Conscience Before Conformity

by Paul Shrimpton, Gracewing, 328pp £15.99

This book provides a detailed exploration of the religious and cultural background of the principal players in the White Rose resistance movement in Nazi Germany. The movement’s fame rests partly on the success of the film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days and partly on the understandable German need to honour the Munich students as martyrs, thus showing that despite their country’s moral degradation during the Third Reich, it had its own principled critics.

The particular value of Shrimpton’s work is in his extensive quotations from the letters and diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl. Thus he shows the gradual development of their moral and spiritual understanding of what ordinary Germans might (and should) do in the face of a blatantly evil state. As representatives of the best of German culture – the Scholl family loved music and literature, as well as hiking in the countryside and winter sports – they were not alone in the outrage they felt at the Nazi treatment of the Jews and the disabled, as well as the murderous activities of the Waffen-SS on the Eastern Front during the war. The difference is that the White Rose students were prepared to pay the ultimate price for their passionately held convictions.

As Shrimpton argues in his preface, the religious aspect at the heart of the White Rose movement “has probably never been fully addressed”. The Christian faith of those involved has been “downplayed” or “ignored”, perhaps because to be prepared to live out one’s religious convictions is barely understood today. Yet, as the author shows in the excerpts he selects from the letters and diaries of the siblings, the writings of John Henry Newman on conscience, translated by Theodor Haecker (a Catholic-convert publisher and academic who lived in Munich and who provided clandestine seminars and discussion groups to a small circle of student dissidents), were central to their growing awareness and decision to act.

Haecker believed that “England had bequeathed Newman, a prophet of apostasy, to a Germany deeply in need of a response which was adequate to the prevailing anti-Christian totalitarianism”. Between 1941 and 1943 he shared his convictions and knowledge of Newman with Hans, Sophie and their circle.

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