Jürgen Wittenstein was born in Tübingen, on 26th April, 1919. His mother, Elisabeth Vollmoeller, was a successful businesswoman; his father, Oscar Wittenstein, a doctor of chemistry, concert pianist, and aviation pioneer, died six months before George’s birth while testing an airplane. (1)
Wittenstein was educated at a boarding school, Schule Schloss Salem, on Lake Constance where he was taught by Kurt Hahn. Hahn was highly critical of Adolf Hitler and in 1933 he criticized the Nazi regime after a young communist was killed in the presence of his mother by members of the Sturmabteilung (SA). As a result, he was imprisoned for five days (in March 1933). After an appeal by British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, Hahn was released and in July 1933 he moved to Britain. (2)
This had a significant impact on Wittenstein's political attitudes. After completing his National Labour Service he was conscripted into the German Army where he trained as a medic. During this period he became friends with Alexander Schmorell, who shared his anti-Nazi views. (3)
In 1939 Wittenstein and Schmorell were sent to the University of Munich for further medical training. He was very impressed by the lectures on ancient Greek by Professor Fritz-Joachim von Rintelen. "He was one of the most superb manipulators of double meanings at the university, and his lectures were subtle but devastating critiques of Nazi thought and practices, as viewed through the prism of the civilized Hellanenic past." These lectures eventually led to him being dismissed from his post. (4)
Jürgen Wittenstein also enjoyed the lectures on philosophy of Kurt Huber. In his lectures on Immanuel Kant, Huber argued that he was a great moralist who believed that all human beings had the ability to reason and ought to have the freedom to exercise this ability. Reason, not accepting the orders of authority, was the basis of morality. "In his own time Kant had opposed all forms of unthinking obedience, repeatedly claiming that independent, rational thought was the basis of all good conduct." (5)
Wittenstein later recalled that his lectures were always packed and you had to arrive early in order to get a seat. "Once he got into the swing of a lecture you quickly forgot your first impression of his physical handicap. You were carried away by the clarity and logic of his ideas and the passion with which he expressed them. He built his structure of thought like an architect." (6)
Jürgen Wittenstein and Alexander Schmorell became friends with Hans Scholl, Christoph Probst and Willi Graf. (7) The five men held meetings where they took it it turns to read poems and the others had to guess the name of the poet. One evening, on 21st May, 1942, Hans read a poem about a tyrant that contained the passage: "Mounting the rubbish heap around him/He spews his message on the world." The people living under this tyrant accepted his rule: "The masses lived in utter shame/For foulest deeds they felt no blame." At the end, the poem predicts that this nightmare period will pass with the overthrow of the tyrant, and one day his reign will be looked back upon, and talked about, like the Black Plague.
No one at the meeting could identify the poet. Probst suggested that it had been written in Germany recently. "Anyway, those verses couldn't be more timely. They might have been written yesterday." Schmorell agreed and suggested that the poem should be mimeographed and dropped over Germany from an airplane "with a dedication to Adolf Hitler". Graf added that it should be printed in the Völkischer Beobachter. Scholl then told the group the name of the poet was Gottfried Keller. "Actually, the verses were written in 1878, and they don't refer to events in Germany at all, but to a political situation in Switzerland. The author is Gottfried Keller". (8)
After this the meetings tended to be more political and the members discussed ways they could show their disapproval of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. However, it remained a discussion group. As Anton Gill, the author of An Honourable Defeat: A History of German Resistance to Hitler (1994) has pointed out: "The group had no wish to throw bombs, or to cause any injury to human life. They wanted to influence people's minds against Nazism and militarism." (9)
The friends became known as the White Rose group. Hans Scholl soon emerged as the group's leader: "The role was tacitly bestowed on him by virtue of that quality in his personality that, in any group, made him the focus of attention. Alex Schmorell was usually at his side, his close collaborator. Between them, they arranged for meetings and meeting places.... Sometimes they met in Hans' room for impromptu talk and discussion. For larger meetings, they gathered at the Eickemeyer studio or the villa of Dr. Schmorell, an indulgent father who shared many of his son's views." (10)
In June 1942 the White Rose group began producing leaflets. They were typed single-spaced on both sides of a sheet of paper, duplicated, folded into envelopes with neatly typed names and addresses, and mailed as printed matter to people all over Munich. At least a couple of hundred were handed into the Gestapo. It soon became clear that most of the leaflets were received by academics, civil servants, restaurateurs and publicans. A small number were scattered around the University of Munich campus. As a result the authorities immediately suspected that students had produced the leaflets. (11)
The opening paragraph of the first leaflet said: "Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be "governed" without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes - crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure-reach the light of day? If the German people are already so corrupted and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in lawful order in history; if they surrender man's highest principle, that which raises him above all other God's creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and thus subject it to their own rational decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass - then, yes, they deserve their downfall." (12)
According to the historian of the resistance, Joachim Fest, this was a new development in the struggle against Adolf Hitler. "A small group of Munich students were the only protesters who managed to break out of the vicious circle of tactical considerations and other inhibitions. They spoke out vehemently, not only against the regime but also against the moral indolence and numbness of the German people." (13) Peter Hoffmann, the author of The History of German Resistance (1977) claimed they must have been aware that they could do any significant damage to the regime but they "were prepared to sacrifice themselves" in order to register their disapproval of the Nazi government. (14) Wittenstein did not write any of the leaflets but he did help to distribute copies in Berlin. (15)
At the end of July, 1942, Jürgen Wittenstein, Hans Scholl, Alexander Schmorell and Willi Graf, were sent to the Eastern Front as medics. During their time in Poland and the Soviet Union they witnessed many examples of atrocities being committed by the German Army which made them even more hostile to the government. They were also upset by having to treat so many wounded and dying soldiers. It became clear that Germany was fighting a war it could not win. (16)
Scholl, Wittenstein, Graf and Schmorell returned to Munich in November, 1942. The following month Scholl went to visit Kurt Huber and asked his advice on the text of a new leaflet. He had previously rejected the idea of leaflets because he thought they would have no appreciable effect on the public and the danger of producing them outweighed any effect they might have. However, he had changed his mind and agreed to help Scholl write the leaflet. (17) Huber later commented that "in a state where the free expression of public opinion is throttled a dissident must necessarily turn to illegal methods." (18)
On 18th February, 1943, Sophie and Hans Scholl went to the University of Munich with a suitcase packed with leaflets. According to Inge Scholl: "They arrived at the university, and since the lecture rooms were to open in a few minutes, they quickly decided to deposit the leaflets in the corridors. Then they disposed of the remainder by letting the sheets fall from the top level of the staircase down into the entrance hall. Relieved, they were about to go, but a pair of eyes had spotted them. It was as if these eyes (they belonged to the building superintendent) had been detached from the being of their owner and turned into automatic spyglasses of the dictatorship. The doors of the building were immediately locked, and the fate of brother and sister was sealed." (19)
Jakob Schmid, a member of the Nazi Party, saw them at the University of Munich, throwing leaflets from a window of the third floor into the courtyard below. He immediately told the Gestapo and they were both arrested. They were searched and the police found a handwritten draft of another leaflet. This they matched to a letter in Scholl's flat that had been signed by Christoph Probst. Following interrogation, they were all charged with treason. (20)
Friends of Hans and Sophie had immediately telephoned Robert Scholl with news of the arrests. Robert and Magdalena went to Gestapo headquarters but they were told they were not allowed to visit them in prison over the weekend. They were not told that there trial was to begin on the Monday morning. However, another friend, Otl Aicher, telephoned them with the news. (21) They were met by Jürgen Wittenstein at the railway station: "We have very little time. The People's Court is in session, and the hearing is already under way. We must prepare ourselves for the worst." (22)
Sophie's parents tried to attend the trial and Magdalene told a guard: "I’m the mother of two of the accused." He responded: "You should have brought them up better." (23) Robert Scholl was forced his way past the guards at the door and managed to get to his children's defence attorney. "Go to the president of the court and tell him that the father is here and he wants to defend his children!" He spoke to Judge Roland Freisler who responded by ordering the Scholl family from the court. The guards dragged them out but at the door Robert was able to shout: "There is a higher justice! They will go down in history!" (24)
Later that day Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl and Christoph Probst were all found guilty. Judge Freisler told the court: "The accused have by means of leaflets in a time of war called for the sabotage of the war effort and armaments and for the overthrow of the National Socialist way of life of our people, have propagated defeatist ideas, and have most vulgarly defamed the Führer, thereby giving aid to the enemy of the Reich and weakening the armed security of the nation. On this account they are to be punished by death. Their honour and rights as citizens are forfeited for all time." (25)
They were all beheaded by guillotine in Stadelheim Prison only a few hours after being found guilty. A prison guard later reported: "They bore themselves with marvelous bravery. The whole prison was impressed by them. That is why we risked bringing the three of them together once more-at the last moment before the execution. If our action had become known, the consequences for us would have been serious. We wanted to let them have a cigarette together before the end. It was just a few minutes that they had, but I believe that it meant a great deal to them." (26)
All members of the White Rose group were arrested including Jürgen Wittenstein. He was interrogated by the Gestapo but was eventually released. (27) His friends were not so lucky. Willie Graf, Kurt Huber and Alexander Schmorell were all convicted of high treason and executed. Other sentences included Eugen Grimminger, ten years; Heinrich Bollinger and Helmut Bauer, seven years; Hans Hirzel and Franz Müller, five years; Heinrich Guter, eighteen months; Susanne Hirzel, six months; Traute Lafrenz, Gisela Schertling and Katharina Schüddekopf, one year each. (28)
After the Second World War Jürgen Wittenstein wanted to emigrate to the United States. He later recalled that McCarthyism had made emigrating difficult, "as all resistance members were assumed to be communists". Instead he went to live in England where he gave lectures on his experiences in Nazi Germany. Eventually he managed to get accepted by Harvard University.
Wittenstein married Elisabeth Sophie Hartert, the head of anesthesiology at Denver General Hospital. Wittenstein taught medicine at the University of Colorado. He joined the University of California (UCLA) medical faculty in 1964, serving as professor and chair of the Department of Surgery from 1976-1991, when he retired to private practice. (29)
Jürgen Wittenstein died on 14th June, 2015.
Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be "governed" without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes - crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure-reach the light of day? If the German people are already so corrupted and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in lawful order in history; if they surrender man's highest principle, that which raises him above all other God's creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and thus subject it to their own rational decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass - then, yes, they deserve their downfall. Goethe speaks of the Germans as a tragic people, like the Jews and the Greeks, but today it would appear rather that they are a spineless, will-less herd of hangers-on, who now - the marrow sucked out of their bones, robbed of their center of stability - are waiting to be hounded to their destruction. So it seems - but it is not so. Rather, by means of gradual, treacherous, systematic abuse, the system has put every man into a spiritual prison. Only now, finding himself lying in fetters, has he become aware of his fate. Only a few recognized the threat of ruin, and the reward for their heroic warning was death. We will have more to say about the fate of these persons. If everyone waits until the other man makes a start, the messengers of avenging Nemesis will come steadily closer; then even the last victim will have been cast senselessly into the maw of the insatiable demon. Therefore every individual, conscious of his responsibility as a member of Christian and Western civilization, must defend himself as best he can at this late hour, he must work against the scourges of mankind, against fascism and any similar system of totalitarianism. Offer passive resistance-resistance - wherever you may be, forestall the spread of this atheistic war machine before it is too late, before the last cities, like Cologne, have been reduced to rubble, and before the nation's last young man has given his blood on some battlefield for the hubris of a sub-human. Do not forget that every people deserves the regime it is willing to endure.
We are not in a position to draw up a final judgment about the meaning of our history. But if this catastrophe can be used to further the public welfare, it will be only by virtue of the fact that we are cleansed by suffering; that we yearn for the light in the midst of deepest night, summon our strength, and finally help in shaking off the yoke which weighs on our world.
We do not want to discuss here the question of the Jews, nor do we want in this leaflet to compose a defense or apology. No, only by way of example do we want to cite the fact that since the conquest of Poland three hundred
thousand Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way. Here we see the most frightful crime
against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of history. For Jews, too, are human beings - no
matter what position we take with respect to the Jewish question - and a crime of this dimension has been perpetrated against human beings. Someone may say that the Jews deserved their fate. This assertion would be a monstrous impertinence; but let us assume that someone said this - what position has he then taken toward the fact that the entire Polish aristocratic youth is being annihilated? (May God grant that this program has not fully achieved its aim as yet!) All male offspring of the houses of the nobility between the ages of fifteen and twenty were transported to concentration camps in Germany and sentenced to forced labor, and all girls of this age group were sent to Norway, into the bordellos of the SS! Why tell you these things, since you are fully aware of them - or if not of these, then of other equally grave crimes committed by this frightful sub-humanity? Because here we touch on a problem which involves us deeply and forces us all to take thought. Why do the German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes, crimes so unworthy of the human race? Hardly anyone thinks about that. It is accepted as fact and put out of mind. The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals; they give them the opportunity to carry on their depredations; and of course they do so. Is this a sign that the Germans are brutalized in their simplest human feelings, that no chord within them cries out at the sight of such deeds, that they have sunk into a fatal consciencelessness from which they will never, never awake? It seems to be so, and will certainly be so, if the German does not at last start up out of his stupor, if he does not protest wherever and whenever he can against this clique of criminals, if he shows no sympathy for these hundreds of thousands of victims. He must evidence not only sympathy; no, much more: a sense of complicity in guilt. For through his apathetic behavior he gives these evil men the opportunity to act as they do; he tolerates this government which has taken upon itself such an infinitely great burden of guilt; indeed, he himself is to blame for the fact that it came about at all! Each man wants to be exonerated of a guilt of this kind, each one continues on his way with the most placid, the calmest conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty! It is not too late, however, to do away with this most reprehensible of all miscarriages of government, so as to avoid being burdened with even greater guilt. Now, when in recent years our eyes have been opened, when we know exactly who our adversary is, it is high time to root out this brown horde. Up until the outbreak of the war the larger part of the German people was blinded; the Nazis did not show themselves in their true aspect. But now, now that we have recognized them for what they are, it must be the sole and first duty, the holiest duty of every German to destroy these beasts.
The Fascist grip on Germany was complete after 1934. Leaders of other political parties were jailed or killed; state governments were replaced. It was dangerous to befriend Jews or to associate with those who spoke against the Nazis. George (Jürgen) Wittenstein, studying philosophy, psychology, and medicine at the University of Munich during those dark years, did both. At personal risk and with great loyalty to his friends, he took part in the White Rose resistance, the only German resistance group to publicly condemn the extermination of European Jews. He was one of the few White Rose members to survive and in 1947 published the first report on them: The Munich Student Movement.
A longtime Santa Barbara resident, Dr. Wittenstein died on June 14 at age 96. His mother, Elisabeth Vollmoeller, was a successful businesswoman; his father, Oskar Wittenstein, a doctor of chemistry, concert pianist, and aviation pioneer, died six months before George’s birth while testing an airplane. A philosophy of personal responsibility and justice was instilled during Wittenstein’s boyhood by the Vollmoeller family and Schule Schloss Salem, which remains one of the finest schools in Europe. Salem’s revered headmaster, Kurt Hahn, spoke openly against Hitler and fled to England in 1933.
Instead of the ubiquitous swastika, 13-year-old Jürgen’s bicycle flew the flag of the Paneuropean Union, a peaceful unification group banned by Hitler. Compulsory labor and military service preceded his military medic training in Munich, where he befriended Alexander Schmorell, and they shared their hatred of the Nazi regime. His mentor, the art historian Dr. Kurt Badt, was brutalized in 1938’s Kristallnacht attacks on Jewish citizens, and the next day Wittenstein was ordered by the Gestapo, as a German soldier, to stop associating with Jews. More ominously, the Gestapo accused him of homosexuality, a feared Nazi ploy to eliminate enemies.
He began his studies at Munich University in summer 1939, where he met Hellmut Hartert and Hans Scholl. “We had a few magical and exhilarating months,” he said, “free from uniforms, from years of regimentation; free to study, travel, attend concerts, nature; to choose our lodging - wear civilian clothes!”
Warned of his growing Gestapo file, the family made plans for him to leave Germany. In August 1939, after gaining the nearly unobtainable documents, the 20-year-old boarded the Hansa for New York, bringing along a car for his uncle Carl Vollmoeller. A U-turn in the ship’s wake meant they were returning to Germany, and he made a plan to cross the nearest border as quickly as possible. Instead, he drove two stranded and endangered Jewish teens home to Berlin and gave up his last chance to escape Germany. After an intense search by Wittenstein’s wife, the three reunited 70 years later, and Esther and Nat Berkowitz described the terrifying journey, full of flag-downs by police and searches of every car but theirs. They always wondered what kind of high Nazi official or diplomat this elegant and self-assured young man could be who was waved through checkpoints. It turned out their car carried a foreign export license plate and therefore could not be searched.
Back at Munich University, he was redrafted into a medical student company. Constant spying, mail interception, and telephone taps made it dangerous to express opinions and communicate; it wasn’t until after the war that Wittenstein learned that his company commander would mislead the Gestapo if they asked about his soldiers. When their philosophy professor Fritz-Joachim von Rintelen was dismissed, Wittenstein and a friend organized a protest, an unheard-of act in 1941. The first “Leaflet of the White Rose” appeared in spring 1942, denouncing Nazi crimes and appealing to German citizens to defy Hitler’s dictatorship. A call for active resistance followed the friends’ experiences at the Russian front in 1942. Wittenstein took more than 100 photos of the trip, including of the Warsaw Ghetto and the iconic photos that are in nearly all White Rose publications, exhibits, and films of the past 65 years on the subject.
The tragic demise of the White Rose is well-known. Triggered by the arrests of Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie as they distributed the sixth leaflet early in 1943, the Scholls and Christoph Probst were executed, only hours after their trial. Alerted to the trial by a friend, Wittenstein was able to bring the Scholls’ parents to the Palace of Justice, and they saw their children alive one last time. Professor Kurt Huber and Schmorell were executed several months later. Walking past a waiting Gestapo agent to deliver the message, Wittenstein tried to send rescue information to Schmorell via his father, and he smuggled clandestinely collected money to Huber’s destitute family. He was interrogated by the Gestapo in November and by the military court in March 1944, but he disproved their accusations. When later asked why he risked his life repeatedly, Wittenstein, always surprised at the question, would answer “Someone had to do it.”
To be safer from the Gestapo, he volunteered for the front and was posted as a medic to Italy, where he was wounded. He collected weapons from wounded soldiers for Freedom Action Bavaria, a resistance group that saved Munich from Hitler’s order for destruction as the war ended.
It was always with tears in his eyes that he recalled getting his U.S. visa. McCarthyism had made emigrating difficult, as all resistance members were assumed to be communists, but he could no longer live in a country of such horrors. He left Germany with temporary papers for England, but not before marrying Elisabeth Sophie Hartert, though it was two long years until they reunited in the U.S. He also met with students to make plans for a New Germany. In England, he spoke at universities about his disillusioned generation of Germans and about their duty to contribute to the reconstruction of Europe.
Wittenstein continued his surgical training at Harvard and the universities of Rochester and Colorado. Once Elisabeth completed her medical specialization, she became chief of anesthesiology at Denver General Hospital in 1950. George taught at the University of Colorado’s medical school, simultaneously enrolling to get his U.S. medical degree. During their residencies, they were so poor they built their own furniture, a skill George had learned at Salem. He joined the UCLA medical faculty in 1964, serving as professor and chair of the Department of Surgery at UCLA/LAC Olive View Medical Center from 1976-1991, when he retired to private practice. His work as a general, cardiovascular, and thoracic surgeon included returning to Europe to teach and perform the latest complex heart operations in 1956, as well as in China in 1973.
He and Elisabeth had four children, all born in Denver between 1952 and 1955. The family moved to Santa Barbara in 1960, where Wittenstein practiced medicine for 35 years. He loved camping and hiking with them in the backcountry. After Elisabeth’s death in 1966, he married Christel J. Bejenke, MD, an anesthesiologist who helped raise his four young children. He and Bejenke were instrumental in preparing Cottage Hospital to perform cardiac surgery and trained its first “pump-team” in extra-corporeal circulation. He served in various capacities at four Santa Barbara hospitals and UCSB Affiliates. Also a writer and a poet, he was pleased to serve on the boards of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and Friends of the UCSB Library.
His wartime experiences were always painful to recall, and he was haunted by flashbacks and nightmares until the end of his life. For 40 or more years, he did not speak about his experiences. Only when some White Rose relatives were concerned the story was not being told in full, he felt he had to contribute what he knew and give equal voice and respect to all who had done so much and given their lives. He inspired countless students, in classroom visits to schools and colleges, through lectures about the White Rose.
In recognition of his involvement in the resistance, for contributions to German cardiac surgery, and for promoting scientific exchange between the United States and Germany, Wittenstein was awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Bavarian Service Medal, Bavaria’s highest honor.
He is survived by his wife, Christel J. Bejenke; his children Eva Munday, Nemone Wittenstein-Helmling, Andreas Wittenstein, and Catharina Wittenstein-Garrow; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, a contribution to Planned Parenthood, Domestic Violence Solutions, Sarah House, or a homeless shelter would be appreciated.