Woman who defied Hitler ‘was inspired by Newman’

09-25-2022Weekly Reflection

Cardinal John Henry Newman (now St. John Henry Newman) was an inspiration of Germany's greatest heroine in defying Adolf Hitler, scholars have claimed. New documents unearthed by German academics have revealed that the writings of the 19th-century English theologian were a direct influence on Sophie Scholl, who was beheaded for circulating leaflets urging students at Munich University to rise up against Nazi terror.

Scholl, a student who was 21 at the time of her death in February 1943, is a legend in Germany, with two films made about her life and more than 190 schools named after her. She was also voted "woman of the 20th century" by readers of Brigitte, a women's magazine, and a popular 2003 television series called Greatest Germans declared her to be the greatest German woman of all time. But behind her heroism was the "theology of conscience" expounded by Cardinal Newman, according to Professor Günther Biemer, the leading German interpreter of Newman, and Jakob Knab, an expert on the life of Sophie Scholl, who will later this year publish research in Newman Studien (Studies) on the White Rose resistance movement, to which she belonged.

Their findings include correspondence between Scholl and her boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel, a German army officer, to whom she gave two volumes of Newman's sermons when he was deployed to the eastern front in May 1942. On arriving in the town of Mariupol, Russia, Hartnagel saw corpses of Soviet soldiers who had been shot by their German guards and began to hear reports of mass killings of local Jews. He later wrote to Scholl to say that reading Newman's words in such an awful place were like tasting "drops of precious wine". "What a fallacy it is to take nature as our model for our actions and to describe its cruelty as 'great'," he said in a letter of July 1942. "But we know by whom we were created and that we stand in a relationship of moral obligation to our creator. Conscience gives us the capacity to distinguish between good and evil."

Mr Knab has identified Hartnagel's words as being taken verbatim from a sermon given by Newman called "The Testimony of Conscience". Newman taught that conscience was an echo of the voice of God enlightening each person to moral truth in concrete situations. Christians, he argued, had a duty to obey a good conscience over and above all other considerations. Lieutenant Hartnagel's convictions later led him to protest against the mass murders of the Jews. On January 22, 1943 he was evacuated on the last plane out of Stalingrad before the city fell to the Russians in a battle that would mark a turning point in the war. But by the time he returned to Germany Sophie was dead, executed along with Hans and her friend, Christoph Probst, in Stadelheim Prison, Munich, after making her own protest against Hitler's tyranny.

Under questioning from the Gestapo, Scholl said she had been compelled by her Christian conscience to peacefully oppose Nazism. Sophie and Hans both asked to be received into the Catholic Church an hour before they were executed but were dissuaded by their pastor who argued that such a decision would upset their mother, a Lutheran lay-preacher.

Fr Dermot Fenlon, a priest of the Birmingham Oratory who was given excerpts of Mr Knab's findings to include in a speech on Newman in Milan last week, said the originality of the research was that it showed the clear "centrality" of Newman to Hans and Sophie Scholl. He said: "Knab has identified the presence of Newman in correspondence, in diaries and in the analysis of correspondence, particularly between Sophie and Hartnagel. He has shown how that influence became operative at a critical moment."

He added: "The religious question at the heart of the White Rose has not been adequately acknowledged and it is only through the work of Guenter Biemer and Jakob Knab that Newman's influence... can be identified as highly significant." In his speech Fr Fenlon explained that Sophie, a Lutheran, was introduced to the works of Newman by a scholar called Theodor Haecker, who had written to the Birmingham Oratory in 1920 asking for copies of Newman's work, which he wanted to translate into German. On reading Newman, Haecker converted to Catholicism and he later became such an outspoken critic of Nazism that he was forbidden to publish his work by the regime. Early in the Second World War he became a good friend of the Scholls and a direct inspiration of the White Rose movement, which opposed Nazism by circulating thousands of leaflets telling German Christians that they had a "moral duty" to rise up against Hitler, the "messenger of Anti-Christ".

The movement, made up mostly of German students, also condemned the persecution of the Jews in 1942 - the year Hitler began to implement the Final Solution - as the "most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of history." Much of the language of the fourth pamphlet in particular directly echoed Newman's theology, said Fr Fenlon. He said: "Newman's influence on the movement took the form of a light which questioned the darkness." "Newman had won Haecker to the Church," he said. "Haecker sought to win the younger generation to Newman understood on his own terms."

He added: "When, as we are allowed to hope, Newman is beatified by a German pope, it might seem reasonable to see it as the fruit of a movement which began in Birmingham and found its most impressive expression in the Third Reich." It was through Haecker that the young Joseph Ratzinger - the future Pope Benedict XVI - learned to admire Newman, who died in Birmingham in 1890. The Pope is so keen to beatify Newman that he asks about the progress of his Cause on a regular basis…

Newman's theology of conscience was explained by Fr Ian Ker, the Oxford theologian and Newman biographer, during a speech at the same Milan conference. In the speech called "Newman, Modernity and Conscience", Fr Ker said Newman believed conscience was "sovereign" but not "autonomous". "The conscience is the spokesman not of the individual personality or temperament but of God," he said. (END)