I was really excited when I first heard about “Freiheit! The White Rose Graphic Novel,” in part because it’s a part of World War II history that I’ve been interested in, but haven’t had the opportunity to read much about. I’d previously read several short articles about Sophie Scholl—one of the book’s lead protagonists—but they had been sparse with the details about her involvement with a larger group, making her seem like a lone martyr figure. I hadn’t even heard the name “White Rose” until I picked up this graphic novel, which, I think, makes the book all the more important and timely given the importance of history in resisting fascism.
The book is very engaging and pulls you into the story immediately right in the middle of the action with Sophie and her brother Hans dropping a stack of leaflets down from the top floor a building into the main hall, before jumping back to a flashback that shows you how everything began, how a small group of friends (Sophie and Hans Scholl, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell and Willi Graf) eventually became the White Rose.
The story then moves quickly, following Sophie, into her discovery of her brother’s and their other friends involvements with the White Rose, and how they continue that through their military service, until they are eventually caught. Despite how quickly things move, it doesn’t feel in anyway rushed. The book has a very artistic flow to it, there’s no real background exposition to speak of, drawing your focus to the art, dialogue and the limited quotations the serve as background for various scenes.
My particular favorite quotation used is the English translation of the song “Die Gedaken sind frei,” (“Thoughts are Free”), that is overlaid on a scene of Sophie working in an ammunitions factory.
I will say I was a touch confused by that scene as I wasn’t entirely sure of what I was supposed to take away from it. It’s a lovely scene and gorgeously illustrated, as is the whole book, but it wasn’t clear to me if it was meant to imply that Sophie was doing sabotage work. There is discussion earlier in about encouraging sabotage in their leaflets alongside passive resistance, so I had wondered if this was tying into that, but I can’t say I know for sure since there’s no background exposition to explain the scene. I think some added points of additional exposition would have been nice, but as a narrative the story does hold up just fine without them.
Something that I’ve always found true when it comes to World War II studies is how angry and upset and heartbroken I feel when presented with personal narratives, be they biographical or autobiographical. That emotional pull is something that “Freiheit!” does incredibly effectively. There is an incredible amount of characterization for such a short book, we see Sophie living her life as a regular student, we see Christoph with his wife and children, we see the Scholl family’s response to their father being arrested, and you know through all of it how it’s going to end. Arrest and execution.
But the book doesn’t leave you on a sad note, it ends on a hopeful one, with the fact that the British took the final pamphlet produced by the White Rose and used airplanes to drop 5 million copies across German cities. This drives home that what the White Rose did mattered and, especially in todays day and age, that activism matters. Not everyone can make the sort of sacrifices that the White Rose did, but what they preached, passive resistance against a terrible “norm” is something anyone can do.