A Noble Treason by Richard Hanser tells the story of a vitally important act of rebellion against tyranny. The book is a chronicle of what has become known as The White Rose Rebellion. For those unfamiliar with the White Rose group, it consisted of students and one professor who attended and/or taught at the University of Munich during World War II. In 1942 and 1943, the group published a series of anti Nazi protest tracts. They covertly distributed thousands of these leaflets through the University, greater Munich and eventually all of Germany. The group eventually began to organize a network of resistance groups based in universities and elsewhere. This was one of the few instances of organized resistance within Nazi Germany during World War II. When caught, most of the group was executed. At the heart of the organization were siblings Sophie Scholl and Hans Scholl.
The core members of the group maintained their values up until the moment that they met their deaths on a Nazi guillotine. Even throughout their interrogations, trials and as death’s approached, several members of the group, particularly Sophie Scholl, bravely left us with vital statements and proclamations exhorting the world to fight tyranny and promote decency and liberty.
There are many striking things about the story of The White Rose. Since most of its members were very literate, most kept diaries. Hanser was able to mine these diaries to paint a picture of the members and their lives, as well as the political and philosophical underpinnings of their movement. One point that stands out is that they were all moderates. This was not a group of radicals. They were not Marxists or followers of any extreme ideologies. They were all immersed in literature, culture and art. Most were Catholics or admirers of Catholic doctrine. They all looked towards moderate interpretations of Christianity.
"They made a highly implausible band of rebels and subversives. All of them came from the same bourgeois background; all of them, in their own idiom, were aus gutem Haus (from a good family); and there was not a political radical among them. They were all well-mannered and properly brought-up children of the middle class, where conservatism and submission to authority were rooted attitudes, especially in the place that bred them, Germany. Yet they had chosen to reject the prevailing values of their society, to cut themselves off from the convictions and enthusiasms of their peers, to make themselves aliens in their own land, and to put their lives in jeopardy rather than accept the mores that a brutal despotism was determined to impose on them. They were oppressed and appalled by the feeling that the Nazi system was robbing them of their heritage, that they were being plundered of their past and their future at the same time.”
In their journals, private conversations, and in their anti-Nazi proclamations, the group continually referenced philosophers, authors, Christian doctrine and Eastern philosophy.
The leaflets themselves were a condemnation of Nazism and totalitarianism. They often cited literature, history, theology and philosophy. They championed civilization over barbarism. They specifically condemned the murder and oppression of Jews and members of other groups and castigated the German people for being silent on the issue.
What is also striking is that aside from Professor Kurt Huber, all the group’s members were in their early twenties. The maturity, depth and integrity contained in their writings and public statements reflect wisdom beyond their years.
An example from the first leaflet, written mostly by Hans Scholl,
“If the German people are already so corrupted and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in lawful order of history; if they surrender man’s highest principle, that which raises him above all other God’s creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and thus subject it to their own rational decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass - then, yes, they deserve their downfall. Goethe speaks of the Germans as a tragic people, like the Jews and the Greeks, but today it would appear rather that they are a spineless, will-less herd of hangers-on, who now - the marrow sucked out of their bones, robbed of their center of stability - are waiting to be hounded to their destruction….
…if everyone waits until the other man makes a start, the messengers of avenging Nemesis will come steadily closer; then even the last victim will have been cast senselessly into the maw of the insatiable demon. Therefore every individual, conscious of his responsibility as a member of Christian and Western civilization, must defend himself as best he can at this late hour, he must work against the scourges of mankind, against fascism and any similar system of totalitarianism”
Hanser also builds a stark picture as to what it was like living in Nazi Germany for everyday Germans. He explains what it was like for literate folks who hated the Nazis but who had no recourse to do anything about it. He builds a picture of a police state that tried to impose a state of terror that permeated into everyday life.
Hanser writes a compelling story. He holds the reader’s interest. He devotes many pages to the philosophical, historical and literary influences of the group. The book has some flaws, however. At times, the author seems a little too enamored with his subjects. He often gushes over their nobility. This is so understandable based on the circumstances of this history. With that, the book would have been stronger had the author been more unbiased.
One can argue that The White Rose did nothing to hasten the end of the war. They may not have saved any lives. However, at the very least, they have given us a narrative of resistance to tyranny. It is a narrative of courage and basic human decency. It is narrative of reason and literacy in the face of pure evil. It is a narrative that can be deployed against tyranny and one to inspire those who oppose it.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in World War II, tyranny or to those likely to be inspired by this story. Even those who choose not to read this book might be interested in learning more about the White Rose Group. The English translations of their leaflets can be found here. Their story is worth knowing.