrenched after he joined the army as a medic. In the biography Sophie Scholl and The White Rose, the authors Dumbach and Newborn describe an episode from Sophie’s life in which she was traveling on a train from Ulm to Munich. This was a pivotal part of her life; she was heading to university for the first time to study philosophy and biology. She had a daisy in her hair — one imagines it was a large ox-eye daisy-like the one that appears in her photograph just two months later. The authors suggest it likely made her look unusual and younger than her 21 years. Her diaries and letters also show a love of nature which has similarities to the flower children. Here’s one example:
Just as I can’t see a clear brook without at least stopping to dangle my feet in it, I can’t see a meadow in May and simply pass by. There is nothing more seductive than such fragrant earth, the blossoms of clover swaying above it like light foam, the petal-decked branches of the fruit trees…No, I have to turn from my path and immerse myself in this richness…my cheek grazes the rough trunk of the apple tree next to me…Do I hear, perhaps a secret heartbeat? I am so indescribably happy in this instant.¹
White flowers and the Wandervogel
Sophie wasn’t the only youth to connect so deeply to the German countryside. Gangs of youth, the Wandervogel, would take to hiking the hills losing themselves in folksy romanticism and their wish to fuse with nature. Most were later disgusted at how the Nazis had hijacked their tradition with their political ambitions, polluting it with nationalism. When free thinking youths reacted against the Hitler Youth movement, they formed gangs, calling themselves the likes of, The Navajos, The Black Gang, The Kittlebach Pirates, and The Edelweiss Pirates.
White flowers like the Edelweiss play a common role in passive resistance and non-violent direct action. The first time I ever saw the white poppy as a symbol of remembrance was among anti-war protesters in the early 1980s. It symbolizes the loss of civilians in wartime. As for the society of The White Rose, Hans Scholl suggested it was taken from the title of a book he’d read, but that was said whilst under interrogation by the Gestapo. Ambiguity still surrounds the origin of the group’s name. Was it inspired to some extent by Sophie’s fondness for big, white daisies?
The dress code of the pirate gangs is interesting. It ranged from colorful checkered shirts to deliberate peasant, even shabby clothing. Boys grew their hair longer than the accepted social norm, while girls would often sport a bob. The girls hated the braids so popular with the Nazi Youth. The gangs listened to ‘degenerate’ swing music and shunned the Hitler Youth. Sometimes they’d proactively attack them.²
The White Rose and the d.j.1.11
Hans himself joined an intellectual version of the pirate gangs: the d.j.1.11. They had their own newsletter, The Storm Lantern, and they were already heading underground, using Germanic runes for identification. The name for their group came from DJ (Deutsche Jungenschaft), and the number was the date of their inception, 1/11/29. The lower case style was Bauhaus and modernist. They camped in wigwam style tents, celebrating the Kothe encampments of Lapland, and with their eclectic sense of humor, they sang cowboy laments from the USA.
Hans became a member of this group before splitting off to form The White Rose. It’s unclear what parts of The White Rose pamphlet were written by each member of the collective. At least one fellow resistor complained that they were too intellectual to spark a mass uprising. They didn’t speak to the ordinary, working class. What surprised me when reading the leaflets was the inclusion of two lengthy quotes from Lao-Tzu. The quotes likely came from Hans Scholl’s voracious appetite for reading books.
European pacifism in the 1930s
Sophie Scholl would have been just twelve years old in 1933 when the first wave of refugees came from Germany to Britain, comprising mainly of Jews and intellectuals. The Peace Pledge Union (PPU) was started the following year by Dick Sheppard, attracting luminaries such as Siegfried Sassoon, Bertrand Russell, Storm Jameson, and Aldous Huxley. In its first week, it attracted over 100,000 pledges from men sickened with the threat of a new world war. Germany had its pacifist rebellion too, with its participants running a greater risk than those in other countries. Today we might look back and view the movement as naive; what hope did the PPU offer in the shadow of rising Nazism in the 1930s? By the time the war broke out, they’d even been infiltrated by fascists who had no interest in pacifism. Realistically not much was achieved, but the PPU laid down a solid foundation for the anti-war movement in later decades.
Aldous Huxley was heavily involved with the initial PPU in the early 1930s. During a talk at a Quaker’s event in 1935, he suggested the possibility of a future social movement that went beyond mere pacifism and embraced a broader ‘spiritual’ experience. He thought that people would increasingly reject superstition and authoritative religion. They’d then mature to view ‘God…regarded, and if possible experienced as a psychological fact, present at least potentially in every human being.’³ His thoughts resonate with some of the Scholl’s letters and diary entries.
At the Quaker’s Friend’s House in London, Huxley envisioned a society in which peace would become a by-product of the basic human need to interact with one’s ‘spiritual’ nature. He felt that the vacuum left in the wake of materialism and atheism would be filled by a movement based on this need. I think this is where he started to anticipate the bridge between psychedelia (which still lay 30 years in the future) and the peace movement.
Counter culture and pop culture
Aldous died in 1963, so he missed the counter-culture bringing in so much change in the same decade. Just shortly before his death, he was already in touch with Timothy Leary (concerning his use of psilocybin) and had an enduring friendship with the pioneering psychologist, Humphry Osmond. He was aware that something remarkable was happening, but he didn’t last long enough to enjoy the ride. Both Huxley and Osmond were critical of Leary’s rebellious streak, unaware of how it would later play a perfect fit with the youth movement soon to follow. Huxley however, tapped into the potential of rock music to divert youthful energy away from warfare and nationalism and likened it to the wholistic nature of carnival culture.⁴ He suggested that the atavistic side of global pop culture had no need for religious sanction and served a useful social function, allowing millions of young people to let off steam.
Pacifism has been around for several millennia, but it became more pronounced in the 1960s with the pan-global anti-war movement. The flower child — as a collective social symbol — fed into the same movement, but I personally like to view the archetypal value behind the symbol as being separate from the radical politics of the time. The raw instinct which drove (and still drives) the hippie symbol has no connection to any moral stance. The hippies were not a reaction against the war in Vietnam. I suggest they could be viewed instead as a raw atavistic aspect of pop culture. Men adopted long hair as a defiant stance against the draft (in a similar manner to Hans who wore his hair long at the Eastern Front), but the roots of the hair in psychedelia has its origins at a deeper (archetypal) level.
The daisy and the Jew
One of the surviving sisters of Sophie and Hans, Inge Scholl, tells of an episode that occurred when Hans was heading for the Eastern Front in 1942. This was just days after he left the train station in Munich. The flower photograph (top) of Sophie Scholl shows her at the same station saying goodbye to her brother and friends.
According to Inge, Hans had later spotted some tired looking workers on the railroad when their train had stopped at a station in Poland. They were Jewish women prisoners wearing yellow stars, worked to exhaustion. He walked over to them and gave a food package to one of the women. The woman refused it on account of Hans’s German uniform. She did not realize he was a (hidden) pacifist medic. Hans picked a daisy growing nearby, placed it on the parcel, and walked back to the train. When he looked back he saw the woman wearing the daisy in her hair.⁵ There’s an echo here to Hans watching his sister wearing her big dog daisy when he left Munich for the Eastern Front just days before. It was an act of compassion he would have carried out several times in his visit to Russia.
The end of the diaries
There’s a tension which builds up in Sophie and Hans’s writings in the last few weeks of their life. Unconsciously there’s a feeling that a dam is about to burst and unleash a cataclysmic event. In the weeks before her death, Sophie’s boyfriend Fritz came under heavy fire in Stalingrad. In one touching scene, she writes to him including a photograph of herself which she’d torn from an album: ‘I tore it out of an album of Hans’s because the pose was ridiculous, and I’ve only left you the head…’
She decapitates her image just weeks before her execution by guillotine, by the Nazis. She jokes to Fritz how her hair is now growing long, her previous bob being a rebellion against the Nazi’s ideal image of womanhood. By contrast, Hans recalls how he’d be shouted at by his CO, at the Eastern Front for growing his hair too long. I think it’s both interesting and heartening the way young people react unconsciously to the (totalitarian) polarization of gender with the way they present their hair.
The prevailing white rose
The night before Sophie’s trial (and immediate death), fellow prisoner, Else Gebel, sat with her. She later recorded the following dream recounted by Sophie to her in the morning. Sophie dreamed she was climbing a steep hill with a child at her side in a white robe. The path was steep, but Sophie held on to the child to keep her safe. Suddenly a crevasse opened up. Sophie managed to place the child to safety on the far side of the chasm. She then fell into the abyss and woke up.⁶ Sophie Scholl herself said that we might view the child as the White Rose personified and passed into safekeeping.
Sophie’s boyfriend survived the Eastern Front. After the war, he became a judge and married Sophie’s sister, Elizabeth. He carried on Sophie’s legacy by advising young conscientious objectors and becoming an active member of the CND. Other people have also been inspired by the White Rose, including the first wave of German Greens, as I found out for myself in the 1980s.
The diaries and letters of the Scholl siblings have recently been translated into English in 2017. We can expect the legacy of the White Rose to continue and to bring further courage to those who wish to make a stand against fascism.
1 — Sophie Scholl, quoted in, Sophie Scholl and The White Rose, Annette Dumbach and Jud Newborn, p. 12, Oneworld, 2006.
2 — Adam Lebor & Roger Boyes, Surviving Hitler, p. 54, Pocket Books, 2000.
3 — Quoted from a lecture by Aldous Huxley. Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley — A Biography, Volume 1, 1894–1939, p. 312, Chatto Collins, 1973.
4 — Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley — A Biography, Volume 2, 1939–1963, p. 290, Chatto Collins, 1974.
5 — Inge Scholl, The White Rose — Munich 1942–1943, pp. 39–40, Wesleyan University Press, 1983. Originally published in 1952.
6 — As retold by Else Gebel in 1946, quoted in, At the Heart of the White Rose — Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl, p. 347, Plough Publishing House, 2017.