August 12, 2016 by

Sophie Scholl

Sophie Scholl (1921-1943),
Photograph by Werner Scholl

What can one person do in response to world suffering? For me, the images of people crying next to memorials for the latest tragedy are the most painful. So many people bereft – and even if I could give each of them a hug and tell them I’m praying for them, it wouldn’t bring back the person they love.

As I wondered what to do, I came across the story of a young woman who choose to sacrifice her life rather than passively accept the suffering in her world, a world very similar to mine, with charismatic politicians gaining public support with the rhetoric of hate and fear; a world rocked by violence and unrest.

Her name was Sophie Scholl, and as a university student in Germany during World War II, she joined a group called “The White Rose” that distributed leaflets condemning Hitler’s brutality. That was how she fought against the suffering – with the written word. For this she was captured, imprisoned, and killed, at age twenty-two, along with her brother Hans and other students.

Sophie Scholl and other members of The White Rose
Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, and Alexander Schmorell – members of The White Rose

I connect with Sophie every day as I work in the Plough Publishing House, copyediting her collected correspondence. This is what shakes me: as I sit at my computer I see her at her manual typewriter. As her story unfolds in front of me, I see the transformation of troubled thought into heroic action. And I see that such a transformation can only occur in a mind that stays awake, and never allows itself to be conformed to what is popular. At age nineteen, she wrote:

Although I don’t know much about politics and have no ambition to do so, I do have some idea of right and wrong, because that has nothing to do with politics and nationality. And I could weep at how mean people are, in high-level politics as well, and how they betray their fellow creatures, perhaps for the sake of personal advantage. Isn’t it enough to make a person lose heart sometimes?. . . But all that matters fundamentally is whether we come through, whether we manage to hold our own among the majority, whose sole concern is self-interest – those who approve of any means to their own ends.

Yes, Sophie Scholl certainly managed to hold her own among the majority. She accomplished this primarily with her intellect, the gift God gave her. God makes some people soldiers, and some people humanitarian aid workers, and others writers and thinkers. Sophie Scholl did not end the war – the White Rose was ultimately just a minor speed bump in Hitler’s path of destructive hate – but she sacrificed her whole heart and life without reservation. While reading her personal letters I came to the conclusion that every human being has the capacity to be a martyr. We may not all be called to that as Sophie Scholl was – I don’t think I am, at least not right now – but if we pray and seek long enough we can discern the tools or gifts, strengths or weaknesses, that we have been given. Then it remains our choice whether or not we use them to do God’s work.