Alexander Schmorell: a Witness in Dark Times

by Mr. Jim Forest

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of “In Communion”, the quarterly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and on the author’s website. We are grateful for their permission to republish it here.

In May 1942, two young medical students in Munich secretly formed an anti-Nazi project they christened the White Rose. The work they envisioned was simple but daring: publication of a series of anti-Nazi leaflets. In the months that followed, four more friends joined the White Rose. Once launched, the group managed to publish and widely distribute six leaflets advocating active resistance by the German people to Nazi oppression and tyranny. Rejecting fascism and militarism, the White Rose called for a federated Europe committed to tolerance and justice. The leaflets quoted extensively from the Bible, Aristotle, Goethe, Novalis and Schiller. Following the German defeat at Stalingrad, the White Rose also carried out a night-time action of writing anti-Nazi slogans on walls such as “Freedom” and “Down with Hitler” as well as a white swastika with a red slash running through it.

In less than a year, all the principal participants in the group plus many collaborators had been identified, arrested and executed, but their memory lives on. Today not only has the White Rose become important to Germans, but it is internationally known. This is in part thanks to “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” the Oscar-nominated film that focuses on the youngest member of the White Rose, Sophie (only 21 when she died) and her brother Hans. There have also been several books, including Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, and numerous web sites.

Part of the initial inspiration for the activities of the White Rose came from a series of sermons by August von Galen, Catholic bishop of Münster, in which he denounced Aryan racism and the Nazi euthanasia program that resulted in the killing of members of society whom the Nazis regarded as unfit or unproductive.

“These are men and women, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters!” said Bishop von Galen. “Poor ill human beings. Maybe they are unproductive, but does that mean that they have lost the right to live?… If one adopts and puts into practice the principle that men are entitled to kill their unproductive fellows, then woe to all of us when we become aged and infirm! … Then no one will be safe: some committee or other will be able to put him on the list of ‘unproductive’ persons, who in their judgment have become ‘unworthy to live.’ And there will be no police to protect him, no court to avenge his murder and bring his murderers to justice. Who could then trust his doctor? He might decide that a patient is ‘unproductive,’ condemning him to death! One cannot even imagine the moral depravity, the universal mistrust that would spread even in the bosom of the family, if this terrible doctrine is tolerated, accepted, and put into practice. Woe to man, woe to the German people, if the divine commandment, Thou shalt not kill, which the Lord gave at Sinai amid thunder and lightning, which God our Creator wrote into man’s conscience from the beginning, if this commandment is not only violated, but violated with impunity!”

No German newspaper reported the bishop’s remarks. The Gestapo, while not daring to arrest and imprison so prominent a bishop, put von Galen under house arrest. After the war, it was revealed that Hitler had put von Galen on a list of people to be executed after the German victory in the war. Von Galen’s sermons, and their clandestine distribution far beyond Münster, helped inspire the founding of the White Rose. Although not a religious group per se, faith in God was one of the main strands uniting those involved in the White Rose.

Though the printings of the first few White Rose leaflets were small – obtaining the paper needed was a serious problem – the leaflets caused an immediate sensation. The Gestapo began an intensive search for the authors. The White Rose founders and principal leaflet authors were Alexander Schmorell and Hans Scholl. Hans Scholl, born in Ingersheim on September 22, 1918, came from a Lutheran family. Hans’s father Robert had served in World War I as a non-combatant medic because of his pacifist convictions. Active in liberal politics, in pre-Nazi times he had been a mayor. As a boy, Hans had been active in the Hitler Youth, but became disillusioned and developed anti-Nazi convictions.

Schmorell was a member of the Orthodox Church, attending the liturgy regularly. His friend Lilo Ramdohr recalls he always had a Bible with him and in various ways expressed his bond with the Orthodox Church. Schmorell was born in Orenburg, Russia, on September 16, 1917. Friends often called him by his Russian nickname, Shurik. His father Hugo was a physician – German by nationality but Russian by birth. His mother, the daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest, died of typhus in 1919 when Alexander was only two years old. Hugo remarried the following year. His second wife, Elisabeth, though German, had grown up in Russia. In 1921, the Schmorell family plus their nanny, Feodosiya Lapschina, fled Russia for Germany to escape from the Bolsheviks and the civil war. They settled in Munich, where two more children, Erich and Natasha, were born. Within the home Russian was spoken. Elisabeth Schmorell was Catholic, as were Alexander’s siblings, but Alexander remained Orthodox, attending Orthodox church services as well as religion classes in Munich.

According to Nazi theories of race, Slavs (Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, etc.) were untermenschen, sub-human – a view no member of the Schmorell family could accept. At one point, Alexander had been part of the Scharnhorst Youth, but once the group merged with Hitler Youth he stopped attending meetings.

When Schmorell was drafted into the army and was required to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler, he told his commanding officer that he could not do it, asking instead to be released from military duty. Though not discharged, remarkably he was excused from taking the oath and suffered no punishment. Before his participation in the White Rose, Schmorell had served in Czechoslovakia and in France and so knew first-hand of the crimes the occupying troops were committing.

Schmorell began his medical studies in Hamburg in 1939, but by the fall of 1940 he was studying closer to home at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich. There he met Hans Scholl. Scholl and Schmorell managed to obtain a duplicating machine – no easy achievement at the time, as such devices had to be officially registered – which they used in duplicating all the White Rose leaflets.

Saint Alexander Holding His White Rose

The first leaflet, issued in June 1942, declared that “Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be ‘governed’ without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. 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? If the German people are already so corrupted and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in the lawful order of history; if they surrender man’s highest principle, that which raises him above all other of God’s creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and thus subject it to their own rational decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass – then, yes, they deserve their downfall.”

A passage written by Schmorell in the second leaflet, issued in June 1942, contains the only known public protest by any German resistance group specifically against the Holocaust. “We wish to cite the fact that, since the conquest of Poland, 300,000 Jews have been murdered in that country in a bestial manner. Here we see the most terrible crime committed against the dignity of man, a crime that has no counterpart in human history…. No crime of this dimension has ever been perpetrated against human beings.” The text blames the German people, in their apathy, for allowing such crimes to be committed by “these criminal fascists.” The leaflet declares, however, that “it is not too late to do away with this most reprehensible of all miscarriages of government, to avoid being burdened with even greater guilt…. We know exactly who our adversary is.” The text adds, “Please make as many copies of this leaflet as possible and pass them on.”

The third leaflet recognized that many people “do not see clearly how they can practice an effective opposition. They do not see any avenues open to them. We want to try to show them that everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of this system. It is not possible through solitary withdrawal, in the manner of embittered hermits, to prepare the ground for the overturn of this ‘government’ or bring about the revolution at the earliest possible moment. No, it can be done only by the cooperation of many convinced, energetic people – people who are agreed as to the means they must use to attain their goal. We have no great number of choices as to these means. The only one available is passive resistance. The meaning and the goal of passive resistance is to topple National Socialism…”

The fourth leaflet had a theological dimension: “Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed. True, we must conduct a struggle against the National Socialist terrorist state with rational means, but whoever today still doubts the reality, the existence of demonic powers, has failed by a wide margin to understand the metaphysical background of this war. Behind the concrete, the visible events, behind all objective, logical considerations, we find the irrational element: the struggle against the demon, against the servants of the Antichrist.

“Everywhere and at all times demons have been lurking in the dark, waiting for the moment when man is weak, when of his own volition he leaves his place in the order of Creation as founded for him by God in freedom, when he yields to the force of evil, separates himself from the powers of a higher order, and after voluntarily taking the first step, he is driven on to the next and the next at a furiously accelerating rate.

“Everywhere and at all times of greatest trial men have appeared, prophets and saints who cherished their freedom, who preached the One God and who with His help brought the people to a reversal of their downward course. Man is free, to be sure, but without the true God he is defenseless against the principle of evil. He is a like rudderless ship, at the mercy of the storm, an infant without his mother, a cloud dissolving into thin air.”

n the summer of 1942, Hans Scholl, Schmorell and another soon-to-be White Rose member, Willi Graf, were sent as medics to the Russian “Eastern Front.” For Schmorell it was a homecoming of sorts, the first time since early childhood that he could experience Russia for himself rather than through such writers as Dostoevsky. He told his friends that there was no way that he could shoot at any Russian, adding he would not kill Germans either. As a fluent speaker of Russian, he opened the door for his friends to make informal contact with ordinary Russian people as well as doctors and Orthodox priests. He, Scholl and Graf attended Orthodox liturgies together.

When they returned to Munich in October, the activities of the White Rose were redoubled. Several new people were involved – Christoph Probst, Sophie Scholl (Hans’s sister), Professor Kurt Huber and Willi Graf – as well as others in a supportive outer circle. Through Alexander’s friend, Lilo Ramdohr, contact was established with Falk Harnack, younger brother of Arvid Harnack, active in a resistance group in Berlin.

In January 1943, the fifth leaflet was ready. Asking if Germany was forever to be “a nation which is hated and rejected by all mankind,” the text called on its readers to dissociate themselves “from National Socialist gangsterism” and to “prove by your deeds that you think otherwise…. Cast off the cloak of indifference you have wrapped around you. Make the decision before it is too late…. Separate yourselves in time from everything connected with National Socialism. In the aftermath a terrible but just judgment will be meted out to those who stayed in hiding, who were cowardly and hesitant.” Thousands of copies were distributed all over “greater” Germany – that is, in Austria as well. Schmorell’s travels brought him to Linz, Vienna, and Salzburg.

Two weeks after the fall of Stalingrad on February 2, 1943, a sixth leaflet was produced. In it Hitler was described as “the most contemptible tyrant our people has ever endured…. For ten long years Hitler and his collaborators have manhandled, squeezed, twisted, and debased these two splendid German words – freedom and honor – to the point of nausea, as only dilettantes can, casting the highest values of a nation before swine. They have sufficiently demonstrated in the ten years of destruction of all material and intellectual freedom, of all moral substance among the German people, what they understand by freedom and honor.”

On February 18, Hans and Sophie Scholl were caught distributing the leaflet at the University in Munich. Two days later Christoph Probst was arrested. On February 22, the three were tried and executed by guillotine hours later.

A Gestapo manhunt was now underway for Schmorell. Assisted by friends, he tried to escape to Switzerland using a forged passport, but he was inadequately clothed for a winter crossing of a mountain route – he had no alternative but to return to Munich. On February 24, with the city under heavy bombardment, he was arrested after being recognized in an air-raid shelter. On April 19 he was tried and sentenced to death and executed by guillotine on July 13, 1943.

At his trial, Schmorell told the court of his work as a medic trying to save lives on the Russian front, his refusal to shoot “the enemy,” and also his earlier refusal to take the oath of loyalty to Hitler. The judge, the notorious ultra-Nazi Roland Freisler, responded by screaming, “Traitor!”

Saint Alexander’s Grave

Schmorell’s body was buried behind Stadelheim Prison in the cemetery at Perlacher Forst. After the war, American forces built a base adjacent to the cemetery. Following closure of the base in the mid-1990s, the buildings, including a church, were turned over to the German government. Providentially the Russian Orthodox community was searching for a church building and was able to purchase it. As a result, Schmorell’s parish is across the street from where his earthly remains are buried, while in the church there is an icon of Schmorell.

Archbishop Mark of Berlin, head the German diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, says that in the near future Schmorell will be formally recognized as a martyr saint. In 2007, he led a pilgrimage group to Orenburg, Russia, to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Schmorell’s birth, an event arranged by Igor Chramow of the Eurasia Foundation in Orenburg. During this trip, the pilgrim group met 87-year-old Nikolai Daniilovich Hamasaspian, who, while living in Munich, had been a friend of Schmorell. He had given Schmorell his Bulgarian passport for possible flight from the country. Hamasaspian recalled that Schmorell had often spoken with him about spiritual matters, since they were both Orthodox Christians.

Katja Yurschak, a participant in the Orenburg pilgrimage in 2007, described to me in a letter how impressed she was by the comments Hamasaspian made over dinner one evening: “He said that his friend, Alexander Schmorell, loved his life and did not go around with the idea that he would become a martyr. It’s easy to forget that Alexander Schmorell, in many ways, was not so much different than most other 26-year-old young men at that time. I have always felt it easier to relate to Alexander Schmorell and the story of the White Rose because besides the story being amazing, it’s true, and in some ways, it’s easier to relate to people who are of a similar age, and who live in a similar type of world. In the bonus material for the ‘Sophie Scholl: The Final Days’ DVD, there’s an interview with Elisabeth Scholl Hartnagel, sister to Hans and Sophie. The part that especially hit me was when she said that she doesn’t like it when people call her brother and sister heroes because they tend to use it as an excuse – well, they could do what they did because they were heroes, but you can’t expect me to do anything of the same because I’m not a hero. It misses the point that it is more or less ‘ordinary’ people who work and struggle day by day to accomplish something bigger than themselves…. that the ‘cloud of witnesses’ is always around us, and that we can aspire to that in our lives. Alexander Schmorell was a young man with many talents. He had good friends and loved sculpture and music and literature. Apparently, he also was someone that young women became smitten with. All these things would point to a very bright future, but because of his faith, these alluring things did not hold him fast to this earth. Doing what was right was that much more important.”

In the letters Schmorell sent to his family from prison, he wrote about the deepening of his faith, assuring his family that, although he had been condemned to die, he was at peace, knowing he had served the truth. “This difficult ‘misfortune’ was necessary,” he wrote, “to put me on the right road, and therefore was no misfortune at all…. What did I know until now about belief, about a true and deep belief, about the truth, the last and only truth, about God?” In the last letter, written the day of his death, he told his family, “Never forget God!!” Just before he was taken to the guillotine, he told his lawyer, “I’m convinced that my life has to end now, early as it seems, because I have fulfilled my life’s mission. I wouldn’t know what else I have to do on this earth.

Hierarchs at the Canonization of Saint Alexander

Alexander Schmorell was officially canonized 4-5 February 2012 during services at the Cathedral of New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia in Munich. Photos of the event are available here.

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