Table of content
Willi's Childhood and Family Life 1918 to 1933
A Teenage Boy in the 1930s
Medical Student, Soldier, and Resistance Fighter
In the Hands of the Gestapo: Arrest, Prison and Death, February 18, 1943 to October 12, 1943
Bibliography: Selected Reading List and Internet Sources
“ Not: Something must be done. But: I must do something.” Willi Graf in a letter to his sister from the Eastern front in February 1942 The story of the young medical student Willi Graf is the story of unwavering and uncompromising Christian faith and of a young man following his own conscience facing down evil at the risk of his own life. In his early twenties he was confronted with the question of how to keep up Christian values of compassion and kindness in the midst of murder and inhumanity.
Willi Graf was one of the members of the White Rose, a student resistance group at the University of Munich against the Nazi dictatorship in 1942 and beginning of 1943. The history of the White Rose has been subject to a multitude of scholarly and popular books.1 The legacy of these courageous young people is the mission of the White Rose Foundation in Munich with world-wide exhibitions. However, the narrative of the charismatic siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl has partly overshadowed the story of other resistance fighters in this group. Willi Graf’s contributions are for example not as well-known, especially not outside of Germany. Graf was a quiet, reflective and unassuming young man. But in contrary to the siblings Scholl, Willi Graf opposed the Nazi ideology from beginning on. Graf was also the only one who was strongly motivated and guided by Catholicism.
Willi’s Childhood and Family Life 1918 to 1933
Willi’s childhood was harmonious and sheltered.2 He was born on January 2nd, 1918 as the son of a devout Catholic family in Saarbrücken, a mid-sized town at the western border of Germany, near France. Willi’s family lived in financially comfortable circumstances with his father managing a flourishing wine wholesale company. The Grafs had a loving, caring and warmhearted relationship with each other up to the very end of Willi’s life. Willi felt especially close to his younger sister Anneliese, who shared his Christian world view. They were convinced, that a decent human being must follow his or her own conscience and must oppose evil. In contrast to the politically active Scholl family, Willi’s parents were unpolitical and centered in their faith. Their son joined the Catholic boys’group‘Bund Neudeutschland’, a church organization which was later banned by the Nazis, whose ideology represented the exact opposite of Christian love of one’s neighbor. The Nazis resented Christianity with its emphasis on compassion for the weak, poor and sick. This was not compatible with the Master race ideology, where the strong recklessly claims power and pursues his agenda. The Nazi’s ultimate aim was to abolish the Catholic and Lutheran Church in Germany and replace the historically grown churches with one single German Church tailored to serve the racial supremacy of the Nazi state.
A Teenage Boy in the 1930s
Willi was a serious, intellectually minded teenager, thinking about the deep questions of life, studying Christian thinkers. He read Romano Guardini, the leading figure of liturgical revival of the Catholic Church. His exceptionally mature thinking at a young age might explain, why he was one of the few members of the White Rose, who were opposed to Nazism right from the start. He was not drawn in, as some of the others, by the appeal of the official Nazi youth organization HJ (Hitler Youth or Hitlerjugend), which was geared towards attracting young people to nationalistic ardor through collective experiences in sports and games. Willi refused to join the official youth organization and became instead a member of the Grauer Orden (Gray Order), an illegal young men’s Christian group.
In 1937 he passed the rigorous German University entrance exam. After this he had to join the RAD, the obligatory paramilitary six-month labor service for young men in Hitler’s Germany. In November of the same year at the age of 19 he started medical school at the University of Bonn, the path to a profession to which he was exceptionally well suited.
Medical Student, Soldier, and Resistance Fighter
In January 1938, when he was just 20 years old, Willi was arrested by the Gestapo, the notorious and feared secret police of the Nazi regime, because of his membership with the illegal Catholic Youth group‘ Grauer Orden’. He had to spend three weeks in prison.3 In January 1940, one year into the second World War, the young medical student was drafted into the German army as a student soldier and medic. For two years Graf saw action in Poland, France, Belgium, the Balkans, and Russia. During his deployment he witnessed the brutality of the Nazi war machine, including the abominable conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto and the dehumanizing treatment of the Jews in occupied Poland. His letters to his sister Anneliese document his shock and horror at the suffering of war. His army files noted, that his care of the wounded and sick was“ exemplary”. The chief medical officer, Dr. Webel, stated that Graf“showed himself as an intrepid medic who never thought about his own safety.”4
In April 1942 the 24-year old Graf was permitted to continue medical school as a member of the 2nd Munich Student Company at the University of Munich. This became the decisive turning point in the young man’s life. It was in Munich that he met three exceptional young men like himself, all medical students and all three drawn to each other by their dislike and abhorrence of Nazi ideology and Nazi crimes in occupied Europe. Hans Scholl, Christoph Probst, and Alexander Schmorell were the key figures of this student resistance group, which was named the“White Rose”, a name chosen by Hans Scholl, which became a symbol for freedom. Willi Graf joined their dangerous endeavor to oppose the totalitarian Nazi regime with Hitler, the Fü hrer at the top in a position of absolute unchecked power. It was now Graf in addition to Scholl, Probst and Schmorell, who formed the inner core of the resistance.
The four young men met at night, composed, mailed, and distributed mass quantities of leaflets. These leaflets called very emphatically for passive resistance, based on the moral duty of every honest German to remove Hitler and the Nazis. The following passage of the fourth leaflet from 1942 is very clear about the question of conscience and responsibility of every German to resist the horrendous crimes of war and genocide:
We wish expressly to point out that the White Rose is not in the pay of any foreign power. Though we know that National Socialist power must be broken by military means, we are trying to achieve a renewal from within of the severely wounded German spirit. This rebirth must be preceded, however, by the clear recognition of all the guilt with which the German people have burdened themselves, and by an uncompromising battle against Hitler and his all too many minions, party members, Quislings, and the like. With total brutality the chasm that separates the better portion of the nation from everything that is opened wide. For Hitler and his followers there is no punishment on this Earth commensurate with their crimes.
But out of love for coming generations we must make an example after the conclusion of the war, so that no one will ever again have the slightest urge to try a similar action. And do not forget the petty scoundrels in this regime; note their names, so that none will go free! They should not find it possible, having had their part in these abominable crimes, at the last minute to rally to another flag and then act as if nothing had happened! To set you at rest, we add that the addresses of the readers of the White Rose are not recorded in writing. They were picked at random from directories. We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace! 5
Next to their underground activity, the young people lived a full of life. Graf for example loved nature, animals, long-distance running, and fencing practice. He smoked cigars, drank wine and liquor with his friends, talked about world literature, philosophy and classical music. All of the members of the White Rose loved to visit concerts in Munich, a town known for its rich tradition of classical music.
And of course Hans, Willi, Alex and Christoph were enrolled at the University of Munich up to February 1943. They attended seminars, clinics and studied numerous medical textbooks.
The circle of the White Rose widened in summer 1942 to dozens of people, among them the sister of Hans, Sophie Scholl, and friends like Traute Lafrenz6 from Hamburg, who built a connection of the Munich student group to a like-minded opposition group of young people in her Northern home town. The four young men at the center of the resistance were tight-lipped about most of their activities, in order not to endanger the lives of others. Hans’sister Sophie, however, insisted in taking part in the distribution of leaflets together with her brother.
From July to the end of October 1942, Graf had to serve again in a medical field internship at the embattled Eastern front, which further increased his determination to resist the Nazi war machine. This time he served together with two of his friends, Hans and Alex. The latter was the son of a well-established medical doctor in Munich and a Russian mother, who died during the Russian Civil War when Alex was two.7 Alex grew up bilingually and spoke Russian fluently. He helped both Hans and Willi to come to understand the population in the occupied part of Russia better. Later, in April 1943, when Alex was tried for treason by the Nazi judge Roland Freisler, who was notorious for his vicious rages, this young man had the enormous courage to make the public statement in court that he would neither shoot Germans nor Russians. The common front experience of Willi and his two friends established the principles of their active resistance against the Nazis. Willi, who was motivated by his deep conviction that he personally had to do something, found in Hans and Alex compatible friends, who shared his belief in personal responsibility. These men differed decisively from his former circle of devout Catholic friends, who were convinced that any form of resistance activity against the Nazis and their brutal method of suppressing opponents, was impossible.
When Willi, Hans and Alex returned from the Eastern front in Fall 1942, they increased the underground activities against the Nazis. Six leaflets were distributed within nine months. A good number of the people who received or found these leaflets informed the Nazi authorities. The Gestapo took this act of defiance very seriously and investigated frantically from the first detection of an opposition group on. They analyzed the reported leaflets thoroughly and came to the conclusion, that they dealt here with intellectuals, who cited classics, philosophy and history. Intellectuals are exactly the group any dictatorship feels uneasy about. Their trained critical thinking is capable of detecting lies in propaganda and they are also capable of opposing the regime in a methodical and systematic way.
Willi’s main role was to function as recruiter in other cities in Germany like Cologne, Bonn, Freiburg and his home town of Saarbrücken. He distributed thousands of anti-Nazi leaflets into mailboxes or mailed them to specific addresses in post offices. Using the official Munich telephone directory, the leaflets were also mailed to individuals across Munich. The first leaflet from 1942 ended with the statement:
“Do not forget that every nation deserves the government it endures.”
Within nine months six leaflets were distributed by the members of the White Rose. Two young women, Sophie Scholl and Traute Lafrenz, took part in the distribution of leaflets.
In December 1942 Graf was part of the discussions to formulate the fifth leaflet. In February 1943 Graf, Scholl and Schmorell went out at night and painted freedom slogans like“Down with Hitler” on walls around the university and the Munich city center. During this time Willi helped to produce the sixth and last leaflet of the“ White Rose” just before they were caught.
The turn of the year 1942 to 1943 was the time of the Battle of Stalingrad with the breakdown of the German army in February 1943. The traumatic events in Russia bewildered the German population, who was brainwashed by Goebbel’s propaganda machine in the illusion of final German victory. The defeat in Stalingrad encouraged the resistance movements in German-occupied areas in Europe like in France and Poland. It also initiated a new leaflet of the White Rose in Munich, whose members saw this turning point in war as exactly the right time to instigate the German people to resist.
1 Extended bibliography on the website of the White Rose Foundation in Munich (Weiße Rose Stiftung München) under the link: http://www.weisse-rose-stiftung.de/fkt_buecher.php?aktion=cs&ma=cs&c_id=mamura&topic=004&mod=3&page=1&lang=de, Access May 5, 2016. For a limited selection of English titles on the White Rose please see the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum under the following link: https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007188, Access November 16, 2016.
2 Willi’s parents were Anna and Gerhard Graf. Alex had two sisters.
3 Biographical overview at the website of the White Rose Foundation at the University of Munich: http://www.weisse-rose-stiftung.de/fkt_standard2.php?aktion=ls&ma=cs&c_id=mamura&id=08461463&page=1&topic=013&mod=2&lang=de?aktion=cs&ma=cs&c_id=mamura&topic=013&mod=14&page=1&lang=de, Access July 17, 2016.
4 www.gravestone.com/people/graf-willi/, Access July 3, 2016.
5 Source: Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team (H.E.A.R.T) at www.HolocaustResearchProject.org Leaflets of the White Rose accessible through: http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/revolt/wrleaflets.html, Access January 6, 2017. Translation from German to English by Hermann Feuer as stated on the website of USHMM.
6 Frau Lafrenz survived war and imprisonment during the Nazi time. She emigrated to the United States after the war, where she became a successful medical doctor and educator. See also: Peter Normann, Es lebe die Freiheit. Traute Lafrenz und die Weisse Rose, 2012.
7 Alexander Schmorell’s mother Natalia Vedenskaya died of typhus during the Russian Civil War. His widowed father moved to Munich with his family, where Alexander had a Russian nanny. Recently in 2012 Alexander was sanctified by the Russian Orthodox Church. For further details please see the biographical overview at the website of the White Rose Foundation: http://www.weisse-rose-stiftung.de/fkt_standard2.php?aktion=ls&ma=cs&c_id=mamura&id=08102982&page=1&topic=013&mod=2&lang=de?aktion=cs&ma=cs&c_id=mamura&topic=013&mod=14&page=1&lang=de, Access date: July 25, 2016.