October 15, 2018

Sophie’s Choice: A Brief Reflection

History is made by the best of us and the worst of us over the heads of the rest of us.

Philosopher longshoreman, Eric Hoffer, was the author of the above quote, which struck me the first time I read it. It does seem that that is the way the world truly works.

Good people and bad people work out their fates in public while most of us pay only partial attention. We are too busy paying the mortgage and keeping our career paths on track.

But every now and then, someone unexpected steps out of the shadows, out of the crowd and does something surprising and transformative.

Someone like Sophie Scholl.

Sophie Scholl was a German college student during the Second World War. In 1943, she – along with her brother and others – were caught distributing anti-Nazi flyers in Munich. They were interrogated, publicly tried and almost immediately executed.

The Germans made a film about Sophie back in 2005. The title is Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. It is in German with English sub-titles and available in full on You Tube.

I suggest you watch it when you can find some time. It is quite well done… and riveting.

Every semester, I ask my undergraduate Leadership students at San Diego State to watch it and write a reflection piece about it afterward. They are universally stunned by the story and deeply thoughtful about both its meaning and the question of how they might have acted if they’d been in Sophie’s place.

We were discussing the film just last week in class and – after quite a bit of interesting dialogue – I showed them a short video of Traudl Junge, Adolph Hitler’s personal secretary in 1945, as she reflected on her own behavior during that time. Junge had thought of her younger self as uninformed and innocent. Then, one day, she walked past the memorial to Sophie and her collaborators in the Franz Josef Strasse and noticed that she and Sophie had been born in the same year and that Sophie had been executed in the same year that Junge had begun working for Hitler. “And at that moment I actually sensed that it was no excuse to be young, and that it would have been possible to find things out.”


It is easy for us to criticize the Germans of the 1930’s and 40’s. We know what happened. We have the benefit of deep hindsight and can today research the rise of Hitler and the Nazi’s and tell ourselves that the outcome – now known and recorded in the history books – was always clear and catastrophic and should have been foreseen.

But, if you were a German in 1933, what could you have really anticipated with any accuracy?

Probably not very much.

Like most of us today, you would have been worried about your job as the Depression slowly unwound, and your children and your rent payments. You would trust your own government by a sort of loyal default and look askance at all the others, especially your recent enemies who had worked so hard to make your lives so miserable.

You would be proud that at last someone was speaking up for Germany and making it “great again.”

And you would not be inclined to dig too deeply into what your armies were up to beyond your borders.

After all, what could go wrong?