"We Are Your Bad Conscience"
- White Rose Society
by Lawrence M. Ludlow, Posted
May 28, 2007
The members of the White Rose still speak
to us today, and during a recent trip to Munich, I was able to
explore the place where this heroic group of German dissidents
crafted their powerful message. Some readers already may be familiar
with the White Rose as a result of articles posted at The Future
of Freedom Foundation or from books and movies, most recently
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, which was released in 2005.
These readers know that "the White
Rose" was the name taken by a small group of university students
in Munich, Germany, during World War II. Along with their professor,
contributors, and volunteers, members of the White Rose, in a
series of six leaflets, bravely denounced Nazism, the war, and
their widespread acceptance by German society. These leaflets
were printed and distributed in 16 major cities despite perilous
circumstances that made this task nearly impossible to accomplish.
As a result of taking part in these activities, seven of its members
were executed between February 1943 and October 1944. Sixteen
were imprisoned, six acquitted, and one member escaped a last-ditch
attempt to impose a death sentence in April 1945.
In an attempt to overcome the moral vacuum
that seemed to have swallowed the German people, the first pamphlet
of the White Rose spoke directly to a sense of shame and decency
that must surely be present somewhere within the populace - even
if deeply buried under layers of fear, self-deception, and obedience:
"Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized
nation as allowing itself to be "governed" without opposition
by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct.
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 in 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."
In a similar way, each subsequent pamphlet
of the White Rose appealed to the sense of shame, decency, and
human conscience that exists within each person and was yearning
to be recognized and spoken to, and, most of all, was dying to
make itself known by rebelling against the government and bringing
an end to the madness. As we know, this did not happen.
Whether this unhappy result was inevitable
or simply due to the fact that the White Rose was snuffed out
after only nine months of activity (as other, corresponding attempts
were), we will never know. But we do know this: in a nation that
was choking under a cloud of surveillance, snooping, submission,
and fear, the White Rose functioned as the German national conscience.
At the conclusion of the fourth pamphlet distributed by the White
Rose, we find the following challenge:
"We will not be silent. We are your
bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!"
I always have found this series of statements
to be both compelling and instructive. In particular, the centerpiece
of the triad holds a message for our times: "We are your
bad conscience." The members of the White Rose understood
the need to lead by example and to create discomfort among the
politically narcotized citizens of Germany by reminding them of
how far they had strayed from their tradition of decent, civilized
I also am aware that several members of
the White Rose were raised in the Roman Catholic tradition or
had become adherents to it just before execution. One aspect of
that tradition is a practice called examination of conscience.
For those who are put off by references to religious practices,
it may help to know that the examination of conscience probably
originated in the schools of pagan philosophers.
Nonetheless, those raised in the Roman
Catholic tradition are taught that one must regularly scrutinize
his behavior in deed, word, thought, and omission to determine
whether his actions comport with Christian teachings. The purpose
is to cultivate a sense of genuine sorrow (contrition) for these
shortcomings (or sins), leading to confession of the sin, followed
by a request for forgiveness accompanied by a firm resolve not
to repeat the sin. The point is that some members of the White
Rose realized that self-examination is important and that one
cannot be forgiven without first being aware of a shortcoming,
confessing it, and resolving not to repeat it.
The concept of examination of conscience
is important because in our everyday dealings with one another,
forgiveness is often expected as if it were due automatically
- even if there has been no admission of wrongdoing, no sorrow
expressed, and no future resolve declared. In politics, this is
doubly the case. For example, other than those rare instances
in which a politician is caught red-handed in a crime and cannot
avoid the consequences, when did you last hear that a politician
openly admitted that a policy was morally wrong from its inception
and that he is sorry for supporting it and will not repeat it?
Instead and at best, we hear only that the execution of a policy
was flawed, that a strategy needed adjustment, that the tactics
did not fit the policy, that there were insufficient resources
to succeed, or that a policy was not supported strongly enough
by the American people - probably because these poor, benighted
folk were too dim to understand the miraculous nature of the "cure"
that had been laid at their feet in their behalf.
Our duty to speak out
Does this sound at all like the interventionist,
hate-producing, and incredibly expensive U.S. foreign policy of
the past 60 years or more? Does it sound like the covert actions
of the CIA in Africa, Central America, and Asia? Does it sound
like Vietnam? Does it sound like Iraq or U.S. policy toward Palestine
or Cuba or Korea?
Have you noticed that today's politicians
are careful - even desperately careful - never to consider, much
less acknowledge in public, the possibility that U.S. foreign
policy is the root cause of the terrorism that they claim to fear
or that it has led to the increasingly severe and frequent incursions
on our domestic liberties? No. There will be no discussion of
the fundamental tenets of U.S. foreign policy. It has been our
policy as long as we can remember, and it is beyond question.
Just as bad, members of the mainstream
media - who understand the power wielded by politicians and bureaucrats
through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the professional
consequences of being "frozen out" of access to political
decision-makers - can be counted on to police the blanket of silence
that surrounds this most vital point. They help to maintain the
pretense of political infallibility by busying themselves with
talk of strategies, tactics, and levels of support - content to
dance around the edges of a gaping chasm. They never address first
principles. They never dare to consider the possibility that U.S.
foreign policy is wrong at its very core. They never engage in
the prospect that they should examine their conscience regarding
this policy, identify a wrong, admit guilt, express contrition,
and then apologize to their victims - with a vow to avoid such
practices in the future. No. They go along with the fiction that
something as all-encompassing as U.S. foreign policy cannot possibly
be wrong-headed in its very foundations.
It is this orchestrated silence about
principles that genuine advocates of liberty must oppose and consistently
attack - just as the members of the White Rose did. It is our
task to remind those around us that all the empty talk about tactics
and strategies is a mere distraction. It keeps us from addressing
the root causes of social, economic, and international disruption
- government coercion regardless of its particular manifestation
in war, economic, or lifestyle interventions.
Currently this approach separates genuine
libertarians from both pro-war conservatives and their ersatz
opponents in the progressive movement. It separates us from conservatives
because it reminds them that they have betrayed their claim to
oppose big-government collectivism - of which war is the ultimate
and most deadly expression. It separates us from progressives
because it exposes their hypocrisy in supporting Iraq-like interventions
in the Balkans and Darfur in addition to coercive domestic policies
that victimize their fellow citizens.
With our opposition to the unprovoked
invasion of Iraq and the devastation and occupation of Afghanistan,
to the parade of lies offered as excuses by the administration,
to the mushrooming surveillance of American citizens, to the repulsive
practice of torture and its subsequent legalization by Congress
and acceptance by Americans, to the illegal kidnapping and imprisonment
of thousands of people without charges, to the unending fear-mongering
on the part of the administration, and to the destruction of fundamental
legal principles such as the right to a jury trial, we libertarians
are America's "bad conscience."
Our consistent opposition to coercion
also is a reminder that progressive support of big government
over the decades has, in fact, made the devastation of Iraq inevitable.
After all, when you deliver power into the hands of politicians,
you cannot hide from their misuse of it. Do progressives think
they are somehow exempt from Lord Acton's warning that "power
tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely"?
Fearing ideas on liberty
And that brings us back to the White Rose
and their claim: We are your bad conscience. During my recent
visit to the White Rose exhibition at the Ludwig Maximilian University
of Munich, where Hans and Sophie Scholl were arrested after dropping
copies of the sixth leaflet from the balcony in the atrium, it
was easy to obtain facsimiles of the original leaflets. It was
a rare treat to read them and purchase copies.
In their time, the members of the White
Rose - as few as they were - created a disturbance of conscience
that the authorities genuinely feared. Ideas are important, and
the response of the Nazi government bears testimony to the importance
of ideas and the fear that they can generate among lawless government
officials and their followers.
To remove the threat posed by the ideas
of the White Rose, the Nazi authorities went to extraordinary
lengths to silence its members without delay. Within four days
of capture, they were executed. According to prisoners who met
these first captives, the usual practice was to defer execution
for 99 days. In the case of the White Rose, however, the government
was so afraid of their message that execution was almost immediate
- following a kangaroo-court trial that resembles the kind of
"justice" that pro-government talk-radio hosts are now
urging with respect to the illegally held detainees at Guantanamo
and the network of secret prisons where detainees are being tortured
by employees of the U.S. government.
A warning for us
In the story of the White Rose, there
is a stern warning for us: democracy is not an end in itself.
Further, it cannot even be considered an optimal solution for
making political decisions - certainly not after the Nazi debacle
and not after what has taken place as the United States has been
transformed from a constitutional republic with limited powers
into a war-mongering welfare-warfare democracy with no limits
on its ability to interfere in the lives of U.S. citizens and
people around the world. After all, Nazism was not imposed on
the German people. It can even be considered the finest fruit
of democracy. When a significant portion of the populace can be
frightened and propagandized into agreement with barbarism, democracy
will reflect and serve even the vilest political program. In fact,
democracy is capable of embracing as much violence, suspicion,
fear, envy, greed, hatred, and self-righteousness as the unprincipled
"common man" is capable of accepting.
Today, when we remind our fellow citizens
that war, mass-murder, spying, torture, kidnapping, imprisonment
without trial, persecution of immigrants, taxes, compulsory indoctrination
in public schools, welfare dependency, censorship, and waging
war on pathetic drug addicts are intrinsically evil practices
and that they produce negative consequences that are worse than
the problems they seek to correct, we are playing a role that
is similar to that of the White Rose. We are acting as the conscience
of a nation that has run amok. We are making our fellow citizens
uncomfortable with the devil's bargain that they have struck with
our government, and we are hoping that the discomfort we create
will lead them to examine their conscience and change their behavior.
To once again quote our friends from the White Rose: We will not
be silent. We are your bad conscience. We will not leave you in
Lawrence Ludlow is a freelance writer
living in San Diego. Send him email.