There is a paradox constantly present in times of persistent crisis. The world around us is going to hell, seemingly. Yet, at home, life goes on almost unblemished. In our modern times, this paradox is especially present. For the last sixteen years, our nation has been at war in at least two different theaters. Scientists are unanimous in their assessment that the climate is almost at a point of no return, and in half a century vast swaths of the world will be uninhabitable. Anti-democratic forces are gaining hold more and more worldwide, and hundreds of millions of people live in a state of not knowing where their next meal is coming from. And right here at home, the most extreme, right wing administration in American history is reshaping the norms of American politics in terrifying and unreal ways.
Yet, for so many of us, life just continues to roll on. We may know about all these crises, but we are so well-cushioned – a nice home, a readily accessible food source, good schools, decent neighbors, a consistent paycheck – that its hard to feel like we are in a moment of crisis at all. You could close your eyes, and it would almost all just fade away.
However, we don’t think of moments of historical crisis in that way. Surely, in actual moments of crisis, it must be overwhelming, the constant feeling of dread and insecurity one would feel. World War II, for instance, would seem like a time when normal life would stand still, and a daily sense of extremes would dominate. This would seem especially true in war-era Europe, and probably even more acute in war-era Germany.
The reality, however, is almost certainly the opposite, more akin, actually, to our present reality. This feeling of detachment and normalness in the midst of earth-shattering crisis is present throughout At The Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl.
Hans and Sophie were brother and sister, alternately the oldest and youngest of a larger brood of children, growing up in the first half of the 20th century in Nazi Germany. In their early 20s at the outbreak of war on the continent, both are conscripted into national service for the Reich, Hans as a military doctor, and Sophie in the compulsory Nazi youth organizations.
Yet, neither are Nazi supporters. Hailing from a highly educated, well-to-do family, they are well-read and intellectual, and both write obliquely of their horror at the rampant nationalism and violence going on around them. Eventually, along with a substantial group of friends and acquaintances their age, they begin writing and distributing anti-Nazi leaflets in Munich. Their group is dubbed “The White Rose.” After six subversive pamphlets, Hans and Sophie are caught distributing leaflets at the university in Munich, and subsequently executed. Hans was 24; Sophie just 21.
At The Heart of the White Rose is a collection of excerpts from their letters and personal diaries, kept between 1937 and their deaths in February of 1943. And despite the wartime setting, the sense one gets of reading the letters is normalness. Without the editorial inserts between letters and chapters, one would hardly know the circumstances they were facing. Hans, being in the military, obviously speaks often of his deployment first in France, then in Russia. But these references all come admidst rumination on philosophy and religion, vivid descriptions of nature, and mundane topics such as the need for clean laundry and money from home.
Sophie, who we meet when she is just 15, is a normal teenager of time, fond of biking and boys and nature. As the war continues, you watch her become a bit harder, at times forlorn. In her diary, she struggles both with her burgeoning religious beliefs, and also with self doubt. Yet, she maintains deep friendships with far-flung friends via letter, and her inherent optimism is always there.
This is a heartbreaking book, precisely because of the mundanity of the letters and diaries. Obviously, Hans and Sophie could have never imagined all this would be compiled and read nearly a century later. But, because we know where this story is going -not just the deaths of Hans and Sophie, but also the concentration camps, the ghettos, the atrocities of war – you read these letters with the feeling you are watching the moments just before a devastating car crash in slow motion.
In the second half the book, Hans and Sophie both begin to grapple with Christianity, which seems to have become a topic of interest among the White Rose members. Hans is ever the philosopher, writing academically of theological notions, grappling with them intellectually. Sophie, on the other hand, in her diary, is much more visceral, wrestling mightily with the existence of God, and her relation to such a being. I was astounded at just how articulate and brilliant both of these amazing people were, and acutely aware of the grand tragedy of their deaths.
Both Hans and Sophie’s last letters were written the day before they were arrested, and just five days before they are sent to the guillotine. Hans writes to his girlfriend, Rose; they appear to be going through a difficult moment in their relationship, exacerbated by their distance. Hans last words on paper are a wish for another letter from her quickly.
Sophie writes to her best friend, Lisa, that she had been playing a piece by Schubert on her sonograph, and beautifully describes the piece. “You can positively feel and smell the breezes and scents and hear the birds and the whole of creation cry out for joy. And when the piano repeats the theme like cool, clear, sparkling water – oh, it’s sheer enchantment,” she ends the letter. Less than 24 hours later, she would be in the custody of the Gestapo. The enchantment in this amazing collection of personal writings is found in the privilege of being privy to the everyday lives of these normal, ordinary heroes, and seeing that they aren’t all that different from us, that the world they were living in was not so different from ours.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Plough Publishers. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commissions’ 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”