Their crime was solely to have written anti-Nazi manifestoes and the price they paid was death. The group was executed by Hitler’s state on February 22, 1943.
In the following weeks and months, several more of their comrades-in-writing, loosely organized in the White Rose group, also lost their lives to the guillotine. But the students defied the Nazis from the grave: today Hans and Sophie Scholl are global icons. Their friend Christoph Probst, who was executed with them, deserves similar recognition. Indeed, his sacrifice and that of other White Rose members is no longer a just matter of the dusty past. Once again, ordinary citizens in Europe and beyond face a brutal response from authoritarian states solely for insisting on a democratic future.
At 23, Probst was already a father of two little boys and a newborn baby girl. A student of medicine at the University of Innsbruck, he had been friends with Hans Scholl since their days at the University of Munich. Probst, who like Scholl had been drafted to serve as a Wehrmacht medic on the Eastern Front, was also a committed opponent of the Nazis who had, at a young age, married the stepdaughter of anti-Nazi theater manager Harald Dohrn.
Precisely because he had a young family, Probst stayed in the background as the White Rose wrote and disseminated anti-Nazi leaflets and painted anti-Nazi slogans on walls around Munich. In February 1943 Probst had, however, written the draft of a new leaflet — and Hans Scholl was carrying this draft in his pocket when a university janitor spotted him and Sophie spreading leaflets and called the Gestapo. Even though Hans tried to incriminate himself to deflect suspicion from Probst, the secret police soon identified Probst. Three days later, Probst and the Scholls were executed.
It may feel, in the liberal democracies of the early 21st century, that everyone has an opinion on every matter under the sun. But voicing an opinion is a different matter altogether when it comes at a price. During the war, the number of those daring to articulate views opposed to the state was so small as to practically encompass only the White Rose’s members and one of their professors, Kurt Huber. In every authoritarian country, the number of citizens who dare to voice viewpoints differing from those of the government is similarly small, because the price for doing so is extremely high. In our liberal democracies, too, there’s increasingly a price to pay for people who voice ideas differing from those promoted by self-appointed guardians of opinion. The entire purpose of cancel culture, for example, is to impose a cost on a range of democratically legitimate opinions and thus ensure that few dare to express them.
In Hong Kong, 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen was recently fined for helping organize pro-democracy protests, though the real punishment imposed on the frail priest was the process of a lengthy trial. Last year, 34-year-old Saudi graduate student and mother of two Selma al-Shebab was sentenced to 34 years in prison for retweeting posts critical of the government. Her compatriot Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani was handed a 45-year jail sentence for the crime of “using the internet to tear the social fabric” by using social media.
More ominously yet, authoritarian regimes are once again imposing severe costs on people who, like Probst, simply express the desire for more democracy. In Belarus, authorities have just sentenced journalist Andrzej Poczobut to eight years in prison and are seeking a 12-year prison sentence for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski. Some 1,400 residents of Belarus are currently imprisoned on political grounds; they also include 20-year-old student Danuta Perednya, sentenced to 6.5 years for reposting a message critical of the war in Ukraine.
In Nicaragua, Bishop Rolando Alvarez has just been sentenced to 26 years in jail for the crime of “undermining the state, spreading false news, and undermining authority.” In Cuba, Egypt, Iran, China, and other countries, brave citizens are being condemned to years behind bars for supporting democratic rights. Most have simply committed the same crime as Probst: that peacefully sharing their views with others. Most of us fancy ourselves as advocates of democracy, but I dare to bet only a tiny number of us would express such opinions if doing so incurred a cost. That makes it even more vital that we support Probst’s contemporary colleagues, those rare individuals willing to put themselves at risk for the sake of freedom and democracy.
After their execution, Probst and the Scholls were denounced by their university. Munich residents with the same last names published newspaper notices declaring they were not related. But other brave students — existing White Rose members and new ones — carried on their leafleting work. Most were executed, as was Professor Huber. The world learned of the fate of Probst and the Scholls thanks to Helmut James von Moltke, a lawyer, and member of the Kreisauer Kreis resistance group, who smuggled information to a Norwegian bishop. Moltke too was subsequently executed. In the war’s final days, Harald Dohrn was shot for the mere act of calling for capitulation to the Allies.
Like the Scholls and later the other executed members of the White Rose, Christoph Probst gave his life for a better Germany. But despite the prominence, the White Rose has achieved since the end of the war, and the importance of the trio’s executions 80 years ago, Probst has remained out of the limelight while fame has been showered on the Scholls. The first biography about him was published only two and a half years ago, and while more than 200 German schools are named after the Scholls, a mere three carry Probst’s name. To its credit, the Bundeswehr named one of its barracks after Probst on what would have been his 100th birthday.
Posthumous fame is not a competition, and the Scholls fully deserves every bit of attention their names have received. But with the commemoration of the dark events of 22 February 1943, let’s give the equally brave Probst the recognition he too merits.
Indeed, let’s give today’s numerous but little-known and little-recognized dissidents the attention and recognition they deserve. Like Probst, they merit notice and approbation for their courage – and because one day their sacrifice will reward the countries they love.
Elisabeth Braw is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges. She is also a columnist for Foreign Policy and the author of ‘The Defender’s Dilemma: Identifying and Deterring Gray-Zone Aggression’ (AEI Press, 2022) and ‘God’s Spies’ (Eerdmans, 2019), about the Stasi.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.