“Her courage leaves a deep impression to this day”

3 May 2021

One hundred years ago, Sophie Scholl and Hans Leipelt were born. They are remembered as two young people executed by an unjust state. The relevance of their resistance remains strong to this day.


Moral courage is a lesson learned from the resistance fighters of the White Rose, who are commemorated by a monument inlaid into the ground in front of the main LMU building. Candles have been lit here and flowers laid repeatedly in recent times, says Dr. Hildegard Kronawitter, Chairperson of the White Rose Foundation.

There is also a white rose in the university atrium, in a water-filled grappa bottle. The atrium has featured in many a movie: it’s the perfect backdrop for leaflets fluttering down from above, white and beautiful and deadly. In February 1943 a whole pile of them were pushed or thrown – nobody knows for sure – over the balustrade by Sophie Scholl. What we do know is that it was these very leaflets and an officious janitor who detained the Scholl siblings and reported the incident to the Gestapo that sealed the fate of the White Rose.

Seven names are commemorated on the memorial plaque that has hung in the upper gallery of the atrium since 1946, Sophie Scholl being the most prominent. The resistance fighter was executed at Stadelheim prison just a few days after her arrest. She would have turned one hundred on May 9th. She is remembered as a twenty-two-year-old. Highly gifted, nature-loving, sensitive. A strong personality who challenged National Socialism and fought for freedom.

“Her courage, her steadfastness, her unclouded view of the injustice of the Nazi state and the senseless cruelty of the war continue to leave a deep impression to this day,” says Dr. Kronawitter. Countless books and film scripts have been written about Sophie; her black-and-white portraits, so modern looking, circulate on the Internet; the White Rose’s resistance is taught in history lessons; there are Scholl schools, Scholl streets and Scholl institutes.

But Sophie’s picture has also appeared on posters that brazenly claimed “Sophie Scholl would vote AfD” (the far-right Alternative for Germany party). A horrific episode that was fortunately ended by an injunction – the image rights to the photo had not been obtained. And she was quoted, also inappropriately, last year by “Jana from Kassel”, who took the stage during a “Querdenker” anti-lockdown demo in Hanover. “I feel like Sophie Scholl,” said Jana, “because I’ve been active in the resistance movement for months, giving speeches, going to demos, handing out flyers and even registering meetings since yesterday.”

The outrage and derision were strong after that performance. But the example serves to show not only how some people simply dismiss the difference between dictatorship and democracy. It also demonstrates people’s great need to align themselves with moral role models. “Young people are searching for values,” says Professor Markus Gloe of the Geschwister Scholl Institute of Political Science. They find role models not in hangers-on, the “bystanders”, but in the “upstanders” of America’s Holocaust education. “Upstanders” like Sophie Scholl, who encourage high school and college students to think critically. “Sophie Scholl is a role model for moral courage – and we need role models like that. In the digital media, but also at school and university,” says Professor Gloe. “Because education is about argument, debate, dispute – that’s what gives it that extra something.”

His colleague Professor Michele Barricelli from the School of History explains, “Remembrance needs clear messages.” Sophie Scholl’s short life has shaped itself into such a message. “Her name can get through to people, it opens the imagination. We associate it with the idea of a different, better Germany.”

The effect of Sophie Scholl’s name has not become any less potent as the decades have gone by. On the contrary. “Empirical evidence shows that her celebrity and the closeness people feel to her are increasing with the years,” says Barricelli. “The Scholls are interesting as archetypes, kind of superhumans that people see as models.”

Hans Leipelt continued the work of the White Rose

Not every resistance fighter has been elevated to the rank of role model over the decades. While Sophie Scholl and the White Rose made an early and lasting impression on the collective memory, the seventh name on the plaque in the atrium is known to only the few – even though Hans Leipelt, the resistance fighter who would also have celebrated his hundredth birthday this year, actively continued the work of the White Rose after the murder of Sophie and Hans Scholl and Christoph Probst.

At first, it did not look likely that Leipelt, of all people, would rebel against the regime, since he had taken part in two campaigns as a soldier and received several commendations. But then he was discharged from the army because his mother was Jewish. Deeply offended, Leipelt went off to study chemistry for a few semesters at Hamburg until he found refuge in the winter semester of 1941/42 at the State Laboratory of Chemistry in Munich. This was where Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Otto Wieland officially listed so-called “Jewish half-breeds” as “guests of the privy council”.

Hans Leipelt became friends with chemistry student Marie-Luise Schultze-Jahn (then Marie-Luise Jahn), who years later would candidly recount in a newspaper interview, “He was someone who talked an awful lot. He was so unbalanced, so difficult.” She said the two of them “argued a lot because he was very temperamental and terribly careless.” And yet they acted in concert when Hans Leipelt found in his mailbox that sixth leaflet, written under the influence of the defeat at Stalingrad, and learned of the executions. “Quite spontaneously we said ‘we have to continue this!’,” Marie-Luise Schultze-Jahn would later write. They headed the leaflet with the words “...and their spirit lives on despite everything!” before typing up multiple copies and distributing it.

After the execution of Professor Kurt Huber, who had written the leaflet, Leipelt and other chemistry students secretly collected money for his totally destitute family – and were betrayed by a person or persons unknown. Leipelt was arrested on October 8, 1943. He was executed on January 29, 1945, the sentencing verdict stating that Leipelt had “constantly listened to foreign radio broadcasts and disseminated Bolshevik propaganda hostile to the state among the students of the university.” All those who had also been arrested in connection with his arrest were, it said, “more or less a victim of this defendant, who was exceedingly skilled at spreading his subversive ideas.” He was therefore “sentenced to death and permanent loss of honor for subversion of national defense and aiding the enemy.” Leipelt’s farewell letter to his sister, written on the day of his execution, is full of remorse: “And now finally let me ask you to forgive me my frequent lack of affection, my egoism, especially my lack of self-control by which I have thrust this misfortune upon you.” A touching sentiment. One that shows a deeply wounded personality with a complexity not quite suited to pathetic idealization.

Remembering a courageous chemistry student

Leipelt is, though, certainly remembered. On the memorial plaque; in the DenkStätte exhibition, which set itself the task of “carrying the message associated with the White Rose into the present day,” according to Dr. Hildegard Kronawitter. And also on the campus of the Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy. Not only was the foyer in Building F of the sprawling complex in Munich’s Grosshadern district named the Hans Leipelt Foyer, but a Hans Leipelt Seminar Room was also inaugurated in 2000 featuring several panels with information about the short but dedicated life of the young chemistry student.

Professor Herbert Mayr was Dean of the Faculty when the Student Council initiated the commemoration of Leipelt at the suggestion of Wolfgang Weigand, now Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at Jena. The memorial to the student also keeps alive the memory of Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Otto Wieland, who is said to have never raised his arm in a Hitler salute and took an enormous risk for the “Jewish half-breeds” at his institute. “Wieland is a role model, not just as a scientist but as a human being,” says Professor Mayr. “He went to the very limits and he did a lot of good through his actions.”

Wieland may not have been an active resistance fighter. “But he was one of those few people of integrity who made life reasonably bearable.” That, too, is an example of outstanding moral courage at a time when just a few wrong words could put one’s life at risk. “I’d like to think that we’ll remember not just a few people but a whole spectrum of resistance,” says Michele Barricelli. But will the memory of the resistance fighters stretch into the future? As a historian, Barricelli prefers to answer by looking to the past. “Fifty years ago, people would probably have said, ‘We’ll do a bit of working on the past and then we’ll draw a line under it.’ Nobody could have foreseen that remembrance would mean so much to us.” But, he says, a Germany without a culture of remembrance is inconceivable today.

Monika Goetsch

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