Cult and Commemoration: The White Rose

Secular commemoration of the White Rose resistance is widespread in Germany: schools, streets, and squares are named after individual core members of the group. ‘Commemoration’ also has a specific connotation in the practice of particular Christian denominations, regarding the officially-sanctioned cultus, or public remembering, of individuals in the life of those Churches. Such commemorations, whether promulgated or in the process of investigation, now include members of the White Rose, a group of individuals with a range of religious experience, practice, and opinions. These commemorations raise a variety of questions: when such decisions are taken, how are these people’s lives described?  In what ways are such figures instrumentalized by the groups which opt to commemorate them in this way? 

On the afternoon of Saturday 4 February 2012, as the snow lay thickly on the ground, a short ceremony of prayer for the dead took place by a graveside in the Perlacher Forst cemetery in Munich. The grave was decorated with flowers, including a bouquet of white roses. At five o’clock, a Vigil service began at the cathedral of the New Martyrs, seat of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), and the following day a gathering of Orthodox hierarchs, clergy, and laity, and invited guests from Christian denominations and other organizations celebrated the Divine Liturgy. Six years later, on Tuesday 2 January 2018, a brief article was posted to the website of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Munich-Freising, announcing the celebration of a Mass at the Jesuit church of St Michael in Munich. These two acts were the culmination and beginning, respectively, of the process of canonization, in Western Christian terminology or glorification, in Eastern Orthodox language: the means by which the name of a deceased person is inscribed in the calendar of saints in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Canonization, despite the way the term is sometimes used, does not ‘make saints’ in the theology of either of these bodies. Rather, it is understood as declaring in public, on earth, what is already the case in heaven: that a person is worthy of public veneration, and that they need no longer be prayed for, but instead their prayers can be sought. The wintry visit to the gravesite to pray the panikhida, the prayers for the dead, took place in part in order to indicate that it would no longer need to happen.

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Alexander Schmorell’s grave, Perlacher Forst cemetery, Munich.

Canonization means, literally, to include in the kanon, or rule or list. In short, a saint is a person whose name is included among the list of saints. In the Roman Catholic Church, the process by which this is to take place is given in the 2007 Instruction of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints Sanctorum Mater. In brief, it considers 1) an individual’s reputation of holiness of life, or death as a martyr, or that the individual is regarded as having interceded, after death, for graces and favours from God (i.e. miracles); 2) the authentic existence of local veneration of that individual. Articles in English from an Orthodox perspective are not infrequently critical of perceived legalism or bureaucracy in the Western process, however in Orthodoxy the path to recognition of sanctity is not so different: the two criteria are more or less the same, although the Orthodox Churches do not, in general, insist on the presence of miracles. At the instigation of the bishop of the place in which the local veneration is found, a committee of investigation is formed, under the auspices of the council or synod of bishops of a particular Church. If the synod decides to number the individual among the saints, icons are painted and special liturgical texts composed.

The two occasions described represent two stages in that wider process. The glorification or canonization of Alexander Schmorell was celebrated in Munich, taking place some months in advance of 13 July, the date of his death and, consequently, of his feast-day. He is counted among the martyrs for the manner of his death, and the approved icon shows him in a white robe wearing an armband with a red cross on it, representing his medical studies; his left hand is raised, and in his right he holds a red cross and a white rose. Prior to his canonization, and an example of the local veneration to which I have already referred, an image of Schmorell was included on the Munich cathedral’s iconostasis, the liturgical structure in front of the altar which is decorated with images of saints, some who are almost always present in such pictures, others of particular significance to the local community. Here, he is shown amidst other martyrs, wearing the same robe and holding the cross (but without armband or white rose), and without a nimbus or halo: this picture was composed in confident anticipation of his canonization. As is sometimes the case in iconography, on the iconostasis he holds a scroll with a text derived from an important sermon, letter, or other speech or text associated with a saint. Here, the words are taken from his last letter, concluding with the words ‘Do not forget God!’.

In the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Munich-Freising, the cause for the beatification of Willi Graf is ‘open’. The process of gathering testimony is underway, and is to result in the composition of a libellus, the summary of evidence to be presented by the postulator of the cause to the bishop, which contains a biography, a copy of published writings, and a list of witnesses and other experts to testify to the authenticity of Graf’s martyrdom and sanctity, ‘not omitting’, as Sanctorum Mater decrees, ‘those who could call such a reputation into question.’ The culmination of this process, were it to be ‘successful’, would be the declaration of ‘beatification’ (a distinction between beatification and canonization is not made in the Orthodox Churches). A beatus may be officially and publicly venerated, but normally only within a specific locality. A day is chosen on which their feast is kept, usually on or near to the date of death in the case of a martyr. A prayer asking for the intercession of the beatus is composed, and a text from their writings, or from writings about them, is selected to be read at the Office of Readings in the breviary or liturgy of the hours.

Canonization is an ecclesial process but is usually focussed on an individual (occasionally groups of people may be beatified or canonized together, or a number of saints and beati with individual days may be collected together, as with, for example, the Martyrs of England, each with their own local observances, commemorated nationally on 4 May). But calendars of saints (and their equivalents) have always been susceptible to becoming vehicles for the promotion of power: witness the Catholic Church’s embrace of the cult of St Thomas Becket, which popular as he was with the laity, was far from unhelpful to the ambitions of the medieval Church in England and of the papacy more widely against curtailment of privilege and power by kings and princes. And, in return, it is no accident that in 1538 Henry VIII declared that, having taken advice, he determined that Becket was not a saint, but a ‘rebel and a traitor’, and that he should consequently no longer be ‘esteemed, named, reputed, nor called a saint, but bishop Becket’, and that his images, prayers, feasts, should be ‘put out of all the books.’

Although this political and religious strife is not replicated in relation to the White Rose, nevertheless, a number of problematic points do emerge. This was a group, a circle of people, whose denominational differences of faith were, in their lives and deaths, of far less significance than their unity of purpose and intent in resistance. That the role of faith in the lives of White Rose members was important can be seen from their biographies and letters, but can certainly be over- or indeed under-played, in both religious and secular commemoration. The Scholl siblings were Lutherans, and the process of, and attitude towards, ecclesiastical commemoration is very different in Protestant and Reformed Christianity as compared with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The Augsburg Confession of 1530, one of the key confessional documents of Lutheranism, teaches that ‘the saints should be kept in remembrance so that our faith may be strengthened when we see what grace they received and how they were sustained in faith. Moreover, their good works are to be an example for us.’ Accordingly, the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD), the Evangelical Church in Germany, which is by far the largest of the Protestant bodies in the country, today maintains the Namenkalender, which is considered analogous to the Catholic and Orthodox calendars of saints, and which originated in the liturgical movements of the early 20th century. It was inevitably subject to political and other pressures, locally and nationally. Various proposed versions of this during the Third Reich included the creation of days of remembrance such as Bismarck Sunday, Schiller Sunday and Kant Sunday, and commemorative days for Horst Wessel, the recently deceased President Hindenburg, and the very much alive Adolf Hitler. The EKD gave official approval to the creation and maintenance of a Namenkalender from 1969 onwards. The avowed intention of the present-day Namenkalender is not to be a roll-call of ‘great Germans’ or anything similar. The Scholl siblings do not appear on this, though others such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer are present. It is, however, not impossible that they should one day be included: whilst the break with past instrumentalization of the calendar is clear and indubitable, the question might remain as to whether the Scholls were included with or without other White Rose members. The Namenkalender includes not just Lutherans and other Protestants, but Catholics and others, too. A case could be made for either option, though the present-day calendar includes only two twentieth-century Roman Catholics, Edith Stein (Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), d. 1942 and the priest and pacifist Max Josef Metzger, d. 1944.

In Orthodoxy and Catholicism, the role of the saints is not only to serve as good examples. Saints are understood, as the language of the present-day Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, as ‘interced[ing] with the Father for us, as they proffer the merits which they acquired on earth through the one mediator between God and men, Christ Jesus […] by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped’ (CCC 956). But interdenominational disagreement is not the only question raised by the religious commemoration of members of the White Rose. For the ROCOR community in Munich, a significant part of the commemoration of Alexander Schmorell relates to his Russian heritage: the iconostasis text from his final letter is written out in Church Slavonic, though the letter itself was composed in German. Schmorell’s father Hugo was brought up as a Lutheran; Hugo’s second wife Elisabeth was a Catholic, as were Alexander’s two half-siblings, but his mother was Orthodox, the daughter of a priest, and his Russian nanny Feodosiya Lapschina (affectionately addressed as Njanja) took him to Orthodox liturgies and taught him about the faith. Thus, the Kontakion for his feast includes the lines ‘From your mother you did inherit the love of Christ, and through the love of your care-giver you were nourished in the fear of God’. This is not to downplay the community’s veneration of Schmorell’s martyrdom or sanctity, but it shows some of the complexities inherent in this kind of religious commemoration. Beatification and canonization can highlight other fissures: Willi Graf’s cause is open in Munich, but his remains were reburied in Saarbrücken after the war. Recently, the late American cleric Fulton Sheen had a cause opened in the diocese of Peoria, Illinois, his boyhood home. Sheen had been buried in New York, and a lengthy court battle ensued between Peoria and the Archdiocese of New York concerning the transfer and reburial of his remains. No such strife appears to have arisen in relation to Graf, but the Sheen case illustrates the way in which other tensions can arise in the course of these religious proceedings.

A parallel to the Graf cause, illustrating potential complexities which might lie ahead, can be found in the beatification of the Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter in 2007. His community of origin, St Radegund in Upper Austria, had an ambivalent relationship with the man who is today its most notable son. Indeed, awareness of Jägerstätter’s fate, and of his letter in which he lays out the struggle between his religiously-informed conscience and the demands of the state, came initially from abroad, including the writings of the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton in the mid-to late 1960s. For the diocese of Linz, in which the cause was opened, the process laid bare Jägerstätter’s sadness and dismay at their 1940s predecessors’ inability or unwillingness to confront the conflict which, he believed, meant that he must die rather than obey.

I have already alluded to the ecumenical dimension inherent in religious commemoration of members of the White Rose circle, whether that is explicitly acknowledged in official religious pronouncements or not. Relations with, and attitudes towards, other Christians are regarded quite differently by the official organs of the religious bodies to which the White Rose members variously belonged, not to mention by individual members of those bodies. During the visit to Alexander Schmorell’s grave, prior to the ceremonies surrounding his glorification, the procession halted to pray at the graves of Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst. This happened, technically, while Schmorell was officially considered one of the departed in need of prayers, rather than a saint whose intercession was to be sought. Ecumenism is a subject of great controversy in a variety of Orthodox bodies, and we should be wary of reading an official standpoint in this particular case. However, the Scholls, Probst, and the others were Schmorell’s friends in life, and it would not go too far to say that those who venerate him as a martyr might consider his friends to be, in a sense, their own.

In Roman Catholicism, ecumenism is seen as part of the ‘desire to recover the unity of all Christians’ (CCC 820). In 1996, the German bishops asked Helmut Moll to compile the German Martyrology of the Twentieth Century. Based on the criteria for beatification and canonization, an ecumenical dimension was nevertheless explicitly foreseen, and, as well as the Catholics Graf, Huber, and Probst, the Scholl siblings and Alexander Schmorell are included, as well as Bonhoeffer and the Lutheran pastor Karl Friedrich Stellbrink. Though the work, now in its seventh edition, has been widely praised, others have criticized it for, among other points, perceived omissions, for being too theological at the expense of rigorous history, and for using the collected accounts of martyrs to bolster the modern view of the Catholic Church’s role during the Third Reich, downplaying the action and inaction of the many Catholics who are not included in the martyrology.

Secular commemoration of historical figures necessarily instrumentalizes them. Though the language of grace and faith is absent, there is much in common with the Augsburg Confession’s insistence on the example of their good works – more in common with that, at least, than with the idea that those after whom squares or avenues might be named could also work miracles or engage in powerful intercession after death. The trained nurse and prize-winning poet and novelist Agnes Miegel (1879-1964) had streets and schools named after her. The rediscovery after her death of what one commentator described as the ‘hysterical adulation of Hitler’ in some of her poetry meant that all the schools were subsequently renamed (one in Wilhelmshaven is now named after the journalist and anti-Nazi Marion Donhöff). Miegel’s quality as an author was not in doubt: three of her works were included in Marcel Reich-Ranicki’s Kanon lesenswerter deutschsprachiger Werke. Her politics were unacceptable. One of the advantages, perhaps, in the lengthy religious process of canonization is the opportunity carefully to uncover and consider such contrasts in an individual’s life and work. That is not to say that the process is always conducted in an unbiased way, although that is certainly the professed intention of those who have constructed it. A period of delay following an individual’s death is built into the process (though it can be waived, as was seen recently in the case of Pope John Paul II). Sometimes, a canonization process is not taken forward (that of G. K. Chesterton being a very recent example). At other times, the process may simply stall, for decades if not centuries. However, saints are not generally un-sainted, despite Henry VIII’s best efforts. In other respects, secular commemoration is much freer: the ecumenical aspects and considerations have no precise counterparts, and if Saarbrücken wants a Willi-Graf-Platz, or Gymnasium, there is no reason why Munich should not also have one. And although this scarcely applies to members of the White Rose, trends around the world, not least in Oxford itself, indicate that the historic existence of, say, a statue is not by itself justification for that statue’s continuing and future existence. It may be that, in years to come, there will be those for whom the White Rose’s message of deep-thinking and informed resistance will be unpalatable to the point of wishing to see its memory effaced. There may therefore be something to be said for those responsible for secular commemoration of whatever kind adopting the slow and methodical process to which religious commemoration at least aspires.

F17FE541-F689-45F1-89C6-4E2746C6F0C5Daniel Lloyd read Modern History and German at Merton College, Oxford, followed by a Master’s in European Literature. Following further studies in theology at Oxford, and through the Angelicum in Rome, he was ordained priest in 2012. He has been successively priest-in-charge and Parish Priest of Hinksey in the Roman Catholic diocese of Portsmouth since 2015, and is currently undertaking a PhD in the Liturgical Studies department of the Catholic Theology Faculty of the University of Vienna.