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Speech by Stefan Löfven at the Harald Edelstam Foundation

A few words on Sophie Scholl and learning as a foundation for civil courage

I would like to start by saying that I'm honoured to talk at the same event as Mrs. Shirin Ebadi. I deeply respect your work for human rights, and look forward to discussing with you how Sweden could take a larger role in securing those rights all over the globe. And I would like to talk today about another woman that have made a deep impression on me.

* * *

Sophie Scholl was executed on the twenty-second of February 1943, at the age of 21. She had spoken out against the Nazi regime in Germany, and was therefore sentenced to death for high treason.

During her last hours, she said to her cell mate:

"How can we expect righteousness to prevail, when there is hardly anyone who will give their life for a righteous cause?"

* * *

The actions of Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans Scholl and the other members of their group, called The White Rose, are an outstanding example of civil courage.

They decided to act in accordance with their beliefs and tried to expose the Nazi regime by spreading leaflets at the University of Munich, where they were studying.

The leaflets told the truth about Nazi crimes in Poland and the German army's recent losses on the Eastern front.

They knew that Nazi control was absolute, in the police, in the courts, in all parts of society.

They knew that the Gestapo had informers and collaborators everywhere.

They knew that they themselves were not in danger as long as that they kept quiet, but that speaking out was punishable by death.

Yet still they acted.

* * *

Many scholars have studied why Sophie Scholl had the courage to do what she did in a time where very few even dared to speak up against the regime, even in the privacy of their own homes.

While no one will be able to point out one single factor, her education and learning seem to be a foundation for her activism.

She loved literature and art, and enrolled at the University of Munich to study biology and philosophy.

She seems to have had a genuine passion for indulging in knowledge, very much like Harald Edelstam, who was top of his class during his studies.

That quest for learning, often described by the German word Bildung, is a thirst not necessarily for knowledge used in a profession, but for life in general.

Knowing not only what you feel is right – but also that you have a moral duty to act upon it – is a crucial prerequisite for civil courage.

And that knowledge can only be formed by thinking about those issues, reading about them and forcing yourself to reflect upon them – as Sophie Scholl did.

Sophie and her friends in The White Rose studied philosophy from antiquity onward.

They discussed questions of human rights and the individual's responsibility under a dictatorship – and then made a very brave decision to act.

* * *

This a lesson for us today.

It is true that the idea of fundamental rights for every individual has its roots in cultures from all over the globe.

Traces of the rights presented in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948 could be found in ancient cultures in the Middle East, South East Asia, as well as here in Europe.

But knowing how to treat your fellow human beings is not something you're born with.

It's not something in our blood. It has to be learned. It has to be remembered by every generation.

* * *

That's why it's important that the aim of our education system is not only to prepare you for a trade or profession – but also to prepare you for life.

That's why I believe in making further education more accessible, so that everyone can have the opportunity to take part in higher learning.

And that's why we try to supplement our children's education with projects concerning human rights, such as The Living History Forum, created to teach all young Swedes about previous crimes against humanity and the value of democracy.

A constantly ongoing discussion on every individual's inviolable rights is a vaccine against totalitarian ideologies.

And I'm glad to see the Harald Edelstam foundation becoming a stronger voice in that discussion, because even though this discussion is not a guarantee – it is indeed a good safeguard – for democracy.

* * *

And knowing that this form of learning provides a foundation for civil courage gives me hope for the future.

It is becoming easier to spread and to access information with every passing day.

Many universities publish their courses online for a general public, and knowledge and awareness of human rights is becoming harder to contain and suppress.

That was also shown during the recent Arab Spring, when many young and educated men and women organized and spread demands for democracy.

And we could see during the recent protests in Russia that the arrested members of the now world famous group Pussy Riot were students of journalism and philosophy.

This can also be seen in China, where young people return from studying abroad with knowledge of the possibilities of a more open society, and the will to speak up for it.

Their education becomes a foundation, and maybe a spark, for their civil courage – just as it did for Sophie Scholl, and just as it did for Harald Edelstam.

* * *

One of the ancient Greek philosophers that Sophie Scholl studied was probably Epictetus. He once said: "Only the educated are free".

I don't think that should be interpreted that only those with degrees and diplomas could be independent individuals, but more that it takes learning to fully understand what it means to be human.

Sophie Scholl knew this, acted upon it, and stood up for human rights even though she was surrounded by a totalitarian regime.

The paper on which the death sentence was presented to her was saved in the Nazi archives, and found later.

On the back of it there is a single hand-written word.

It says: "Freedom".

Thank you.

Uppdaterades senast: 25 april 2017

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