How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?

—The last words of Sophie Scholl, beheaded for treason against the Nazi regime

The schools generally do a poor job of teaching their students about the history of resistance against tyranny. Not that they fail to bring up the subject at all, of course. One will learn about the Revolutionary War against the tyranny of the British Crown. They will learn that the Civil War was fought against the tyranny of chatel slavery the South. World War One will be portrayed as a war against European monarchy; World War Two as a fight against fascism. Eventually the history textbooks will discuss Gandhi’s struggle against the British Raj in India, and the Civil Rights Movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in the US. Whether the teaching goes either further or deeper than that is, unfortunately, a matter of how far the teacher is willing to depart from the curriculum.

So it was not until years after I had graduated from high school that I learned about resistance to the Nazi regime that did not involve the militaries of the Allied powers. In fact, I grew up thinking that everyone in Germany during WWII was a Nazi, all equally guilty of the crimes of the Blitzkrieg and the Holocaust (an implicit lesson that schools, whether deliberately or by accident, rarely fail to teach). I learned during my first year of college about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who preached resistance to the Nazi Regime, helped to found the dissenting Christian peace movement called the Confessing Church, and who, after a long struggle with his pacifist convictions, got involved in the failed July 20th plot to assassinate Hitler. He was hanged for that involvement two weeks before Berlin fell to the Allies.

My interest piqued, I began to casually study the subject of internal anti-Nazi resistance on my own. I learned about Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, another member of the July 20th Plot. Fr. Bernhard Lichtenberg, who died in prison after denouncing the Nazi eugenics program and early mistreatment of Jews, and for publicly praying for the safety of the Jewish people in Germany. Pastor Martin Niemöller, another Confessing Church founder, who is known for his poem, First They Came…

I only learned recently of another resistor who, in my opinion, is tragically unknown and uncelebrated: Sophie Scholl. And I find much of what she had to say to be intensely relevant today, including the very words with which I opened this article, spoken by her in the moments before she was murdered by the state. Scholl was as much a critic of those who passively tolerated the national government as she was of the government itself, as her most well-known sayings reveal.

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. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.

Much can be made of the apathy of the people at large in any nation with an abusive government (but I repeat myself with that phrase!). In 1576, French jurist and diplomat Étienne de La Boétie published The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, the central argument of which was that all regimes, no matter how powerful, ultimately rely upon the tacit consent of an unresisting populace. That idea was reflected in the Declaration of Independence: that “all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms [of government] to which they are accustomed.” The history of civil disobedience has proven that when enough people are willing to challenge claims of authority and to say “no” to those who make them, change happens; and that civil disobedience is far more effective than violent revolt. Yet most people seem to unquestioningly accept claims of authority as though they were validated by the force with which they are made, and few are willing to stand up to them.

Is the tolerance of a people for abusive government, then, explained by apathy? Yes, to some extent; but the nonresistance against tyranny that people like Sophie Scholl confronted, I believe, is as much a matter of ignorance as it is of apathy. To start with, most victims of every kind of abuse tend to resist acknowledging (to themselves as well as to others) that they are abused, as modern psychology has established. This is true in personal relationships (“My parents beat the hell out of me for no good reason, and I turned out okay!”), and it scales up perfectly through social groups (such as the acceptance of “hazing” as a socially acceptable form of bullying), into government, where we find people stubbornly failing to acknowledge that there could ever be a way of “getting things done” that does not involve the constant and indiscriminate threat of force against our neighbors.

And with regard to the future, few are aware of the danger of allowing political power to grow unchecked (which danger, I believe, is carefully concealed by the mythologized version of history that most school students receive).

Those voices that would have the most effect if they were given to dissent usually belong to people who see no need for dissent. An upper-middle class WASP regarded as a “pillar of the community” is not likely to see anything wrong with the statistically obvious abuse of minorities by the police and the courts, much less speak out against it. Why should he care if eight hundred thousand nonviolent drug offenders are in prison? After all, he doesn’t do drugs himself (not counting, of course, alcohol and a few prescription narcotics). And even if he does, he isn’t likely to be searched by police… unless he draws attention to himself. Principled resistance to war is absent from mainstream media, and even token resistance is rarely taken seriously. The denigration of conscientious objection and whistleblowing is downright trendy among those with respectable, stable lifestyles.

The average “good citizen” knows enough to believe that he risks nothing if he goes along to get along, and has much to lose if he offers meaningful resistance to the systemic problems he happens to notice. But he does not not know enough to be aware that the state’s appetite for violence will not stop, ultimately, at the borders of his neighborhood; that eventually, those who loosen Leviathan’s reins will find its head turned towards themselves. Such people do not consider Niemöller’s warning to apply to themselves: that when one will not speak up for others, there will be none left to speak up for one’s self. Nor will people ever learn that, if we rely upon the government’s education system to inform them about their relationship to government power.

Sophie Scholl’s life is a beautiful and heartbreaking example of resistance in what would appear to many to be a hopeless cause; of a willingness to risk everything because, in the final balance, the cost of not speaking out against great evil is greater than the cost of suffering the wrath of that evil. Or in her own words:

An end in terror is preferable to terror without end.

Sophie and her brother, Hans, were arrested for distributing anti-war pamphlets, and mere hours later beheaded for high treason. Thus, their story is also an example of what must inevitably result from the apathy and ignorance of the people towards the growth of political power and the doctrines that support it in their own society. If people had listened to the message of Bonhoeffer, Niemöller, and Scholl, they would never have had to stand alone, and ultimately die alone, for the cause of peace. Yet the people of Germany, like most Americans today, preferred to believe that there was nothing dangerous about their regime; and that if there was, the danger would never be their own.

Perhaps we who would resist power and its supporting doctrines should look to Scholl and those like her as our models. We should teach our children that they are what true resistance to evil looks like, rather than glorifying government’s tendency to fight evil with evil of its own, wearing a different uniform. Heaven knows they will almost certainly learn no such thing in their classrooms. And most importantly, we must teach by example. We must cease to fear the risk of dissent, because we know that the price of apathy is, ultimately, total. We need to be willing to disrupt our comfortable, “respectable” lifestyles. We need nothing less than to propose radical alternatives to the state’s relentlessly coercive “solutions” to the problems we face, and live them out in our daily lives. We, like Sophie Scholl, must choose our own way to burn.

May it be far too bright to escape notice.