In June 1942 a group of students at the University of Munich led by brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl formed the nonviolent White Rose resistance to Nazi terror. Theirs is the best-known of many anti-Nazi resistance groups that sprung up in Germany during the war. However, their heroic effort ended just eight months later with their arrest in February 1943. They and one of their collaborators were executed by guillotine four days following a show trial. The story of the White Rose has occasioned a number of books, three films, a play, a chamber opera, and many other portrayals in the media. The most recent of these is the novel The Traitor by V. S. Alexander.
The Traitor by V. S. Alexander (2020) 352 pages
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Characters both historical and fictional
The novel hews closely to the historical record in many respects. However, as Alexander explains in an Author’s Note, he had decided not to force words into the mouths of Hans or Sophie Scholl or any of their other real-life colleagues. Thus the narrator, Natalya Petrovich, framed as an active member of the White Rose, is fictional, as is Lisa Kolbe, a fellow student who serves as her foil in dialogue. And Alexander portrays Natalya as surviving not just long imprisonment by the Nazis but for many years following the war as well.
Quixotic anti-Nazi resistance in Germany
As a child, Natalya had fled Stalin’s brutal regime in 1929. Now, as the novel opens in 1942, she is a naturalized German citizen and studying biology at the University of Munich. When her best friend, Lisa, asks her to attend a student party with her, she reluctantly agrees. And there she meets Hans and Sophie and several other members of the White Rose. Soon, she is drawn into their quixotic campaign to write and print leaflets and mail them anonymously to random German citizens throughout the Reich.
Illustrating conditions in Germany under Nazi rule
In the novelist’s version of the tale, the Gestapo stumbles upon the conspiracy when Lisa and Natalya veer off plan when mailing leaflets in Nuremberg. Not long afterward, Hans and Sophie are arrested, as are other principals in the White Rose. But Alexander tells the story through Natalya’s eyes, as she is first interrogated, imprisoned, found guilty in a farcical “trial,” sentenced to five years, and later moved to a mental asylum. Eventually, she meets the American troops who liberate the concentration camp where she has gotten a job after escaping from the asylum. It’s all highly unlikely, but it gives the author the opportunity to illustrate conditions in Germany under Nazi rule — and the fate of the anti-Nazi resistance — from many angles.
The historical context
The White Rose is the best-known anti-Nazi resistance movement active in Germany at the grassroots level during World War II. There are credible reports of hundreds of such small-scale opposition groups. And Alexander reports that “at least eight hundred thousand Germans were imprisoned for active resistance during the war years.” However, unlike the experience in many occupied countries, there was no centrally organized resistance analogous to the French, Dutch, or Italian Resistance. After all, the German people labored under a totalitarian regime that was not just ruthlessly efficient but popular as well.
About the author
For further reading
I’ve also reviewed a number of excellent books about women involved in work as partisans or in espionage in World War II:
- Code Name: Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became World War II’s Most Highly Decorated Spy, by Larry Loftis (A woman was World War II’s most highly decorated spy)
- The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone (The woman codebreaker who caught gangsters and Nazi spies)
- Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler by Lynne Olson (The truth about the French Resistance, dug out of old records)
- A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell (The WWII American woman spy who kept the French Resistance alive)
- D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II by Sarah Rose (The women who parachuted behind German lines and helped secure the Normandy landing)
You might also be interested in:
- The 10 best novels about World War II
- 5 top nonfiction books about World War II
- 20 most enlightening historical novels
- Top 10 great popular novels
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.