Friday, May 7, 2010

Sophie Scholl

While living in Denver, I would make regular visits to the documentary/independent film section of Blockbuster.  One of the best was Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. Even though I had a lot of friends while living in Colorado, it was a period of much needed solitude.  I would fill my time reading books and watching movies in my little studio.  I like to say I became a real person while living there.  It was my own personal renaissance.  My world view burst open and I began to formulate my own ideas about our society.  I may have financially incarcerated myself for life in a short 8 month period, but I would say the education and reformation remaining with me today are invaluable.  I don't regret a moment of it.

In May of 2005, I went on a month long trip to Armenia.  I traveled with a group from my university and we worked in an orphanage for mentally and physically disabled children.  Most of our time was spent touring the country.  Armenians don't have a lot of non-Armenian tourists and they wanted us to take full advantage of their beautiful country and to learn about their history.  We visited some of the oldest churches in the world,  saw some of the most beautiful mountains and lakes I've ever witnessed and got to know a lot of the people. 

Genocide Memorial in Armenia
One of the sites we visited was Tsitsernakaberd, the memorial and museum commemorating the Armenian Genocide. This genocide occurred during the final years of World War I and was orchestrated by the Turkish government.  It is widely accepted as the first genocide of the 20th century.  Millions of Armenians were killed and displaced by their government.

German soldiers, who were fighting in WWI, aided the Turkish soldiers in creating the methods for the massacres.  Many of these soldiers went on to become German officers during WWII and were consulted in the establishment of the European death camps.  Hitler used the Armenian Genocide to encourage support for his plans of Jewish extermination and is quoted as saying "Who, after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

This was a chilling realization.  Before signing up for the trip I had never heard of Armenia.  I didn't know where it was and I certainly had no knowledge of the genocide.  In high school, I visited Germany and the concentration camp in Dachau.  While touring this country, it was impossibleto deny the similarities between the genocides.  An entire nation was used as a trial run less than 20 years prior to the greatest systematic mass murder of the modern era and few are aware of it.  In fact, there is so much controversy regarding the specific events because Turkey still refuses to take ownership or responsibility.  There have been no reparations made to the Armenian people and, as a result, there have been negative affects to their quality of life. The reverberations from the crimes are still being felt today.

All of this new knowledge got me on a path to question how genocides occur and how they can be prevented.  I always had this idea in my mind about how the Holocaust happened.  I felt like it was this secret plan the government executed without the consent of ordinary citizens.  After visiting Germany and experiencing first hand the location of the Dachau camp, I realized many people were involved in the atrocities.  The whole thing had taken place in plain, everyday life.  If you factor in the ignored history of the Armenians, there was plenty of warning for the entire world; no one paid attention.

Sophie was a college student in Germany in the early '40's.  She became involved with The White Rose, a non-violent resistance movement against the Nazi's.  The group consisted of Sophie, her brother Hans, and several other members from their campus.  Initially, Hans tried to keep Sophie out of the group to protect her, but as soon as she became aware they were producing and writing resistance leaflets instructing other Germans to passively resist the Nazi agenda, she wanted to be included.  The group was arrested upon the distribution of the 6th leaflet.

Hans, Sophie, and Christoph
What makes her so amazing is her resolve even under the most dire of circumstances.  After their arrest, she was candid about what she had taken part in and never faltered in her convictions.  In the computer age where we are constantly inundated with opinions and news articles, it's hard to imagine 6 leaflets causing such a stir, but under Hitler's Germany, nothing defamatory was allowed.  As a result of her social disobedience, Sophie was condemned to death.  Along with Hans and Christoph Probst, Sophie was beheaded four days after being arrested.  Her last words really speak to the power of her character and have greatly affected my life:

"How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause. Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?"

Scholl Family
Sophie was 21 years old and had her entire life ahead of her.  She was a Kindergarten teacher and loved the arts and philosophy.  It was her core, steadfast belief in the value of all human life that ultimately led to the sacrifice of her own. She had a lot to live for.  She could have easily turned her back on her Jewish neighbors and lived in fear. This is what the majority of German citizens did which is how Hitler was able to carry out his final solution. (Ordinary people became Nazi's; not super crazy anomalies.) Instead, Sophie took action against what she believed was wrong.

After I returned from Armenia, I had a new found desire to understand how it is a culture can turn so violently on a particular group of the community.  How does this behavior start and how can it be prevented?  As a politics and government major I was able to write my senior thesis on this topic.  Now, to be honest about my academic history, it needs to be said I was not a stellar student in college.  It took me a long time to "care" about studying.  So my senior paper was atrocious, poorly executed and presented.  However, I did do a fair amount of research on modern day danger zones where risk of genocide or mass murder could occur.  One such area was the US/Mexico border.

If you take apart, on an extremely basic level, how the situation in Europe escalated from a fanatic's political agenda to Auschwitz, you can see how it is possible to anticipate the progression of mass murder.  Jews were required to carry their documents, then wear the Star of David, followed by the forced move to the ghetto, then the concentration camp, and finally the gas chambers.  It was a system and it was legal.  Propaganda was distributed to "educate" German citizens on the financial ruin the Jewish people had caused after World War I.  New leaders were elected, laws were passed, and a new German history was pieced together.

You can wrap up the situation in Arizona with the prettiest capitalist, patriotic bow you can find to justify the law that was passed; but the bottom line is racial profiling has become legal in one of our states and has a potential of spreading to many other places.  Do I recognize certain potential issues with allowing people into this country "illegally"?  Sure.  Do I recognize certain potential issues with allowing law enforcement to stop people at random to prove their right to be here? YES.  Forcing people to carry around documents is just absurd.  When are police states the solution?  The fence the federal and state governments spent millions on and the emergence of a civilian led Minute Men militia are inappropriate responses to the border "threat".  Several weeks prior to this law, a prominent white rancher was killed potentially because of drug violence and/or by an undocumented immigrant.  There is no specific suspect, yet anti-immigration politicians have jumped on the chance to come down the hardest on ALL immigrants.  Typical guilty before proven innocent tactics to assert their political dominance.    

What makes a person look suspicious enough to warrant the questioning of their citizenship?  I feel so completely blindsided by the fact these conservative groups are claiming patriotism and that they are the true defenders of our nation when so many of their actions and words would have the "founding fathers" vomiting at the very notion of their ideology.  Legality does not necessarily equal morality.  My good friend Jenny made an excellent point in response to a right winger's defense of immigrant persecution by saying slavery and the restriction of women's voting rights were once legal as well.  A more current example would be gay marriage as an illegal institution.  Legality has gotten in the way of many individuals rights and Arizona's new law is no exception.

When I think of what it would take for a person to risk their life and voyage through a desert, leaving behind everything they know and love, with absolutely no promise of making it across the border, the last thing coming to mind is a lazy invader ready to take a free ride on our country's public services.  What DOES come to mind are the millions of European immigrants who came over on ships escaping their own persecution to which we can credit our own right to call ourselves Americans.  We've reached a new low when we as the privileged are advocating for the right to no longer appreciate the relative peace and security we are afforded on a daily basis without grasping on to it like a petulant child unable to share a toy.  

Sophie can be an inspiration during this time because of her ability to see right from wrong.  She saw the destruction of civility in her country and she spoke out about it.  There is no reason for us not to respond the same way to this situation.  You can believe it to be an over-reaction to fear genocide, however, prevention cannot occur without consideration.

**Write Senator McCain and tell him how appalled you are at the new law.  Send emails to your own senators to let them know you will not tolerate such legislation in your own state.  Use your system and freedom to your advantage.  When we begin to allow our foundations to be constructed on sand, it can only be expected that their days are numbered.  Currency, borders, race, class, and gender are non-permanent, sociopolitical manipulations used against the masses to ensure the power remains with the ruling minority. Look beyond this.  Reject what you are told is true and become active citizens by forming your own beliefs.  (When I was a kid my dad used to make me say "Antiestablishmentarianism" because he thought it was funny to hear me say it, so I'm blaming him for my belief in it :) I probably still sound ridiculous when I say it.)

If there is any point to the execution of Sophie and the millions of lives lost to genocide it is the belief that others can be awakened and stirred to action.  Rise against fear and see the value in all people, not to justify their deaths but to honor those whose freedoms and lives were unjustly taken.  

Seriously, email McCain.  Even though this is a state law it affects our entire nation.  Follow the link to contact him.
You can do a google search to find out who your Senators and Congressmen are as well to express your frustrations and concerns.  It can be discouraging because you never know how they will respond, but it's worth trying.  

For more on Sophie, rent the movie!  I'm sure there are some great books about her too and The White Rose.  The 6th leaflet, which was smuggled out of Germany and used by Allied forces in propaganda drops during the war, is now retitled "The Manifesto of the Students of Munich".  

If you are interested in learning more about the prevention of genocide I would suggest reading "Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland" by Christopher R. Browning and "Blood for Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur" by Ben Kiernan.  Both are extremely intense so I recommend small doses but they are incredibly helpful in understanding the background and history of genocide.  

If you are planning on taking a vacation go to Armenia!  Seriously.  It's so beautiful and I hope to go back someday.  

**This was first posted more than a year ago. Unfortunately, anti-immigration has spread to many other states. Please educate yourself on the current status of these laws in your own community and make effort to let your politicians know that you stand against discrimination.


  1. Great post, Julia. I'm a little embarassed to admit that I learned about the Armenian genocide in high school via the band System of a Down, who are Armenian-American. They're a little crazy, but a lot of their songs are about the genocide, and they've done a lot of activism toward getting the U.S. to officially recognize the genocide, which it's never done.

    What I find especially ironic about about the AZ law is that a lot of its support comes from the same tea partiers who have been railing against expansion of government. Is there a more blatant example of government intrusion into people's lives than the AZ bill?

  2. yes, great post julia!

    i particularly like the line "You can wrap up the situation in Arizona with the prettiest capitalist, patriot bow you can find...

    haha. awesome.

    ..just found this website - talking about the genocide in darfur, and also "concern areas" in other parts of the world. good stuff.