Looking for inspiration in these dark and uncertain times? Willi Graf of the White Rose forged a strategy to confront unprecedented human suffering and this is how he did it.
Willi Graf (1918-1943) was a medical student and decorated combat paramedic in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. He was also a core member of the Nazi resistance group called the White Rose. By most accounts, he was an ordinary German, yet during his short life, he made a deliberate effort to surround himself with like-minded individuals who shared his humanitarian concerns, whether in person or in print. An avid reader, Graf filled his head with the insights and provocations of authors who were critical of the Nazi regime. He read the New Testament and authors from around the world, from Shakespeare and Thornton Wilder, to Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Romano Guardini. In his teenage days, he refused to join the Hitler Youth required of all boys ten and older. He distanced himself from former classmates who did and joined Catholic youth groups instead. Once the Nazis banned his youth groups, he continued to meet with them even though their activities were considered illegal. He read outlawed books and publications and in 1933, when he was fifteen years old, recorded a bible verse that shaped the rest of his young life, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves” (Letter of James 1: 22).
In 1937, Graf enrolled in medical studies at the University of Bonn, Germany. Given his interest in literature and the humanities, he would have preferred to have pursued the liberal arts. The medical curriculum, however, was less Nazified. Medicine also gave him the opportunity to help and heal once drafted in 1939. As the war scattered his friends to various military assignments, Graf became socially isolated and alone in his thoughts. He was aware of how limited his time was on earth and embraced the German concept of Bildung, or self-cultivation. He educated himself on what mattered to him in the midst of widespread evil, existential questions about truth and how to confront the world as a conscientious Christian. He intentionally carved out time for self-introspection and attended to his inner life, his most meaningful convictions. He forged a strategy to correlate his thoughts with his actions. Graf became the “doer” he had once hoped to become. He developed a well-trained tongue, a defiant will, and a critical eye to what he read and witnessed on the Russian front. As his diaries reveal, he used words sparingly in life but drew strength from the thoughtful correspondence he exchanged with friends and family whose values transcend the world. He carefully chose his words to connect with others about the senseless and horrors of war. Human connections were important to him but trustworthy conversations were precarious given the surveillance state of the Third Reich.
A man of few words, Graf sought solidarity with comrades who not only shared his humanitarian and cultural interests, but also opposed Hitler. After his first deployment on the Russian front, he was allowed to continue his medical studies as a student-soldier at Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich (LMU) in 1942. His ideals led him to the White Rose, a circle of friends and mentors who initially gathered in the evening to discuss literature. Today, they are honored for their courage and the risks they took to distribute flyers calling on their fellow Germans to resist Hitler and the Nazis. Graf’s primary role was to expand the circle. He travelled by train, often at night, with a duplicating machine and flyers to recruit friends from his former youth groups. This was extremely dangerous given these were treasonous words and he had to pass police checkpoints. As history revealed, the White Rose met its demise in spring 1943 when the core members were arrested, tried, and condemned to death.
On October 12, 1943, the day he was to be executed for high treason, Willi Graf wrote to his younger sister Anneliesefrom Stadelheim prison. His parting words were those of reassurance and comfort. He wrote that death was not the end, rather the beginning of true life. He reminded her of the concert they had attended the previous December with the other White Rose members, namely Handel’s Messiah. He told her that the aria alone gave him footing and strength, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” His favorite psalm was Psalm 90 and he asked her to think of him when praying it. Lastly, he instructed her to tell his friends that they should carry on what the White Rose began. They had used the “work of their hands,” mentioned in Psalm 90, to fight the Nazis with words printed on rationed paper. Graf didn’t ask what could be done; he asked, “What can I do?” In times like these, his words and those of the White Rose inspire hope in humanity. As Graf once wrote, “Every individual bears full responsibility.”
Stephani Richards-Wilson holds a doctorate in Education with an emphasis in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego and a PhD in German literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s highly ranked program. In 2013, she defended her second dissertation which focused on the role of Bildung in Willi Graf’s decision to resist National Socialism. Since then, she has augmented and edited her work and the manuscript is now with an American university press. Her research has been funded by Alverno College, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Holocaust Educational Foundation of Northwestern University, the University of Bonn, Marquette University, the Modern Language Association, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She was recently promoted to Associate Professor of Business and Management and is also the Faculty Director of the MBA Program. As far as she is aware, hers is the only dissertation in the English language about Willi Graf. The Archdiocese of Munich and Freising became aware of her research and in 2017, initiated an investigation into opening a cause for sainthood.