Faith Under Fire

Willi Graf of the White Rose
Seid Gefolgschaft in der Tat, nicht nur im Hören des Wortes (Jak. 1, 22)1

Hitler’s Germany presented a myriad of challenges for the individual who strove to be both a faithful German and faithful Christian. Willi Graf believed one had to choose but still considered himself a patriotic German when he acted on his favorite bible verse to become a »Doer of the Word.« He maintained that faith was »no simple matter« and that every individual bears full responsibility for one’s own choices and actions, as he wrote to his younger sister, Anneliese, in a letter dated June 6, 1942: »Jeder Einzelne trägt die ganze Verantwortung.«2 Finding the moral fortitude to confront National Socialism, however, led to painful consequences for Graf and his family because of his faith and that of the innocent Nazi victims for whom he chose to resist.

A lonesome path to resistance

In the summer of 1942, Graf, a medical student at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, became a member of the White Rose, a group of primarily students who produced six leaflets and distributed thousands of copies calling for resistance to the National Socialist dictatorship. He was twenty-five years old when he was executed on October 12, 1943 for high treason. In life, Graf was pensive, quiet, and ordinary. From early on, he enjoyed reading and loved books of various genres. He played the violin and viola in school, sang in the Bach choir, spoke and understood several foreign languages including Russian, French, ancient Greek, and Latin, and was an avid letter-writer and athlete. Being an independent thinker, he was the only member of the White Rose to oppose Nazi ideology from the start of the regime.

Willi Graf was also a conscientious Christian who could never reconcile his faith with National Socialism. Born in the Rhineland, he grew up in Saarbrücken and came from a middle-class devout Catholic family who gave him his faith, but differed with him in the practice of it as he rejected conventional forms of the Church and middle-class conformity – everything he believed to be »gut bürgerlich.«3 As a child, Graf served as an altar boy at Basilika Sankt Johann Saarbrücken and attended mass the rest of his life, even in the bunkers on the Russian Front where he was deployed twice during the Second World War. Graf was fifteen years old in 1933 when Adolf Hitler came to power and he recorded his favorite bible verse in his diary the same year: »Be doers of the Word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.«4 For Graf, faith clearly meant not only ›hearing‹ the word of God but also acting on it by not conforming to the National Socialist State. In the Catholic tradition, faith requires good works, penance, sacrifice, and love of neighbor. According to his belief, words are meaningless unless they are implemented. Discerning how best to do that requires what Graf referred to as his »Arbeit« as he strove for clarity and a plan of action. Yet, how does one know or learn how to make the right choices and practice one’s faith according to what one believes is God’s will? Free will demands daily decision-making, making an intentional and sometimes difficult choice as to whose will to follow – one’s own, that of others, God’s will, or that of the State. One must also surmise what the truth is when plagued by doubt or the mysteries of faith. As the Nazis gained influence and power, they recognized the threat that conscientious Christians like Graf posed and emphasized a bible verse of their own to demand obedience to their militarism and racist agenda: »Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves.« (Romans 13:1-2)5

Graf, being familiar with the Pauline teaching they referenced, wrestled with these disparities throughout his life and his diary from 1942–1943 often references the word »Unruhe« or uneasiness as he attempted to find a path to a purposeful life and meaningful existence. He sought guidance as to what it means to be a Christian and yet fully human in the world (Christsein und Menschsein). His diaries and letters confirm his spiritual struggle not only with the appropriate practice of his faith, but also with how he should respond to that of his fellow Germans and Catholic Church authorities in the Third Reich. Was it possible to be a faithful Christian and loyal German without resisting National Socialism? Graf concluded it was not. His enlightenment, however, did not come from the official Church hierarchy because Graf’s experience had been that many in positions of authority were aligned with the Nazis and/or ambivalent about the suffering of their victims. They had missed opportunities to profess a genuine faith that required difficult decisions and ethical conduct. In the aforementioned letter dated June 6, 1942 to Anneliese, he explained the shortcomings of their faith-based education:

Die Art und Erziehung, wie wir in der Religion aufwuchsen, sind denkbar schlecht und voller Unmöglichkeiten. Innerlich war dieses ganze Gebäude hohl und voller Risse. Nur weil noch ein gewisser Glanz und bestimmt auch ein gutes Teil Sicherheit darauf lagen, konnte man sich eine Zeitlang darin wohlfühlen. Urteilskraft und lebendige Überzeugung aber haben wir nicht mitbekommen, um eventuell in der Lage zu sein, diese Weltanschauung zu verteidigen. Ich behaupte, daß dies garnicht [!] das eigentliche Christentum war, was wir all die Jahre zu sehen bekamen und das uns zur Nachahmung empfohlen wurde. In Wirklichkeit ist Christentum ein viel schwereres und ungewisseres Leben, das voller Anstrengung ist und immer wieder neue Überwindung kostet, um es zu vollziehen. Der Glaube ist keine solch einfache Sache, wie es uns erschien, in ihm geht nicht alles so glatt auf, wie man wohl gemeint hat und sich vielleicht auch wünschte, um möglichst wenig Unruhe zu verspüren, denn das ist für viele doch etwas reichlich Unangenehmes.6

A voracious reader, he sought moral guidance from the New Testament, which he often read, and from close friends with whom he regularly met to prepare for Sunday liturgies while a student in Munich. He also read works by a wide variety of poets, scholars, and authors, including those banned by the dictatorship and living in countries considered enemies of the Reich. Influential works include: Vom Geist der Liturgie (1918) by Romano Guardini, Macht und Gnade (1940) by Reinhold Schneider, Das einfache Leben (1939) by Ernst Wiechert, Am Himmel wie auf Erden (1940) by Werner Bergengruen, Über das christliche Menschenbild (1936) by Josef Pieper, and the German translation of The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) by Thornton Wilder, among many others. He formed his own worldview and life’s orientation based on the ideas, examples, and historical role models found in those texts. As a teenager Graf refused to join the Hitlerjugend and instead chose to join Catholic boys groups that were eventually banned by the Nazis. In 1938, he and 17 of his friends spent several weeks in jail for their participation in what the Nazis deemed illegal (or bündische) activities, outdoor adventures that were similar to the American scouting movement: camping, hiking, discussing philosophical questions, nature, and poetry, and singing Russian folk songs around a campfire. He grew to love the Russian culture and in 1942–1943, the year he was active with the White Rose, he read several works by Russian authors such as Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoyevski, Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Dmitry Merezhkovsky, and Ivan Turgenev. Nazi propaganda about the former Soviet Union did not sway his love for the Russian people and their country. Although Graf considered himself apolitical, his actions had political consequences. It was his faith that fostered his civic courage and enabled him to remain true to his Christian convictions and humanistic ideals. Empathy, solidarity with those who suffered, and love of neighbor were intrinsically tied to living his faith.

Living faith and self-sacrifice

As Graf explained, faith is no simple matter. His identity developed in tandem with his understanding of his faith and how best to translate his reflections into actions all the while safeguarding his intellectual independence and the little freedom he had. Graf had started medical studies at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn, but was unable to continue there when he was drafted in early fall of 1939 as a paramedic in the German army. Despite his disrupted life, he sought to help others in whatever capacity he could. When interrogated by the Gestapo in prison in 1943, he stated that he had chosen to study medicine so that he could help others in need and in accordance with the Biblical imperative to »love thy neighbor«. In 1938, for example, he had joined the Red Cross and remained a member until his final arrest in 1943. While in prison, the Gestapo asked Graf to provide a vita, which sheds light on his perspective: Im November 37 ging ich zur Universität Bonn, begann dort mein medizinisches Studium. Seit dem Sommer 1935 hatte ich den Plan gefasst, diesen Beruf zu ergreifen, weil ich bei dieser Arbeit besonders gut dazu Gelegenheit hätte, anderen Menschen in ihrer Not zu helfen und vor körperlichen Gefahren zu schützen. Dies dünkte mir als schönste Aufgabe und erstrebenswertes Ziel, weil man so dem Gebot der Nächstenliebe, gut Folge leisten kann. Meine Eltern genehmigten mir meinen Entschluß, wie ja mein Vater immer großzügig und selbstlos meine Wünsche erfüllte. Neben dem fachlichen Studium interessierte ich mich zur eigenen Weiterbildung für philosophische und literarische Fragen, um auch das Gerüst meiner religiösen Anschauungen zu festigen.7 Yet, Graf’s sister, Anneliese, who later researched his notes, diaries, and correspondence, explained that there was another reason why he pursued medical studies instead of the humanities as his primary coursework. She recalled that he rarely picked up a medical book and that he most likely would not have become a physician. His interests in culture, music, philosophy, and theology suggest he would have likely become a teacher instead.8 He loved German literature and history and wanted to add philology coursework to his studies but he believed the National Socialists had manipulated the humanities curriculum to support their agenda. In a letter dated October 20, 1940, he wrote to Anneliese, »Wahrscheinlich interessierte ich mich dann (wenn ich Germanistik studierte) am meisten für Friedrich Hölderlin, in dessen Gedichten ich auch hier draußen öfter lese.«9 His comment about Germanistik is in reference to his regret about not studying what he would have preferred.10 In an earlier letter dated January 20, 1940, he mentioned philology:

Dieses Philologie-Studium steckt mir auch immer noch in der Nase. Ich möchte sehr gerne etwas Ähnliches tun. […] Nimm Dir kein Beispiel an meinem Studium. Wahrscheinlich bist Du über meine »Berufsauffassung« nicht sehr gut orientiert. […] Jedenfalls weiß ich immer noch nicht, ob ich das tatsächlich Richtige für mich gefunden habe.11

As this passage underscores, he had to sacrifice his academic interests in order to remain true to his convictions and resistance to National Socialist propaganda. In the end, his steadfast commitment to his beliefs as well as his battlefield experiences led him to join the White Rose. They shared his desire to act in accordance with their conscience, as Anneliese explained:

Von der Erkenntnis bis zur Tat nicht: »Es muß etwas geschehen«, sondern: »Ich muß etwas tun« führen zwei andere Charaktereigenschaften, die untrennbar zur Bereitschaft, wachsam und widerständig zu sein, gehören, nämlich: Konsequenzfähig und Durchhaltevermögen.12

Yet, conscientious Christians like Graf faced another moral dilemma. He loved the humanistic Germany of the past and the Roman Catholic faith as he understood it. He agonized about the atrocities committed by the National Socialists and the ambiguity and moral lapse of the Catholic Church in not voicing firm, clear, and consistent opposition.

Consequences of conscience

On February 18, 1943, after other White Rose members were caught distributing leaflets at the university, Graf was arrested just before midnight in the room that he rented by Munich’s Englischer Garten. They were executed by guillotine the same week however, Graf was interrogated at length by the Gestapo and never divulged the names of those who had agreed to help the White Rose. Of all the core members, he spent the longest jail time and was beheaded several months later at München-Stadelheim prison. In his farewell note to Anneliese, written on the day of his execution, Graf wrote, »Mein Lieblingspsalm war Psalm 90 und dieses herrliche Gebet lasse ich in Deinen Händen zurück, daß Du beim Beten dieses Psalmes immer wieder an mich denken wollest.«13 Psalm 90 is one of the oldest Psalms and is sometimes prayed at funerals. It emphasizes that one’s time on earth will come to an end. The conclusion of Psalm 90 reminds the listener to honor the time one has on earth and to contribute in a tangible way with »the work of our hands.« For Graf, that meant contributing to the production and distribution of the White Rose leaflets. Psalm 90:

Darum fahren alle unsre Tage dahin durch deinen Zorn; wir bringen unsre Jahre zu wie ein Geschwätz. Unser Leben währet siebenzig Jahre und wenn’s hoch kommt, so sind’s achtzig Jahre, und wenn’s köstlich gewesen ist, so ist’s Mühe und Arbeit gewesen; denn es fähret schnell dahin, als flögen wir davon. Wer glaubt’s aber, daß du so sehr zürnest? Und wer fürchtet sich vor solchem deinem Grimm? Lehre uns bedenken, daß wir sterben müssen, auf daß wir klug werden. Herr, kehre dich doch wieder zu uns, und sei deinen Knechten gnädig! Fülle uns frühe mit deiner Gnade, so wollen wir rühmen, und fröhlich sein unser Leben lang. Erfreue uns nun wieder, nachdem du uns so lange plagest, nachdem wir so lange Unglück leiden. Zeige deinen Knechten deine Werke und deine Ehre ihren Kindern. Und der Herr, unser Gott, sei uns freundlich, und fördere das Werk unsrer Hände bei uns; ja, das Werk unsrer Hände wolle er fördern!14

In the film Willi Graf – Zivilcourage und Widerstand, Anneliese explained that when his family learned of his execution, Graf’s father asked a family friend, a priest in Saarbrücken, to hold a funeral mass for him. The priest refused and said that he was an »Unwürdiger«. Thus Graf never abandoned his faith although his faith abandoned him. As Renate Wind observes, what is especially tragic about Christian resisters like Graf, is that they became isolated not only by German society but also by the Church.15 In the end, he suffered not alongside his Church, but because of it. Graf lived in one of the darkest periods of human history and serves as a witness to the Christian Catholic faith. He believed that every individual bears full responsibility for determining one’s own course of action and whether to conform to the world or to confront it. For him, the question was not where was God during the Holocaust, but rather why were there not more committed Christians who acted on their faith in defense of the oppressed. And what did he have to say to the perpetrators of his time, fellow Germans whose brutality he had witnessed first hand on the Eastern Front and in the Warsaw Ghetto, crimes so horrific that he could only describe them as »unvorstellbar«, as unimaginable? In his farewell letter to Anneliese, he answered them and wrote the following on October 12, 1943, the day of his execution:

Für uns ist der Tod nicht das Ende, sondern der Anfang wahren Lebens und ich sterbe im Vertrauen auf Gottes Willen und Fürsorge […]. Sage auch den Eltern und Mathilde meine besondere Liebe und wie sehr es mich schmerzt, daß ich ihnen dies Leid zufügen mußte. Bis zur letzten Stunde werden meine Gedanken und Gebete bei Euch sein. Denke beim Anhören der Arie aus Händels Messias: »Ich weiß, daß mein Erlöser lebt« – an die gemeinsame Stunde, die wir im Odeon verlebten. Allein dieser Glaube ist mir Halt und Stärke.16

Although Graf had no authority or positional power, faith gave him the strength to master his fear and to muster the courage to do something extraordinary »with the work of his hands«. He believed that his Redeemer lived and was declared one of the martyrs of the twentieth century by Pope John Paul II via the Archdiocese of Cologne.17



Grave of Willi Graf (Photo: Stephani Richards-Wilson)
Willi Graf's grave in the Old Cemetery of St. Johann, Saarbrücken
(Photo: Stephani Richards-Wilson)


Anm. d. Red.: Ergänzend zu den Beiträgen im aktuellen Heft zum Schwerpunktthema »Glaube« präsentieren wir in unserem Online-Magazin in dieser und der kommenden Woche weitere Texte zum Themenfeld »Literatur und Glaube«. Wir wünschen eine anregende Lektüre!

  • 1. Knoop-Graf, Anneliese: Ausgewählte Aufsätze. Hrsg. v. Rolf-Ulrich Kunze u. Bernhard Schäfers. Konstanz 2006. S. 39.
  • 2. Graf, Willi: Briefe und Aufzeichnungen. Hrsg. v. Anneliese Knoop-Graf u. Inge Jens. Frankfurt a.M. 2004. S. 161.
  • 3. Knoop-Graf, Anneliese: Ausgewählte Aufsätze [wie Anm. 1], S. 100.
  • 4. Holy Bible: New American Bible. Nashville 1987. S. 1397.
  • 5. Holy Bible: New American Bible. Nashville 1987. S. 1277; cf. Siefken, Hinrich: Die Weiße Rose und ihre Flugblätter: Dokumente, Texte, Lebensbilder, Erläuterungen. Manchester 1994. S. 2.
  • 6. Graf, Willi: Briefe und Aufzeichnungen [wie Anm. 2], S. 162.
  • 7. Bundesarchiv Berlin, Nationalsozialistische Justizakten. NJ 1704, Bd. 8. Berlin.
  • 8. Cf. Widerstand. Hrsg. v. Klaus Vielhaber, Hubert Hanisch u. Anneliese Knoop-Graf. Würzburg 1963. S. 8; Knoop-Graf, Anneliese: Ausgewählte Aufsätze [wie Anm. 1], S. 41.
  • 9. Graf, Willi: Briefe und Aufzeichnungen [wie Anm. 2], S. 281.
  • 10. Cf. Knoop-Graf, Anneliese: Ausgewählte Aufsätze [wie Anm. 1], S. 41.
  • 11. Graf, Willi: Briefe und Aufzeichnungen [wie Anm. 2], S. 334.
  • 12. Knoop-Graf, Anneliese: Ausgewählte Aufsätze [wie Anm. 1], S. 136.
  • 13. Graf, Willi: Briefe und Aufzeichnungen [wie Anm. 2], S. 200.
  • 14. Graf, Willi: Briefe und Aufzeichnungen [wie Anm. 2], S. 336 f.
  • 15. Cf. Wind, Renate: Willi Graf und Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Zwei Christen im Widerstand. In: Weitertragen: Studien zur Weißen Rose. Festschrift für Anneliese Knoop-Graf zum 80. Geburtstag. Hrsg. v. Michael Mißener u. Bernhard Schäfers. Konstanz 2001. S. 30 f.
  • 16. Graf, Willi: Briefe und Aufzeichnungen [wie Anm. 2], S. 200.
  • 17. Cf. Erzbistum Köln: Willi Graf: Student der Medizin (1918–1943). Online verfügbar unter: http:// (Stand: März 2015); Knoop-Graf, Anneliese: Ausgewählte Aufsätze, S. 182.


Die »Kritische Ausgabe – Zeitschrift für Literatur im Dialog« sowie das Online-Magazin wird von einer jungen, ehrenamtlichen Redaktion betreut. Bitte helfen Sie uns mit einer Spende, mit unserer Arbeit weiterzumachen.

Detaillierte Hinweise für Spenden finden Sie im Impressum.

Wenn Sie mögen, können Sie uns auch ganz einfach unterstützen, während Sie online einkaufen, einen Flug oder Ihren nächsten Urlaub buchen – ohne, dass es Sie mehr als ein paar zusätzliche Mausklicks kostet. Wenn Sie vor dem Einkauf bzw. der Buchung über nachstehenden Button zu einem Online-Shop gehen und dort dann wie gewohnt einkaufen, bekommt die »Kritische Ausgabe« automatisch eine kleine Spende von etwa fünf Prozent des Einkaufswertes gutgeschrieben. Ihnen entstehen dadurch garantiert keine Mehrkosten!

Vielen Dank für Ihre Unterstützung!