Aristotle, Augustine, and Hitler – for Audrey

Posted on January 31, 2014

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Hans Scholl too officially began his Christmas vacation on December 22, [1942] showing up at his parents’ house without Sophie. Doubtless Hans made some excuse or the other for Sophie’s absence. Apparently neither he nor Sophie told anyone that Sophie was off to visit Otl in Bad Hall.

What a happy reunion that was! Otl was Sophie’s soulmate, her treasured friend, the person who listened without judging. All that extra time in the kitchen paid off, as the nuns allowed Otl to set up mattresses in the corner of a balcony where he and Sophie could talk in private. Otl also conspired with the nuns to turn a blind eye to his comings and goings. They said if he used the kitchen entrance, they would see nothing.

Ensconced in a sunny “balcony arbor,” the friends caught up with one another’s news. No politics this day, at least nothing about the White Rose. There was so much to tell, so much to hear. Otl’s odyssey, Hans’ Russian experience, who was serving where and who was home on furlough… It all came bubbling out in disjointed sentences and ‘remember whens.’

Sophie did tell Otl about Christl and Willi, two people she was sure he would like a great deal. He suddenly became shy, unnerved by the thought of meeting strangers who came that highly recommended. Unwilling to commit to anything just yet, Otl promised Sophie only that he would look her up, and Hans, when he came to Munich after Christmas. Carl Muth had invited him to spend his furlough in Solln.

How do you feel? Are you scared? Did they know you were AWOL? What about your parents? Sophie interrogated Otl about every aspect of his recent life. He reassured her about his status, swore that he had been “rehabilitated” legally. But, he continued, his defiant journey had taught him more about the Russian front than he wanted to know.

Otl described the chaos of the front lines, unaware that Sophie’s Fritz was there. “Russians had retaken the Caucasus,” he said, speaking of wounded from Stalingrad who told him of the “great losses” the Germans suffered there. Still oblivious to Sophie’s fears about her Fritz. In Stalingrad.

What will you do? Sophie plied him with more questions. Disappear into the West, maybe Switzerland. “Anything I touch on behalf of this State supported a crime,” Otl mused. “Everyone who fights the Nazis helps to shorten the war and mitigate the disaster that awaits us.” Otl could not have known how his words resonated with Sophie.

His dreams of desertion would have to wait though until the Americans engaged the Germans on a second front. Otl spoke disparagingly of that possibility. “Americans will only wage war when risk is at a minimum,” he said. They were different from Germans who would “on command become a command, will stand firm as a sublime act, will not ask the conse­quences. What he [the German] labels loyalty is in fact a surrender of wits. … You can lead a German to war like a lamb to the slaughter. They don’t know that they are pawns.” Stupid Germans.

Since Sophie could not sleep overnight on the balcony – it was, after all, December 22 – Otl had worked out a strategy with “plump Sister Veronica.” After dark, she tied together bed sheets and lowered them from a fourth-floor window at the rear of the hospital, so Otl and Sophie could sneak out and continue the conversation in Sophie’s hotel room.

But before I knew what was happening, as soon as my full weight was on the ‘rope,’ I whizzed to the bottom from the fourth floor. It seemed to me that the building was falling up.

I fell on a pile of coal that was loose and dry and softened my fall. Nevertheless, I checked out all my limbs and body parts before I gave the horrified nun a sign that I was all right. It took her a minute to recover from the shock, then she let down my soldier’s uniform. I changed clothes, and she pulled up the hospital clothes. Sophie and I left there giggling.

That night – probably snuggled under the covers as they had at the inn in Freiburg that March – Otl and Sophie talked on about Stalingrad, and war, and friends, and death. And that night too, Sophie told Otl they wanted to “send a political signal saying that Hitler could be defeated.” He knew it. There had been more to Christl and Willi than Sophie had first let on.

We could have made things easier for ourselves if we had just stuck with what we learned in school: Wars are valueless. We could have simply made Darwinian socio-biology our own: Existence is a battle, and he who survives is superior. Or as Hegel defined it: What is Rational is what is real.

Then Stalingrad would have simply been another battle. But this night, we shivered with joy as we knew: Unscrupulous evil had been defeated. We trembled with a hope we hardly dared express, that this distortion of humanity, draped though it may be in the flag of the Fatherland, was coming to an end.

But even idealists like Otl and Sophie recognized that their hope and joy meant certain death for friends they deeply loved. Fritz was in Stalingrad, Sophie reminded Otl. Otl’s buddy Frido was in Kessel. Grogo, Werner, Axel, where were these dear, dear comrades even as they talked? Would they really be so ready for Hitler’s overthrow if it presaged death for them? For Fritz, and Werner?

The value of a person can be seen in the dignity of his death. How and for what a person will die defines that person himself. Every individual has the right to an honorable death that belongs to himself alone. That the Nazis stole this dignity from millions of people turned them into cynics of a naked insanity.

We tried to determine what dignity or honor the death of one of these friends could possibly have, a friend who had perhaps already fallen in Stalingrad.

This was not an easy conversation for Sophie, but it allowed her to give vent to feelings no one else comprehended. She could barely speak of such things with Hans. Inge certainly would not “get” it, and if she told her parents that she would be willing to sacrifice Fritz for the greater good of Germany?

Because of the good graces of the nuns of Bad Hall, Sophie and Otl’s discussion resumed the following day at the inn. Over dinner, Otl observed that it was ironic they were sitting in the heart of fascism, the middle of the original fascist country, Austria. “Linz is close by. Braunau is a little further west, halfway between here and Munich. ‘He’ was born in Braunau. He went to school in the upper grades in Linz. He got his start in Munich.”

Sophie floored Otl with her next question, one that consumed them for a long time. “How could it be that it’s precisely the Catholic countries and states that seem to have such a strong affinity to fascism? Bavaria, Austria, Italy, Spain, Portugal.”

Otl answered by reviewing the history of fascism, using its rise in Austria as an example. Othmar Spann resurfaced, linking this conversation to the one Otl and Sophie had had in March 1942. Otl said he did not think Spann was a Nazi, but his model of an authoritarian state had been used by Hitler’s National Socialists.

The harder Otl thought, the harder it became to even name a Catholic theologian – except for Félicité Lamennais and his “disciple” Carl Muth – who supported a “republican” form of government. [Republican meaning “a form of government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representa­tives responsible to them and governing according to law” (Webster).] And Lamennais had been excommunicated for that belief.

Sophie reacted strongly to the idea of an authoritarian State. She believed that the true test of a ‘Christian society’ “was not how a government treated its leadership, but how it related to the lowly and disenfranchised, to minorities.”

Otl returned to his consideration of Othmar Spann. He said he thought Spann’s problem was that he theorized as if government were an abstraction, when “it is history, an operation in its time, development as behavior. Government is not revealed as a system, but as politics.” As a State appropriated more and more power, it abused that power.

But that was Sophie’s whole point, and she let Otl know it. “There has never been a government based on Christian principles, since the powerless have always been trampled underfoot and the powerful have been honored.”

Hmm from Otl, and more history followed. When the German enlightenment tried to bring ‘Christian’ principles into the public arena, it had been the unions and political parties that welcomed the reforms. Empowered workers implemented theory and made it so. As the people attempted to change their government, it had been the church that “anointed the despots.” Otl added, “They were incapable of recognizing Christian values if they developed outside the walls of the Church.” Otl and Sophie were finally making progress on her initial query.

We are talking about theories, Sophie protested. There’s no such thing as theoretical art, and there can be no such thing as theoretical politics. If something does not exist in concrete form, it is not real. “Reality stands in judgment on theory.”

Otl argued that regimes needed theory to mask what they were really doing. A ruler can say he wants peace while waging war. He can throw around the word “liberty” while doing everything possible “to put a ring in the nose of its citizens.” Propaganda, school curricula, newspaper editorials, Otl threw these out as illustrations of political theories that were used to further illegitimate goals and aims of corrupt governments.

“Public welfare before private good, public service, not self.” Otl said those words exemplified how Hitler’s government employed theoretical words that sounded nice to enslave the German nation to his fraudulent regime and criminal deeds.

No sooner had he uttered that phrase than he and Sophie looked at one another. “Our conversation began to be painful, opening rippling wounds.” Because it dawned on them that Hitler’s mantra was nothing more than a direct quote from Aristotle, a quote that Augustine had repeated in his theological treatises. And they – especially Sophie – thought Augustine could all but walk on water.

Aristotle, and after him Augustine and Hitler, had elevated Government to the level of a “Higher Something, a Superior Matter, a Higher Category of Existence.” There was nothing more dangerous, nothing more insidious than the Aristotelian theories of form and substance embodied in a government, any government.

For Aristotle – and Augustine, and Hitler – had it backwards. If the good of the private citizen did not far, far exceed the good of the nation, the nation could not be whole.

No amount of public welfare is greater than the securing of the liberty of the individual, the securing of private welfare, the securing of the dignity, the honor, of the least citizen.

It is at this point that a Christian state (if one is even possible) must begin, by turning upside down the Aristotelian principles in order to favor the individual, the individual person, even the individual person who represents a minority, regardless whether it is the minority of race, of culture, of religion, or of ideology. Those minorities outrank the State. Even those individuals whom society forgets will stand before the throne of God, but no government will do so. The State is  not the Higher Form of Existence, but rather that miserable human being.

Sophie told Otl about a passage Hans had found in Schiller’s Solon that echoed that sentiment, a passage written “when Schiller was still a republican.” It said that the State existed to fulfill the destiny of mankind, namely the development of all the forces that are inherent within mankind.

Otl was familiar with the extract Sophie mentioned and pounced on Schiller’s deprecation of the military state in Sparta to return to his reflections on Aristotle. That slogan “Service Before Self” bothered him. How the hell had Hitler been able to so thoroughly pervert what should have been an innocuous catchphrase to convince an entire nation it was all right to exterminate someone simply because they were of an “other” race? “The common good proved itself to be the private interests of the ruling class.”

Which brought them right back to Sophie’s question: Why the Catholic countries? She said, “Freedom is always the affair of the single, living, thinking, active individual. The State is not free, only people can be free. Freedom is always the concrete freedom of the individual.”

Otl later said that Sophie remained quite adamant on this point. “She began trying to test it with facts. She did not trust words, pompous words. She did not trust philosophies, pompous philosophies. And she did not trust theories. She thought it was a particularly Ger­man affliction, perhaps a particularly bourgeois affliction, or one peculiar to our time, that we had hopelessly separated action from thought, theory from reality. We satisfied ourselves with thoughts that we could observe, and we found delight in sentiments that required action.”

Wow, Otl thought. Sophie! She had come a long way from their conversations in Ulm a year before when she had contemplated suicide. “I perceived Sophie as a moral authority. She insisted on consistency between thought and action. In the manner in which such consistency was achieved, she saw the degree of the development of an individual.”

They chatted some more about the topic, Otl finally coming around to respond to the Why Sophie had posed at the beginning. “Freedom is possible only when it can express itself. It was not only the Romans who borrowed this [Aristotelian] form of government, but the [Holy Roman Empire] of the Middle Ages too, based on the Augustinian definitions of a Divine State. And to this day, the popes defend that form of government.” The problem therefore rested with that insufferable mixture of religion and state, whereby the clergy had gotten a taste of power and refused to let it go. Change had to start at the top.

But Sophie was not content with only one question. Would there be a revolution? Would someone be able to overthrow Hitler’s regime and install a more honorable government? In Germany? After the war?

Otl related a funny poem attributed to the Abbess of Eichstätt:

Jäh in der Nacht / Suddenly, during the night
Bin ich erwacht / I woke up
Ich träumte / I had been dreaming
Was ich nie gedacht / Something I had never thought
Es klang wie ein Te Deum! / It sounded like a Te Deum!
Das Herz mir noch im Busen klopft / My heart was still pounding
Ich sah den Hitler ausgestopft / I saw Hitler stuffed
Im britischen Museum. / In the British Museum.

Seriously, said Sophie, what should happen to the Nazis after the war? Sophie’s response to her own question stuck with Otl.

Sophie said she thought that everyone would be forced to wear their Party Number on their back and help rebuild a bullet-riddled Europe. Their sentence would correspond to the length of time they had been Party members. We were laughing, yet we were dead serious.

They easily agreed that if Germany were to be healthy and strong, a country that honored its individual citizens and preserved liberty and justice for all, it would have to be dis­man­tled down to its bare bones and reformed from scratch. In other words, it would have to be totally dissolved before it could be reinvented.

Sophie and Otl discussed the problems with Robert Scholl’s utopian – actually, outer limits of utopian – ideas and why her father was so far off-base. The elder Scholl believed that all governments should be dissolved, with the whole world ruled by a one-world government with administrative bodies doing the paperwork in what had been nations.

Father Scholl shocked me once when he maintained that one day we would not need police any longer, because legal standards would be so improved that all conflicts would be resolved in court.

… But I was still convinced that a political authority that can rule is necessary, because I am convinced that economic, social, cultural, and political processes all require leadership and direction. I am even convinced that strong governments are necessary, but of course, long-term governments.

Will there be a revolution? Will there be a revolution? They could not escape this question as they ate their dinner, sat together, walked, and talked in Bad-Hall-near-“his”-birthplace. Will there be a revolution?

And what would be its basis? I thought we Germans had been raised to be such passive vassals that had eradicated the individual as a subject of history. Maybe a revolution would succeed, one that was simultaneous with the fall of the Third Reich.

Maybe our military opponents, maybe the Americans and the English who were about ready to declare victory, maybe they had enough power and political might. If they did, then instead of savoring a military victory, perhaps they would be willing to come into our house and unleash a wave of liberation, liberation that would wash over our house like a bucket full of water, not like a damp cloth. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

But who should start a revolution? Who?

Otl remembered that it had not been high and mighty intellectuals or people with power and money who had overthrown Germany’s monarchy after World War I. It was a group of common sailors. “Government officials were sitting in Berlin and making plans. History was set in motion by the actions of a few unknown soldiers.”

Ah!, said Sophie. She wanted to come down on the side of history. “Revolutions came about, they were not planned. History does not record the names of the people who speculate about revolution, rather those who set it in motion. A revolution does not have to begin big. Revolutions gain momentum when there are people who are willing to begin small.”

And Otl countered, “I could not name a single person who was starting a small revolution in our day.”

* * * * * * * *

Excerpted from White Rose History, Volume II, by Ruth Hanna Sachs. (c) RHS. This excerpt is fully documented and footnoted, with credit to the proper primary sources (including Otl Aicher’s memoirs) in the book.

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