Heroes

I’ve spent this whole week thinking, writing.

I’ve spent so much time thinking and writing, in fact, that the piece I’ve produced rises above the level of a simple blog post, at least in my esteem. So, I’ll post a link to it when it’s published. Suffice it to say, I feel rather passionately about my topic, and I think that I have the rhetorical tools to address it effectively. I’ll tip my hat to Toastmasters for that one. Toastmasters, and lots of reading. For a writer, for a thinker, there is no substitute for quality time spent immersed in the works of literary masters; I know my own pantheon of heroes. 

Speaking of pantheons, perhaps you’ve heard of Le Panthéon in Paris, France, or Walhalla near Regensburg, Germany. Both are monumental buildings filled with busts of the greats of these societies, from science to art, literature to government. Both are worth visiting. I wish America had such a consolidated and accessible place of its own. Who would fill it? Who would decide? I could think of quite a list myself. I’m also strongly opinionated and not exactly mainstream in my opinions. 

But I digress. Heroes. 

In Walhalla, at the entrance to the grand hall, there is a prominent bust commemorating a young woman, Sophie Scholl. Sophie grew up in Nazi Germany and was, at one time, active in the Hitler Youth – it had its allure. Her boyfriend deployed to the Eastern Front 1942, and in May of that year, he wrote to Sophie of German war crimes, namely the mass execution of Russian prisoners of war and the mass murder of Jews – I’m not sure how this made it past military censors, but it did. The news effected a dramatic change in Sophie, and she began practicing a passive resistance with conviction.

Nazi power was approaching an inflection point in the summer and fall of 1942. The party controlled every facet of the German nation, from early education to religion, top to bottom, cradle to grave – no one was beyond its power. The German army, flush with victories to that point, began to realize that it could not crush the Soviet army; an important battle ceded to stalemate, then defeat. Concurrently, German citizens were beginning to understand the full toll of their war, and this threatened the effectiveness of the weakened Nazi propaganda machine, and thus, the state. Any further threat to it, then, was seen as an existential threat. Germany was a very, very dangerous place to be a dissident.

Sophie did not waver. That fall, she discovered that her brother was writing and distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets with a group of his friends. She joined the effort and together, they churned out tens of thousands of copies, manually reproduced, of two more pamphlets for distribution across a number of major German cities; they were blatantly appealing to all Germans in a bid to end the war from within. One went out in January of 1943, as the largest, longest, and bloodiest war to date raged on. By the end of that month, the German Sixth Army suffered a devastating defeat. In February, Hitler acknowledged the defeat, shifting favor against him. Sophie and crew released their final pamphlet. They were the White Rose.

The Nazis must have been desperate; Hitler’s propaganda minister declared a total war, citizens and soldiers alike, on 18 February 1943. That day, while distributing that pamphlet at the University of Munich, she and her team were apprehended and arrested by the Gestapo. The Gestapo pieced together the story, identified her brother’s handwriting, and took him in. To quell further inquiry into her ring, Sophie took full responsibility.  She knew that she would certainly die.

Four days later, Sophie appeared before a magistrate to account for her crimes. She was allowed no opportunity to give a defense, but reportedly said, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.” She was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. 

The Nazis wasted no time. Sophie was guillotined within hours of her trial. Party officials watched over the execution, intent on seeing it through. They could not endure this threat from within.

Dissidence is anathema to a dictatorship. Sophie knew this from the beginning, yet she acted out her convictions despite terrible risk; she knew that she’d eventually be caught and killed. Dissidence is anathema to any organization that is not open to the light.

Sophie Scholl did not mourn her own passing. With a frankness that is very, very German, she told her cell mate following her sentence, “How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

That, my friends, is the power of one.

I’ll admit, I did not know all the specifics before I sat down to write and research her story. For me, it was enough to know that student who had fought and died for the better angels of our nature was respected enough to garner a prominent spot, on a pedestal all by herself, in Germany’s national hall of heroes. Nobody else holds that honor. Not Johann Sebastian Bach, who is unequalled in the entire musical canon; not Martin Luther, who ignited the Reformation and shook the world;  not Johannes Gutenberg, who irrevocably democratized knowledge with his printing press. Sophie Scholl. A student dissident. A peace activist. A girl. 

My intent here is not to draw parallels between Nazi Germany and Trump’s America. Donald Trump is no Adolf Hitler, though he has his fancies and inclinations. My intent is to share the story of one of my role models, who just so happened to live, fight, and die in Hitler’s time.  How much freer we are as a population today!

Our time needs heroes too. 

There is great strength in the power of one. Little people can make a big difference, and every voice has merit. Individual acts of courage have ripples; they radiate, illuminate, and root in hearts and minds. Sixty years after her death, Sophie Scholl was formally honored with a bust in that big German hall. Nearly eighty years later, we’re still talking about her.  

May we all, too, find a cause above and beyond ourselves to believe in, to act on, to live for. May we live so that we not fear death, boldly, out loud. May we find purpose in so doing. We, too, can be heroes.

James

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