A new translation by Oxford undergraduates of Second World War German resistance pamphlets captures the force of the originals and the energy of their student authors, an academic says.
From June 1942 to February 1943, the Munich-based White Rose group distributed pamphlets denouncing the “cancerous tumour” of Nazism and drawing attention to genocide of Jews in Poland, “a crime unparalleled in all human history”. The group, best known today for its members Sophie and Hans Scholl, sent hundreds of pamphlets to academics, doctors and ordinary citizens in the post and delivered others by hand.
They accused their readers of already knowing about Nazi atrocities and condemned the apathy and complicity of “spineless” Germans. They said it was their “MORAL DUTY” to overthrow the system through passive resistance, including sabotage, and time was running out.
Alexandra Lloyd, lecturer in German at Oxford University, said: “I thought how exciting it would be to have a translation of the pamphlets in English by students within the university setting, which is where the original student authors were: the same age and thinking about the sorts of issues — in a totally different context — around politics and social justice.
“So I set up the project as a translation project and students were invited to apply to be part of it. But it almost immediately became clear that there was a huge amount of interest beyond the university, and this could be a really exciting way of bringing the story to new audiences. Because it’s incredibly well known in Germany, but it tends not to be well known here.”
The core White Rose group consisted of medical students Hans Scholl, Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst and Willi Graf; also Hans’ sister, Sophie Scholl, a student of biology and philosophy; and university lecturer Professor Kurt Huber. The male students served as conscripted medical orderlies in the Wehrmacht and had first or second-hand knowledge of conditions at the front.
They were all arrested after Jakob Schmid, a caretaker, caught Hans and Sophie Scholl depositing pamphlets around the atrium of the University of Munich, and they were executed following show trials. The students were aged in their early to mid-20s and Huber was 49.
Lloyd said the story was so compelling as told in books and film that even people familiar with it may have felt no need to read the pamphlets. “The pamphlets are also pretty intellectually fierce . . . they’re not necessarily an easy read,” she added. “But it’s really good writing. There are a lot of complex ideas they were trying to distil. We spent about four weeks just reading and talking about each of the pamphlets.”
In the earlier pamphlets, the White Rose members, who worked collaboratively on the writing, quoted heavily from figures such as Goethe, Schiller and Aristotle to make their points. Lloyd said that they learnt over time to tighten up their writing. “You can see a shift, where it becomes snappier and more urgent. They get to the point quicker and rely less on quotation.”
In their fifth pamphlet, as translated by Lloyd’s team, they urged: “With mathematical certainty, Hitler is leading the German people into the abyss. HITLER CANNOT WIN THE WAR; HE CAN ONLY PROLONG IT! His guilt and the guilt of his followers continually exceeds all boundaries. Just punishment is nigh!
“But what are the Germans doing about it? They refuse to see, and they refuse to hear. Blindly they follow their corrupters into ruin. ‘Victory at all costs!’ They wrote on their banner. I will fight until the last man, Hitler says — meanwhile the war is already lost.”
The pamphlet was distributed in January 1943, shortly before the German defeat at Stalingrad.
As to what sets the new translation, by 33 undergraduates, apart, Lloyd said: “There’s a dynamism to it, a kind of energy. Sometimes the translations that are not ours are quite dry. The students worked really hard because they really care about German. So they spent a huge amount of time unpacking the source texts and the references.”
Her book Defying Hitler includes the translated pamphlets, an introduction to the White Rose group and biographical sketches quoting private letters not previously published in English translation. She hopes it will get across to readers the importance of all the core members, not only the Scholls, who are most often commemorated.
“The others are neglected. It’s much easier to make it a story about Hans and Sophie Scholl. It’s more complicated if you have to bring in six people, all of whom had different roles and were involved to different degrees. It’s much easier to have Sophie as a figurehead for the movement because she was a woman. With the four male students that’s complicated because they were all in the army, they were all at the front, they were all participating in Nazism.
“And Kurt Huber is especially difficult to bring in, in a simplistic way, because he was teaching in a Nazi university albeit he’s a dissident figure and a different generation.”
Lloyd’s book also looks at figures such as the students Hans Leipelt and Marie-Luise Jahn who sought to continue the activities of the White Rose after the deaths of its founders. Leipelt was classified by the Nazis as a Mischling, or half-Jew, and had been discharged from the army in August 1940 after service in Poland and France. He received the White Rose’s sixth pamphlet in the post and distributed copies in Hamburg with his close friend Jahn. They also collected money for Kurt Huber’s widow Clara, who had been left destitute.
After they were denounced to the authorities, Jahn was sentenced to 12 years in prison, thanks to Leipelt claiming to have been entirely responsible for their actions. Leipelt was executed in January 1945.
As for the White Rose’s legacy, Lloyd said they failed in their immediate aims. “There was no mass uprising of the people. They wanted to end the war, but the war rolled on for another two years. So did they achieve what they said they wanted? No. But it mattered for postwar Germany. And it matters for contemporary Germany that those figures existed, that it was was possible. That redemption narrative becomes tremendously important.”
She said there could be “lots and lots” of answers as to why the White Rose members had the courage to act when most Germans did not. For one thing, they were all open to discussion and debate in different ways. “Also, the student members were young and there’s a confidence with youth. They had that sort of exuberance that I think plays a big part.”
Lloyd and two of the student translators, Rachel Herring and Amy Wilkinson, will speak about the project at the Chalke Valley History Festival at 2pm on Wednesday June 22.