Blogs > Cliopatria > Patrick Devenny: Review of Anne Nelson's Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler (Random House)

May 29, 2009 1:00 pm

Patrick Devenny: Review of Anne Nelson's Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler (Random House)

[Patrick Devenny is a graduate of the History Department at Rutgers University. He lives in Virginia.]

In the run-up to the publication of their latest book on Soviet espionage in America, historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr have yet again named names, identifying prominent Americans who purportedly cooperated with Soviet intelligence. Often lost in the resultant, politically-heated conversation is the ease by which these individuals conducted these activities. Throughout the 1930s, American agents of the KGB had more to fear from their masters in Moscow than from American law enforcement. Even when tipped off by informants such as Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, there was little that a peacetime federal government with no counterintelligence capability could do, especially given the stature of some of those implicated. As a result, most of the individuals involved in the KGB’s American networks evaded punishment.

Such fates were unthinkable for another set of Soviet intelligence assets plying their trade across the Atlantic. The “Rote Kapelle” or "Red Orchestra" -- dubbed by Nazi spy-hunters who listened to their communications -- was one network among several European anti-Nazi rings that worked under circumstances inconceivable to their dilettante American cousins. Their story is retold in Red Orchestra by Anne Nelson, a former foreign correspondent and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Armed with an unrivaled body of research and a playwright’s sense for drama, Ms. Nelson weaves an engaging story. The tale lends itself to histrionics: rather than a straight intelligence study, Nelson's volume concentrates less on the group’s espionage and more on weaving personal portraits of Orchestra members.

The history itself demands this emphasis: one of the immediate insights Ms. Nelson offers is that the members of the Orchestra never characterized themselves as spies -- collusion with the Soviets was only the most expedient tactic available to damage the regime. Nor were they very good at it: Ms. Nelson refers to their intelligence activity as marked by “zealous ineptitude.” Instead, the motley collection of friends, relatives, and fellow travelers saw themselves foremost as political opponents of the Nazi regime: the majority of their activities were acts of subversion, not espionage. These included the publication of underground newspapers, distribution of fliers, and the defacement of Nazi propaganda.

Its members, most of whom lived and worked within blocks of prominent Nazi government offices in Berlin, were organized into cells bound by a myriad of familiar, religious, or political ties; indeed, keeping straight the variety of members and their quixotic backgrounds will challenge most readers. Thankfully, Ms. Nelson includes a membership list for reference and focuses on a finite set of central characters, including Avrid Harnack, a distinguished economist who had taught at the University of Wisconsin. The chief architect of the Orchestra, Harnack utilized his contacts in opposition circles as well as his access to German economic data to covertly build an ever wider web of sympathizers. Also featured prominently are Adam Kuckhoff and his wife Greta, whose stories Nelson uses deftly to describe broader dynamics at work within the Orchestra.

Personal motivations were as varied as the membership, with apolitical disgust for the violent transformation of German life serving as the central driver. The internment and execution of friends or relatives provided additional impetus. Ms. Nelson describes many Orchestra members as traumatized, their secure worlds of artistic expression and political dialogue shattered by a few months of Nazi brutality. This trauma was not wholly psychological: many Orchestra members had been exposed early on to organized raids and the "wild camps," progenitors to concentration camps, where Nazi opponents were viciously beaten, tortured, and often killed. Even after this abrupt exposure to cruelty, many still enlisted in the underground.

Few members of the Berlin Red Orchestra were doctrinaire communists. Rather, its ranks included Social Democrats, anti-Nazi Protestants, and several communists and trade unionists. Further attesting to the organization’s heterodox political nature were the connections it maintained throughout the colorful ideological spectrum that defined the anti-Nazi underground: for instance, Arvid's cousins included Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a leader in the Protestant opposition to Hitler. The Orchestra also maintained contact with conservatives involved in the plots hatched by chief of German military intelligence, Wilhelm Canaris. Faced with persecution and torture, these political rivals were usually able to set their disputes aside, a concordant summarized by the communist actor Hans Otto: "Look -- we are all for the overthrow of tyranny. We can all come to an agreement about the kind of order that should be set up afterwards."

Nelson's portrait of an ideologically inclusive Orchestra is strengthened by the fact that the network could have easily been Red, White and Blue: Arvid’s experience in America led him throughout the late 1930s to meet with American embassy officials. During such conversations, he covertly provided interlocutors with sensitive data concerning the German economy and various rearmament schemes. Over time, however, Arvid was ignored; America had no spy agency, and the thought of diplomats moonlighting as agents led the American chief of mission in Berlin to declare that his personnel would not "run around Berlin digging up secrets."

The Soviets, supposed masters of espionage, proved similarly incompetent. Although Moscow had built a substantial network of German communists throughout the early 1930s, these connections had been disrupted by Nazi persecution and Stalin's purges. Many German communists who fled Nazi camps in 1933 reached Moscow only to be transferred to gulags for their “foreign” views. The ranks of the Soviet intelligence service were similarly affected by Stalin's bloodlust: only two of the sixteen members of the Berlin rezidentura survived the 30s.

It was a lost opportunity, especially as the Orchestra’s expanding ranks gained access to new information concerning the plans and strategies of the Nazi regime. Few enjoyed the access of Harro Schulze-Boysen, a larger-than-life Luftwaffe intelligence officer who espoused a flighty mix of humanism and democracy. His resistance to Hitler, however, was grounded: once, after being run through a gauntlet of whip-cracking Nazis three times after an initial arrest in 1933, he defiantly offered to run it a fourth time. His careless daring, along with his libertine wife's espionage work against the Nazi propaganda machine provide "Red Orchestra" with its most engrossing narrative.

By 1940, Harro – a natural linguist – had assumed a position within the Luftwaffe command staff, and enjoyed regular access to sensitive information throughout 1940 and 1941. Although the hapless Soviets established a connection to Harro in 1941, they were deaf to his warnings. Harro --codenamed Starshina – provided specific information as to German preparations for Barbarossa, the planned invasion of the USSR. Only seven days before the invasion, Harro informed his handlers that an attack was imminent. In reply, Stalin wrote:

"Comrade Merkulov, you can send your 'source' from the headquarters of German aviation back to his much-f----- mother. This is no informer, this is a disinformer."

Following the invasion, Soviet maintenance of the Berlin Rote Kapelle in Berlin was, simply put, a farce. Radios failed and bumbling Soviet agents regularly endangered the Orchestra: in an August 1941 communiqué to an agent in Brussels, the KGB instructed him to make contact with Orchestra members whose addresses were supplied in the cable. This unthinkable lapse in security would prove to be the Orchestra's undoing, as would other Soviet errors, such as marathon transmission sessions which were detected by German code breakers. Ms. Nelson succeeds in conveying the shock and dread that befell the Orchestra’s membership as German agents captured them, one by one, throughout the first half of 1942. Their fates were almost uniformly tragic, as Hitler insisted on strenuous prosecution no matter the status or connections of the accused. Kuckhoff, Avrid, and Herro were all executed, as were dozens of their associates.

Even in memory the Orchestra could not escape persecution. American intelligence was first introduced to the Orchestra in 1945 when they interviewed a new German asset -- Manfred Roeder, the German military judge who had sentenced many of the network’s members, including Harro, to death. Roeder informed his clueless American handlers that the Orchestra was in lockstep with the Soviet cause, leading to American interrogation and surveillance of surviving members. The Soviets, loathe to hear that non-communists had made up the majority of the Orchestra’s ranks, erased many members while elevating loyal agents in their official history.

Ms. Nelson does much to exalt the legacy of the Orchestra, but the reader is nonetheless left with an uncomfortable question: did the group “matter”? Regardless of their work, the Nazi juggernaut advanced, millions died, and the regime was only destroyed through concerted military action from external actors. Ms. Nelson deals with the question artfully, citing poetry airily extolling the power of example and moral fortitude. It is thoroughly, and tragically, unsatisfying.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 6/30/2009


Certainly as historians we should consider the longer term impact of actions such as those described in this book. But that is a narrow definition of what matters.

I have no idea how Ms. Nelson deals with the question, but whether an act deflects history is something that can never be known in advance.

These people acted in a frightening time and within the limits of their own skills. That they tried to deflect the history of their time is what matters in that time.