the Red Orchestra

The Holocaust must be remembered. But the way it’s remembered is equally important. Too often, the genocide gets represented as an act of unthinkable evil. That’s an evasion. Obviously, the Holocaust was evil but it wasn’t unthinkable — it happened, after all. Anyone can condemn abstract monsters but the Holocaust challenges us precisely because the exterminations were carried out not by demons but by flesh and blood people in the most advanced nation in Europe. Transforming Hitler into a theological problem rather than a political one robs us of any ability to understand what took place and why, and thus disarms us in the face of future genocides. Which is why Anne Nelson’s book Red Orchestra sounds so interesting.

As the NYT reviewer points out, there’s been a strange historical neglect of the resistance to the Nazis. Again, it’s more comforting to think that there something inherent in Germans that led them to acquiesce to Hitler rather than to consider the series of political choices presented to ordinary people at that time. And some Germans, at least, chose to resist:

In the most terrifying years of the Third Reich, a loose confederacy of more than 100 individuals did attempt the impossible, trying to assist and rescue Jews and to surreptitiously distribute leaflets and post handbills and stickers against the Nazis.

The participants worked — however much in vain — to turn an enthralled populace against Hitler. They also strove to bring news of the regime’s crimes (and eventually the Nazi military’s war plans) to the attention of the Allies. And as mass-murder operations on the Eastern front escalated, members began to put together a secret archive of photographs and documents in the hope that if the Germans were ever militarily defeated, the material could be used to bring the perpetrators to justice.

They were labeled the “Red Orchestra” by German military intelligence operatives who intercepted the radio transmissions between members of the group and their (as it turned out, phenomenally feckless) Soviet contacts. As Nelson adeptly documents, the Soviets’ haplessness was matched, although not exceeded, by the myopic lack of interest of the Americans and the British in German resistance activities. This would be simply a matter of dark absurdity were it not for the horrendous consequences. Had the military information gathered by Red Orchestra members been properly received by the Allies, the war might have been shorter — and the Holocaust smaller.

Red Orchestra members came from all walks of life and every possible anti-­Nazi political orientation — from Protestant aristocrats in the highest echelons of the nation’s elite to academics to bohemians involved in theater and film to Catholic, Social Democratic and Communist Party-affiliated workers. Participants also included a number of Jews and so-called half-Jews. Most never knew more than a handful of the others. They were linked by ties of romance, friendship and sheer disgust at Nazism and revulsion at its anti-Semitism. Nelson grippingly describes the insanity-inducing sensation they felt at being unable to convince their fellow citizens of the evil engulfing German society while, at the same time, having no idea if and when the madness would end.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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