We Are Not Born As Saints, We Grow Into Them

Sophie Scholl …

Don’t know her? Well, let me tell you a story:

Germany actually had a resistance movement against Nazism during World War II – The White Rose, as they called themselves.

They were young, idealistic, and they of course got caught and executed, but not until they had put out an immense number of illegal leaflets calling upon Germany to refuse the yolk of the Nazis and Hitler.

One of the White Rose’s most well-known members was the student Sophie Scholl (1921-1943) who is a Big inspiration for me, and has been for many years.

How a bunch of rebel student philosophers inspired this blog

A quirky little aside about their all-too-brief careers resisting Nazism was that the White Rose members published a personal newsletter of sorts called Windlicht – The Storm Lamp – in which they wrote each other essays about life, the universe and everything. In short:

A lot of the dreams and free-think that was so discouraged during Hitler’s regime was put into that tiny newsletter.

So it is fitting that the first post should be about Sophie and The White Rose – and more specifically one of the themes that I connect with them especially:

What it takes for us to make something of our lives – something valuable?

And whether or not it is all in the eye of the beholder, any sort of lasting fame.

And whether the kind of ‘black or white’ fame usually connected with Sophie and other resistance fighters is something worth striving for anyway – if you think about it.

Yeah, those kinds of questions.But let’s begin with the girl, shall we … ?

Figurehead Or Freedom Fighter?

Now, there are only few really extensive bios about Sophie Scholl in English, unfortunately, but I like the movie “Sophie Scholl – the Last Days” which can be purchased with English subs. It is largely accurate and the girl playing Sophie gives a moving performance.

What is interesting about Sophie in particular is that – despite her hero status today (at least in books and movies) – I’ve also read stuff on the net about how her actions didn’t really matter THAT much.

There were, so the argument seems to go … – other resistance members who had been in it longer – who took far more risks then her – and who from an earlier point in time were clear that they had to fight Nazism.

The debate, as always, when it comes to real human beings is complex and nuanced. You can get a sample of it here.

In short, it’s a debate that tries not only to nuance Sophie’s life story, which is to be recommended, but also to take it down a peg or three – especially her heroine status.

The long and the short of it is that she participated in a peaceful student-led resistance – mostly by spreading anti-Nazi propaganda, and then she got caught and executed along with her brother and friends. Each of them, but especially Sophie, had some strong words to say about what they had done and what they believed in, but their fates were sealed.

Afterwards, however, they became a symbol of German conscience, regardless of Nazism. No small feat. Even if they paid the ultimate price.

Everyone Can Become A Hero

I think Sophie’s life in many ways is a shining example about how every one can become a hero(ine).

Everyone can at one time or other in their lives, make some extremely unselfish, courageous choices and, in effect, become those choices.

Or in other words: Become more than they were before, as persons. Become heroes.

Because those choices are just so significant that they really define a person in all other respects.

Especially for people looking back.

But heroes in real life didn’t necessarily always make the heroic choices, they are remembered for.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, and still … so often it seems to do.

Or maybe we don’t care to see people in any other way than what suits or needs and purposes at the present moment?

We need a heroine? – Fine, let’s grab her.

We need a villain? – Fine, let’s paint some one as such.

Our Need To Find Heroes Everywhere

Let me invite you to an experiment: Go to google.com and try to search for “Sophie Scholl quotes” (without the quotations marks). Then once the results are in, switch to the “images” option in the menu.

You will see a plethora of quotes connected with Sophie Scholl, but most of them … are false. She never said that.

Many of them seem to be just, well, made up. All are very heroic, though.

But take a look for yourself at WikiQuotes’ research into the sources for some of the more popular quotes attributed to this girl … who has become the symbol of the infinitely fragile, but therefore all the more significant, German civilian resistance against the Nazis.

You will see many of the quotes attributed to Sophie have doubtful origins.

We want to see heroes and heroines everywhere. Pure. True. Not ‘messy’ – like real people.

However, when you think about it … The path to the role of a ‘hero’ – or ‘saint’ – is never easy and straight.

It certainly is not without costs. Most certainly not.

Being a ‘hero’ is often not what one is the moment the heroic act is done; it can often be interpreted quite differently, and only – in the time to come – heroically.

The connection between living heroism and then our very real, every day not-so-heroic lives is important.

How To Really Find Heroism In Life

It is the search for that connection between heroism and everyday life and its constraints that gives us a chance to become heroes ourselves. It is that search that shows us where to find heroes – and how to become heroes.

We don’t have to be particularly pure, idealistic, saintly or heroic now or before. But if we want to, we can make choices that move us towards heroism.

Now … one of the things that attract me to life stories and the lessons we could learn from them to inspire our own lives is what I would call ‘seeing the sun in the whole’.

That means seeing the beauty or positive lessons in even a ‘damaged life of no good’.

That also means getting inspired by the lessons from a seemingly very perfect life, such as Joan of Arc‘s – while not putting her on a pedestal of saintliness.

It is a way, I feel, of coming closer to finding the hero in ourselves if we do this.

Because if we put our inspirations to far above us and refuse to acknowledge their faults, and also how they overcame them – how can we ourselves hope to become like them?

We don’t want to make anyone so superior to us that we can never be like them. And, more often than not, it means first deconstructing a myth about a certain type of heroism and acknowledging that, yes, perhaps this person was in fact quite normal, although he or she later did some truly extraordinary things.

But then taking to heart that those few things actually did matter SO much that it does NOT matter, if the person before was … well, too normal I would almost say.

And one of the things that you begin to understand about Sophie Scholl, as you read about her is that, yes, she was a very conscientious young lady – if we are to believe all her letters – but no, she didn’t really become actively involved in the resistance against the Nazis before about … half a year before she was caught by the Gestapo.

Half a year. Active resistance.

And there’s more … mess. In that heroic story from books and movies.

The Girl Who Dated A Soldier From Hitler’s Army

Sophie had a long-time boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel – a German soldier.

Her relationship with Fritz may serve as a good example of who she really was – and of how she must have been conflicted about what action to take, if any, against Nazism.

Fritz was, after all, a soldier who fought for … Nazism.

Maybe you can argue that a lot of the soldiers from the Wehrmacht just did their duty. But the effect was the same:

They were helping Hitler fulfill his plans to conquer (and thus helping him indirectly kill off many of those he conquered – like the Jews and other ‘unwanted people’ that were rounded up in the occupied territories and executed).

But what exactly happened between this heroic young girl who chose, finally, to die for her belief that Nazism was wrong and her first and only love, who fought for Hitler until the very end of the war? It was by no means a simple story, either.

It was perhaps very human story, though …

She Was Executed, He Was Stranded In Stalingrad

Sophie met Fritz at a dance in 1937 when she was 16 and they stayed connected, mostly by letter, until her death.

They had an extensive correspondence about life, love, ethics and the horrors of war, as Fritz participated in the German war effort from the invasion of France and on wards.

Fritz sent Sophie money and when they met when he was on leave he apparently sometimes gave her info on certain military matters that may or may not have been used by the German resistance, such as it was (the White Rose was primarily non-violent students and academics).

Fritz also fought on the Eastern Front and was caught in the Stalingrad cauldron in the winter of 1943 when the German 6th Army was surrounded and destroyed by superior Soviet forces – but he got out on the very last plane. I don’t remember if Fritz’ letters reached Sophie before her execution so she knew he had survived.

Both her capture and his flight happened in February 1943 so it was a close call. He was told of her death while recovering from his injuries in a field hospital.

What It All Means … Maybe

I feel personally that this whole relationship – between the soldier and the young politically aware woman – was of crucial importance in shaping Sophie’s social justice awareness.

Fritz could both report on both the horrors of war and occupation firsthand, his own feelings about them and his attempts to avoid being too much involved while still parrying orders and just trying to survive.

So it wasn’t just an example of Sophie wavering and having split loyalties, so to speak. Her relationship with Fritz and the knowledge she gained from him about war may have strengthened her disloyalty against the Nazi regime.

For she was indeed worried about him – of course, she was.

And at the same time she was conflicted about how much to admonish him for his activities as a soldier!

One can only imagine what must have went through her head as it dawned on her that her first and only love was fighting, albeit reluctantly, to support a political system she begun to loathe more and more.

But what do you write to someone you love then who is at the front and scared he may die at any moment? ‘You’re an idiot and a coward for having chosen to be there?’ Obviously not! 🙂

Also interesting to note is that on a few occasions the usually ethically stalwart Sophie wasn’t adverse to accepting luxury items Fritz sent her and her family from the occupied countries (where he had probably just taken them from wherever he could find them … ).

Okay, there was scarcity in Germany at the time, but perhaps it’s also a bit like when we buy a cheap T-shirt and don’t give too many thoughts to the kids in a Taiwanese sweatshop who work 14 hours a day to make it? We just can’t live up to our own ideals 24/7, can we?

A Real Normal Hero

Sophie was full of contradictions and inner conflicts as the rest of us, and I think these more than anything came to the fore through her relationship with Fritz.

Most of that relationship was lived through letters because he was in the war almost from its beginning.

Of course the fact that she was conflicted does not to my mind detract from her heroism when she finally took an active stand against Nazism. As we know from the interrogations reports she never once tried to give up her comrades in return from her life, or otherwise placate the Nazi judges.

She accepted her fate and told the Gestapo during her interrogation that she was ready to face the consequences – because she believed in what she had done: Trying to save Germany from itself.

The last illegal publications of the White Rose were later smuggled out of Germany and reprinted in the hundreds of thousands and then dropped as leaflets by British planes over Germany so everyone could see that somebody said no to Nazism.

And afterwards, so everybody could remember.

We Are All Conflicted Inside But That’s OK

I believe we are all to some extend conflicted about how to be active for something we believe in.

But we also have the power – everyone of us – to eventually push away our doubts and take a stand.

The uplifting conclusion from this is that we all have the chance to redeem ourselves literally from whatever happened in the past – literally lift ourselves up to a higher level by a few key decisions, however long they have been in the making.

Joan of Arc, for example, is often portrayed as having been a saint right from the start, because she was so ‘pious and good’ since her early childhood.

Sophie was pious too, but – from what we know – certainly a lot more normal than Joan in terms of flashing in and out of moral grey territory. She was a member of the female version of Hitler-Jugend and quite active for many years.

But then again, she was young – and she had to learn what Nazism was all about before she ditched it, hadn’t she?

Just like she had to learn what the war was really about – through a man she loved who participated in that very war.

So the story about Sophie is a lot more than the few memorable quotes which are usually repeated from her trial, like this one:

“Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”

A lot more.

And a lot more … mess.

Even so it is still a very inspirational life story for me!

And for me the conclusion can only be … We don’t need a life story in which we are born as saints.

We can never use such a story, because we can never be good enough.

But we can always look for the guiding star – the ideal – and take comfort that the real striving to be the best we can be in the future says a lot more about us than who we actually have managed to be in the past.

We need to see our life as story where we can grow and become the best reflection of a saint.

Edited last: 20 Oct 2018

2 thoughts on “We Are Not Born As Saints, We Grow Into Them

  1. Brilliant. So many heroes and heroines are placed on pedestals high in the sky–so high, in fact, that we can not longer see their flaws and humanity. I had never heard of Sophie Scholl before, so this was fascinating to me. Beyond just that, it’s such a poignant reminder that we are contain contradictions and paradoxes, as well as the choice to act on our beliefs and move towards our own personal version of heroism or sainthood.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. As you can imagine I agree a whole lot 🙂 I also found her story attractive because it is so easy to identify with once you get to know it – what would ordinary people that could be you or me do in war? The students in The White Rose were not soldiers or politicians or daring spies or saboteurs. They were just young people who couldn’t bear to live in a dictatorship but were frustrated about what to do. And they were killed when they finally chose a way they could act – by trying to go out and use logic and love to speak up against the Nazis. But they found the courage to do something, which is more than 99 percent of everybody else in Germany did at the time.

      Liked by 1 person

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