Book Review: At the Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl
Review of At the Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl, ed. Inge Jens, trans. J. Maxwell Brownjohn (Walden: Plough, 2017).
reviewed by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson
Ever since I started the Hagiography project at Lutheran Forum I’ve been on the hunt for Lutheran saints, so it was inevitable that before long I’d stumble across Sophie Scholl and Hans Scholl, siblings beheaded by the Nazi regime for their resistance activities. Since Germans are on the whole a pretty good bet (whether as sixteenth-century reformers or twentieth-century resisters), I hoped they’d qualify.
I found Sophie Scholl and the White Rose by Annette Dumbach and Jud Newborn and eagerly tore through the book… only to end up a trifle disappointed. Not in Sophie or her brother: they were clearly luminous figures, blessing a dark period in history. But as far as I could tell from the book, they were in it for political convictions about freedom in the face of fascism. Political convictions I certainly share—but that is not enough to qualify for sainthood. I gave thanks to God for their status as “secular saints” or (my preferred term) “civic wonderworkers” and moved on to other candidates.
Then last year I reopened their case with the discovery of At the Heart of the White Rose, published by the very impressive Plough, the publishing arm of a Bruderhof ministry network that stretches around the world. The back cover promised that these two civic wonderworkers were motivated not only by political convictions but more deeply by Christian faith—a fact that has been obscured in most reports about their lives. So again with eagerness I tore through this other volume.
Conclusion: Sophie and Hans were certainly saints. They were certainly not, however, Lutheran saints—for which I feel only a tiny twinge of regret, as saints of any kind are a gift to be received without complaint! But what makes them so interesting is that they—like, I have found, a surprising number of the holy in history—don’t really fit into anyone’s camp, confession, or denomination. In fact, it’s not altogether clear that they were members of the church in any but an invisible way. In this respect they reminded me more of their contemporary Simone Weil than of another contemporary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Some explanation is in order. I presume they were baptized, but only because that was the general cultural habit at the time (Hans was born in 1918, Sophie in 1921). They grew up in Ulm, a culturally important city in southwest Germany, which falls within the domain of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Württemberg. It appears, though, that the Scholl family rarely if ever attended church—probably just the major holidays—and on the rare occasions that Protestant services are mentioned in their diaries and letters, it’s with disdain that all you get is a “lecture.”
What does become very clear, though, is that the Scholls lay in the best tradition of the bourgeoisie—a term that here should convey not contempt but a high degree of culture. Even if the faith aspect had never entered in, Hans and Sophie’s letters would remain delightful reading: they are simply so humane, thoughtful, sensitive to beauty, rhapsodic about the wonders of the natural world in which they spend so much time, recording how deeply moved they are by Mozart or Schubert, their friendships and loves and struggles to face reality, speak truth, and know themselves. Their first reaction to Nazism was the plain cultural barbarity of it all. Their education in the saeculum—the secular or lefthand kingdom—was in many respects adequate to make them see through the charades and lies of the regime on the rise. And we should be fair to the many resisters who were not committed believers: their own education and culture were also enough to see through the lies.
As it turns out in the case of the Scholls, though, it didn’t stop there. The letters and diaries give us about four years before something happens—it’s not really clear how—to turn both siblings from passive participants in decaying Christendom to impassioned believers. Some of it was listening to Bach, some of it was reading St. Augustine, Nicolas of Cusa, and Orthodox theologian Nicholas Berdayev, some of it was Scripture. The biggest influence was an elderly Catholic mentor, Carl Muth, who introduced them to a much richer world of faith, prayer, and intellectual reflection.
At that point there was a kind of supernova in the hearts of both siblings, and from there to the very abrupt end of their lives there is no doubt that it was indeed faith that powered their political resistance. And yet—even under Muth’s influence—there is also no indication that public worship, congregational life, holy communion, or any other of the usual signs of Christian commitment played any part in their lives. Perhaps if they had lived these things would have come to take their place; or perhaps it was their circle of friends with Muth as leader that was their true congregation.
Hans was the idealist and the big-picture thinker: much of his writing was trying to figure out all of European civilization in light of the gospel. Sophie was much more personal, and for that reason much more heartbreaking—she gets to you, and it’s painful to read on, knowing that her days are numbered. I was deeply moved by the depths of her spiritual perception, truly a gift of God in one so new to faith. Consider this excerpt from her diary, for example:
“My God, I can only address you falteringly. I can only offer you my heart, which is wrested away from you by a thousand desires. Being so weak that I cannot remain facing you of my own free will, I destroy what distracts me from you and force myself to turn to you, for I know that I’m happy with you alone. Oh, how far I am from you, and the best thing about me is the pain I feel on that account. But I’m often so torpid and apathetic. Help me to be singlehearted and remain with me. If I could only once call you Father, but I can hardly address you as ‘YOU.’ I do as one that speaks to a great Unknown. I know that you’ll accept me if I’m sincere, and that you’ll hear me if I cling to you. Teach me to pray. Better to suffer intolerable pain than to vegetate insensibly. Better to be parched with thirst, better to pray for pain, pain, and more pain, than to feel empty, and to feel so without truly feeling at all. That I mean to resist.”
And again, this time in a letter:
“I’m still so remote from God that I don’t even sense his presence when I pray. Sometimes when I utter God’s name, in fact, I feel like sinking into a void. It isn’t a frightening or dizzy-making sensation, it’s nothing at all—and that’s far more terrible. But prayer is the only remedy for it, and however many little devils scurry around inside me, I shall cling to the rope God has thrown me in Jesus Christ, even if my numb hands can no longer feel it.”
These excerpts should also show what a superb job translator J. Maxwell Brownjohn has done: throughout the whole book you hear the immediacy of their voices without the stiffness that comes about so often in translation.
One final note on the salutary jarringness of this book: officially, at least, both Hans and Sophie were in the employ of the Nazi regime. Hans was a drafted soldier—he served in both the west and the east—and Sophie had to give up her young adulthood to state-mandated work projects, in both nursery schools and factories. Neither was at all sympathetic to their national government, but both participated in it. It’s unsettling, and a potent reminder of the gap between what is seen and unseen in any human life. And it’s hard not to feel a certain measure of ambiguity regarding heroism that two such beautiful young people, when they finally made a modest action toward resistance, were snuffed out so quickly.
If studying the saints has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t engineer them. They are always and only a gift of the Holy Spirit. And so a moral of the story is almost certainly a betrayal of the saints. But insofar as it is asked of us at least not to quench the Spirit—and to put forward the word of God so that the Spirit might use it—I draw these two conclusions from the Scholls’ story.
The first is not to underestimate the giftedness and goodness of the secular kingdom. It is still God’s. If the civilized world cannot save, how much less barbarity! It is well worth the effort of the faithful to cultivate the vineyard that is shared by all the people of the earth.
The second conclusion requires a comfort with tension that neither the hyper-religious nor the hyper-secular can tolerate: which is that the church is not the world. And it doesn’t have to be, and in fact shouldn’t be. Let the world do the worldly things the best it can, but let the church do the things that only it can do.
Through Augustine, and their Catholic friend Carl Muth, and various other sources, Sophie and Hans heard a word that was truly not of this world. And it did what only the word of God can do: it changed them, forever. There would be no fruits of their resistance without the roots of their faith. But they had no way of knowing, and indeed no intention, of turning into resisters when they came to believe. It was God’s work in them, in God’s own time.
We can’t design resisters and liberators and civic wonderworkers any more than we can design saints. But we can proffer the word of God that has been given to us, and with it the Holy Spirit will bring about saints beyond our imagination. Like Sophie and Hans. Thanks be to God.
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is the former editor of Lutheran Forum, author of the quarterly “Theology and a Recipe” newsletter, and with Paul R. Hinlicky (another former LF editor!) co-host of the podcast “Queen of the Sciences: Conversations between a Theologian and Her Dad.”