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The girl who defied Hitler

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

2023 has been a year of bitter divisions around the world, and some of our friends and family might be pressuring us to support their political viewpoints, even if they go against our own values. But how exactly do you stand up against your peers for what you think is right? Our colleagues at NPR's history podcast Throughline have been asking this question and looking to the past to find stories of people who dared to dissent, no matter the cost. Today, reporter and producer Cristina Kim from Throughline brings us the story of a young German girl and a movement that defied Hitler.

CRISTINA KIM, BYLINE: Imagine you're a college student on your way to class at the University of Munich in Germany. It's Thursday, the 18 of February 1943, and the sun is breaking out from behind the clouds. It's wartime, and you can't escape the reality of Hitler's regime.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADOLF HITLER: (Speaking German).

KIM: The minute class ends, you pour out of the building with your fellow students, eager to get some fresh air. But all of a sudden, you're hit with a waterfall of papers cascading from the sky. You timidly catch one in your hand. It says...

ALEXANDRA LLOYD: (Speaking German).

For us, there is only one slogan - fight against the party.

KIM: You instinctively throw the paper down to the ground. It's calling for the end of Hitler. It's urging you to wake up. It's dangerous even to look at.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) The Hitler Youth, the SA and the SS have tried to homogenize, radicalize and anesthetize us.

KIM: Those words were part of a series of pamphlets written by the White Rose, a group of German students and one professor who oppose the Nazi regime.

LLOYD: So the sixth pamphlet really is calling on students to rise up...

KIM: This is Alexandra Lloyd, author of "Defying Hitler: The White Rose Pamphlets."

LLOYD: ...To escape from the shackles of Nazism.

KIM: On that day in Munich, if you dared look up, you would have seen a young woman, her hair cut short, throwing the papers off the highest balcony in the building. Her name was Sophie Scholl.

LLOYD: Sophie Scholl was, in many ways, a typical girl of her generation. Sophie was a very enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth organization.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in German).

KIM: Sophie did not begin her life as a radical, far from it. But when she was 16, the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, arrested her brother Hans for his alleged homosexuality and for participating in youth groups that were not Nazi sanctioned. They also arrested Sophie and two other siblings.

LLOYD: And I think this is a really important moment because it brings home how dangerous the regime is, and it brings home the idea that really no one is safe. And the Scholl children are - and this is what's so remarkable in some ways about this story - the Scholl children are really ideal Germans for the Nazi regime. They're strong, healthy. They like all the right things. They're Aryan. They tick all of these kind of Nazi boxes. But at this point, there's a shift.

KIM: It's a shift that's evident in Sophie's letters and diary entries.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Sophie Scholl) To be honest, I rather hanker to be on my own because I have an urge to act on what so far has existed within me merely as an idea, as what I perceive to be right.

KIM: And what she perceived to be right was that people needed to stop being cogs in the Nazi machine. So on the eve of her 21st birthday, she moved to Munich to be with her brother Hans and study at the University of Munich. Once there, everything changed, as Sophie's role in the White Rose began.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LLOYD: The White Rose resistance circle was a group who took action against the Nazi regime by producing antifascist, anti-war pamphlets.

KIM: Sophie was tasked with the dangerous job of making sure the resistance pamphlets were reproduced and reached as many people as possible, which at the time was no small feat.

LLOYD: You are always at risk of being stopped and searched, so transporting copies of illegal pamphlets is in no way a safe nor sensible thing to do.

KIM: But for Sophie, the message she was spreading was worth it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) We are attempting to reawaken the gravely wounded German spirit from within.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Since the conquest of Poland, 300,000 Jews have been murdered in their country.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will never leave you in peace.

KIM: And that's what brings us back to that sunny Thursday in Munich in 1943. The White Rose had just finished making their sixth pamphlet, but they'd run out of stamps and envelopes, so they decided that Hans and Sophie would distribute them at the University of Munich. And on February 18, at half past 10:00...

LLOYD: Hans and Sophie left their flat.

KIM: They walked to the university.

LLOYD: They had with them a suitcase and a briefcase that were full of copies of the pamphlet.

KIM: Their plan was to discreetly deposit the pamphlets all over campus and get away undetected.

LLOYD: So they work really quickly. They follow the plan. They leave copies of the pamphlets.

KIM: But just before they leave...

LLOYD: Sophie, for whatever reason, decides to push one of these piles of pamphlets over the balcony, and they cascade down.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER RUSTLING)

KIM: A janitor sees Sophie do this and accost her and her brother Hans.

LLOYD: They call the Gestapo, who turn up, arrest Hans and Sophie and take them into Gestapo custody.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KIM: By the following Monday at 5:00 p.m. on February 22, 1943...

LLOYD: Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl are executed by guillotine for their involvement in the White Rose. The White Rose wanted the war to end, and it didn't. They wanted Hitler and his regime to fall, and it didn't. I mean, it would take another two years after they were executed. But it matters that they tried. It matters that they made the attempt. And I think that today is inspiring.

KIM: Today, the story of the White Rose is well known in Germany, and the courtyard outside the main building at the University of Munich bears the name Scholl. And bronze versions of the flyers are embedded in the cobblestones.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SUMMERS: That was Cristina Kim from NPR's history podcast Throughline. For more stories of courage and descent, listen to Throughline wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.