Traute Lafrenz showed that it was possible to resist the Nazis

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Tlabels it are called A crowd in German: “flying sheets of paper”. And on that February morning in 1943, they did just that. The students had been carrying so much in their suitcase – perhaps 1,800 – far too many to deliver safely. And so in good spirits, or perhaps foolishly, they just threw the rest over the balustrade into the great atrium of the University of Munich below. Dropped the leaflets begging their “Students!” stand up to the Nazis. Down, like the snow, the leaflets went out against the “godless, shameless” Nazis. Down, down fell the leaflets with the cry: “Freedom and dignity!”

The Gestapo, when they finally arrested Traute Lafrenz, would ask her about these leaflets. Did she know about them? Yes, she said, now they mentioned it, she did. Her friend Hans had shown her one. And did she understand, the Gestapo asked, that a leaflet like that was frivolous? Of course Traute understood. How could she not? Her friend Hans had already been put to death for them, as had his sister Sophie and her friend Christoph. Her friends were being taken away one by one. It’s clear she might be next. So did she understand, the Gestapo asked? Did she realize they were terrorists? Yes, she did, she said sadly; but it seemed harmless, really, such a nerve!

And in a way, it was harmless at first. Later, decades later, when streets were renamed after the White Rose group, and movies were made of them, and statues carved of them, people would start calling it “group” and she was a “hero”. No, she said. There was no “group”. There was only her friend Hans, and his sister Sophie and other friends. And they had made the flyers, that was true: six in total, plus some graffiti (Hans had painted “Down With Hitler!” and “Freedom!” all over Munich). But they hadn’t just done that: they had also been walking and cycling and swimming and reading Tolstoy and falling in love. And she didn’t like that word “hero”: she wasn’t a hero. Just a witness.

Later, when she was living out her long life in America, Traute would always ask: why Hans? Why did he start all this? He had been a much better Nazi than her to begin with. She never liked all the “Heil Hitler-ing” and shouting at school; when one teacher cursed her she just got on her bike and went home. But Hans had joined the Hitler Youth; he had even been a flag bearer at a rally in Nuremberg – the photos show the kind of image Leni Riefenstahl would have lived. But then his confusion grew; then he started the leaflets. Then he was sent to the Eastern Front. On the way, the train of soldiers had passed through Warsaw and had seen the ghetto. “Boredom looks us in the eye,” wrote his friend. “Let’s turn away.” Then they turned back.

For the first series of pamphlets, in the summer of 1942, the students had only managed 100 copies. Then they got better, typing them out on an old Remington typewriter and then hand-shaking a duplicating machine: in a later run they made 10,000. The tone of the pamphlets was uncompromising. They mocked the Germans for being a “shallow and slovenly herd of mindless followers”; they were outraged at the killing of Stalingrad and at the “best” massacre of hundreds of thousands of Jews. And above all, they were angry at the German revenge. No German, the leaflets said, could claim to be free from the “inhuman crimes”. All Germans, they said, “Guilty, Guilty, Guilty”. And they would not let them forget it: “We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will never leave you alone!”

Many of her friends had joined in, despite the danger. Hans had this charisma that attracted people. He was the one who had coined the title “White Rose” as well, although she didn’t know from where. He wanted something that would fit and the “White Rose” did – although she was never sure. Medieval notions of extreme love, perhaps? Or maybe the French revolution – hadn’t the aristocracy put white roses on their flags? ​​​​​​That society would get another touch later. Because when the authorities caught Hans and tried him and found him guilty, guilty, guilty, they cut off his head with a guillotine.

She hadn’t done much, Traute was always clear on that: she had just helped get paper and envelopes. Although they had to be careful: it was dangerous to just buy paper. Later, the Nazis would call their leaflets the “worst episode of brutal propaganda” of the entire war. But Traute would always remember how calm Sophie was: in January the two had just walked through Ludwigstrasse, enjoying the sun and the warmth, to the writer’s shop. A horse had been out and Sophie had hit its neck. “Hi, Chad!” she said; then she walked into the store with that same happy face. They would have cut off her head with a guillotine too.

It had happened so quickly. On the Thursday, just before Sophie threw those leaflets into the atrium, she had seen Traute and called out to her. “Hey!” she said. Those ski boots Traute wanted to borrow? She should take them, Sophie said, “in case I’m not home this afternoon.”

Sophie didn’t come home. The university caretaker saw her throwing the leaflets in the atrium; he ran upstairs and caught her and Hans. Their trial began on Monday morning and ended at 1pm. At 5pm, Sophie was led to the guillotine; then Hans. Just before the blade hit his neck, he had shouted out: “Long live freedom!” The whole thing was over in less than ten minutes.

Trout did not escape; she would go to prison for a year, but she didn’t complain at all: what right did she have to it? But the leaflets did not die with the death of her friends. Somehow, a copy of that one from the atrium found its way out. It was taken to Norway, then to Sweden, then to England, being copied as it went. Then that July, the RAF fly copies of it to Germany and release them.

For the second time that year, the number dropped A crowd; not in the hundreds at this time, or in the thousands, but in the millions. Down fell the leaflets asking the Germans to “Fight against the party!”; down, like snow, the flying pieces of paper fell raging against Hitler. Down, down the cry: “Liberty and dignity!”

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