Sunday, September 27, 2015

The White Rose, the Roosevelts, and... a warning to all cultures?

(A monument to Hans and Sophie Scholl, other members of the White Rose, and their anti-Nazi leaflets. This monument is at the Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich, Germany. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

The White Rose was a small German resistance movement that distributed anti-Nazi leaflets in various parts of Germany in 1942 and 1943. Many of the members were caught, including two of the leaders - Hans and Sophie Scholl. The young siblings were 24 and 21 years old respectively. They were both convicted of crimes against the German people and beheaded.

The trials of the White Rose members and collaborators were presided over by the especially loathsome Roland Freisler, head judge of the People's Court. Freisler was a man who took delight in yelling at defendants, in his utterly gruesome voice, and once said, "The days when every man can be allowed to profess his own political 'beliefs' are past."

(If the video above does not play properly, see YouTube link below. We can get a sense of the type of trial the members of the White Rose must have went through by watching the video above, showing Roland Freisler screaming at a man on trial for participating in an assassination attempt on Hitler. The video is a small clip from the 1973-74 documentary series, "The World at War," narrated by Laurence Olivier. Original YouTube link:

"Do not forget that every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure."

--The White Rose

Not holding back any punches, the White Rose leaflets expressed contempt for Hitler, Nazi polices, and an apathetic public (excerpts below). Their words, however, are relevant to many cultures--both past and present. For example, while not on the same level of moral depravity that existed in Nazi Germany, in America we have allowed super-wealthy Americans to purchase our democracy and turn it into an oligarchy - an oligarchy where white collar crime typically goes unpunished, wages stagnate or drop while the super-rich increase their fortunes by the billions, student loan debt reaches unsustainable levels, infrastructure crumbles, wildfires & pollution ravage the land, the number of homeless children reaches record numbers (see, e.g., here and here), personal profit drives perpetual war & mass incarceration, health insurance is withheld from the poor, regressive taxes, tolls, fees, and fines multiply, and drug-testing & public humiliation is advocated for low-income Americans who receive government assistance - but not for rich Americans who receive government assistance (e.g., public money bailouts for wealthy financial institutions, lower tax rates for the super-rich, and government subsidies for multiple homes and mansions).

But despite all the above (and outside of a few small movements) most of the American public remains in a state of apathy or, worse, stand ready to vote for political candidates who will grant even more gargantuan tax breaks to the super-wealthy Americans who have perverted our democracy, rigged the economy to their benefit, and engaged in a level of fraud, greed, and white collar crime that boggles the mind. So, while the words of the White Rose are harsh on Germans, we should not necessarily think ourselves immune from the thoughts expressed in those leaflets. Here are some of those thoughts:

"Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be 'governed' without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct."

"The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals; they give them the opportunity to carry on their depredations; and of course they do so."

"Every individual human being has a claim to a useful and just state, a state which secures the freedom of the individual as well as the good of the whole" (emphasis added).

"Why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you...until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanized state presided over by criminals and drunks?"

"Every word that comes out of Hitler's mouth is a lie...His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell..."

"We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience."

(WPA poster, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

When Roland Freisler examined the case of White Rose member Christoph Probst, he was astonished by one the young man's inspirations: "He supports promises in this leaflet by citing - Roosevelt!"

Clearly, the White Rose members were familiar with happenings in America. They warned their fellow German citizens: "Mobilization in the United States has not yet reached its climax, but already it exceeds anything the world has ever seen." Roland Freisler, like many Nazis, disregarded the warnings of the White Rose and paid for it with his life. Though accounts vary on the exact details, he was likely killed by an American and British air attack on Berlin in February 1945. The members of the White Rose may have also been familiar with Roosevelt's Four Freedoms Speech (January 6, 1941) where he said, among many other things, that people should have "freedom of speech and expression - everywhere in the world." (Recall Freisler's declaration of the opposite, Nazi policy: "The days when every man can be allowed to profess his own political 'beliefs' are past.")
When Freisler sentenced Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, and Chrisoph Probst to death, he said, "Their honor and rights as citizens are forfeited for all time." But it's interesting how history turns out, because the members of the White Rose are now remembered as heroes and Freisler is remembered as a monster. 

After Hans and Sophie Scholl were executed in 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at an event in their honor at Hunter College in New York. She said: "I like the Germans, especially those fighting Nazism, but I hate and despise the Nazis."

The White Rose and the Roosevelts (and many New Deal policymakers) understood something fundamental about humanity that many do not: We need individual rights, but we also need a common good ("Every individual human being has a claim to a useful and just state, a state which secures the freedom of the individual as well as the good of the whole"). Indeed, the two go hand in hand. The Founding Fathers understood this as well, which is why they included individual rights and the words "general welfare" in both the preamble and Article I Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. In Nazi Germany, however, individual rights were trampled by the state. And in America today, the common good is being trampled by a fanaticism for individual rights - a fanaticism that is so extreme that it essentially says, "If I need to pollute the environment to make a personal profit, too bad for everyone else. If more and more children become homeless as I grow richer and richer, too bad for them. If huge tax breaks for me causes our nation's infrastructure to fall apart, tough luck."

I believe the warnings of the White Rose are warnings to us all.         

(All quotes above are from the book "The White Rose: Munich, 1942-1943," Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1970, 1983.)

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