The 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by Soviet troops in WWII was commemorated on January 27, 2015. The Nazis operated a lot of concentration camps during their reign of terror, but the Auschwitz complex was where they perfected an efficient, factory-like system to exterminate large numbers of people. It’s estimated they murdered at least 1.1 million people at Auschwitz, most of them Jews
The horror of it was such that most people then, and still today, cannot mentally grasp what happened there. One question that’s often asked is: How could the German people allow it to occur? George Wittenstein was a German citizen during the Nazi regime and in 1997 he tried to explain what it was like:
“The government – or rather, the party – controlled everything: the news media, arms, police, the armed forces, the judiciary system, communications, travel, all levels of education from kindergarten to universities, all cultural and religious institutions. Political indoctrination started at a very early age, and continued by means of the Hitler Youth with the ultimate goal of complete mind control. Children were exhorted in school to denounce even their own parents for derogatory remarks about Hitler or Nazi ideology. My own teenage cousin, for instance, threatened to denounce his father; and I was barely able to deter him by pointing out to him that he himself might end up destitute, if his father were arrested and incarcerated.
Organized resistance was practically impossible. One could not speak openly, even with close friends, never knowing whether they might not be Nazi spies or collaborators. So well organized was the control and surveillance by the party, that each city block had a party functionary assigned to spy on his neighbors. This “Blockwart” was ostensibly responsible for the well being of the residents of his city block, but in reality had to monitor, record and report on activities, conversations, and remarks of each person, as well as on their associations. Even the privacy of one’s home was not assured: a tea cozy or pillows placed over the telephone were popular precautions against eavesdropping by bugging. Nor did one ever know what mail had been secretly opened.”
Remembering the White Rose Resistance Group
Despite this difficult situation, however, there were still Germans who dared to speak out against the Nazis. One of the most famous was the White Rose resistance group. (Wittenstein was a member.) The White Rose was a non-violent group of students and a philosophy professor from the University of Munich who conducted an anonymous leaflet and graffiti campaign against the Nazis beginning in the summer of 1942.
The first of their widely distributed leaflets caused a sensation in Germany. It read:
“Isn’t it true that every honest German is ashamed of his government these days? Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes – crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure – reach the light of day?”
They produced five more leaflets before two of their members were finally caught in February 1943 and the Gestapo began to identify and arrest others. Three White Rose student members, including a girl named Sophie Scholl, were tried in a Nazi kangaroo court called the People’s Court on February 22. They were convicted in less than an hour without any evidence being presented, then sentenced to death and immediately executed by guillotine. The court held another trial on April 19 and three more members were given a death sentence, including the students’ professor, Kurt Huber. Afterwards, his widow was sent a large bill for “wear of the guillotine.”
The final leaflet produced by the White Rose was smuggled out of Germany by Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, a founding member of the Kreisau Circle, another German group opposed to the Nazis. (Moltke was executed for treason by the Nazis in January 1945.) In 1942 Moltke smuggled a letter to a friend in Britain that read:
“Today, not a numerous, but an active part of the German people are beginning to realize, not that they have been led astray, not that bad times await them, not that the war may end in defeat, but that what is happening is sin and that they are personally responsible for each terrible deed that has been committed – naturally, not in the earthly sense, but as Christians.”
Millions of copies of the final White Rose leaflet, retitled The Manifesto of the Students of Munich, were dropped over Germany by Allied planes in 1943.
The efforts of the brave German citizens who opposed the Nazis don’t make up for what happened at Auschwitz, or for the millions of others the Nazis killed in the Holocaust. But they do restore a little bit of our faith in humanity, especially the German people.