Battles of Wills
Julia Jentsch in Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.
By Kevin Madigan
Filming 60 years after the end of the cruelest battle of the Second World War, Sebastian Dehnhardt interviews the few surviving veterans of Stalingrad (including Soviet infantrywomen) for his brilliant documentary. Hale but psychologically crippled, they are often left shedding tears. It’s a film that also leaves the viewer weeping tears of frustration, anger, and disbelief.
The disbelief begins, not surprisingly, as you contemplate the vanity, hubris, stupidity, and heartlessness of Adolf Hitler. Although Stalingrad, the city on the Volga, had some strategic importance (it was a jumping-off point to regions rich in oil around the Caspian and a point from which Soviet oil shipments could be interdicted), this fiercest battle of the Second World War is presented as a matter of prestige, with Hitler determined to win a publicity victory by taking and destroying the city named after his Soviet dictatorial and criminal counterpart. And destroy it he did. After the Luftwaffe reduced the city to warren after warren of spooky, windowless stone shells, the Wehrmacht moved in and controlled the city. Soviet civilians retreated to the sewers to survive.
But things soon turned. Lacking the appropriate equipment and low on supplies, and held in contempt by Hitler, the Axis forces were surprisingly encircled by the desperate, counterattacking Russians in a brilliant pincer movement, leaving them trapped in a noose of steel that the German army called “the Kessel,” or Cauldron. Now the army was utterly cut off, starved and freezing. Lacking appropriate winter clothing, many lost digits or members to frostbite or rodents. Others froze to death. Trying to stay warm—fruitlessly—the men created a gathering of bodies and tarpaulin just warm enough to raise lice and drive them wild with itching. Malnutrition led some to insane illusions; some men were foaming at the mouth. Snipers and disease picked off roughly 1,000 soldiers a day. Back at his East Prussian headquarters, Hitler, deceiving himself and others, assured everyone that things would improve soon in Stalingrad; once taken, the Soviet oil fields could be captured next. As Hitler issued this meaningless and false prophecy, some despairing soldiers began to surrender without any resistance. Some men were so desperate to escape the Kessel that they clung to the exterior of planes sent in to rescue the wounded. When these planes reached an altitude of 400 feet or so, it got too cold to hold on any longer.
Hitler’s optimistic message was communicated to an increasingly anxious and incredulous populace, many of whom were simultaneously receiving letters from sons and brothers and fathers in the East bitterly complaining, “Hitler has left us in the lurch.” One wrote, “The Führer solidly promised to get us out of here.” (It is clear in the interviews of the survivors that the deep anger with Hitler has not abated.) Many warned their families that they would receive no more letters, fully expecting to die on “the River of Fate,” as they renamed the Volga. As things worsened, hints of retreat were moot. Finally, in desperation, the Sixth Army commander, General Friedrich Paulus, asked to surrender “in order to save lives of remaining troops.” Hitler responded: “Surrender is forbidden; Sixth Army will hold their positions to the last man and the last round and by their heroic endurance will make an unforgettable contribution towards the establishment of a defensive front and the salvation of the Western world.”
This hysterical response, which fades off to nonsense in its peroration, sealed the fate of the troops, who were freezing to death, dying from their wounds, or under heavy fire. (Pondering Hitler’s rhetoric, the critic and veteran Paul Fussell labeled the response “chickenshit to the highest power,” since, like surprise inspections and shiny boots, it had nothing to do with winning the war.) Starving, the soldiers still alive resorted to killing and eating horses, then dogs, then cats, and finally one another. This total calamity, completely preventable, the increasingly unstable Hitler presented to Goebbels as “a heroic drama of Germany history.” If it failed, he thought, it was not because of his insane strategies but because of the incompetent bungling of the Luftwaffe, his allies, the Romanians, Italians, and Hungarians.
At the end of January 1943, Hitler promoted General Paulus to field marshal, a sign that he should commit suicide and die an “honorable” soldier’s death. Instead he surrendered, driving Hitler to fury, and, in the end, served as a witness for the prosecution at the Nuremberg trials. Most of the 113,000 survivors of the Kessel surrendered. They were marched off to Stalin’s work camps. Of these, about 5 percent survived; some returned to Germany about a decade after the battle of Stalingrad ended. The Soviets suffered grievously as well, losing more people in this single battle than the Americans and British together did in the entire war, European and Pacific theaters combined. Dehnhardt brilliantly brings home the tragedy of the battle, not only by his interviews, but also by illustrating key points with footage actually shot by infantry, restored archive film, and some of the most effective use of three-dimensional re-creative imagery ever used in war documentary.
The battle was a turning point. Among other things, criticism of Hitler himself in Germany became pointed. As Ian Kershaw has noted: “Hitler had until Stalingrad been largely exempted from whatever criticisms people had of the regime. That now altered sharply.” One German observed at the time, fearlessly as well as accurately, “The sacrifice of most precious blood for the sake of pointless or criminal prestige is again plain to see.” Some daring soul attacked the regime by chalking on walls, “Hitler, the Stalingrad Murderer.” Others crossed out swastikas. Clearly, the underground resistance movements, which were lying dormant, had not died.
Among these, the White Rose movement, composed largely of medical students and one philosophy professor at Munich University, grew bolder in its resistance. Several of the male members of the group had been to the Eastern front and had witnessed firsthand atrocities committed against Jews by the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units that followed in the wake of the Wehrmacht (whose cooperation in their grisly duties they enjoyed) in the early, euphoric days of Operation Barbarossa. Shaken by the attempt to exterminate “judeobolshevism,” these young men, most of them serious Christians, returned home determined to organize resistance to what was, in their minds, clearly a criminal regime. One of their final manifestos, written in the wake of Stalingrad read, bitingly: “The genial strategy of the World War [I] corporal [i.e., Hitler] has senselessly and irresponsibly driven three hundred thirty thousand German men to death and ruin. Führer, we thank you!”
Members of the White Rose had for some time been daubing anti-Nazi slogans (e.g., “Hitler Mass Murderer”) on public buildings and distributing leaflets, generated by a hand-driven printer, in public places, urging German youth to resist the Nazis. Needless to say, this was extremely courageous work—and extremely dangerous. Luck ran out for them in February 1943 as they distributed their sixth leaflet. A janitor, who happened to be a member of the Nazi party, witnessed Hans and Sophie Scholl leaving leaflets in the courtyard of the University of Munich. He denounced them immediately to the Gestapo. When a handwritten draft of a leaflet, which matched the handwriting of a letter in Scholl’s flat written by another White Rose member, was discovered, they were doomed. Two days later they appeared before a “People’s Court,” over which presided the fanatical Nazi Roland Freisler. They were indicted for, among other things, alleging that the NSDAP was guilty of atrocities, in particular the murder of the Jews “in the most bestial way” and the forced deportation of Poles. They did not shy away from denouncing this “most frightful crime against human dignity,” a crime, they proclaimed, that was “unparalleled in the whole of history.” Hitler they reprehended as “the most abominable tyrant our people have ever been forced to endure,” and they dared to allege: “Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan.” Needless to say, they were found guilty of treason. Several hours later they were executed by guillotine. Something of the small-minded pitilessness of the Nazi regime can be gathered from the fact that the victims’ parents were billed for “wear on the guillotine.”
The story of this extremely courageous group of students was told in Michael Verhoeven’s 1982 film The White Rose. Verhoeven’s tense film about the group’s work was itself an act of courage that made a deep impact on German culture. Verhoeven was among the most active figures in Germany’s then-ongoing process of coming to terms with its wartime past. Initially, his film ran into obstacles. At first, it was actually banned from schools and even Goethe institutes. But ultimately it triumphed. Prefacing the film with a plea to vacate the sentences of the White Rose members, Verhoeven forced the Bundestag to take up the issue. The Bundestag not only lifted the sentences and acknowledged, finally, the criminality of the “People’s Courts.” It also began the process by which the story of the White Rose was made mandatory in school curricula, and German streets and public squares were named after the inspiring Scholl siblings.
The story took on new life with the fall of the Soviet bloc, which led in turn to access to new materials, with the opening of archives in the former GDR, including transcripts of the interrogations of the White Rose group. In this case, the archives were never exploited because the resistance was undertaken by upper-middle-class, devout Christians, facts that did not square with Communist ideology about the proper forms of and agents against oppression. After initial resistance, director Marc Rothemund was able to persuade writers and producers to put together a film based on the interrogation transcript of Sophie Scholl, as well as on her letters. Thus, where The White Rose focused on the coordination, planning, and courage of the group, Sophie Scholl concentrates on a single character, her bravery, her intelligence, her religiosity, and, above all, her battle of wits with Nazi interrogator Robert Mohr (played by Alexander Held). The focus is on the thrust-and-parry of verbal intelligence and wit, not on action, yet the movie is taut and the tension high throughout.
The character of Mohr is a surprise. He wants an admission from Sophie, and he wants a conviction. But he is not portrayed as a bloodthirsty sadist. Indeed, he is acutely intelligent and generally respectful of Sophie, whose own fearlessness, verve, and smarts on her feet are every bit the match for her Gestapo interrogator. This is not to say that he is sympathetic or admirable. When Sophie talks about the Jewish extermination camps or the euthanasia program, he responds sedately that some lives are unworthy of preservation. He is a Nazi through and through, and, though he is not caricatured, we are not meant to like him. He is made to look less bad than he is by the berserk performance of the bloodthirsty Freisler, whose fanatical Nazism was impossible to exaggerate on film. And he has a difficult time hiding his growing respect for Sophie.
The portrayal of Sophie, in a bravura performance by Julia Jentsch, is something of a surprise too. Rothemund, an avowed atheist, nonetheless shows Scholl as she was: a deeply committed Christian, frequently resorting to prayer and trusting in God. This has led some critics to complain of the “heavy-handed religious symbolism” of the movie. But that speaks more to the allergic reaction of most critics to any cinematic portrayal of piety than to any real flaw in the film. In this case, the film handles the character’s religiosity sensitively and discreetly. Rothemund is to be commended for showing Scholl the devout Christian, knowing full well that secular audiences would find this distasteful or incredible. In any case, her pious formation was intimately connected to her will to resist, and the movie does not suffer cinematically, in my judgment, for being true to the protagonist’s history.
Julia Jentsch swept a series of European best-actress awards, and the film was nominated for best foreign language film at the 78th Academy Awards. She has given the Germans a heroine they can admire, respect, and embrace, one who has helped give them respite from the dark times when such a woman as Sophie Scholl could be regarded as a traitor to the national cause. “An enemy of the Reich” was the People’s Court verdict on Sophie. What greater praise can there be than that?
Kevin Madigan is Professor of the History of Christianity at Harvard Divinity School. In addition to teaching courses in medieval Christianity, he offers courses on Hitler and the Holocaust, both to HDS students and to students in the College.