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Monday, June 1

Red Orchestra: finally, after all these decades, the truth comes out about why so few Germans resisted the Nazis

There have been important developments on the swine flu front, which I'll be posting on tomorrow morning. But I am snatching a few moments away from swine flu to talk about John Batchelor's radio interview last night with University of Columbia Professor Anne Nelson, the author of Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler.

Here is the link for the podcast of the interview; it's the last 20 minutes. John's questions and comments bring out some larger aspects of the story that Nelson doesn't explicitly address in her book.

Red Orchestra reads like a spy novel page-turner but it's a meticulously researched history of the circle of people who repeatedly risked their lives to resist the Nazis, pass valuable intelligence on Nazi activities to the Allies, and aid Jews who were their neighbors and friends.

Several in the circle were eventually murdered by the Nazis, who relentlessly hunted them. But their unwavering courage in the face of overwhelming odds is a monument to all that is great and good about humanity.

Red Orchestra will be a revelation to those who assume there was no German resistance movement; it was certainly a revelation to me. John's questions to the author brought out why the resistance is not well known:

Because the circle was comprised of Communists and Leftists, and because after the war the Allies and the German government had a vested interest in downplaying any heroism on the part of such Germans. And because one Nazi, who was slated to face trial at Nuremberg for his atrocities against members of the circle, told the Americans that if they would spare him the trial he would give them valuable intelligence on Communists, which they did. His intelligence turned out to be a crock, but by then it was too late for the story to emerge through that route.

And so the German resistance to Hitler's regime stayed virtually unknown to the general public in Germany and around the world -- until the publication of Anne Nelson's book.

That leads to the question of why the circle of resisters was small, and to the question I remember from my childhood that my father asked: How could a country that produced Bach and Beethoven also produce the Nazi regime?

I wish he'd lived long enough to hear John's interview with Anne Nelson. It turns out the answer to both questions is horrifying in its simplicity:

As soon as the Nazis took power they also took complete control of the German media. And they sent to concentration camps -- already set up as early as 1933, which I didn't know until the interview -- or outright killed any German who spoke against them. Or they tortured and terrorized protestors into submission.

The Nazis were a ruthlessly efficient gang of thugs, who came to power on German fears that 'street wars' between political factions would destroy the country. The Nazis promised to restore order; they delivered, but using tactics that criminal gangs deploy to capture and hold turf.

Nelson recounted that so great was the attention the Nazis gave to controlling even the slightest protest that they beat up a group of American tourists who watched a parade -- simply because the Americans didn't properly salute the Nazi flag.

That's how it was done. And that's why the majority of Germans learned too late what the Nazis really were. Media control does have that effect of masking a brutal government's true face.

The feat of total media control would be virtually impossible to replicate today, as Burma's junta learned during the Burma protests. All it takes is one person with a cell phone camera, one person with a laptop, and 15 minutes later the whole world knows the real story.

But that is now, and 1933 was then.

Americans should be proud to discover that one of the circle, John Sieg, an American with dual German citizenship, was inspired by the U.S. labor movement. Others in the circle, as well, took inspiration from America's strong defense of civil liberties.

And females the world over should be proud to learn that almost half the Red Orchestra's members were women.

Germans should also be proud to know there was a resistance movement -- and that it put up one hell of a fight to represent the best of the German people.

Thank you Anne Nelson, and thanks to John Batchelor, for helping to bring the story of the Red Orchestra to greater light.

June 2 Update

Here is more information on the Red Orchestra. A big thanks to Procrustes at RBO, which crossposted this entry today, for her research on other works about the Red Orchestra and for providing the following links.

  • Red Orchestra in the Wikipedia.
  • Book: Shareen Blair Brysac, Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra, 2002; Google book; Cast of Characters.
  • The Red Orchestra / Die Rote Kapelle, A Documentary Film by Stefan Roloff, Nominated Best Foreign Film 2005, US Women Critics Circle. Synopsis in English.
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