Bill Moyers: You dedicate your book [Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts] to four women. Why?
Clive James: Well, it’s a feminist book really. It’s because many of my generation who grew up during World War II, when the men were away at war — some of whom didn’t come back including my father — and the women were all around us, we got the idea it would be a better world if they were running it. And I still think that.
It’s actually dedicated to women who, in my view, are heroines. Two of them are Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. But also Sophie Scholl, who was a German. She was a kid, really. A Roman Catholic, she was 21 years old when she was executed by the the Nazis.
Bill Moyers: Why did you choose her?
Clive James: Well, the White Rose resistance group was a fascinating little bunch of kids. There wasn’t much they could do. They could print a few pamphlets. This was late 1942; Stalingrad hadn’t even happened yet. And all they could do was print a bunch of pamphlets and spread them around protesting the Nazi regime and its treatment of the Jews.
They knew what would happen if they got caught. And they got caught, and it did happen. And Sophie actually could have walked away, because the Nazis realized that it would be better PR if she did. But she wouldn’t; she took the hit along with her brother. It’s a great, great story that’s well known in Germany by now but wasn’t during World War II because the Nazis sat on it. Word has since spread, and by now she’s a heroine and should be all over the world.
Bill Moyers: Because?
Clive James: Because she wasn’t Anne Frank. See, Anne Frank, great as she was — Anne Frank was a victim. She was going to die anyway. Sophie didn’t even have to. Sophie did it because of her solidarity with people like Anne Frank. She was saying there’s a basic human bottom line which you can’t cross. You have to stand up and be counted.
The truth is most of us don’t stand up to be counted. It takes heroism to do it. She was just a natural heroine. And the story has endless implications. Would you have done this, for example? Do you know anyone who has this kind of courage? Wouldn’t you prefer to get on with your life and let those things happen to other people?
The opening exchange in Moyers’s interview with James on Bill Moyers Journal in 2007.
You can pick up a copy of James’s brilliant, expansive survey of civilization Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts or check out more posts and interviews with the Aussie polymath.
Scholl died 72 years ago this week.
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