Moral Courage

Last night I watched the film “The Last Days of Sophie Scholl,” a German movie about the interrogation and execution of Sophie Scholl.    Her brother Hans and a colleague Christoph Probst were also executed, but the movie was built around her experience in prison, her interrogation, and her refusal to take a path offered her to freedom.

In the past films and stories about the “White Rose” student resistance in Munich during the Third Reich tended to end at Sophie’s arrest.  The documents of the process against her, including the interrogation by Inspector Morr, were sealed in the East German archives until the end of the Cold War.  The film focused on her dilemma and experience of going from a relatively well off student activist to a victim of Nazi repression, and her intense and moving moral courage.

A few things struck me about the film.  First, it’s one of the few films about inside the third Reich that doesn’t go overboard with Nazi symbols and rhetoric.   The scenes outside the prison and interrogation chamber, while few, show a realistic sense of every day life.  Even the officials in the film, while mouthing the rhetoric of National Socialism, seem driven as much by a sense of patriotic duty during war time than adherence to ideology.   Sophie had committed treason during war, was accused of demoralizing the troops who were sacrificing on the front for the country, and of abusing the fact that the state was giving her an education and quality standard of living.   The emotions and ideals of the people involved are similar to those of people in the US or any other country.   Put average Americans into that context, and they would have behaved much the same way.

Yet, of course, no one had to.   To all of those who point to the propaganda, the sense of duty and patriotism that overrode questions about the legitimacy of the war or fascist repression, and the lack of knowledge of the full crimes of the Third Reich as excusing support for the state, Sophie Scholl and her compatriots stand in refutation.   No one had to support the National Socialists and Adolf Hitler.

To be sure, she was killed at a young age for her actions.   On the other hand, her actions and ideals continue to touch all who learn about the White Rose.   Most of those who survived by going along with the flow are also dead by now.   They may have had more days on this planet, but did they make the same positive impact?

The sources of her courage are clear.  First, it was her conscience.  She followed what she knew inside to be right and true, regardless of the propganda, the rationalizations, and the myriad of ways leaders and elites try to blur reality and make the wrong seem right.   Think about how our leaders at times defend seemingly indefensible acts or policies, with supporters clinging to those rationalizations to justify misdeeds.  To be honest about our own actions is rejected as ‘moral equivalency,’ when it’s really moral honesty.

We let our conscience get clouded and deluded.  It’s easier.  We want to do it, we learn how to do it from the first time someone convinces us it’s OK to cheat on an exam or keep the extra change the cashier mistakenly gave.   Deep down we know we’re wrong, but we can hide it from our conscious mind, at least a bit.  Once we get used to being able to do that, it’s not too far to the point that we’ll go along with things that otherwise might be seen as evil or unjust, especially if everyone else is buying the rationalization and it would be inconvenient or even detrimental to swim against the stream.

Conscience.  It’s real.  We all have it.  Some, like Sophie, can cut through the BS and make it the most powerful force behind her choices.   Most do not.

She also was a Lutheran with a strong belief in God and the Christian values of human dignity and worth.   Her faith told her the difference between good and evil, and give her an alternative perspective through which to judge National Socialism and the actions of the Third Reich.   She believed that standing for what is right and moral was more important than what happened to her body or material existence — the soul is eternal, bodies are not.   Those two factors give her a powerful capacity to resist the propaganda and world view of the Nazis.   At one point, when she mentions God, inspector Mohr spits back, “there is no God.”   His faith was in the ideology of the state, National Socialism.

As readers of this blog know, I have an odd relationship with organized religion.  I refuse to follow any particular one, but I try to show respect to all of them.  My own values and ideals are very much in line with New Testament Christianity, though my theological perspective has more in common with eastern religions, Sufism, or neo-Platonic philosophy (such as Plotinus).   One reason for the respect is I have seen throughout history the power to resist evil that faith provides.   This can be seen in Christians, Jews, Muslims, and people of a wide range of beliefs.   All religions have been abused by extremists as well; the history of the West is if anything more violent than that of the Muslim world.

I do believe that one has to have a strong sense of faith in the idea of the soul — in love, or a sense that the spiritual is more important than the material — if one can really avoid being manipulated and lost in this world.  This world is full of confusion, temptation, and alienation.   Without something to believe in, without meaning, life becomes unbearable.

Ultimately, that brings me back to conscience.  Perhaps there is a natural religion that transcends the human constructed faiths there in our sense of right and wrong.  Call it a Rousseauean instinct for compassion, an evolved each of human community, or a spiritual connection with the oneness of life, but I believe it exists.  And in its most pure and beautiful form, it comes out in the moral courage shown by someone like Sophie Scholl.  She stares Inspector Mohr in the eyes and says starkly that the system he’s defending is evil, has caused a massive European war, and will be judged in history.  She tells the Judge who tries to belittle and mock her that he is wrong, the war will be lost, and that he is defending the indefensible.

One gets the sense that the ability to stand for truth and conscience, fully accepting the consequences, gave her a sense of liberation — she was being fully human and fully honest, something most people aspire to, but do not truly achieve.   Moreover, she did this in the most extreme of circumstances, setting an example for generations to come.

To be sure, others were just as profoundly courageous.   The fact the movie was about her does not mean others, most notably her brother Hans, were not just as virtuous.   The example she set is valid in any event.   Look inside, follow your conscience, find the faith it provides and live by it.  If someone like Sophie Scholl can do that in the darkest days of the Third Reich facing certain execution, we should be able to do that in our day to day life, even in little things.  Leave a generous tip at the restaurant.   Don’t accept being given too much change.  Treat others well, with life with love, grace, and kindness.  Hopefully we won’t be called upon to make a stand and put our moral courage to the test like Sophie.   But wouldn’t it be nice to think that we could, if called upon?

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  1. #1 by Josh on June 7, 2009 - 02:11

    Hi Scott,

    That sounds like a great movie! I’m glad we live in a country where we can speak what we believe is right.

    I’m convinced that the world needs more humility. Many times, we point out wrongdoings by others without examining ourselves first (I know I have). For me, it takes more moral courage to admit your own evil than to speak out against the evil of others.

  2. #2 by henitsirk on June 8, 2009 - 20:07

    I have a hard time swallowing the line that ordinary Germans were unaware of what the Nazis were doing. If the man on the street didn’t know what was going on, why did my German Jewish grandmother know enough to immigrate to Shanghai before the rest of her family was deported to concentration camps? Maybe there’s data out there I haven’t seen, but at least from personal experience it doesn’t wash for me. I’m much more willing to accept that people were swayed by patriotism, the overall German culture (hierarchy, patriarchy, homogeneity, anti-Semitism, etc.), and the economic situation that Hitler used to drum up support for his policies.

    But you’d be the expert on all this! Tell me if I’m wrong.

  3. #3 by Scott Erb on June 8, 2009 - 20:29

    It’s more complicated than that. I suggest you rent the movie “Europa Europa,” the true story of a Jewish boy who escaped the Nazis with his family, only to fall into German hands. He was adopted by a German family, joined the Hitler youth, and hid the fact he was Jewish. He cried when they lost Stalingrad, and tried to believe the stories that Jews were being sent to Madagascar or elsewhere. Other Germans were told that they were migrating on their own, or being expelled from the country. Even when Germans heard ruumors of what was really happening in concentration camps (the mass killings started deep in the war, until then it was primarily labor camp work) they tended to think that Germans would never do a thing like that. It was dismissed as propaganda by the enemy.

    On a train in Germany in the late eighties I talked with a group of elderly women about the war and its aftermath. They were very open about what they experienced. I asked if they knew what was happening, and they claimed they didn’t, but one said, “I have thought a lot about that afterwards. At the time, I let myself believe that the Jews were being sent out of the country. But the information was there. I think I just didn’t want to believe it so I dismissed it.”

    In the trial of Sophie Scholl she claims atrocities are being done to the Jews, and its dismissed by the judge who says they simply are being expelled from Germany. Most of the death camps and victims were not on German territory. So I think they probably should have known (Sophie claimed it was clear in the stories from the front), but the government provided a somewhat believable cover story and most citizens wanted to believe that, so they did. They knew Jewish people were being taken away, but didn’t want to believe their government would actually execute them. Soldiers on the front tended not to know either, the German bureaucracy tried too keep it hidden and part of bureaucratic routine.

  4. #4 by henitsirk on June 8, 2009 - 21:30

    I’ll always regret not talking to my grandmother about her experiences. I have a copy of her sister’s Shoah Project testimony, which is amazing, but again, many details are missing. I think neither of them (my great-aunt, especially, having survived 6 camps) wanted to talk about it.

    Maybe it was more a sin of omission, that the average German just didn’t want to believe the rumors were true and so didn’t question the propaganda, as the woman on the train said to you. I guess that brings us right back to Sophie’s moral bravery.

  5. #5 by Eve on June 9, 2009 - 18:19

    Scott, beautiful post. I heard a story today about an act of conscience and generosity that blew me away; I’ll try to share it later on Third Eve… but yes, we do have that innate conscience, the inner sense of right and wrong. It’s definitely there.

  6. #6 by brucetheeconomist on March 8, 2011 - 15:40

    Is this film available via netflix??

  7. #7 by brucetheeconomist on March 8, 2011 - 15:41

    To answer my own question. Yes it is. Amazing what one can do with the net.

    • #8 by Scott Erb on March 8, 2011 - 15:50

      Yes, you can even watch it “instant play.”

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