To many, World War II is about victory over Nazi Germany, military prowess, battles and heroes. But the spiritual aspects of this war are often overlooked. We must do full justice to the people who are unafraid to stand on the side of truth against evil, and take their strength in their deep and genuine faith. Alexander Shmorell, a German, student called himself a Russian in the spirit. In 1942, he established the White Rose movement in Munich, a youth anti-Hitler resistance group. He took up the cross of awakening the sick conscience of his countrymen and bore it to the end.
Life before the war and love for the Motherland
Alexander Schmorel was born in Orenburg, Russia, just before the October Revolution of 1917. His father, a doctor by profession, was an ethnic German and his mother came from the family of a Russian priest. He lost his mother early – she died of typhus when Alexander was only two years of age. The boy grew up in the care of his father and nanny. Two years later, his father married a German and the family moved to Munich.
He was baptised as an Orthodox and raised in the faith according to his mother’s wishes, even though his father was a Protestant and his stepmother a Catholic. For the boy, the practice of faith was not a formality. He became an active parishioner of the Orthodox Church in Munich. He grew in deep love and respect for Russia and its culture, and Russian was spoken in his home. His family were avid readers of Gogol, Checkhov and Dostoyevsky and had friends among the Russian immigrants. Alex would often share with his friends his love for the Russian culture, its depth, warmth and mystery.
Before entering medical school in 1937, Alexander performed his compulsory military service. While in the army, he refused to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler, and only a miracle saved him from cruel punishment. He took the oath at a later time to protect his family from retribution. Serving in Austria, he completed medical courses, wishing to save people’s lives, and not destroy them. During the 1940 invasion of France, he served in the medical company.
After returning to Munich, Alex Schmorel entered medical school. There, he made friends with his like-minded fellow students. With his three closest friends – Hans Scholl, Christoph and Angelika Probst – he co-founded a youth resistance movement. He also inspired in his friends a deep love for Russia and an interest in its culture and language.
He desired his homeland’s liberation from Bolshevik rule but met the news of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union with sadness and dismay. It gave him great pain to observe Germany’s moral and spiritual downfall under Nazi rule. He loved Russia, but he loved Germany no less.
The White Rose movement
At the beginning of 1942, Alex Schmorell and Hans Scholl met Manfred Eickemeier, an artist. He sensitised them to the mass killings of Jews in Germany’s ghettos committed under the smokescreen of nation-wide celebrations of the German military victories. The meeting gave the students the final push to act to open the eyes of their fellow Germans to the evil done in their name. Soon they distributed their first resistance leaflet. Here is a literary excerpt from it: “If everyone waits till someone else makes a start, the messengers of the avenging Nemesis will draw incessantly closer. And then the last sacrifice will have been thrown senselessly into the jaws of the insatiable demon.”
Here is a literary excerpt from it: If everyone waits till someone else makes a start, the messengers of the avenging Nemesis will draw incessantly closer. And then the last sacrifice will have been thrown senselessly into the jaws of the insatiable demon.
To make copies of the leaflets, Hans and Alex obtained a gelligraph. They also procured envelopes and stamps to mail the copies to addresses from address books. They distributed 100 copies across Munich. Their next leaflet was printed in 1000 copies and disseminated in Munich and other cities in Germany and Austria. Subsequent leaflets were not mailed. Instead, the activists left the leaflets in telephone booths, shops, cars and mailboxes.
The text showed fellow Germans that Hitler was leading their homeland into an abyss “with mathematical certainty”. It was full of youthful romantic fervour but also conveyed a Christian spirit. The leaflet declared: “Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. His mouth is the foul-smelling maw of Hell, and his might is at bottom accursed.” The members belonged to different Christian denominations: Hans and Sophie Stoll were Lutheran, Christoph Probst and Willy Graf were Catholic, Alex Schmorel an Orthodox. As believers in Christ and His perfect love, they denounced Hitler as His exact opposite, an associate of evil, and a defender of an inhumane ideology. They reminded people of the need to rise to evil by turning to the true God. “Religion alone can revive Europe and secure the rights of nations and install Christianity in its peace-giving office visibly on this earth with new glory,” read the 4th leaflet. In the same letter, for the first time, the slogan of the association appeared: “We will not keep silent. We are your guilty conscience. The White Rose will not let you alone!” The students did not tell what did their association’s name mean; later, during interrogations, it turned out that for everyone it meant something different.
Return to Russia
In the summer of 1942, Alex and two of his friends from the White Rose were sent to the Eastern Front. They served mostly at Gzhatsk, a small town outside Smolensk. They did not fight at the frontline but looked after the wounded in the hospital. Through their work, they could come into contact with the Russian doctors and ordinary Russians whom they befriended. They spent their evenings reading Dostoyevsky’s novels. Alexander, a medical student, was helping the German and Russian wounded. Alexander cared for German, but also Russian soldiers.
In his letter to his family, he admired the goodness, generosity and faith of the Russian people. He even considered staying in Russia but changed his mind at the news of Hans Stoller’s arrest for a critical remark about Hitler. He returned to Germany to continue the resistance cause together with his friends.
A call to all Germans
The White Rose movement resumed its activity with vigour. At the beginning of 1943, it distributed its fifth pamphlet “A Call to all Germans”. The students showed it to their professor Kurt Huber, who corrected its most radical passages and let the printing go ahead. Six thousand copies of the leaflet reached the residents of Salzburg, Linz, Vienna and Frankfurt. The reaction was mixed – many ignored the text, some were indifferent and others delivered the copies to the police in indignation. The German secret police found the text more mature than in the beginning. Impressed by the scale of the distribution, it took the matter seriously and began an investigation.
At that time, Germany’s position on the Eastern front deteriorated. The Soviet Army won the Stalingrad battle in February 1943 and forced the German army into retreat. During the days of national mourning in Germany, members of the student resistance painted the walls in the central streets of Munich with anti-Nazi graffiti. The inscriptions in black read: “Hitler is a murderer!”, “Get rid of Hitler!”, “Freedom!”. The secret police offered large rewards for help in apprehending the suspects. That did not intimidate the White Rose.
The sixth leaflet, to All Students, was prepared by Professor Kurt Huber. In vivid colors, he described the disgusting picture of Germany at that time, the despotic personality of Hitler and the indifference of the German people. Huber called out to students: “The German name will be forever defamed if German youth does not finally arise… if he does not shatter his tormentor and raise up a new intellectual Europe. Students! The German nation looks to us! In 1943, they expect from us the breaking of the National Socialist terror through the power of the spirit, just as in 1813 the Napoleonic [terror] was broken.”
The activists distributed the leaflets at their university. The police were already following Hans and Sophie Scholl, but they did not go into hiding. Instead, they came to the university with a suitcase of leaflets and drop them outside the classroom doors and in the inner courtyard. The police arrested them on the same night. Christoph Probst was taken into custody in the morning, and all three were executed three days later. Soon afterwards, the secret police came for Alex Schmorell and Professor Kurt Huber.
Leaving with a sense of fulfilment
Under interrogation, Alexander made no secret of his love for Russia. “I have a great love for Russia, and I admit to it unreservedly. My mother was Russian, I was born there – how could I not be sympathetic? I never shot at a Russian, nor would I shoot at a German.” He also went through cruel torture, and this was not on the record. His cellmates remembered that he had gone through a horror. The court sentenced him to death by guillotine. He was ready for this outcome and expected no other. In a letter to his family, Alexander wrote: “My heart is full of light and joy. Do not be surprised. I have fulfilled the purpose of my life. If I were offered a reprieve, I would not accept. I would not agree if someone else went instead of me. I am young, but I am leaving with the sense that the mission of my life is complete.”
As the hour of his execution was approaching, he was prepared to meet his fate with love and gratitude to God, and submission to his will. “Glory to the Lord for all things! We have not denounced anyone. I thank Him for His gift of strength in standing up to Satan. We are leaving, but we have opened the eyes of many Germans to the truth,” wrote Alexander eleven days before his death. His last letter – written within hours before his death – read: “Several hours later, I will join my beloved mother in another life. But I will remember you, and pray to the Lord that He may give you peace and solace. And I will wait for our reunion. May the thought of God always be with you in your heart and mind.”
His lawyer arranged for a priest to visit him before the execution. Alexander confessed, and received the Holy Communion. When the lawyer saw him for the last time, his face was glowing with joy and peace. Alex Schmorel and Kurt Huber died on 13 July 1943.
Today, the members of the White Rose are honoured as heroes in Germany and beyond. The memorial at the main entrance to Munich University features stacks of leaflets cast in bronze, as a tribute to their courage. On 5 February 2012, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia glorified Alexander as a locally revered saint. For the Lord, nothing is without meaning. The young courageous hearts rose for the truth against evil. It looked like a losing battle, but in the end, they won. So should we, as Christians, follow the example of Saint Alexander in our defence of love, truth and justice.
In the book on his life, “Alexander Schmorell, Saint of the German Resistance” by Elena Perekrestov, no mention is made that he ever swore allegiance to Hitler. It states: “But when he was forced to swear the obligatory oath of loyalty to Hitler, his conscience was so perturbed at the thought of wearing a German uniform while holding sympathies with his native Russia that he informed his superiors of this conflict of loyalties and asked to be discharged from the army. His request was turned down, but, strangely, he suffered no consequences (although his father was called in for a conference).”
Also, he was not hanged but guillotined: “With dignity he walked across the prison courtyard to a small barrack containing the guillotine that had claimed his friends’ lives and was about to claim his. Firmly and loudly resounded his ‘Yes’ in the gloomy death chamber when the prosecutor on duty asked him whether he was Alexander Schmorell. Seconds later, he passed over into that ‘new life, the glorious and everlasting life’ which he so fervently spoke of in his letters…”
Yes, what was said in the book is true. But Alexander took an oath after all, as he himself said during one of the interrogations in 1943: «… I took the oath to the Fuhrer. I openly admit that even then something internally disgusted me, but I explained this to myself by the unusualness of military life and hoped later to acquire a different mood. Undoubtedly, I was deceived in this hope of mine, because in the shortest possible time I came into conflict with my conscience, thinking that I wear the uniform of a German soldier while I sympathize with Russia.»
And thank you for the clarification about the type of execution.
Thank you for bringing the life and contributions of this courageous young Christian to light for those who, like me, were previously unaware of him.
Orthodox Christian youth should be made aware if him. Please forward this to all churches in America so his story may be duscussed in their youth groups. Feel free to contact me and I will help. I’m very organized and feel this is important enough for a grass-roots effort to save our floundering Orthodox youth. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Lygia, many thanks! Unfortunately, we lack the resources to distribute this article to America’s parishes. But you can share it yourself giving credit to our blog.
A heartbreaking story, I had no idea of these young people, their courage and tenacity remains a inspiration for anyone at any age at any time, who values freedom and is willing to stand up to tyranny. I was especially moved by the picture of the girl with the flower, I could see the resolve and courage in her face along with the realization, as if she knew how things would end for her but not for the cause of liberty.
Thank you for the feedback and your interesting perception!