Category Archives: History

Remembering Sophie: Reflections on Courage

“Stand up for what you believe in even if you are standing alone!”

Sophie Scholl

If you take a stroll through beautiful Munich, Germany, it is hard to imagine that this place was the official and ideological stronghold of the NAZI Party (NSDAP) leading up to World War II. For visitors who are aware of the historical shadows that the city holds, the reminders are never far away. On the pavement, outside the main building of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, one of Germany’s oldest universities, is a strange memorial of what looks like the hasty scattering of papers inset into the pavement. When you walk inside the atrium you will find  a statue of a girl: Sophie Scholl.
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Sophie, born on 9 May 1921, was the daughter of the mayor of Forchtenberg, Robert Scholl. She enjoyed a fairly carefree childhood, raised in a household that held to a Christian faith which recognised the dignity and equality of all people. Her father’s words would play an instrumental role in shaping who Sophie was becoming: “What I want for you is to live in uprightness and freedom of spirit, no matter how difficult that proves to be.” Her father and brothers were critical of Hitler and the regime. Nevertheless, Sophie joined a Nazi organisation, the League of German Girls, where she became a squad leader at the age of twelve. Her initial enthusiasm began to wane as she became more immersed in understanding the ideology and motivation of the Nazi party and as she began to observe the treatment of Jews.
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Sophie graduated from Secondary School in 1940 and worked as a kindergarten teacher at the Frobel Institute. In 1942, she enrolled in the University of Munich as a student of biology and philosophy. Undergirded by her studies and her faith, she joined her brother and his friends who held similar political views and who increasingly opposed the Nazi regime. Humanist and writer, Theodor Haecker, was a major influence on her resistance ideology.Unknown-2
In 1942, she became part of the White Rose student resistance that was founded by her brother, Hans, along with Willi Graf and Christoph Probst. The group sought to awaken an apathetic Germany to the Nazi tyranny and its genocidal policies. The group wrote six anti-Nazi resistance leaflets and distributed them across Munich. Sophie played a key role in the distribution because as a woman she was less likely to be stopped by the SS. Using a hand-operated duplicating machine they produced between six to nine thousand copies of each pamphlet, which also appeared in Stuttgart, Cologne, Vienna, Freiburg, Chemnitz, Hamburg and Berlin.
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Here are some excerpts from these pamphlets:

The first of the six leaflets produced by The White Rose movement opens, “Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be ‘governed’ by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct.” The White Rose became a relentless voice that endeavoured to awaken the apathy that had come over Germany in the face of such heinous governmental evil.

The second leaflet asked, “Why do the German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes … so unworthy of the human race?” And this: “Since the conquest of Poland, 300,000 Jews have been murdered, a crime against human dignity … Germans encourage fascist criminals if no chord within them cries out at the sight of such deeds. An end in terror is preferable to terror without end.” The White Rose was desperately trying to incite people to action, to awaken a nation to to the fact that the combined collective of the Germany people was greater than the evil they faced.

The third leaflet boldly welcomed all to the movement, declaring that  “Everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of this system.” Please note, they never called for a violent rebellion, rather, for a passive resistance, a peaceful sabotage. “Why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanised state system presided over by criminals and drunks? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right – or rather, your moral duty – to eliminate this system?”

The fourth leaflet appealed to the religious instincts of the German people with a defiant call to action: “I ask you as a Christian … Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler.” The fourth pamphlet’s concluding paragraph also became the motto of the resistance: “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!

On the 18th February 1943, the Scholls distributed leaflets in the Munich University, leaving them in empty corridors and lecture rooms. Sophie stood on the top level of  atrium and threw handfuls into the hall below. They were immediately arrested and after a three day trial with no jury, found guilty of treason. On the 22nd February, Sophie, her brother Hans and their friend, Christoph Probst, were condemned to death and beheaded in Munich’s Stadelheim Prison.
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Sophie’s last words were to declare that God was her eternal refuge and, “Die Sonne scheint noch” – “The sun still shines”. Hans Scholl was remembered as saying, “Es lebe die Freiheit” – “Long live Freedom”.

The final White Rose leaflet was smuggled out of Germany and intercepted by Allied forces, with the result that, in the autumn of 1943, millions of copies were dropped over Germany by Allied aircraft. I wonder what a defeated Germany thought as these papers rained from the sky, the voice of prophets and martyrs, begging them to take courage? I can only imagine the regret as they realised that they would be remembered as a generation that remained quiet in one of the darkest moments of history.

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The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves — or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature.”
– Sophie Scholl

Victims of War: The Wolf Children of East Prussia

“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for the lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

Hermann Goering, Nuremberg Diaries

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I hate war with every fibre of my being! The nationalistic imagined rhetoric, the meglamaniacal leaders, the terrible suffering and the untold casualties. Tracing my heritage in this beautiful country of Poland, reminded me of some of the horrors faced by the most vulnerable …

They called them the Wolf Children – thousands of orphans left behind in the panic and exodus of East Prussian Germans with the Red Army advancing. There were about 20,000 such children from East Prussia alone, not counting other affected areas. Around 5,000 of these children reached Lithuania where they disappeared into orphanages, families and cheap labour … and there they forgot their names, their language, and their childhood.

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Some of the youngest of these are now turning 80 years of age and after all these forgotten years there is a sudden resurgence of interest in the terrible hardship that they faced. Many experienced the death or their parents and their siblings. Many were abandoned. They faced illness, hunger and horrific abuse. Many have blocked out all early memories.

Under fear of persecution, there was no choice of remembering names and language. They were given an alias and that became their reality. It was only after 1990 that Wolf Children were able to freely pursue any memories they had. The support group, Edelweiss-Wolfskinder, was formed to help these now elderly people, who receive a tiny pension from Lithuania and no support from Germany, unless they can prove their heritage. Lack of language skills and education makes this virtually impossible for many of them.

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Not all the children made it to Lithuania. Some were put in homes around Koenigsberg (now Kalingrad) by the Soviet military administration from 1946-1947. Later they were transported en masse to homes built for that purpose in the newly established GDR (East Germany). But the children in Lithuania who were too far away never realised this was even an option. Many believed that Germany, like their families, no longer existed.

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The Wolf Children are a stark reminder of the victims of war. Nowadays people hear their stories and are horrified at the abuse and negligence. However, we need to only remind ourselves that at this very moment we are facing a global crisis of displaced people, mainly women and children, due to war and natural disasters, like we have not experienced since World War II … How will history remember us? We all have a choice in how we respond to the suffering of the traumatised and destitute people that have to flee their countries. May the horrors of history and the lessons they hold not land on ears that have gone deaf because of fear or indifference.

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

Elie Wiesel

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Confessions of a Bibliophile

“There is no friend as loyal as a book”

Ernest Hemingway

I am an only child. From time to time people ask whether I missed having brothers or sisters. This is rather a peculiar question. It’s like asking someone who has never tasted eggs whether they miss quiche. In short, no. I did not miss having brothers or sisters. I am sure siblings are a marvellous treat for those who possess them, but I didn’t, and so I never missed them the slightest. How can you miss annoying homo sapiens that you have to share things with? Imagine if I had to share my books?!

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My obsession with books started at an early age. Amongst my collection of childhood books I specifically remember an ancient edition of Grimm’s Fairytales that sat on my bedside table. It was printed in Old German Fraktur font. Both my Omas could read the book at lightning speed. My book collection grew as my reading skills developed; from books on animals to old castles, fairy tales, poetry, children’s novels, and, of course, the whole collection of Asterix & Obelix. When we migrated to South Africa I learnt English and Afrikaans. This opened up a whole new set of books! I distinctly recall the first time I read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, and bawling my way through Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. There are some books that haunt us for a lifetime.

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Providence would have it that my path would cross with a rather tall redhead, whose love for books matched mine. He considered browsing through encyclopedias a favourite pastime in his childhood. It was a match made in heaven. The lack of a shared ‘book love’ would have most certainly been a deal breaker. So between us, we started collecting a humungous amount of books. All sorts of books. “Read all sorts of books that wound and stab us,” advises Franz Kafka (The Metamorphosis). This is good advice. Books open our thoughts and hearts. They take us to a different world and for a moment we can become part of a fantastic adventure. “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.” (A Dance with DragonsGeorge R.R. Martin).

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It would be extremely difficult for me to list the most important books to read or my most favourite books. That would feel like I am selling out on old friends by comparing their worthiness or value. I have, however, thrown out a bunch of stupid books. Most often, modern-day schmuck about how to be better in leading, speaking, praying, or peeing – yeah, the self-help genre is my least favourite. *Rant Alert*: self-help books remind me of people who have discovered some gold (to their credit), but now they are convinced that the whole frigging world will discover gold in the same place, at the same time, with the same set of tools if they dig in just the right way, whilst chanting mantras. Yes, I know, it’s an awful generalisation and I probably just managed to offend some of my blog readers … but it is a pet peeve.

Now if you are a bibliophile, or more importantly, if you have a bibliophile living under your roof, the following observations may be very helpful:

  1. Bibliophiles feel lost without books. The Apostle Paul is in a dark, damp Roman prison, writing a letter to Timothy. “Bring my cloak,” he says (ver5127556-ancient-map-scroll-Stock-Photo-map-pirate-parchmenty important), “and my scrolls, especially the parchments” (most important). Who would have thought that Paul was a bibliophile? He was having massive withdrawals from his ‘books’ (2 Tim. 4:13).
  2. Bibliophiles will take great joy in ‘cleaning’ their bookshelves. Think it nothing strange if your book addict declares they will sort their books and then spend hours taking every book off the shelf, gazing lovingly at it, cleaning the shelves, and then putting them all back in a different order. If you are lucky, they emerge with one or two books that can be given away … you never really throw away books, unless they are extremely stupid books (please refer to ‘rant’ section above).
  3. You will often lose bibliophiles when you shop – they can be retrieved from the nearest book320px-Carl_Spitzweg_021shop. If, however, that bookshop is a second-hand bookshop, you have zero chance of getting them out of there in less than three hours.
  4. Bibliophiles will judge you. They will not judge you on your clothes, looks, education, house,beauty-and-the-beast-belle-book-books-Favim.com-616270.jpg food or pet. They will judge you on your bookshelf and on the books you are reading. Prepare for judgment.
  5. They press rewind every time the Beast unveils the library in Beauty and the Beast.
  6. Most often introverted, bibliophiles are happy for you to jabber on about all things regarding ‘normal’ life until it comes to books. God help you if you misquote a book. God help you if you make a derogative comment about a classic novel. God help you if you do not ask them at that time what they are reading and why. To be forewarned is to live in harmony.
  7. Bibliophiles will have certain books they read repeatedly. This is a most bizarre behaviour for anyone who is not a book addict. It’s really hard to explain why we do this. Perhaps it has to do with relieving the experience or the feeling we received from reading the book, or simply to make triply sure that we did not miss a minute detail of the story. My repeat reads include Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin GospelRichard Rohr’s, Breathing Underwater, and, of course, Tolkien’s, Lord of the Rings.

book-61So, mugwumps, who of you want to raise your hands and join me in my book addiction confession moment? What books are you reading right now? Oh, and is this a good time for me to tell you what I am reading? I thought you’d never ask! On the novel side I am ploughing my way through Philippa Gregory’s excellent historical novel series, The Cousins’ WarI love historical novels and Gregory is an outstanding writer as she sheds light on the three important women of the Wars of the Roses. I am also re-reading David Gushee’s book, Changing our Mind. Gushee is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. Widely regarded as one of the leading moral voices in American Christianity, he is the author or editor of 20 books and hundreds of articles in his field, including Righteous Gentiles of the HolocaustKingdom EthicsThe Sacredness of Human Life, and, most recently, Changing Our Mind. What a read! Here’s a quote: “Better is one day in the company of those bullied by Christians but loved by Jesus than thousands in the company of those wielding scripture to harm the weak and defenceless.” (Review)

Yes, I am afraid I am a bibliophile. I love big books and I cannot lie. But now it’s your turn – what books are you reading and what do you love/hate about them?

“When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” 

Desiderius Erasmus

 

 

The ‘Others’: Ideas that Shape Australia’s Attitude and Policies on Asylum Seekers

This past week our world was again reminded of the stark and devastating reality that we are facing a crisis of displaced people, due to war and natural disasters, unparalleled since World War Two. The image of a tiny Syrian boy, drowned at sea whilst seeking refuge, whose body had washed up on the idyllic shores of the Turkish resort town, Bodrum, sent shock waves through the global village. Tony Abbott, the current Australian Prime Minister, in his rather predictable manner, used this heart-wrenching moment to drive home his political ‘tough stance‘ on asylum seekers: “I would say, if you want to stop the drownings you’ve got to stop the boats.” As many parts of the world are frantically seeking to adjust in order to help a multitude of destitute and vulnerable people, Australia continues to take an austere approach to those seeking asylum, drawing harsh criticism.

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Australia’s current policies and attitude towards asylum seekers is built on a certain set of ideas. Ideologies that have developed over time, and which originated amidst the hardship, scarcity and survival fears experienced by the first European settlers. Ideologies are all about a set of beliefs about the proper order of society. Shared ideologies communicate beliefs, opinions and values of a particular social group, society or nation. So what are some of the ideas that have shaped the Australian collective psyche and causes so many people to support the extremely harsh measures towards ‘boat people’?

I would contend that there are four major propositions that have shaped Australia’s social conscience towards asylum seekers. Unless we find ways to address these deeply embedded paradigms we will not see a change of the current felt antagonism and indifference. Following is a brief summary of the ‘Big Four’ that politicians and those in power have used for their advantage (a link to a full discussion paper is provided below):

1. Nationalism

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Two foundational blocks upheld Australia’s imagined ideals of  nationalism. Firstly, the refusal of colonisers to recognise the Traditional Owners of the land. European settlers declared Australia  terra nullis on their arrival, dismissing the many Aboriginal tribes as barbaric and entirely destitute of even the rudest forms of civil policy. Henry Reynolds estimated that at least 20,000 Aboriginal people died as a result of white settler genocide. The full degree of atrocities will never be fully known. Yet Australia continues to celebrate its National Day on a day of mourning for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – the celebration of a race at the expense of another.

Secondly, they saw themselves very much part of the British Empire and the ‘British race’. These perceptions continue to linger to this day.  Recently reinforced by Tony Abbott when he addressed the Australian-Melbourne Institute of Economic and Social Outlook: “Our country is unimaginable without foreign investment. I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled, or, um, scarcely settled, Great South Land.

Nationalist ideologies that are built on Anglo-Celtic ideals do not bode well for those seeking asylum on Australian shores as they create negative imagery of ‘otherness’.

2. Racism

In 1901, the new Federal Parliament passed the now infamous Immigration Restriction Act, excluding all non-European migrants. It became the foundation of the ‘White Australia’ Policy. This policy would shape Australian national imagination for the next six decades as it sketched images of the ‘ideal’ Australian citizen that would fit with Australia’s national character. Racism is a most effective political tool in that it enables the material and intellectual fear and greed of dominant groups.

In modern times, the racist rhetoric of Pauline Hanson resonated with a nation that held a deep-seated ideology from its settler inception. John Howard seized the election opportunity to fuel the fear of economic competition and fear of the ‘other’ by successfully dehumanising those seeking refuge. This dehumanising exercise was executed to perfection by creating slanderous lies of Middle Eastern asylums seekers supposedly throwing their children overboard in order to be towed to the safety of Australian waters in October 2001. He said: ‘I don’t want, in Australia, people who throw their children into the sea.’ Despite the warning of the falsehood of these allegations by navy personnel, both Howar1346432400000d and the Defense Minister, Peter Reith, stuck to this distorted version until after the 2002 election. Hugh Mackay observed that, “the ‘children overboard’ incident…shows us how vulnerable Australians have become to political spin.” I would argue that the vulnerability of the Australian society to racist spin is a direct
result of racist conditioning and ideology; an ideology that continues to shape the attitude and policies of both sides of government in a race towards the bottom when it comes to asylum seekers.

3. National Security

National security ideology and attitude towards asylum seekers hold a close connection in a country that nurtures fears of invasion and economic competition. In a global context of economic and social mobility that has laid waste to financial security, paranoid Australians look to the government to protect them and provide assurance. National security rhetoric therefore holds appeal for any government seeking legitimacy and approval. The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on 11 September 2001, provided an opportunity for the Howard government to not only suggest that some who sought to come to Australia ‘illegally’ had criminal records, but that terrorists might have been smuggled on the boats. Racist ideas may have been a key factor in the Tampa crisis, australia-653164_1280but it is the intertwined ideas surrounding security in those circumstances that robs people of agency, choice and freedom. In cases like Tampa or the World Trade Centre attack, citizens look to their leaders for guidance and assurance, and if they believe their security is at risk they will accede to ideologies based in fear and prejudice. By alluding to asylum seekers as security threats the government was, and is, able to portray a defence of autonomy and sovereignty, while turning society into pliable and passive subjects.

4. Insularity

In 1937, Arthur Henderson, a British Labour member of the House of Commons, visited Australia and New Zealand. He criticised how geographical insularity had created a feeling amongst Australians that they were so far from the rest of the world affairs that they need not bother over them.

Suvendrini Perera probes the effect of geographical insularity on Australian thought and identity, linking it directly to historical violence in order to impose white insularity and exclus640x392_55457_152696ivism: “The plotting of Australia as an insular formation both expels the ‘foreign’ bodies around its edges and encloses Indigenous peoples more closely within clearly demarcated borders.” She forms a strong case to demonstrate that it is ideas of insularity, sustained by colonial myths of terra nullis and ‘Robinsonian fantasies’, that undergird the violence, racism and exclusion that are at work in events such as the Tampa crisis or the brutality of detention centres.

In conclusion, ideologies shape a nation’s policies and worldview. Modern day Australia has a constructed set of ideologies still inherent in its convict past. These shared perceptions have been shaped through hardship and survival fears, and propagated through political rhetoric and mass media. Last week we saw the horrendous image of a little boy, representing thousands of refugees, who lost his life trying to find a better tomorrow. Australia cannot continue this path of national delusion and escapism. We have to lay aside ideological fallacies, step up and become responsible global citizens.

(Read the complete document: “The ‘Others’: How have ideologies, shaped by Nationalism, Racism, Insularity and National Security, influenced current Australian attitude and policies towards ‘Boat People’?”)

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