Willi Graf was born in Kuchenheim near Euskirchen. In 1922, his family moved to Saarbrücken, where his father ran a wine wholesaler and managed of the Johannishof, the second largest banquet hall in the city. Graf went to school at the Ludwigsgymnasium. It was not long before he joined, at the age of eleven, the Bund Neudeutschland, a Catholic youth movement for young men in schools of higher learning, which was banned after Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933. In 1934, Graf joined the Grauer Orden ("Grey Order"), another Catholic movement which became known for its anti-Nazi rhetoric. It, too, was banned and for this reason, it formed many splinter youth groups.
Graf showed conviction in his beliefs from a young age. Although compulsory at the time, he refused to associate with the Hitler Youth. While other future members of the White Rose initially embraced the Hitler Youth, Graf never did so. Moreover, in his address book he crossed out the names of friends who had joined the Hitler Youth. In 1935, at the age of 17, Graf and a few friends marched in an annual May Day parade. The parade was dominated by swastikas, brown-shirted Hitler Youth troops marching in formation, and "Sieg Heils." However, Graf and his friends marched under their tattered school flag, making great effort to stand out from their peers. They did not don any swastikas, or participate in any of the "Sieg Heil" salutes.
After his Abitur, the German equivalent of Baccalauréat, in 1937, Willi Graf did his six-month Reichsarbeitsdienst and afterwards began his medical studies at the University of Bonn. In 1938, he was arrested along with other members of the Grauer Orden and charged by a court in Mannheim with illegal youth league activities–the Bünde having been banned–in relation with his unlawful field trips, camping excursions and other meetings with the Grauer Orden. The charges were later dismissed as part of a general amnesty declared to celebrate the Anschluss. The detention had lasted three weeks. His time in jail did not weaken his decision to participate in anti-Nazi activities or organizations.
In early 1940 Graf was conscripted into the German army as student-soldier. From 1940 to 1942, Graf participated in various war deployments in Europe as a medical orderly. During these deployments he experienced the depths of war which included seeing the Warsaw ghetto in Poland and harsh treatment of Russian civilians. He was horrified by the suffering he witnessed. In his army medic files it was noted that his care of the ill was "exemplary". It was also noted by Dr. Webel, the Chief Medical Officer, that Graf "showed himself to be an intrepid medic who never thought about his own safety." Graf was granted the service medal, 2nd class with swords, for his actions.
In 1942, as a member of the Second Medicine Students' Company of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, he came into contact with the Nazi resistance organization, the White Rose. He became an active member of this resistance group, which centered on Hans and Sophie Scholl. Graf's main role in the White Rose was to function as a recruiter in other cities around Germany. He also participated in anti-Nazi and anti-Hitler graffiti campaigns.
On 18 February 1943, Willi Graf, along with his sister Anneliese, was seized in Munich. On 19 April 1943, he was sentenced to death at the Volksgerichtshof for high treason, Wehrkraftzersetzung (undermining the troops' spirit), and furthering the enemy's cause. Willi Graf was beheaded on 12 October 1943 at Stadelheim Prison in Munich, after six months of solitary confinement. During this 6-month period the Gestapo tried to extract information from Graf about other White Rose members and other anti-Nazi movements. While under interrogation Graf yielded no names, and took on blame for White Rose activities in order to protect others who had not yet been arrested.
After the war his remains were transferred to the St. Johann Cemetery in Saarbrücken. Seven schools in Germany have been named after him, among them the Willi-Graf-Gymnasium in Munich and Saarbrücken-St. Johann; a student residence in Munich also honours Graf by bearing his name. In 2003, Willi Graf was posthumously awarded the status of honorary citizen of Saarbrücken.
The Catholic Church in Germany included Graf in their list of martyrs of the 20th century. In 2017, the archbishop of Munich and Freising, initiated the first step in the process of beatification, a preliminary investigation in which theologians and historians will analyse the life and writings of Graf.
- Tatjane Blaha: Willi Graf und die weiße Rose. Eine Rezeptionsgeschichte, Saur, München 2003,ISBN 978-3-598-11654-4.
- Hans-Josef Gebel: Konsequent – von der Schulbank bis zum Schaffott, in: Gedenkschrift zum 50. Jahrestag der Hinrichtung des Saarbrücker Widerstandskämpfer Willi Graf, Stadtverwaltung, Saarbrücken, p. 28–37.
- Hans-Josef Gebel: Willi Graf, ein Lebensbild. Zum 40. Jahrestag seiner Hinrichtung am 12. Oktober 1943, in: Zeitschrift für die Geschichte der Saargegend vol. 31 (1983).
- Theo Heinrichs: Willi Graf, Mitglied der Widerstandsgruppe "Weiße Rose", in: Gerd G. Koenig (Hrsg.): Cuchenheim 1084–1984, Euskirchen 1984, p. 153–163.
- Anneliese Knoop-Graf, Inge Jens (Hrsg.): Willi Graf. Briefe und Aufzeichnungen, Fischer, Frankfurt/M. 1994,ISBN 978-3-596-12367-4.
- Helmut Moll: Den Widerstand mit dem blutigen Tod bezahlt. Katholiken unter Hitlers Terror im Euskirchener Raum, in: Euskirchen im 20. Jahrhundert, Stadtverwaltung, Euskirchen 2002, p. 239–260.
- Klaus Vielhaber et al. (editor): Gewalt und Gewissen. Willi Graf und die "Weisse Rose". Eine Dokumentation, Herder, Freiburg/B. 1964.
- Hildegard Vieregg et al. (editor): Willi Grafs Jugend im Nationalsozialismus im Spiegel von Briefen, Gruppe Willi Graf im Bund Neudeutschland, München 1984.
- Klaus Vielhaber: Willi Graf. Von den Wurzeln der "Weißen Rose", in: Hirschberg vol. 10 (1983)