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Rosenstrasse community centre. Berlin.

See also
nonviolent resistance in wartime Norway and Denmark


The women

In 1941, another anti-church decree was introduced, this time by the Bavarian minister of education: crucifixes were to go, and prayers were to be dropped in favour of Nazi slogans and songs. Women were at the forefront of protest. Again there was mass disobedience, and a number of schools went on strike. The decree was stopped.

In February 1943, less than a week after the execution of Hans and Sophie Scholl, women were again at the heart of a demonstration, one that has only recently been recognised for its achievement. They succeeded in preventing the deportation and subsequent death of over 1,700 Jewish men.

Intermarriage of non-Jews with Jews was, of course, frowned on by the Nazis. Many planned weddings had been quickly brought forward in 1933, before they could be banned. Intermarriages up to this date were grudgingly accepted by the regime: Jewish spouses were designated ‘privileged’ and exempt from deportation. Early in 1943, however, a ‘final round-up’ was decreed, from which no Jew was meant to escape. This was the time of the defeat at Stalingrad, and of Goebbels’ call for ‘total war’.

In Berlin SS men, Gestapo and street police began seizing the city’s remaining Jews from workplaces and homes and transporting them to ‘collection centres’. Intermarried Jews were taken to the 4-storey Jewish Community centre in Rosenstrasse. The reason for singling them out was to give the impression that they were destined merely for labour camps: no need for alarm. In fact, they were all meant for Auschwitz.

Most of the Jews packed into the Rosenstrasse centre were men, husbands of non-Jewish women, and it was these women who rapidly began to pack the street outside: 600 on the first day, and as many as 6,000 over the following week. Night and day, in shifts, disappearing when threatened with gunfire, reappearing soon after, they maintained their strong and noisy presence, calling reassurances to their men and keeping up a chant of ‘We want our husbands back’. For the first time these women, who had endured a decade of harassment, hardship and abuse because they’d married Jews, were able to acknowledge their status openly, shoulder to shoulder. In a few days they were joined by others who had no imprisoned relatives, but were there simply to support them. On March 6, the men were released. Even the 30 or so who had already reached Auschwitz were sent home (after debriefing to ensure that they took back good reports of it).

This was the only mass protest against the deportation of Jews, and it was successful. The question arises: could a more organised, more substantial nonviolent resistance have saved many more lives? It’s a question hard to address, and especially hard in Germany.

Remembrance now

So it would be constructive, when remembering the historic courage of men and women in the midst of Nazi Germany, to find ways of keeping that question open in Europe today. Not to tug at old wounds, but to prevent new ones.

In 1987, some surviving White Rose members established the White Rose Foundation in Munich. In July 2001 it launched a campaign for ‘tolerance and human rights’ particularly in Germany’s eastern cities where foreigners have been attacked in recent years.

In 1997, the Catholic Church in France apologised for its 1930s failure to act as a whole to ‘block the irreparable’ and condemn anti-Jewish laws. That single individuals had condemned them was not, they admitted, enough.

In 2000, attacks on Jewish synagogues and memorials caused the leader of Germany’s central Council of Jews to wonder ‘if it was right to build up the Jewish community in Germany again’. The end of the century saw crowds once more filling Berlin’s streets in anti-Nazi protest: neo-Nazis in Germany have claimed over 100 victims since 1990, and racism is again – still – a problem and a threat. Resistance, to be successful, must spring where the roots of war and violence are, giving them no chance to grow or spread. At home, in Germany, anywhere, it’s the free person’s duty to recognise those roots, and resist them. Nonviolently, and now. Isn’t this what remembrance should be for?


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