“Committed to life”

Sophie Scholl would have turned 100 on 9 May 2021. The biographer Maren Gottschalk talks about the resistance fighter and her relevance today.

Monument at Geschwister-Scholl-Platz in Munich
Monument at Geschwister-Scholl-Platz in Munich dpa

She was one of the public faces of the White Rose resistance group: Sophie Scholl, born on 9 May 1921 and murdered by the Nazis on 22 February 1943. Maren Gottschalk has published a new biography to mark the 100th anniversary of her birth. In our interview, the author explains what she finds so fascinating about Sophie Scholl, which contradictions there were in the life of the young woman, and which issues she would perhaps fight for today.

Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans
Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans dpa

Ms Gottschalk, “Wie schwer ein Menschenleben wiegt” is already the second biography you have written about Sophie Scholl. How did this come about?

The first biography was aimed primarily at younger readers. Because I have been travelling around a lot in recent years to present the book, including in schools, I could never get Sophie Scholl’s story out of my mind. When I was offered the chance to write a more detailed account of her life, to mark the 100th anniversary of her birth, it was an appealing challenge. I could devote more time to exploring specific individual questions.

Were you also able to include new information?

I was able to speak to another person who had known her – a former school friend of Sophie’s who now lives in the USA. She helped me verify various stories about Sophie and told me some details about the time they had spent together. For example, this school friend was herself always very well dressed because her parents owned a textile mill. By contrast, Sophie always gave the impres-sion that she had no time for fashion. 

The biographer Maren Gottschalk
The biographer Maren Gottschalk Sandy Craus/fotografieonair

In your biography, you also give some extensive insights into Sophie’s diaries.

Yes, as they reveal how poetically she was able to write. At one point she gives a very detailed re-port of how she drew the eyes of her friend during an exercise at school – Sophie was also good at drawing. This passage gives us a better sense of how precisely she looked at things. How much time she took to fathom things out. And how complex her personality was.

We should regard her as a person, not as a saint.

The biographer Maren Gottschalk about Sophie Scholl

You also write about contradictions and myths concerning Sophie Scholl that you believe need to be refuted.

I believe that it is important for us to regard Sophie Scholl as a person, not as a saint. She has often been portrayed as someone who right from the start was not particularly enamoured of National Socialism and quickly distanced herself from it. That is not true. It was a long time before she became a resistance fighter; initially she was an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth. In my view, her shift aware from the regime was a gradual process – and one that it is very fascinating to chart.

Religion is often cited as a major factor when attempting to explain this process. This is given little space in your book, however.

I certainly see that her Christian faith had a very great influence on her image of humankind – the idea that life is something valuable that should be preserved. However, this image of humankind also had a humanistic side that was influenced considerably by her liberal and unreligious father. For this reason I believe that she was prompted to join the resistance not only for reasons of religious conviction, but also because of a moral ideal, a philosophical attitude towards life and humankind.

It was when engaging with others that she performed best.

The biographer Maren Gottschalk about Sophie Scholl

You have gathered together accounts from many of her family members and friends. How important a role did Sophie Scholl’s environment play in the path she took?

No man is an island. Sophie was part of a very loving family that was extremely important to her. The bonds between the four siblings were particularly strong. In addition, she had her circle of friends; she was part of a network, in other words. Just how important that was to her is clear from her diary entries when she was sent to work at the Reich Labour Service and was thus torn away from her community. She found this difficult. Being close to people who thought similarly and read the same books, and with whom she could discuss things, meant a lot to her. It was when engaging with others that she performed best. 

What sort of issues would Sophie Scholl be interested in today?

We cannot presume to know Sophie so well as to be able to assign her to a particular party or group. However, it can certainly be assumed that she would care about the environment. She regarded nature an important resource that allowed her to breathe and recharge her batteries. And she would definitely fight for the underprivileged, for a fair society. In addition, freedom would of course be an important topic for her – after all, that was the last written word she left for us, on the rear of the indictment served against her.

What significance does this have for us, and which message would you want to convey to commemorate Sophie Scholl?

If we take our admiration of Sophie Scholl seriously, we must protect the concept of a liberal democracy against those who oppose it. This liberal democracy is precisely what Sophie did not have – she would very much have wanted to live in a society like ours. Sometimes I imagine that she would have been one of the creators of Germany’s Basic Law if she had not been killed. She would have expressed a voice that we could certainly have done with.

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