Imagine it’s 1942 on Instagram. Picture yourself, for a brief moment, following individuals during the Second World War through the lens of your social media feed, swiping through and commenting on posts as in contemporary times. Have you ever wondered which influencer you would follow, what the past social media landscape would have looked like?
I am Sophie Scholl!
If so, two German public broadcasters, namely the Südwestrundfunk and the Bayrischer Rundfunk did precisely that. On the occasion of Sophie Scholl's 100th birthday, their Instagram project Ich bin Sophie Scholl (“I am Sophie Scholl”) was conceived to “bring the resistance fighter out of the history books and into the media lives of young people'', leveraging social media as a tool of history telling. Available on the Instagram channel @ichbinsophiescholl, 21-year-old Sophie Scholl, played by actress Luna Wedler, allowed her followers to dive into the last ten months of her life: close, emotionally binding, and recreated in real time.
Who was Sophie Scholl?
Within Europe, Sophie Magdalena Scholl is certainly not the most prominent resistance fighter, yet her story is one of relentless courage and bravery. A key member of theWhite Rose (“Die Weiße Rose”), a student resistance group at the University of Munich, Sophie and her fellow insurgents distributed leaflets and applied graffiti to publicly foster discontent against the Nazi crimes and the totalitarian political system they could no longer endure. On February 22nd, 1943, at the age of a mere 21 years, Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans, were beheaded for high treason.
Born in Ulm, as the fourth child of a large upper-middle class in the South of Germany, Sophie and her brother had not always been fierce opponents of the Nazi Regime. Captivated by the Nazi’s public indoctrination and propaganda machine, they were both members of their respective Nazi youth organisations during their childhood. Succumbing – as many – to the perverse National Socialist ideology, Sophie joined the League of German Girls (“Bund Deutscher Mädel”). Her father, Robert Scholl, however, was a vivid yet discrete critic of Nazism and observed the rise of Adolf Hitler with awakening apprehension and dread. Firmly grounded in Christian traditional values, his beliefs eventually impinged upon his children, Sophie and Hans.
On Sophie’s hungry, insatiable soul
As the Second World War broke out on September 1st, 1939, Sophie’s life was thrown into turmoil. After she graduated from school in 1940, she desired, later on, to study biology and philosophy. After being admitted to the University of Munich, she was forced to work for the National Labour Service (“Reichsarbeitsdienst”) in order to effectively begin her studies. As historical sources demonstrate, she felt repelled by the industry of a war she deemed unrighteous.
Remarking that her “soul was hungry”, her distrust towards the regime grew. Surrounded by a field of indoctrinated academia, she resorted to forbidden literature to sate her hunger for truth. After her brother Hans and her boyfriend Fritz Hartnagel were both recruited for the Eastern Front, Sophie quickly learned about the atrocities committed in Russia and Poland from first-hand – her initiation. Henceforth, inaction had become unbearable.
Students! The German people look at us!
Progressively building a comprehensive network across Germany, the White Rose sent six pamphlets to thousands of households in Germany, appealing to their national conscience to sow the seeds of a hitherto inexistent and weak German resistance. Their last pamphlet read: “The German name will remain forever tarnished unless finally the German youth stands up, pursues both revenge and atonement, smites our tormentors, and finds a new intellectual Europe. Students! The German people look at us! The responsibility is ours: just as the power of the spirit broke the Napoleonic terror in 1813, so too will it break the terror of the National Socialists in 1943.”
In January 1943, the White Rose gained momentum: its activism had begun to spark discussions amongst peers, and more ties to underground resistance groups were forged. As historians posited, it seemed, back then, that change was bound to occur imminently as Germany’s war machine proved impotent to publicly uphold its propaganda of victorious glory: indeed, dissent grew across the country and the Nazi’s defeat at Stalingrad at the Eastern Front fostered resistance.
Monument to Hans and Sophie Scholl and the "White Rose" (German: Die Weiße Rose) resistance movement against the Nazi regime, in front of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Bavaria, Germany. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The White Rose’s end
Yet, the operations of the White Rose ended abruptly as they were denounced by what was certainly a partisan janitor. Arrested by the Gestapo, Germany’s infamous political police force, and sentenced to death, Sophie and Hans Scholl assumed all the responsibility of their actions during the arduous interrogations they were subjected to, with the heroic intent to prevent the death of their peers – in vain.
Sophie’s lucid courage
Sophie’s trial at the People’s Court, presided by Roland Freisler, constituted once again an honourable proof of her courage: when confronted with the question whether her actions would constitute a crime against the community, she lucidly replied: “I am, now as before, of the opinion that I did the best that I could do for my nation. I therefore do not regret my conduct and will bear the consequences that result from my conduct.”
Sophie and Hans Scholl on the day they were arrested by the Gestapo.
Why Germany venerates Sophie Scholl
As Maren Gottschalk, one of the most prominent biographers of the resistance fighter, posited, it is Sophie Scholl’s innate courage that renders her character so intriguingly fascinating: She could have survived, succumbed to inaction as many latent critics of the Nazi Regime did, and yet, she decided not to. Compelled to act upon the imperatives of her conscience, her inner belief of justice and human virtue, she deliberately, rather than naively, accepted to die for her sense of morality. In this vein, she was a young woman who ceased to yield, to make compromises on ideals she deemed unnegotiable.
The radically subjective Sophie Scholl
Yet, Sophie’s heroic actions are certainly not the ones that were most portrayed in I am Sophie Scholl.
Users were much rather encountering the “radically subjective” perception of her everyday life in Munich, 1942: her move to university, her friendships, her first love, her service to the forced labour industry, thereby shedding light on the individual under the ruthless regime of the National Socialists.
For many young people, sick of text-based, lengthy lessons on the 1940s at school, the subject of history will seldom have been this tangible. Facilitating the comprehension of historical sources through means of Instagram posts, stories, or even polls, this project presents a unique approach to sensitise the European youth on the continent’s sinister fascist party. From comments below pictures directly addressed to the resistance fighter, to questions about certain historical events entailed in the show, users were allowed to immediately interact with Europe’s past with a tool of their habitat, namely social media.
Humanising the Hero – Sophie Scholl personalised
In this vein, Instagram was utilised as a tool to humanise the revered resistance fighter, the admired beacon of opposition in Nazi Germany: Through story posts, selfies, videos, and photos, Sophie Scholl here shared not only her operations at the White Rose, yet also her very personal aspirations and troubles, her ideals and doubts amid the Second World War. And though placed in the history of the Nazi Regime, the questions she addresses remain pertinent to this very day: what are the attributes that characterise society? How do we ought to define the notions of justice, freedom, and solidarity, and their interference with other’s beliefs?
How writers leveraged social media
Writers of the Instagram channel derived the content from the letters and notes Sophie Scholl wrote herself from the end of 1937 to her execution. The objective: provide an unprecedented insight into her everyday life. Instagram here gained salience as it excels in emotionalising content. As the directors of I am Sophie Scholl assessed, this project inevitably opened the door for a novel, modernised way of conveying historical insights to the young.
Historian Ms. Gottschalk emphasised that, “as biographers, we always try to portray Sophie Scholl as a human rather than lifeless statute from history.” Admitting that it was impossible to remain truly historical while imagining Sophie Scholl as a social media influencer, the project had the intent to elaborate historical data with fictitious devices that, despite not being factually proved, remained a plausible interpretation of her subjective perception.
Vivid critics in Germany
Public opinion in Germany about the project that ended on February 18th, was hardly unambiguous. For many critics, there lies an insidious danger in conflating historical analysis with fictitious screenwriting, albeit scrutinised by historians for plausibility. In an era of fake news and disinformation, the channel’s distinction between historic reality and views-attracting content was neglected. That, according to critics, plunged Germany’s collective memory of arguably its most famous resistance fighter against the Nazi regime into a perilous context: if fact-based restrictions on history telling are eased, some raised the question, where does it end? There should not be a dichotomy, a trade-off between factuality and the intent to spread awareness about historical data.
Upholding the legacy of Sophie Scholl
As anti-vax movements disseminated the narrative of Germany being an authoritarian state during the pandemic, spreading distrust and discontent, the notion of factuality is certainly a pertinent one. Today’s protesters, having drawn appalling historical comparisons with Sophie Scholl and other former dissidents, are an alarming sign that Germany’s collective memory is fading. Inevitably, accuracy and factuality are necessary conditions to revive the latter.
Yet, exploiting history to spread misinformation should not be conflated with modern storytelling. The project I am Sophie Scholl is certainly a tightrope walk for producers to not derogate from historical data insofar it reflects historical realities. However, in the face of a progressively disappearing remembrance culture amongst the youth to uphold the truths about Germany’s past in Europe, I am Sophie Scholl has been a flagship project to target young and uninformed people effectively, to emotionalise content, not to the detriment of verity, but for the sake of historical responsibility. Let us hope that this is merely the first of myriads of projects to come, that will modernise educational tools in history telling.