In her famous and controversial book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ the political philosopher Hannah Arendt reflected on the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, noting that to a great extent the philosophy of National Socialism was accepted by the population. Few Germans are singled out by Arendt as having stood up against the Nazis, one is Heinrich Gruber, the protestant theologian of whom Arendt is somewhat dismissive in terms of his impact. Arendt reserves her only real words of praise for the actions of Sophie and Hans Scholl, two students at the University of Munich who along with their friends, Willi Graff, Alexander Schmorrell and Christoph Probst led a leaflet campaign against the rise of Nazism. The White Rose conspirators were captured and put to death by guillotine in 1943.
In his Graphic Novel, Freiheit! Italian artist and animator Andrea Grosso Giponte tells the story of the Scholls and their friends, revolving around the production of their fateful leaflets, and the eventual capture of Hans and Sophie as they distributed the sixth and final publication in their series. Grosso employs a subdued colour palette throughout, reflecting both the sombre nature of the story and the times that it represents. A very skilled artist, Grosso moves from impressionistic watercolour type imagery to stark photo-realist style with the ebb and flow of the story. At times the art is almost brutalist – but never quite so brutal as what took place in Germany, or what happened to the Scholls.
In form the book is effectively a short biography, making it ideal as an introduction for anyone who has never heard about the White Rose before, but it’s also an extended meditation on courage and fortitude and the moral imperative in the face of incredible odds.
Those who ‘did their duty’ and followed the rule of law in Germany at the time sometimes turned to the work of Immanuel Kant to justify their actions, claiming that they were doing their duty as citizens. Arendt and others returned to Kant to point out that the real duty of all German citizens at the time was to turn their backs on duty, and to rebel against the regime. This is a story of a small group of ordinary-extraordinary people who had the rare moral and physical courage to listen to their conscience and act accordingly.
“Offer passive resistance – resistance – wherever you may be…” urged the White Rose conspirators in their first leaflet, the text of which is reproduced at the end of the book. That these words should have had to come from a group of young people – some of the very few who managed to put up any kind of meaningful resistance to the Nazis is haunting. It’s a stark reminder to us all that the young offer more than naivete when it comes to political discourse.
“Every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure…” the group say in that same first leaflet – a message that we all do well to consider carefully.