Revolt of the White Rose

Let me put this as provocatively as I can: I think some of us wish we were living under Hitler. I don’t mean the neo-Nazis, odious though they are. I mean the aspiring freedom fighters, who seem to see a new Third Reich lurking around every corner. “There are coincidences in life,” wrote self-proclaimed “historian” @AsherWhites in a viral tweet. “The #CPAC2021 stage is not one. It is a Nazi symbol.” There followed images of the stage at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, juxtaposed against the Odal Rune—a late antique epigraphic character adopted by some SS units as a symbol of the “pure” German bloodline.

Whites’s accusation was ridiculous, but it carried weight all over the internet. Had we a national memory lasting longer than fifteen minutes at a stretch, we would realize that not only Donald Trump, but George W. Bush, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan all had the H-word lobbed at them. I’m old enough (30) to remember when a sixth-grade teacher in Washington, D.C. flat-out assigned the comparison between Hitler and Bush, Jr. But even Zoomers will recall the ancient bygone days of last month, when former Star Wars heroine Gina Carano was axed by Disney for having the temerity to put the shoe on the other foot.

Carano posted and then deleted a silly comparison between cancel culture and the Nazi regime. Unlike her liberal counterparts, she was met with indignant censure rather than solemn nods of assent. But besides that double standard, the most remarkable feature of the Carano episode was the sheer degree of cultural obsession with Hitler it represented. Apparently both right- and left-wingers now reach reflexively for the Holocaust as a go-to touchstone for social and political discontents of every kind. What is going on here?

Surely the answer is some combination of historical illiteracy with what the British cultural observer Douglas Murray, following the philosopher Kenneth Minogue, diagnosed as “St. George in retirement syndrome.” St. George’s whole identity is wrapped up with slaying the dragon. Once he slays it, what does he do? He goes around inventing ever-more unlikely villains to destroy, until he is found one day thrashing vainly at thin air—anything rather than give up his identity as a monster-slayer.

People—especially young people, especially young men—come to know themselves through adversity. We crave real adventure with real stakes, a proving ground where we can refine ourselves in rebellion against an evil power. Looking around our relatively comfortable landscape and finding no such evil power to defy, we invent one by analogy to the past.

But the only evil of the past we know anything about is the Holocaust, and the only thing we know about it is that it was bad. So every new bad thing is always the rise of the Nazis, and our team—the good guys—are always the freedom fighters (it never occurs to us we might have been among the Quislings). The result is what the political philosopher Leo Strauss called reductio ad Hitlerum.

The Calabrian artist Andrea Grosso Ciponte has avoided making any specific comparisons between the present day and the stirring true story behind Freiheit!: The White Rose Graphic Novel. As a result the book itself is mercifully free of self-serious references to our own times. The narrative proceeds with a spare and haunting economy: siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl join forces with fellow university students in Hamburg, Freiburg, Berlin, and Vienna to undermine Hitler’s oppressive regime from within. They read forbidden books, gather beneath the moonlit trees of Munich’s English Garden, and—most famously—distribute six leaflets urging fellow dissenters to “dissociate yourselves from National Socialist gangsters.”

In Germany, the White Rose opposition movement has been dramatized on film: Percy Adlon’s Fünf Letzte Tage (Five Last Days) and Michael Verhoeven’s Die Weiße Rose (The White Rose) both came out in 1982; Marc Rothemund’s Sophie Scholl: Die Letzten Tage (Sophie Scholl: The Last Days) appeared in 2005. But it is a testament to our flippancy about the Holocaust that few Americans actually know the story of this or any other resistance movement.

Hans Scholl had seen the ghoulish treatment of Polish Jews firsthand as a soldier on the Eastern front. The White Rose leaflets express his horror at his countrymen’s ignorance and complacency: “In the aftermath a terrible but just judgment will be meted out to those who stayed in hiding, who were cowardly and hesitant.” The sixth pamphlet, distributed after Germany’s resounding defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, got the group discovered by a janitor, who turned them over to authorities. Both Scholl siblings and their four main co-conspirators—Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Kurt Huber, and Willi Graf—were gruesomely executed by the state.

Hans and Sophie Scholl with Christoph Probst, right, in Munich in 1942

It’s one of those true stories that reads like a myth—a grand and poignant tale of defiance in the face of dire persecution. Ciponte tells it well. At its closing, he shows how “the British dropped five million flyers quoting from the sixth White Rose leaflet on cities across Germany” in the same month as most of the White Rose leaders were executed. Their dream of a Germany and Europe morally strong enough to stand up to Hitler’s oppressive regime was not in vain—though they never lived to see its fruition.

Throughout, Ciponte’s style is striking and original. He paints in a kind of stippled watercolor which creates a grainy effect, like a faded photograph. “Just look at that moon,” says Christoph as the five rebels wander into the woods. “Huge and golden as an egg yolk.” But it’s not: it’s pale and dappled against the blue-grey clouds. We are looking back here through the haze of legend at these days of doomed and valiant youth. Ciponte captures their exuberance as well as their bravery, the heady passion of the late-night reading group at which they read “that Jew, Heine”—defending the greats of German Romanticism from annihilation at the hands of monstrous ideologues.

Anyone unfamiliar with the history behind Freiheit! will need some help from outside sources: this is Ciponte’s only major shortcoming from a technical perspective. His style is so terse and spare that it can become disorienting—after a brief opening in medias res, he drops us back at the beginning and follows Sophie through her induction into the group. From there we are off to the races, obscure German poetry and all. This slender volume is probably not clear enough for the uninitiated to follow without help from a primer.

But Ciponte does include, in an appendix, the full text of all six White Rose leaflets. This is a wonderful historical resource in its own right. They are astonishing documents, mixing high paganism with impassioned Christian theology in the true Romantic style. “Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie…. [W]hen 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.” Goethe and Lao-Tzu, Novalis and Ecclesiastes are all gathered into a Kantian plea for justice, no matter the cost.

Within the graphic novel itself, we are spared any heavy-handed injunctions to go and do likewise. But Ciponte, or his publisher, obviously wants us to draw our own parallel lines between then and now. “Andrea Grosso Ciponte’s haunting imagery will resonate with today’s students and activists,” the book’s jacket reads. “The challenges they face may vary, but the need for people to stand up against evil, whatever the cost, will remain.” As a way to sell books this may be effective; as a characterization of Freiheit! itself, it does Ciponte a disservice.

A skeptical reader cannot help but heave a weary sigh imagining how “students and activists” will liken their own protests against a Ben Shapiro lecture to the heroism of the White Rose. About halfway through the book there is a two-page spread devoted to a truly slimy speech by Paul Giesler, the party leader of the Westphalia-South region who would eventually capture the White Rose leaders. “I can understand if some girls think they have to study because they’re not pretty enough to find an admirer,” smirks Giesler. “But I can reassure you, ladies. I can gladly assign you one of my aides. And I can promise you a pleasant experience.”

We fondly imagine we have moved past history, into a glorious progressive future against whose backdrop Hitler and Donald Trump represent only momentary and disgusting aberrations.

It’s a disgusting speech. But are we supposed to see in Giesler a precursor of Candace Owens, famed enforcer of “the tyranny of the gender binary”? The blurb invites these sorts of comparisons, and the book seems to have been received this way in some circles: “Stories like this . . . give new generations of activists heroes to emulate,” wrote Joshua Winchester in his review.

Do they, though? If anything, the effect of Freiheit! itself is to demonstrate how utterly unlike Nazi Germany the present situation of America’s youth is. No one is going to capture you and kill you if you try to shout down Heather Mac Donald. Just the opposite: you’ll probably get an award. Even cancel culture, though it’s a travesty and could presage far worse abuses of power down the line, hardly equates in its present form to the guillotine that Hans and Sophie faced.

Ciponte is a faithful and sophisticated enough storyteller to make this clear, whether or not he intends to: because it’s historically accurate, Freiheit! shows us what real resistance fighting looks like. Hint: it’s not safe spaces and diversity departments.

Around the world there truly are, right now, people risking their lives to fight for freedom. There are Hong Kongers locked in an interminable legal torment, separated from their families and slandered by the CCP after rebelling in summer 2019. There are Christians in Nigeria who will be killed if they claim Christ. There are Uyghur Muslims whose ongoing genocide registers as little more than a PR inconvenience for the Disney executives who fired Gina Carano. It should go without saying that to compare the plight of American university students with any of these living nightmares, or with the fate suffered by the White Rose, is a clownish affront to the memory of them all.

But perhaps less obviously: if all these many oppressed people are united in their longing to be free, they are nevertheless each of them distinct and unique. The specifics of human suffering are irreducible; it shows naïveté of the first water to lump all pain together in a box called “very bad stuff.” We do this in America because we have of late been so blessedly shielded from the “very bad stuff” that history has to offer.

This has allowed us to create a childish fantasy narrative in which time passing means moral progress: if it’s later, it’s better. When Obama sniffed that ISIL’s grisly reign of terror “has no place in the 21st century,” he revealed that like so many of our leaders, and so many of us, he mistakes chronological chauvinism for moral reasoning. We fondly imagine we have moved past history, into a glorious progressive future against whose backdrop Hitler and Donald Trump represent only momentary and disgusting aberrations.

But tragically, the Nazi regime was not an aberration in the grand scheme of human life. Evil and oppression are constants of our broken species. This is one reason why we so often screen out Stalin and Mao and even Mussolini when we assess the 20th century: we cannot bear to contemplate that Hitler’s violent despotism was not an exception to the human rule. The tyrants of the 1900s were all of them heirs to a line that goes back through Maximilien Robespierre and King Henry VIII, all the way to Caligula and Nebuchadnezzar.

“At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare,” wrote Lord Acton. We are not prepared, in our sheltered optimism, to acknowledge how good we have it. We cannot bear to know what real suffering and real oppression look like, how common they are, how rare and fragile is our American liberty. Freiheit! can do a great service to its readers, but only if they learn from it that true evil is not to be bandied about as a rhetorical weapon to score cheap political points. The proper response to the long and hideously varied history of human pain is humility. The proper way to honor the White Rose is to stand in awe of their courage—not claim it glibly as one’s own.