Monday, May 9, 2011

Sophie Scholl, the White Rose, and Conscience

Sophie Scholl, White Rose objector to Nazi rule in Germany, was born on May 9, 1921; she was guillotined on February 22, 1943. Scholl is one of the most admired women in 20th Century German history--but what does she have to do with the subject of this blog?

According to this Catholic Herald story from 2009, she and her White Rose compatriots were very much influenced by Blessed John Henry Newman, particularly by his teachings on conscience:

Cardinal John Henry Newman was an inspiration of Germany's greatest heroine in defying Adolf Hitler, scholars have claimed.

New documents unearthed by German academics have revealed that the writings of the 19th-century English theologian were a direct influence on Sophie Scholl, who was beheaded for circulating leaflets urging students at Munich University to rise up against Nazi terror.

Scholl, a student who was 21 at the time of her death in February 1943, is a legend in Germany, with two films made about her life and more than 190 schools named after her. She was also voted "woman of the 20th century" by readers of Brigitte, a women's magazine, and a popular 2003 television series called Greatest Germans declared her to be the greatest German woman of all time.

But behind her heroism was the "theology of conscience" expounded by Cardinal Newman, according to Professor G√ľnther Biemer, the leading German interpreter of Newman, and Jakob Knab, an expert on the life of Sophie Scholl, who will later this year publish research in Newman Studien on the White Rose resistance movement, to which she belonged.

The researchers also found a link between Scholl and Pope Benedict XVI in the scholar who inspired her study of Blessed John Henry Newman:

He added: "The religious question at the heart of the White Rose has not been adequately acknowledged and it is only through the work of Guenter Biemer and Jakob Knab that Newman's influence... can be identified as highly significant."

In his speech Fr Fenlon explained that Sophie, a Lutheran, was introduced to the works of Newman by a scholar called Theodor Haecker, who had written to the Birmingham Oratory in 1920 asking for copies of Newman's work, which he wanted to translate into German. . . .

It was through Haecker that the young Joseph Ratzinger - the future Pope Benedict XVI - learned to admire Newman, who died in Birmingham in 1890.

Conscience is a subtext throughout the history of the English Reformation and its aftermath--beginning with Henry VIII's "tender conscience" about having married his brother's widow. Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons centers St. Thomas More's heroism on his defense of the rights of conscience. Blessed John Henry Newman, as I've posted before, defended the rights and outlined the responsibilities of conscience, properly understood, in reaction to English concerns about the doctrine of Papal Infallibility.


  1. Thank you, Jackie!
    May on her 90th birthday Sophia Magdalena Scholl smile on us and ask of Our Lady the help we need
    See also

  2. Thank you for more information about Fr. Fenlon's paper on Sophie Scholl, Ulrich.

  3. The most important aspect of Jakob Knab’s research on the theological influences on Sophie Scholl is his view that both she and
    Fritz were increasingly drawing inspiration from the writings of Cardinal Newman in this crucial period. When Sophie met Fritz for the last time on 20 May 1942 she gave him a farewell present of, among other things, two
    volumes of sermons by Newman. In a letter from Fritz on 26 June 1942 he told Sophie that after reading these he too had discovered what he called the ‘wonderful world’ of John Henry Newman. Fritz said he had absorbed every
    line like ‘drops of precious wine’. In a further letter at the beginning of July
    1942 Fritz wrote that, after reading Newman while witnessing the anti-Jewish atrocities and views of many Wehrmacht officers, he could see more clearly that ‘we stand in a relationship of moral obligation to our Creator. Conscience
    gives us the capacity to distinguish between Good and Evil’. Knab has found out, through detailed research, that it was during this period that Fritz read Newman’s sermon The Testimony of Conscience. Here, Newman – using a
    passage from the Second Letter of St Paul to the Corinthians as his starting point – develops the central theme of his doctrine about conscience: ‘We are by nature what we are: full of sin and corruption … Man is capable of both good and evil … If doing good be evidence of faith, then doing evil must
    be even more convincing proof that he lacks faith.’ Fritz concluded his letter to Sophie with the precept: ‘We must submit our reason to these mysteries and acknowledge our faith.’ It seems that Sophie had been greatly inspired by
    these passages too, and they also offered Fritz a graphic illustration of what he found disturbing about the behaviour of the Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union, which led him to denounce the anti-Semitic doctrines that underpinned the
    Holocaust. After Fritz had seen the corpses of Soviet prisoners of war who had collapsed from exhaustion and had heard of mass executions among the Jewish population, he wrote to
    Sophie: ‘It’s frightening, the cynical insensitivity with which my commanding
    officer describes the slaughter of all those Jews in occupied Russia, and the way he is totally convinced of the rightness of his course of action. I sat there, my heart pounding. How relieved I was to be back on my own, lying on my camp bed, where I could take refuge in prayer, and in thoughts of you.’
    (McDonough, Sophie Scholl, (paperback version 2010), p. 176)