On February 22, 1943, at the age of twenty-one, University of Munich student Sophie Magdalena Scholl was executed by guillotine along with her brother Hans and a few others for spreading leaflets for the White Rose, a non-violent resistance movement against the Nazis.
The 2005 German-language film Sophie Scholl: Die letzten Tage (The Final Days) is based on the true events of Sophie’s last few days following her dramatic action of dropping leaflets into the atrium at the University of Munich that led to her arrest, interrogation, near-release prior to incriminating evidence being found that leads ultimately to her confession, trial, and execution only a few days later in Nazi Germany’s notorious Volksgerichtshof (people’s court).The film’s intentional depiction of an all too real history invites reflection on the nature of the conscience and urgency of becoming a misfit.
As Alissa Wilkinson noted at Vox, “The film is remarkable partly because it draws directly on police records of interrogations of Scholl, both before and during her incarceration. Those records had been unavailable for a long time, but screenwriter Fred Breinersdorfer used them to reconstruct Scholl’s final six days, and thus craft a true profile in courage.” In 2006, Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker that “until recently, ‘Sophie Scholl’ could not have been made in this form. Only under German reunification were the relevant Gestapo files discovered and made public, and the exchanges between Mohr and Sophie adhere as closely as possible to the official records of her interrogation.” Moreover, Richard Alleva noted in his 2006 review at Commonweal that “throughout the narrative, especially in the closing scenes, Sophie’s reliance on her faith in God is emphasized.” Director Rothemund has no ax to grind; he is an atheist. That he is so willing to admit that the roots of Sophie’s heroism were in her faith is a mark of his veracity and the big heartedness of this movie.
My reflections here are focused more on the film than a historical study of Sophie’s life and death per se. But even where the film has re-sequenced events, creatively dramatized conversations and Sophie’s prayers, or inserted excerpts from the White Rose movement’s six distributed leaflets into the script, the film’s intentional depiction of an all too real history invites reflection on the nature of the conscience and urgency of becoming a misfit.
Evil, where it truly is evil, is subtle. As Elizabeth Bruenig noted in her extraordinary essay “The Devil We Know,” popular culture today has largely abandoned depictions of the devil found in Late Medieval manuscripts or John Milton’s Paradise Lost, yet is nonetheless saturated with graphic and gory depictions of true crimes and horrifying evil as a kind of catharsis without any explanation. Consequently, we can do others and ourselves a tremendous disservice where evil is caricatured into an easily detectable form. For example, Bruenig elsewhere rightly critiques how the mechanisms and evil of fascism are depicted in Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Where the villain Snoke is aesthetically disgusting and almost cartoonishly monstrous as a flat character, the sleek and brutal government of the First Order is widely hated by commoners, down to even peasant children in the film’s universe. As Bruenig writes:
If only it were that easy: the bad guys openly callous and hostile to peace and prosperity, the good guys obviously and genuinely humane, and the citizenry alert and attuned to the difference. In reality, the economic conditions sketched in “The Last Jedi” are perfectly primed to give rise to the very sort of fascist regimes the film seems to think they’re naturally antithetical to.
Consequently, Sofie’s interrogator “Mohr” proves an outstanding resource for reflection on the deceptive nature of evil prior to its eventual annihilation or privation into nothingness.
Mohr is unbearably understandable, an average German who sincerely believes in “freedom, honor, prosperity, a morally responsible government” and regards the Nazis as a panacea to Germany’s problems that followed the Treaty of Versailles. The Nazis empowered him from being a once misunderstood or disenfranchised country tailor, concerned for his family’s well-being in an austere democracy, to an official in a world-dominant government. As a Nazi, Mohr is neither a bombastic, raving lunatic, nor is he reluctant or begrudging in his complicity. He is, in other words, precisely the kinds of people fascism thrives upon: disciplined, rational, orderly, concerned for the people that he cares about—just like you and me.
It is difficult not to squirm at Mohr’s calm and utterly sincere defense of Nazism’s ends and means during Sophie’s second interrogation. Worse, a kind of moral conflict is thrust upon the listener watching this film based on historic transcripts; Mohr provides Sophie with a way out of punishment if she will only recant of her criticisms of the Nazis and denounce the ideas of the White Rose movement. Mohr even acknowledges he has a son Sophie’s age, and he provides a means for her to recant without betraying her brother or other members of the movement. However, to the extent that Mohr is an unsettling interlocutor is not to miss that his interrogation of Sophie is exhausting, resolute, and methodical.
In a particularly unnerving series of exchanges Mohr attempts to dissuade Sophie from her Weltanschauung (world outlook). Twice, and once later during her sham trial, Sophie appeals to Gewissen (conscience) against the Nazi ideology. After Sophie responded to Mohr’s inquiries by reminding him that the current Nazi laws had done away with free speech laws in 1933:
Sophie: Someone who speaks freely now is imprisoned or put to death. Is that order?
Mohr: What can we rely on if not the law? No matter who wrote it.
Sophie: On your conscience.
Mohr: Nonsense! Here is the law, and here are the people. As a criminologist it is my duty to find out if they coincide and if not to find the rotten spot.
Sophie: The law changes, conscience doesn’t.
Mohr: What would happen if everyone separately decided what is right or wrong? What would be left, if criminals actually toppled the Führer? Criminal chaos! So-called free thinking, federalism, democracy? We know what it leads to.
Sophie: Without Hitler and his party there’d be law and order for everyone. Everyone would be safe from arbitrary acts. Not only the yes-men.
Mohr: How dare you make such derogatory remarks!
Sophie: Derogatory is calling my brother and me criminals because of some leaflets! We’ve only tried to convince people with words.
Mohr: You and your kind shamelessly abuse your privileges… You’re a protestant?
Mohr: The church also requires devotion even if you doubt.
Sophie: People attend church voluntarily. Hitler and the Nazis give us no other choice.
Mohr: Why do you risk so much for false ideas?
Sophie: Because of my conscience.
Sophie goes on in her interrogation to denounce the “heroic struggle” of Nazis as an immoral “bloodbath” soon to be lost in vain, denounces the plan of Hitler to exterminate all European Jews that he had been preaching for decades, describes children with intellectual disabilities being sent away, and says she has heard rumors of extermination camps in the East, all of which Mohr coolly dismisses: “You are confused. You have no idea. The wrong education. Maybe it’s our fault. I’d have raised a girl like you differently.” In probably the most othering move possible, Mohr goes on to question Sophie’s fundamental sanity or contact with reality.
Here and in one other particularly revealing moment, Mohr asks Sophie why she has willfully gotten herself into this avoidable trouble: “You’re so gifted, why don’t you think and feel like us?… You’re much better off than people like me. You don’t need to do this. How dare you raise your voice.” Sophie expressly indicates she is compelled to do so by faith and unwillingness to bind her conscience.
Sophie was thus not a misfit in the abstract. Sophie chose to identify with the “unworthy lives” deemed misfits in Nazi Germany. Speaking out on their behalf would not only render her a fellow misfit alongside of them them but also ultimately cost her life along with theirs.
Sophie’s confession, that every human life is “precious” and created “in the image of God” is a scandal to our dehumanizing world. Only five years ago a memorial was dedicated in Berlin to the victims of Aktion T4, commemorating the Nazis’ disabled victims described by Sophie. This October will mark the one year anniversary of the largest anti-Semitic attack in American history, which occurred at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the recent shooting at Chabad Synagogue in Poway were both incidents of self-identifying Christian anti-Semitism. The events in Charlottesville in 2017, and the recent comments by the president doubling down on his claim that there were “very fine people” on both sides where self-identifying Neo-Nazis and the KKK had assembled, are reprehensible.
Endless examples of dehumanizing treatment that does not honor the dignity of other persons can be adumbrated here; there are so many to choose from in our decadent age. Beyond intense incidents of dehumanization such as those shootings, we can also find ourselves complicit in dehumanizing systems and processes. The United Nations recently announced the United States and other Western countries might be held accountable for our complicity in creating and sustaining the worst humanitarian crisis on earth in Yemen, where tends of millions of people have been in pre-famine conditions for years and the nations healthcare system has almost entirely collapsed.
But against these forces and the anti-God powers of dehumanization, there is a particularly tender place for the weak and the vulnerable in God’s economy of worth. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:28–29). In an honor-shame culture that valued prestige, nobility, wisdom, and might, God’s saving power and wisdom are revealed in the lowest of all possible social places, in the folly and weakness of “a crucified Messiah” (1 Corinthians 1:23), cutting across any prior notions of human worth. As pronounced ironically, but nonetheless truly, in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the murderous villain named “the Misfit” decries that “Jesus Thrown Everything off Balance.” Jesus was not abstractly mortal like all humanity; he took the form of a slave and was obedient to the point of not only death, “but even death on a cross,” a law-cursed death that the new creation blessing promised to Abraham might extend to the gentiles (Philippians 2:6; Galatians 1:4, 3:13, 6:15). If, as Gregory Nazianzus wrote in his First Letter to Cledonius, “the unassumed is the unhealed,” by faith we perceive on the cross the Son of God who freely determined to be made a misfit with us and for us, that his cosmic healing is presently hidden but soon to be revealed.
That Jesus was called “a friend of tax collectors and sinners,” dining with the likes of Zaccheus, Simon the leper, and various kinds of demoniacs, social outcasts, and completely ridiculous human beings is good news for every variety of misfit and for the weak, vulnerable, rejected, and crushed. In Jesus there is abundant friendship, embrace, and hope, such that someone like Sophie can go to the guillotine with confidence of things unseen. But to the proud—all of us, invariably—and especially those in the insular environs of privilege, comfort, and security, the word of the cross ought to shake us to the core and throw us into a crisis.But against these forces and the anti-God powers of dehumanization, there is a particularly tender place for the weak and the vulnerable in God’s economy of worth.
Although the extent to which American popular culture is “post-Christian” is complicated, identifying oneself with Christianity can still yield a kind of social or political capital, evident in the religious rhetoric of our many presidential candidates. Against Christendom’s inversions, the cross is a word that must unsettle us, accost us, and annihilate us so that we might be raised with Christ. The Messiah was crucified! Surely not, we want to protest with Peter, but the Christ’s word then and now is that “if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8:34–37). Or, in Flannery O’Connor’s justly famous exhortation: “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”1
In our age of hyper-individualism and religious consumerism it is difficult to comprehend this call, let alone heed it. Those of us who concerned by the rampant individualism in American religion regularly emphasize the necessarily communal nature of life in Christ and that, beyond a personal relationship, the Good News that the crucified Jesus is risen Lord is the message of God reconciling all things to himself.
But in rightly emphasizing the communal and corporate aspects of Christian faith, we must not over-correct and neglect training others and ourselves to stand out, even alone perhaps, against the anti-God powers of Sin and Death. Sophie’s appeal to conscience has a theological pedigree going back to Luther but especially in Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was aware of the dangers of individualism, but critiqued those who undermined the significance of the individual conscience with a call to train the conscience and an appeal to Luther:
It could be said that “conscience” is one of life’s greatest inconveniences. Therefore “Let’s be part of a group,” for if we are part of a group it means good-night to conscience. We cannot be two or three, a Miller Brothers and Company around a conscience. Let’s make all this coziness secure by abolishing conscience, by saying that wanting to be a single individual is egotism, morbid vanity, etc… To the mentality of our age Luther is really ridiculous—a solitary man riding in a cart to the parliament at Worms and wanting to demolish the entire power of the Pope. That he appeals to God is, of course, again ridiculous to the mentality of our age, because according to this mentality God cannot be assumed to relate himself to an individual human being but at best to “a group,” a party, a people, etc.2
But it is the subtlety of evil renders this entire enterprise fraught not only with difficulty. Even in popular culture, an almost cartoonish phenomenon is the peer pressure to brand yourself as a misfit, from bands named “the Misfits” whose T-shirts are on sale at Wal-Mart, to self-branding cities to “keep” Austin or Portland, or wherever, “weird.”
That precise problem lurks within the church as well, where what it means to be a “misfit for Jesus” is ripe for exploitation by opportunists. For example, Stephen Haynes’s 2018 The Battle for Bonhoeffer: Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump appraises the various partisan groups currently appealing to or making use of the legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German resistance theologian who like Sophie was executed by the Nazis for his resistance efforts directly motivated by his Christian faith. Eric Metaxas, the author of an extremely popular but historically problematic biography of Bonhoeffer, cast the 2016 election as a “Bonheoffer moment” and in various interviews and writings straightforwardly bound the consciences of Christians to support Donald Trump and indicating that they would be accountable to God for the policies and failings of political opponents. Even the not-so-religious have been baffled by such brazen expediency; as John Goldberg observed in The National Review about all of this:
I always thought that the role of conscience in Christianity is to treat it as something of great value and importance. Yes, as Catholics teach, it must be rightly formed through reason. A poorly formed conscience can lead to poor decisions. But conscience also speaks to us from a plateau above mere reason. In Metaxas’s formulation, conscience has been reduced to a kind of virtue-signaling vanity, or maybe the sin of pride. “Don’t listen to your conscience because God wants you to vote for Donald Trump” is a weird argument coming from anybody. But it is downright bizarre coming from the moral biographer of Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer.
Notably, this December another film will be released about Nazi resistance, Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life,” which Alissa Wilkinson comments might offer “a necessary corrective to our valorization, and particularly American Christians’ valorization, of figures like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Corrie ten Boom,” because “it is in our human nature to love the story of a person who did great things: saved lives, wrote books, stood against the dictator who wiped out millions of lives. It is less common for us to celebrate a man who threw away a comfortable life and simply refused to do what he knew he could not, and paid with his life.” That commoner and devout Catholic Franz Jägerstätter refused to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler.We must not over-correct and neglect training others and ourselves to stand out, even alone perhaps, against the anti-God powers of Sin and Death.
The desire is irresistible to imagine ourselves as Sophie, to reassure ourselves that against the atrocities of the Nazis we would have spoken out and stood up. The brutal reality is that the overwhelming majority of us would be Mohr, or the dutiful janitor who was proud of himself for catching Sophie and her brother in the act of dropping their leaflets and turned them in to the Gestapo. Doubtless, someone like Mohr probably understood themselves to be doing just that—but of course it was a lie and his conscience was seared (1 Timothy 4:2). But we needn’t exert too much efforts of our imagination; it might be that we are either so accustomed to, or just outright decadent, that we cannot even perceive the dehumanizing forces at work in our individual lives and the systems and structures of our world. It might even be that our consciences are seared not by unbelief but by bad faith opportunists who partner with dehumanizing forces, and our hearts are much slower to compassion than our Lord is towards us in our particular sorrows, griefs, darkness, light, horrors, and songs. Becoming misfits of a misfit Messiah precludes expediency, and urges the kind of regard for the weak and vulnerable that is willing to risk martyrdom. As the White Rose wrote in their fourth leaflet, the very document Sophie Magdalena Scholl really did drop in the university atrium that led to her execution:
“We won’t be silent. We’re your bad conscience. The White Rose won’t leave you alone.”
1. The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979, p. 229.
2. Søren Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1975, 2:417–418.