OPINION: History and current events underscore the need to fight for democracy

For the second time in a decade, I had the arresting experience last week of viewing the White Rose exhibit at Ludwig-Maximillians University in Munich. The White Rose was a group of university students in Munich whose members wrote a series of six leaflets in 1942 and 1943 criticizing the Nazi regime, and calling for freedom of expression and justice for all people, especially minorities. They also painted anti-Nazi graffiti in public areas. The leaflets spread far beyond the university, and the city of Munich. Some of the group and their associates carried the leaflets to other cities where they were copied and distributed, one of which found its way to Allied forces where it was printed for mass distribution and dropped by Allied air forces across Germany. It was signed “The Manifesto of the Students of Munich.”

The core group consisted of five students and one university professor. They were supported by a large group of associates. All the core group members and others were found out by Nazi authorities and many of them and members of their families were killed or imprisoned until freed at liberation. Three of the core group, including one woman, Sophie Scholl, were beheaded by guillotine days after their arrest and subsequent show trial. During her trial, Scholl is reported to have told the judge: “You are hanging us today, but tomorrow it will be all of you,” Reasonably well-known, the group’s story has been told in feature films twice and once in a short documentary; there are two biographies of Sophie Scholl. The last surviving member of the larger group, Traute Lafrenze, died just a year ago.

The exhibit in Munich is housed in one of the university lecture buildings. Statuary in the building’s atrium honors group members, as does an organ and a commemorative plaque where they distributed one of the leaflets, as well as a memorial at the building’s entrance. The exhibit focuses on the group’s arguments for freedom and justice, as well as biographies of group members, their associates and families. Four of the group, all medical students, had been conscripted into the youth division of the German army and while serving on the eastern front had learned of the mass murders and persecutions. This persuaded them that something had to be done to expose and defeat Nazi corruption of human values.

It was tragically poignant that I should view the White Rose exhibit just as memorials to Alexei Navalny were being erected across Germany, and several hundred mostly young people were being arrested in Russia for laying flowers at makeshift memorials, all of this as Donald Trump was proclaiming that Russia “should do whatever the hell they want,” and the provocateur Alexander Smirnov — who fabricated stories about President Joe Biden and his son —was revealed to have recent ties to Russian intelligence organizations. The same evil visited on those brave enough to challenge the Nazis, and other dictatorial regimes, such as Pinochet’s Argentina, has now been unleashed against the courageous who call out Vladimir Putin. Those who know the truth but keep silent manifest a profound lack of the courage of those who protest in the name of justice. During Sophie Scholl’s trial, she also said, “What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”

It is at best illogical, at worst stupidly naïve to imagine that those who support the current attacks on democracy and those who orchestrate them will be immune from the punishing power of the anti-democracy leadership, should they prevail. History shows that their rule will be arbitrary and capricious, and those who bask in their favor today are just as likely to become the objects of their wrath and maltreatment for real or fabricated offenses. The victims are plain to see. As Barbara Hood wrote recently in these pages, “The Revenge Tour will find everyone.” Freedom of expression and the mobility of protest defeat arbitrary authoritarianism and are thus the bane of its leaders.

The White Rose leaflets were directed first at fellow university students, but also beyond them to all Germans. “We have grown up in a state of ruthless gagging of any free expression of opinion,” they wrote in Pamphlet Six. Nazi organizations “have tried to anesthetize us in the most fertile years of our education.” But we will fight against this. “What we care about is true science and genuine intellectual freedom.” “What counts is the fight of every one of us for our future, our freedom and honor in a state that is aware of its moral responsibility.” If ever there were words appropriate to the fight to save democracy in our own country right now, wherever we may be, it is surely these.

Stephen Haycox is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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Steve Haycox

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.