, It was a loose network of like-minded people. Some were Bohemian/artist types. Others were stone-cold killers and assassins. Some members of the group were privileged aristocrats while others were more proletariat. A few were atheists, or Christian while many were Jewish. The group was given the name in Germany as the Die Rote Kapelle or The Red Orchestra.
What this disparate network of people had in common was a passionate opposition to the World War II Nazi regime and an affinity for Hitler’s sworn enemy, the Soviet Union. Much of the clandestine activities of this anti-Nazi resistance and spy ring took place in and around Brussels. Interestingly, nearly half of the Red Orchestra’s members were women. What follows is a brief snapshot into the lives of just a few of these women and how their brief biographies tell a larger story.
Zosha Poznanska (1906-1942),, as a young Jewish girl, witnessed only too vividly the rise of antisemitism and fascism in her native Poland. Idealistic almost to a fault, she emigrated to Palestine (later known as Israel) as a teenager. In Palestine she quickly became disillusioned with “Kibbutz Socialism” (her words) finding it difficult to reconcile Zionist politics with the displacement of the local Arab population. At the same time, Zosha found the imperialistic policies of the British mandate odious. She began to passionately believe that international Communism offered the last best hope for the general brotherhood of man.
She joined the Palestine Communist Party. Her idealism was only strengthened when the British suppressed all things “communist.” Sosha and some of her close friends emigrated once again—this time to Western Europe. From 1930-1940 she lived in Brussels working in a gas mask factory. Very little is known of her life during this period as Europe began to be menaced by Adolf Hitler. What is known is that she had communications with other resistance groups in Paris, Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Berlin. Notably, she visited the Soviet Union where she was trained in radio transmitting, enciphering, and cryptography.
From the gas mask factory in occupied Brussels—an industry connected to the German military industry—she actively passed on intelligence to the Soviets. On December 12, 1941, her apartment at 101 Rue des Poznanski was raided by the Gestapo. There they found Zosha, with a radio transmitter still warm, trying to burn enciphered messages, equipment needed to forge documents, fake passports, and supplies of invisible ink. She was arrested and sent to St. Gilles Prison (south of Brussels). Sosha was tortured in unspeakable ways but never revealed any Red Orchestra secrets. She committed suicide by hanging in September 1942 and was buried in a mass grave on prison grounds.
Libertas (“Libs”) Schulze-Boysen’s background could not be any more different. She was a German aristocratic noblewoman who initially was very sympathetic to the rise of the Nazis. Libs had built her literary career as a press agent, writer, and journalist and as such, had a great deal of contact with people from different strata of German society– many of whom were confessed anti-Nazi. Libs slowly began to change her sympathies, especially after marrying Luftwaffe officer Haro Schulze-Boysen. Together they were very social often holding dinner parties, discussion groups, and evening picnics searching for alternatives to unrestricted capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, but especially German fascism.
The couple became infatuated with the Soviet system seeing it as a solution to the hyperinflation and unemployment that Germany suffered. They felt that capitalism was ideologically bankrupt and looked to the Soviet model of five-year plans as a better solution. Using their position in society—she as a prolific journalist and he as an entrenched Luftwaffe economic officer—they were able to supply the Brussels safe house with military and economic intelligence to the Soviet Union.
However, in the very same raid that spelled the demise of Sosha Poznanska, the Gestapo uncovered many coded messages traced back to Libs and her husband Haro. They were arrested in August 1942, tried by the highest military court with no jury and only Gestapo witnesses, and found guilty of high treason. Haro was summarily executed by hanging and his wife Libs 90 minutes later. Their resting place is unknown.
Oda Schottmüller (1905-1943) believed politics distracted her from her dream of becoming an artist. She had a laissez-fair attitude towards politics, studying and work. Oda focused on an arts and crafts education concentrating on goldsmithing, pottery, sculpture, and enamel painting. Later she turned to theater and dance. In the early 1930’s she designed costumes and wooden masks to incorporate into her dance performances.
In 1933 by decree, all dancers had to register with the Reich’s Chamber of Culture. What was considered “ expressive and experimental dance” was prohibited. Oda, either by negligence or choice, failed to register and instead toured the Netherlands, France, and Belgium. Throughout the inter-war period of the late 1930s, Ode Scottmüller received very favorable reviews for her exotic art.
In 1935 Ode was involved in a love affair with the infamous Kurt Schumacher. He was a member of the Reichstag (German Parliament) but covertly a member of the Red Orchestra and a staunchly outspoken anti-Nazi. In one speech before the legislative body, Schumacher excoriated Nazism as a “continuous appeal to the inner swine in human beings…successful in mobilizing human stupidity.”
Shortly thereafter, Schumacher was arrested and sent to a Nazi concentration prison camp where he would spend the next decade. He survived and later reemerged to become chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. Perhaps it was guilt by association with Schumacher, the free expression of her art, or her failure to register with the Reich, but Ode was arrested “for aiding and abetting the preparation of a treasonable enterprise and enemy favoritism.” She was executed by guillotine in 1943. In the last letter to her father, she stated “ I was not aware of my stupidity and cluelessness about political things …I am entirely unaware of these things.”
Mildred Harnack was the only American woman executed by the direct order of Adolf Hitler. She met her future German husband Arvid Harnack, a German economist, while both were graduate students at the University of Wisconsin. In 1929 they moved to Jena, Germany where they were welcomed by the academic and journalistic communities. They were appalled at the direction of German society and discreetly began to resist Nazism. They networked with other like-minded resistance groups within Germany and Belgium and even some in the United States Embassy. Mildred and Arvid established what they called “The Circle.”
They printed leaflets, posters, and stickers, held discussions but more importantly, passed sensitive information gleaned from Arvid’s position at the Reich’s Economic Ministry. By 1935 “The Circle” had developed into an anti-fascist resistance group that collaborated with Soviet agents to defeat Hitler. For the next five years “The Circle,” now known as the Red Orchestra, interacted with other spy groups —most notably the Brussels group, to pass on vital information to the Soviets.
The Harnacks’ lived dangerously, however. They were too vocal in their recruitment, too public in their opinions, and too careless in their radio transmissions. They were under suspicion and fled to Lithuania but were captured by the Gestapo. In December of 1942, Arvid was hung in the Plotzensee prison. Initially, Mildred was sentenced to a six-year prison term. Adolf Hitler subsequently refused to endorse that sentence and ordered her immediate death sentence. Mildre Harnack was beheaded by guillotine. Her last words were “ …and I too so loved Germany.”
The nightmare known as World War II is considered the deadliest armed conflict in human history with up to 85 million casualties. It has been said (paraphrased) that the death of a million people is a statistic but the death of one person is a tragedy.
The tragic biographies of Zosha, Libs, Ode, and Mildred speak to this point. Admittedly their stories do not tell the whole story. It would be hard ( read, impossible!) to quantify the effect these Red Orchestra women had on the world events of the time. But what they do tell us is that while they did not see themselves as James Bond, cloak and dagger-type spies, they did act as resistance soldiers in the vanguard of what they hoped to be a worldwide revolution. Zosha, Libs, Oda, and Mildred made dangerous choices and they paid the ultimate price. There were no winners.