America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Remembering the White Rose

Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst Photo: Ullstein
Seventy-five years ago Thursday, a group of young German idealists, students who had dared to speak out against the Nazis, were executed by the regime they had defied. Like a flickering flame in the darkness, the White Rose, as its members called themselves, is an inspiring group that never lost its courage — and a frightening reminder of how rare such heroes are.

The group’s founder, Hans Scholl, and his sister Sophie grew up outside Munich. Their father instilled in them a strong moral compass and a religious worldview. Like many his age, Hans joined the Hitler Youth. But he began to have doubts almost immediately: The Nazis did not allow him to sing certain songs, fly certain flags or read Stefan Zweig, his favorite author. He earned a spot as a flag-bearer at the annual Nuremberg Rally and returned disturbed at what he had seen.

Hans wanted to become a doctor, and when he was drafted he was posted as a medic in France. After a tour of duty, he went back to the University of Munich to continue his medical studies. Sophie soon joined him as an undergraduate. Hans read widely — Plato, Socrates, St. Augustine and Pascal — and decorated his dorm room with Modernist French art. He attracted a circle of like-minded students: Alexander Schmorell, the son of a doctor; Christoph Probst, a young father of two toddlers; and Willi Graf, a thoughtful introvert. They soon found an intellectual mentor in Kurt Huber, a professor of philosophy and ardent believer in liberal democracy.

In the summer of 1942, Hans and his friends — inspired by the sermons of the anti-Nazi bishop of Münster — began to distribute typewritten leaflets denouncing the regime. Their language was incandescent. “Every honest German today is ashamed of his government,” Hans wrote, a government that committed “the most horrible of crimes — crimes that indefinitely outdistance every human measure.” The members of the White Rose declared that all those who stood by were complicit and implored all citizens to engage in “passive resistance” to the Nazi state.

The White Rose also addressed the atrocities against Jews. Schmorell and Hans wrote in the group’s second leaflet: “Here we see the most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of history. For Jews, too, are human beings.” No punches were pulled even when it came to the Führer: “Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie.” Sprinkled with erudite references to Goethe, Aristotle, Schiller, Ecclesiastes, Lao Tzu and others, the leaflets concluded with a plea to support the White Rose by circulating them. “We will not be silent,” ended the fourth. “We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.”

The leaflets appeared in mailboxes and phone booths between late June and mid-July 1942 and spread to sympathetic students in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berlin and Vienna. Then they stopped as Hans, Schmorell, Graf and Probst were shipped east on a day’s notice to the Russian front, where the Germans were bogged down. Yet Hans fought back against the Nazis with acts of simple humanity even as he approached the front. On his train to Russia, he saw a young Jewish girl doing hard labor, wearing the yellow Star of David mandated by the Nazis. Running from his transport, Hans handed her a chocolate bar from his rations — and a daisy for her hair.

After returning from the front, Hans and the others released two more leaflets warning that with the loss at Stalingrad, German defeat was inevitable. Declaring the preciousness of individual rights, the leaflets asked, “Are we forever to be a nation that is hated and rejected by all mankind?” Hans, Schmorell and Graf sneaked out at night and painted signs reading “Down with Hitler,” “Freedom” and other slogans on the main boulevard in Munich.

Then on Feb. 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie decided to distribute leaflets at the university, leaving stacks in corridors. As they started to leave, Sophie noticed that there were more copies in their suitcase and headed to the top of the stairs, which overlooked an atrium. She hurled the remaining leaflets in the air and watched as they drifted down the stairwell.

The maintenance man, Jakob Schmid, an ardent Nazi, was watching. He immediately locked the doors and notified the authorities. The siblings were hauled to the Wittelsbach Palace, the headquarters of the Gestapo. Soon after, Probst, whose wife had had a third child weeks before, was also arrested. The three were interrogated for several days, but they refused to implicate others.

All three were found of guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. Within hours, they were executed by guillotine. Before Hans placed his head upon the block, his final words echoed through the prison: “Long live freedom.” Within weeks, the other core members of the White Rose were apprehended and executed.

The story of the White Rose did make it to the front, where it inspired soldiers who were opposed to the regime. But the hope that its members had of inspiring their fellow citizens was not fulfilled. Their call was ignored.

“They did not seek martyrdom in the name of any extraordinary idea,” Inge Scholl recalled in her memoir of her siblings and White Rose comrades. “They wanted to make it possible for people like you and me to live in a humane society.” We are far from the darkness of fascism, but we do ourselves a service by remembering the sad but noble story of these beautiful souls on the anniversary of their tragic sacrifice.

* The New York Times "remembers" the White Rose while forgetting to mention that the co-founder of the group, Hans Scholl, was a gay man. - DPN

The execution scene from "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days". The film is a
dramatization of the final days of Sophie Scholl, one of the most famous members
of the German World War II anti-Nazi resistance movement, The White Rose.
Directed by Marc Rothemund, starring  Julia Jentsch, Fabian Hinrichs, Alexander Held.

Source: The New York Times, Opinion, Richard Hurowitz, February 21, 2018. Richard Hurowitz is an investor, writer and the publisher of The Octavian Report, a quarterly magazine of ideas.

➤ Related content: "What does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?" - Sophie Scholl

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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