The White Rose leaflets: Still relevant today

Richard Parncutt 

2021 June


The White Rose (die Weiße Rose) was a German resistance group in Munich in 1942-43. Students Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl, Christoph Probst, Willi Graf, and Alexander Schmorell, and a professor of philosophy and musicology, Kurt Huber, wrote and distributed leaflets in an attempt to undermine and overthrow the Nazis. Their leaflets exposed not only the horror of Nazi militarism but also the unprecedented and incomparable crime of the Holocaust at a time when its full extent had not yet been revealed. The active members of the White Rose were accused of treason and executed. Lest we forget.

Today, many of us are wondering how to respond to climate change. How might we confront the  governments and corporations that despite decades of urgent warnings are still promoting the extraction and burning of enormous quantities of fossil fuel? What about the lies they are spreading in an attempt to justify "business as usual"? How can that be stopped? Can we make a difference, as individuals?

Global warming will cause the premature deaths of hundreds of millions of people -- perhaps billions.
But that is just one of many global causes of preventable death. Millions are dying each year in connection with poverty (hunger and curable disease, violence). Hunger is affecting almost a billion people. That is a consequence of a fundamentally unfair global economic system that the rich countries could fix, if they wanted to. The tax havens could be closed, exploitation of developing countries by multinational corporations could be stopped, international competition and trade could be made fairer, development aid budgets could be increased. Democracy, transparency and governance could be improved, corruption reduced, and so on. But these things are not happening, or if they are, the solutions that we are seeing are merely scratching the surface. Any gains made are being destroyed by climate change. In addition, millions die prematurely every year from air pollution, pushed forward by the global automobile industry, among other things. Millions of others die in connection with smoking tobacco, encouraged by the global tobacco industry. Finally, the international arms trade is causing enormous death and suffering by exacerbating existing conflicts.

We know that these things are happening, and we have known for a long time. But many of us seem paralyzed, wondering if or how we will find the courage to actually do something about it. The people who will suffer most as a result of our apathy are children in developing countries, at least half of whom will die prematurely as a result of climate change or one of the other listed problems, if things continue as they are at the moment.

The courage that we need today to protect the rights of two billion children in developing countries is tiny by comparison to the courage that Sophie Scholl and her friends found during the Nazi terror. What is the matter with us?

Some pertinent extracts from the White Rose Leaflets

The following is an extract from an English translation of Leaflet 1 of the White Rose.
The text becomes relevant today if "German people" is replaced by "people of the world" or better, "well-educated upper and middle classes of the rich countries":

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 lawful order of history; if they surrender man's highest principle, that which raises him above all other 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.

Do we, too, deserve our downfall? Consider the following extract from Leaflet 2:

Why do German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes, crimes so unworthy of the human race? Hardly anyone thinks about that. It is accepted as fact and put out of mind. The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals; they give them the opportunity to carry on their depredations; and of course they do so. Is this a sign that the Germans are brutalised in their simplest human feelings, that no chord within them cries out at the sight of such deeds, that they have sunk into a fatal consciencelessness from which they will never, never awake? It seems to be so, and will certainly be so, if the German does not at last start up out of his stupor, if he does not protest wherever and whenever he can against this clique of criminals, if he shows no sympathy for these hundreds of thousands of victims. He must evidence not only sympathy; no, much more: a sense of complicity in guilt. For through his apathetic behaviour he gives these evil men the opportunity to act as they do; he tolerates this "government" which has taken upon itself such an infinitely great burden of guilt; indeed, he himself is to blame for the fact that it came about at all! Each man wants to be exonerated of a guilt of this kind, each one continues on his way with the most placid, the calmest conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!

Are we, too, guilty if we do not wake up, raise our voices, and change our ways? From Leaflet 3:

Many, perhaps most, of the readers of these leaflets 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.

Will climate change develop into a kind of Holocaust?

Environmental destruction of various kinds, including carbon emissions and air/water pollution, are slowly but surely destroying the complex ecosystems of Planet Earth. The negative effects will be felt for thousands of years. Even if warming can be stopped at 2°C, the human death toll in connection with climate change will probably be about one billion.

But very few of us are actively opposing the fossil fuel industries and other economic players who are profiting from environmental destruction. Why are we so passive? Most of us risk nothing by spreading messages in social media, signing petitions, or attending demonstrations. We risk nothing by severely cutting down on flying, driving, and eating meat, and by not encouraging people to have children.

On that score, there's no comparison with the White Rose. Sophie Scholl and her friends were risking their lives, and they knew it. That raises an important issue: Can an unprecedented future tragedy can be compared with the Holocaust?

Holocaust comparisons are rightly taboo, because they risk trivializing history's worst crime. But the Holocaust comparison taboo cannot be an excuse not to act. The most important thing we learned from the Holocaust is that each of us who understands this problem has a personal responsibility to prevent anything comparable with the Holocaust from ever happening again.

The Holocaust was worse than future climate change in the sense that premeditated murder is worse than fatal neglect. But climate change will probably be worse than the Holocaust in the sense that a tragedy involving a billion premature, preventable deaths is a hundred times worse than a tragedy involving ten million deaths. In both cases, responsibility is divided among large numbers of people, with big differences in accountability between the most and the least influential players. In both cases, the maximum number of deaths that could be attributed to the actions of just one person, in a very rough order-of-magnitude estimate, is one million.

Apart from that there are several interesting similarities between Nazi Germany and today's rich countries as they struggle to mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss. In both cases a large proportion of the population understood the devastating dimensions of the problem, and could reasonably foresee what might happen at the end, but did practically nothing about it. Worse, many actively  exacerbated the problem in ways that could reasonably have been avoided. In Nazi Germany, most people were supporting militarism and ethnic cleansing in different ways, large and small. Today, a large proportion of the middle class is flying, driving, eating meat, and supporting conservative politics and fossil-fuel industries. Then and now, action to solve the problem was inhibited by propaganda -- today, by climate denial in media and politics. 

Some people prefer to avoid Holocaust comparisons of this kind. They ask: Isn't the present situation scary enough without breaking taboos? Why not just  talk about the enormous numbers of people that will die prematurely due to climate change and the diverse ways climate change will cause their deaths? Isn't that bad enough? Evidently, it is not. People have been talking about the devastating consequences of future climate change in great detail for many years, using an increasingly urgent vocabulary, but progress toward total global emissions reductions is still practically zero. Meanwhile nothing could be more important and urgent than reducing total global emissions. With every lost year we move closer to the precipice. By stubbornly refusing to solve this problem, we are literally killing hundreds of millions of future people.

That being the case, all possible reasonable strategies should be tried out. If Holocaust comparison is what it takes to wake people up and shake us out of our complacency, then it is what it is. Those who appreciate the urgency of our current situation realise that we need to try out all reasonable strategies. If human lives are our most important values, our most important goal is to reduce the future death toll from climate change, by whatever means. Those who were killed in the past cannot be brought back to life, but future people can be saved.

Besides, a discussion of this kind ensures that the Holocaust is never forgotten, which is another important goal.

Acknowledgments. Thanks to Martin Regelsberger and Steven Weiss for helpful comments.

The opinions expressed on this page are the author's personal opinions. Readers who know and care about this topic are asked to contact the author with suggestions for improving or extending the content: parncutt at uni-graz dot at. Back to Richard Parncutt's homepage