Alexander Schmorell and the White Rose: an example of inter-Christian common witness

For the Novi Sad conference on “The Theology of Dialogue”, 7-10 November 2012

By Jim Forest

Our conference topic is the theology of dialogue — a controversial subject among Christians for many centuries. Our faith requires us to love everyone, a commandment which implies communication, but it often seems we would rather not meet or talk to those to whom we are linked by the Gospel but who belong to different theological traditions. A visitor from another planet, observing inter-Christian relations, would quickly conclude that we Christians are more attached to our differences than we are to our similarities and that we do all in our power to prevent unity.

And yet, thank God, there is dialogue and it takes variety of forms, this conference being one example.

I want to talk about the inter-Christian dialogue that occurs less in spoken words than in “words” expressed in praxis, by which I mean activity that embodies basic elements of Christian faith. We Christians, divided in so many ways, may find it very difficult to agree about the eucharist, baptism, the number of sacraments, the filioque, justification and many other topics, but we agree that the Gospel calls us to love others, even our enemy, and to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters if circumstances require it. On such areas of bedrock agreement, our disagreements can be put aside and acts of common witness occur that bear witness to the Gospel.

As an example of the inter-Christian dialogue of praxis, let me draw your attention to a martyr of modern times who, just eight months ago, was added to the Russian Orthodox calendar of saints. I am speaking about Alexander Schmorell, born in Russia on the 6th of September 1917, executed twenty-five years later on the 13th of July 1943 in Munich, Germany. My wife and I had the privilege to be present for his canonization in Munich this past February.

Were this conference happening in Germany I would not need to tell very much of his story. Alexander Schmorell was one of several Munich University students who, in the Hitler period, formed an anti-Nazi resistance group known as the White Rose. Today it would be hard to find a German over the age of twelve who hadn’t heard of the White Rose and wouldn’t recognize the names of Schmorell and the other five core members, all of whom were guillotined in 1943. Hundreds of streets, squares and parks are named in their honor. Postage stamps have celebrated their memory and movies have been made that put the drama of their lives on the screen. In Munich there is a museum in their memory. Alexander Schmorell is the first of the six to be formally recognized as a saint, an event that was given a great deal of news media attention in Germany.

But for us who are non-Germans, the White Rose martyrs are not so well known. What did they do? What makes them patrons of inter-Christian dialogue, and even dialogue that reaches beyond the borders of Christianity to other faiths?

In the spring and summer of 1942, while a medical student at Munich’s Maximilian University, Schmorell and two fellow students co-founded the White Rose. Schmorell was a member of the Russian Orthodox parish in Munich where he attended the Eucharistic Liturgy regularly; friends recall he always had a Bible with him. The other two founders were also devout Christians — Hans Scholl, a Lutheran, and Willi Graf, a Catholic. Together they participated in high-wire ecumenism in the midst of war and a ruthless dictatorship. Before long several others joined, including Hans Scholl’s sister, Sophie. At age twenty-one, she was the youngest member of the group and its only woman.

Why did the group christen their endeavor the White Rose? It was a name proposed by Schmorell. The reference was to a story by Dostoevsky, Schmorell’s favorite author. In one chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, “The Grand Inquisitor”, Christ comes back to earth, “softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, every one recognized Him.” He is suddenly present among the many people crowding Seville’s cathedral square, the pavement of which is still warm from the burning of a hundred heretics the day before. At this moment it happens that an open coffin containing the body of a young girl is being carried across the square on its way to the cemetery. They pass Jesus. “The procession halts, the coffin is laid on the steps at [Christ’s] feet. He looks with compassion, and His lips softly pronounce the words, ‘Maiden, arise!’ and she arises. The little girl sits up in the coffin and looks round, smiling with wide-open wondering eyes, holding a bunch of white roses they had put in her hand.” This merciful action completed, the Grand Inquisitor, having witnessed the miracle, orders Christ’s arrest. He is outraged at the boundless freedom Christ has given humanity.

In this remarkable story, the white rose serves as a paschal symbol, a sign of Christ’s victory over death. The adoption of the name White Rose was the group’s way of declaring their Christian conviction that He who has defeated death can also lift us from our graves — not only the grave to be dug at the end of our lives but the grave of fear and cowardice that we live in here and now.

What the White Rose members did was simple but astonishingly dangerous: they wrote, mimeographed and widely distributed a series of leaflets that called on ordinary people living in Hitler’s Third Reich to resist Nazism. This was civil disobedience at the most hazardous level.

How did a handful of students find the courage not only to open their eyes so widely to the hell which Germany had become, but decide it was worth risking their lives to call on Germans to take part in resistance?

First of all it came from the completeness of their faith. For them Christ was not a mythical figure from the past whose bones were carefully hidden by his disciples. He had given himself for the life of the world and on the third day had truly risen from the dead.

The actions of the White Rose also drew inspiration from a brave sermon given by August von Galen, Catholic bishop of Münster, in which he denounced Aryan racism and the Nazi euthanasia program that resulted in killing those regarded as unfit or unproductive. “These are men and women, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters!” von Galen declared. “Poor ill human beings. Maybe they are unproductive, but does that mean that they have lost the right to live? … If one adopts and puts into practice the principle that men are entitled to kill their unproductive fellows, then woe to all of us when we become aged and infirm! … Then no one will be safe: some committee or other will be able to put him on the list of ‘unproductive’ persons, who in their judgment have become ‘unworthy to live.’” (Von Galen spent the rest of the war under house arrest and was listed by Hitler for eventual execution following the anticipated Nazi victory. In 2005, von Galen was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI.)

The first White Rose action was clandestine distribution of von Galen’s sermon, a sermon which, needless to say, had been reported in no German newspaper.

In the first leaflet of their own authorship, the group declared, “It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes – crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure – reach the light of day?”

The group’s second leaflet contained the only known public protest by any German resistance group specifically against the Holocaust: “By way of example we want to cite the fact that since the conquest of Poland 300,000 Jews have been murdered … in the most bestial way. Here we see the most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of history.” (In light of the final Holocaust death toll, the estimate of 300,000 seems relatively small. The same month the leaflet was published, June 1942, the “final solution to the Jewish question”— factory-style mass murder — began to be implemented.)

Theology not only motivated the group but was expressed in their texts. “Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie,” declared the fourth leaflet. “When [Hitler] says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed. True, we must consider the struggle against the National Socialist state with rational means; but whoever today still doubts the reality, the existence of demonic powers, has failed … to understand the metaphysical background of this war. … We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler.”

There were six White Rose leaflets in all. With each, circulation widened, distribution mainly in plain envelopes with typed addresses sent in small quantities from widely scattered post boxes. To get the leaflets into Austria, Schmorell made train trips to Salzburg and Vienna.

For nine months the Gestapo failed in its efforts to find those responsible for the leaflets. It was only on February 18, 1943, as Sophie and Hans were leaving copies of the latest leaflet in the atrium of their university, that they were spotted by a custodian and the Gestapo summoned. Another member of the group, Christoph Probst, was arrested soon after. Four days later the three they were both tried and beheaded. Probst was baptized a Catholic just a few hours before his death. Three other arrests and executions followed. Alexander Schmorell and Kurt Huber were beheaded on the 13th of July, Willi Graf on the 12th of October.

In his last letter to his family, Schmorell wrote: “This difficult ‘misfortune’ was necessary to put me on the right road, and therefore was no misfortune at all…. What did I know until now about belief, about a true and deep belief, about the truth, the last and only truth, about God? Never forget God!”

Thanks to a witness, we have an account of his last words: “I’m convinced that my life has to end now, early as it seems, because I have fulfilled my life’s mission. I wouldn’t know what else I have to do on this earth.”

At Schmorell’s canonization last February, the icon carried into the center of the church shows him as the tall, brown-haired young man he was, wearing the white robe of a physician with a Red Cross arm band, his left hand raised in a gesture of greeting, the other holding a thin blood-red cross with a white rose. He is standing against a gold-leaf background representing eternity and the kingdom of God.

Schmorell and his co-workers, in common with countless other brave Christians of the past century, provide an example of ecumenical witness to Christian values that transcends theological disagreements, encourages common action by Christians despite ecclesiastical divisions, and warms the climate for dialogue aimed at expanding areas of agreement and obtaining greater Christian unity. Those who follow the way of the Cross, not in theory but in praxis, are more likely to find the love that opens locked minds and institutional hearts, the love that breaks down the dividing wall of enmity.

* * *
Jim Forest is international secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and the author of numerous books.
* * *