Sophie Scholl, the German resistance figure executed by the Nazis who was born 100 years ago on Sunday, has become an emblem of courage and a national hero for many.
But the legacy of the young woman sentenced to a brutal death for distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets has recently been co-opted by Germany’s anti-lockdown movement, to the dismay of historians and the Jewish community.
At a demonstration in April, one woman had a placard featuring a picture of Sophie Scholl draped on string around her shoulders.
“The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace,” it read — words famously pronounced by the resistance campaigner.
Even one of her nephews, Julian Aicher, has prominently spoken at corona skeptic demonstrations, including on a stage decorated with white roses — evoking the name of Scholl’s resistance group.
In a country where right-wing extremism is seen as the number one threat to security, and where a record number of xenophobic and anti-Semitic crimes were recorded in 2020, historians say the misappropriation of Scholl’s memory is deeply alarming.
Some also warn that democracy itself is being attacked at a time when living witnesses of World War II have dwindled significantly in numbers.
“By trivialising the Holocaust and dictatorship, these activists are endangering democracy,” said Ludwig Spaenle, Bavaria’s anti-Semitism commissioner.
– Fourth favourite German –
On February 22, 1943, Scholl and her older brother Hans, both members of a small resistance group called the White Rose, were beheaded in the Stadelheim prison in Bavaria following a summary trial.
They had been found guilty of distributing pamphlets on the grounds of Munich University, having converted to the resistance after being exposed to the horrors of the Third Reich as members of Nazi organisations in their teens.
Sophie Scholl, born on May 9, 1921, has become the most famous face of the resistance movement, with surviving photos showing her distinctive cropped hair and determined smile.
Hundreds of schools and streets now bear her name, and in 2003 she was named the nation’s fourth favourite German behind Konrad Adenauer, Martin Luther and Karl Marx.
The country’s political class also like to evoke the memory of the young biology student who stood up to the Nazis.
Annalena Baerbock, the Green party’s candidate to become Germany’s next chancellor after Angela Merkel retires in the autumn, has named Scholl as one of her “heroes”.
Carola Rackete, the former captain of the Sea-Watch 3 migrant rescue ship, has said if Scholl were still alive, she would be part of the Antifa left-wing political movement.
But at the other end of the political spectrum, the far-right AfD also claimed in 2017 that Scholl would have given them her vote.
And now the resistance campaigner’s image has been hijacked by protesters against coronavirus restrictions in Germany, who have often sought to compare themselves with victims of the Nazis.
– ‘Vaccination makes you free’ –
Some protesters have been seen wearing yellow stars similar to those Jews were forced to wear under the Nazis, carrying the words “not vaccinated”.
Others have worn concentration camp uniforms and carried placards with the words “Impfen macht frei” (“Vaccination makes you free”), a reference to the “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes you free”) inscription at the entrance to Auschwitz.
“I feel like Sophie Scholl, because I’ve been active in the resistance for months,” one protester told a rally against virus restrictions in Hanover in November, leading to widespread condemnation.
“Followers of conspiracy theories like to imagine themselves as victims, while demonising and delegitimising the democratic field,” Samuel Salzborn, the city of Berlin’s point man on anti-Semitism, told AFP.
According to Jens-Christian Wagner, a German historian who specialises in the Nazi era, the appropriation of Sophie Scholl by the anti-mask movement shows a loss of “historical awareness” among parts of the German population.
There are “almost no remaining witnesses” to the Nazi era, Wagner told AFP.
“They can no longer defend themselves when they are instrumentalised or when the far right rewrites history and the present by reversing guilt. It worries me,” he said.
Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has said it will monitor the “Querdenker” (Lateral Thinkers) movement, a particularly vocal anti-lockdown group, over concerns it poses a threat to democracy and has ties to right-wing extremism.
© 2021 AFP