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Book Review : A Brief Light of Resistance in Hitler's Nazi Germany

July 09, 1986|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Shattering the German Night by Jud Newborn and Annette Eberly Dumbach (Little, Brown: $16.95.)

It was a quicksilver sliver of news among the heavyweight events of the spring of 1943. It arrived without warning and vanished without trace. It was a fact and reported as a fact, and editorials were written about it; yet its improbability and its evanescence gave it the quality of a rumor.

Nobody in the West, that April, was prepared to read that in Hitler's Germany, still a fearful colossus with two years to live and millions of lives to claim, a group of idealistic young people had been carrying on a campaign of moral resistance and leaflet-scattering, under the wildly romantic name of the White Rose.

The news took the form of an obituary. Six of the youngsters had been beheaded, and others were in jail. As with a few exceptional obituaries, the real message was not that "these people are dead" but that "these people were alive."

Isolated Band

"Shattering the German Night" re-tells the story of this tiny band, as isolated and improbable in its society as the Weather Underground was when its Greenwich Village town house blew up a quarter century later.

The balance was different, of course. Radicalism lay not in the White Rose, whose members ranged from Christian Existentialists to romantic nationalists, but in the society they worked against. And they were never able to tell themselves that the wind was blowing their way; only that once in a rare while, spitting into the wind is the only conceivable thing to do.

In telling of the short-lived exploits of these few Munich students, authors Jud Newborn and Annette Eberly Dumbach sometimes overwrite a story that hardly needs it. There is too much narration of what people were thinking as they stood on street corners or rode on trains. And there is an occasional tendency to confuse the heroic dimension of the White Rose with its material influence.

This said, the authors not only restore their subjects to precious life, but they succeed in showing their eccentric relationship to the times they grew up in. Belonging to the upper-middle class, they were, in a sense, sublime misfits.

'A Higher Justice'

Two of the central figures were Hans and Sophie Scholl, children of an extraordinary father who was a businessman, a fierce critic of the Nazis and an utterly fearless spirit. At Hans and Sophie's one-day trial, Robert Scholl forced his way inside and demanded that he be allowed to defend them. "There is a higher justice," he roared as he was thrown out.

As adolescents, Hans and Sophie were rebels. That is, they were caught up, to their family's anguish, in the exhilarating world of the Hitler Youth. "Youth, in a sense, is always right," was the Nazis' message to teachers. "We were told that we should live for something greater than ourselves; we were taken seriously, in a strange, strange sort of way," Inge Scholl, Hans and Sophie's sister later recalled.

Hans, tall, blond and dynamic, became a squad leader, in fact. But his enthusiasm weakened after he attended a Nuremberg rally, and he was finally thrown out for punching a superior. As for Sophie, her participation was eccentric and short-lived. At a youth literary session, she insisted that the banned Jewish poet Heinrich Heine be discussed. "Whoever doesn't know Heine does not know German literature," she insisted.

The Scholls drifted among other young originals. Hans joined a small underground youth group whose main emblem of protest was the use of a Lapland tepee instead of the regulation tent, when camping. Sophie wrote poems, worked in a factory and, after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, refused to send her woolens to the Eastern Front. "We have to lose this war," she told a friend.

Student Friends

Many of the less orthodox Munich University students did their military service in the medical corps, an assignment that alternated stretches on the Eastern Front with terms at school. It was among these corpsman-students that Hans found his closest associates.

There was Alexander Schmorell, a romantic anarchist from a wealthy Munich family. There was Willi Graaf, moody and religious, who, as a boy, drew up a list of his friends and crossed off all those who belonged to the Hitler Youth. There was Christoph Probst, a highly cultivated intellectual. Later, after putting out the first leaflets, they were joined by Kurt Huber, an austere and fiercely nationalist university professor.

The first leaflets were printed on a second-hand duplicating machine in June, 1942. They attacked the Nazis and called, quite unspecifically, for resistance. Four other numbers followed, with breaks for the Christmas holidays and for a tour of duty in Russia.

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