Monday, February 1, 2010

The Red Orchestra by Anne Nelson

To Harro Schulze-Boyson (whose extraordinary facility with many languages led him to a position in the intelligence division of Goring's Air Ministry), Arvid Harnack ( well-placed in the Economics Ministry of Adolf Hitler's regime) and Adam Kuckoff (playwright, novelist, journalist, screenwriter), the fact that the Soviets utterly failed to heed their warning about the impending invasion of Russia in 1941 was incomprehensible. But there was more to the story than they would ever know.

Stalin had received additional warnings from across the globe as an uncertain and hesitating world began to coalesce against the Nazis. Harro Schulze- Boysen's intelligence had been the most detailed, but his information was reinforced by a remarkable array of sources across a broad political spectrum. These included the State Department in Washington, the Tory Government in London, a German-Russian Communist agent in Tokyo and a German Lutheran exile in Lucerne. All of them believed it was in their interest to warn the Soviets of the German invasion.

Washington's alert resulted from the efforts of Erwin Respondek, a German economist also well-connected in Nazis circles but secretly offended by their anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic policies. Respondek shared his secrets with a U.S. embassy official in Berlin named Sam Woods though the U.S. mission in Berlin was openly hostile to the idea of gathering intelligence. As the Nazis advanced their scenario leading to world war, the U.S. chief of mission stated that it was improper for American diplomats to "run around Berlin digging up secrets." Woods managed to forward the information to Washington nonetheless.

Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles was among the few who took Wood's report seriously. On March 1st he passed along Respondek's warning to the Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Konstantin Oumansky, an agile Stalinist who had come through the recent purges unscathed. The Soviet's reaction to Welles' assistance was to place a call to the charge' at the German embassy, and tell him that the American's were spreading ugly rumors designed to damage German-Soviet friendship.

On April 3rd, Winston Churchill instructed his ambassador to Moscow to deliver his personal note to Stalin. The message described the massive build-up on the Soviet border, which the British had learned about by intercepting coded German messages.

Soviet agent Richard Sorge, the Russian-German working for the Soviets in Tokyo, sent Moscow an even more precise alert, pinning down the date of the invasion as June 22.

Sorge's June date was confirmed by Rudolf Roessler, who has been called the most effective anti-Nazi agent of the entire war. Roessler, a nondescript journalist from Bavaria, had student ties to a group of young men who became career officers in the German military. Roessler moved to Berlin in the 1920s and was appointed public arts administrator in the field of the theater. His publications quoted Adam Kuckoff, and he worked under the ministry of Adam's friend Adolf Grimme. Roessler's department was purged by the Nazis in April 1933, and he fled to Switzerland the following year. There he established contact with Swiss intelligence and began to pass information from his military friends in Germany to the Swiss, who shared it with the French. As war approached and the Swiss remained neutral, Roessler turned his attention to the Soviet Union.

Roessler's information was delivered to Soviet army intelligence, while Arvid Harnack's and Harro Schulzed-Boysen's reports were routed through the NKVD. But all of them pointed in the same direction, and all were ignored. Over a hundred warnings from various sources reached Moscow before the German invasion took place. The final alarm was sounded on the eve of the attack, when a German soldier deserted and crossed the lines. He informed his Russian interrogators that the invasion would be launched at three o'clock the next morning. Stalin received the report three hours later- and responded by ordering the German deserter to be shot.

Once the invasion was launched, Soviet intelligence was frantic to get more news from Berlin. But now the Soviet embassy route was closed. Arvid Harnack and Harro Schulze-Boysen continued to diligently gather information and divide the necessary tasks among their circle, who encoded the messages and delivered them to the designated radio operators. What none of them realized was that, due to defective radio transmitters and novice operators, their efforts were in vain.

The arrival of the Soviet agent Anatoli Gourevitch at his door on October 29, 1941, came to Harro Schuzle as a complete surprise but he did not focus on the breach of security. He was pleased by the Soviet's appearance. He had been trying to undermine the Nazis for months with his transmissions of intelligence, with no evidence that it was getting through. The German army was closing in on Moscow, and it appeared that the next few months would determine the outcome of the war. The two men sat down in the living room and Harro offered his visitor a long menu of military intelligence, which Kent carefully recorded in his notebook.

Harro handed the Soviet a motherload of invaluable intelligence which, from his station in Brussels, Gourevitch transmitted in marathon sessions, breaking every possible security precaution by staying on the air for long sessions every night, for seven days straight. This gave German counterintelligence an easy means of honing in on the signal. They tracked the transmissions and carefully recorded the coded content.

By the fall of 1942 the Gestapo had decoded the messages and completed their investigation. Over 120 people were detained in connection with the case. Torture was meticulously monitored by an SS doctor to gauge the effect on the prisoners' health. Official records showed that Harro Schulze-Boysen's questioning began with twelve blows of an ax handle. Arvid Harnack, John Graudenz, and Adam Kuckoff were beaten with rubber truncheons. Seventy-nine defendants linked to the Red Orchestra group were tried in a total of nineteen trials in the seven months between December 15, 1942, and July 1943. Forty -five were sentenced to death, twenty-nine were sent to prison, and two were acquitted for lack of evidence, though one of these was sent directly to Ravensbruck concentration camp anyway.

Our forces were few. The goal lay far in the distance.
It was clearly visible, though I probably wouldn't reach it myself.
So went the time I was granted on earth.

You, who will emerge from the flood that submerged us,
Also remember, when you speak of our weaknesses,
The dark times you have been spared.

-Bertolt Brecht-


  1. "Red Orchestra; The Story of the Berlin Underground and the the Circle of Friends who Resisted Hitler" by Anne Nelson, Random House, 2009

  2. In November 1930, Goebbels won party financing to take his newspaper from a weekly to a daily publication, which also allowed him to lower the newsstand price and expand the content. Goebbels used "Der Angriff" to fashion a parallel Nazi universe of ideology, behavior and myth. Like other newspapers, it covered political and economic issues, but Goebbels added women's pages, book and music reviews, even sports coverage, all of it delivered from a Nazi perspective. As Scholar Russell Lemmons writes:

    "'Der Angriff' was part of an attempt by the Nazi Party to lay the foundation of a future totalitarian society; one in which the Fuhrer and his minions would have the last say on all matters, public and private, and no one would have the information to oppose them. 'Der Angriff', and papers like it, would provide a valuable training ground for the furture leaders of the Third Reich's propaganda apparatus, and this trend towards the creation of an all-encompassing world view would continue, indeed accelerate, during Hitler's years in power."

    Perhaps not even Goebbels realized it at the time, but his vision of 'Der Angriff' would serve as a blueprint for the Nazis future policy of 'Gleichschaltung': "shaping everything into conformity" by reaching into every sector of society to erase the inconvenient aspects of the past, root out dissent and envelop the public in Nazi values.

    A large part of the Red Orchestra group's work was subverting the stranglehold the Nazis had on news and information by collecting, discussing and distributing hand printed publications about events- such as atrocities committed against Communists, Jews, Social Democrats (and all the others) or the real military situation -about which most Germans were uninformed. This 'agripop' exposed them to far greater risks of detection then their clandestine spying operations and had almost no real effect, but they felt compelled to do things like painting graffiti, passing pamphlets, mailing letters and occasionally even setting off a bomb. Workers associated with Red Orchestra in factories and on transportation lines engaged in sabotage.

  3. "Red" was a misnomer. Only a handful of the members of the group were strongly credentialed in the German Communist Party. Thus, their intelligence was suspect both from the perspective of the GCP and Soviet perspective, the later regarding the German comrades as flies in the ointment of THEIR International.

    The Orchestral group had a wide range of affiliations- Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish, Social Democrat etc.- "I witnessed the strange alliance that take shape in such situations, aligning individuals with differing religious and ideological beliefs through a commitment to a common humanity", wrote the author.

    A majority of the members of the group were associated with the arts: academic,literary, theatrical, cinematic, including many painters and sculptors. Most, including their proletarian brothers, managed to maintain fairly responsible positions with in the Nazis regime. It was not possible for the Nazis to run their State without the assistance of people whose loyalty might, under close inspection, be regarded as suspicious. Many of the members of the group had been arrested and served time in the "wild camps" in the early days of the Nazi take-over, but this fact could be concealed from , ignored, or brushed aide by officials. Nevertheless, members of the group had to be very careful about how and under what circumstances they spoke.

    In some respects 'Gleichschaltung' made this easier. Among top Nazis leaders, of course, enforcement of policies were often 'arbitrary', depending on what social connections and personal opportunities were involved, perhaps somewhat like what happens in America today under the rubric of "equal opportunity, which is why "affirmative action" has appeal for those with strong ethical and historical consciousness.