The Music of Resistance: Berlin’s Red Orchestra

Marcel Krueger on Berlin’s remarkably brave anti-Nazi resistance group… 

In Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1980 movie Lili Marleen, the director has a cameo: during a cloak and dagger scene in which the main protagonist Willie Bunterberg is recruited for the Germany resistance set in a limousine parked in a deserted car park, he plays a man in black hat and coat sitting silently and brooding on the backseat. When Hanna Schygulla, who plays Willie, turns around and asks him who he is, he responds: “Günter Weisenborn.”

Günther Weisenborn was born in the west German city of Velbert in 1902, grew up in nearby Opladen and started working as a freelancer for his local newspaper after school. After completing his German and medical studies in Cologne and Bonn, Günther proved himself a gifted writer and playwright and worked as an actor across Germany; in 1928, he moved to the capital. After starting work as a dramaturge at the Volksbühne, his anti-war play U-Boot S4 premiered there in October 1928. He immersed himself in the city’s artistic circles, working with Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich George (who played the lead in U-Boot) and Valeska Gert, while sampling the bohemian delights of the bars and clubs at night. His novel, Barbarians, was thrown onto the Nazis’ literary bonfire in 1933, but Günther continued to write under pseudonyms.

Increasingly frustrated with the Nazi regime he emigrated first to Argentina in 1936, and then the U.S., where he tried—unsuccessfully—to make it as journalist, returning to Germany in 1937. In that same year, he met with a young Luftwaffe officer on the Ku’Damm whom he already knew through his bohemian circles. The officer was Harro Schulze-Boysen, and Günther had unwittingly been recruited for Harro’s resistance circle, comprised largely of artists, scholars and free spirits.

The group was led by Harro and his wife Libertas, with whom Günther had written a play called Die guten Feinde (The Good Enemies), and had ties to Marxist economist and jurist Arvid Harnack (whose brother, Falk, was a member of Munich resistance group White Rose) and his American-German wife Mildred, a literary scholar and philologist. Continuing their bohemian lifestyle well into the early 1940s, the group met regularly for parties, readings and performances in the Schulze-Boysen apartment on Altenburger Allee 19 in the Westend, and ventured to the Berlin lakes for sailing, swimming and picnics. It was in the Altenburger Allee apartment that Günther met teacher, actress and resistance fighter Margarete Schnabel, called “Joy”, a friend of Libertas; Günther and Joy married in 1941.

Harro Schulze-Boysen (right) with Marta Husemann and Günther Weisenborn, (c) Deutsches Bundesarchiv

What likely appeared to the authorities as shallow hedonism hid a deeper program of resistance, especially as the group grew and recruited more likeminded people from all walks of life: artist couple Kurt and Elisabeth Schumacher, the writer Walter Küchenmeister, translator Greta Kuckhoff with her writer husband Adam Kuckhoff, the journalists John Graudenz and Gisela von Poellnitz, the doctors John Rittmeister and Elfriede Paul, the dancer Oda Schottmüller and the actress Marta Husemann with her husband Walter Husemann, were just some of the names involved. Notably, the group also included members of Jewish descent.

Over a couple of years Harro and Arvid united more than 150 Berlin opponents of National Socialism from different social origins and ideological backgrounds—40 percent of them women—and also made contact with other groups across occupied Europe. Their activities were equally diverse, from Libertas flirting with soldiers (and even top Nazi brass like Göring) to gain access to photos of Nazi atrocities, and Arvid Harnack and Adam Kuckhoff collecting intelligence from their official positions deep in the Third Reich’s Economic Ministry and Propaganda Units respectively, to helping concentration camp prisoners and persecuted Jews escape, writing, distributing and mailing pamphlets, and even producing an underground magazine for foreign workers. On May 22, 1942, just four days after an arson attack on the same exhibition by the (unrelated) Jewish resistance group of Herbert Baum, the group plastered the center of Berlin with hundreds of self-designed and self-printed leaflets protesting against the Nazi propaganda exhibition The Soviet Paradise.

Anti-Nazi leaflets distributed by the Red Orchestra group

Although the group never gave itself a name, the Gestapo eventually did: the ‘Rote Kapelle’, or ‘Red Orchestra’. The name emanated from the group’s contact with the Soviet secret service, which they had made contact with in 1941. Even though members like Harnack never considered themselves Soviet agents, simply communists and patriots helping anyone who could stop the Nazis, the Soviets sent them radio transmitters with which the group could relay coded military intelligence back to Moscow. Since a single radio operator was known as a “pianist” in Gestapo terms, the entire ensemble, when it was discovered via a transmission from Moscow in 1942, became known as an “orchestra”.

The Soviets had been particularly sloppy, and the transmission contained the addresses of Altenburger Alle as well as the locations of the Kuckhoffs’ and Harnacks’ apartments; over the next months, around 120 members were arrested, including Günther and Joy. Shocked by the size of the resistance organisation, and the fact that many of its members were part of the military, Hitler personally ordered “accelerated and aggravated sentencing” for the key members. It was on his orders that a metal beam was set up in the execution chamber of Plötzensee prison to serve as gallows for up to eight victims at a time to be hanged on metal hooks, as he did not want the soldiers of the group to be “honourably” executed by a shooting squad. The women were all to be guillotined.

Hermann Göring personally selected judge Manfred Roeder to lead the trial against the group at the notorious Berlin “People’s Court” or Volksgerichtshof kangaroo court. In a series of show trials beginning in December 1942, 65 people were discredited as a Soviet espionage organization, found guilty for “high and state treason” and sentenced to death. On December 22, 1942 Harro Schulze-Boysen, Arvid Harnack, Kurt Schumacher and John Graudenz and others were hanged at Plötzensee, some of them with piano wire to enhance their suffering. Libertas and Elisabeth Schuhmacher were among the first group of victims guillotined later that night; Mildred Harnack was executed in March 1943.

Somewhat miraculously, Günther and Joy survived. There was not enough evidence to link Joy to the inner circle of the group and she was released in late 1943. Günther, initially sentenced to death, eventually served a 10-year sentence at Luckau prison in Brandenburg, also due to a lack of evidence at the last minute. He was liberated by the Red Army in 1945 and, as one of the prisoners with the highest social profiles, promptly made mayor of nearby Langengrassau by the Soviet authorities. A few months later he was reunited with Joy in Berlin.

After the war, the perception of the so-called ‘Red Orchestra’ in both West Germany and the GDR was still heavily influenced by the Nazi trials: in the West, the members were defamed as Communist “traitors to the fatherland” for decades, and many West German historians classified them as a spy organisation in the service of the Cold War enemy. In the GDR on the other hand, they were idealised as anti-fascist heroes and portrayed as a tightly organised communist cadre controlled from Moscow. In a letter written to Harro’s brother Hartmut in 1987, even German chancellor Helmut Kohl denied them the right to be “part of the German resistance”, and their unjust sentencing for treason was not retracted by the courts of a unified Germany until 2009.

Image of the Plötzensee Prison where members of the Red Orchestra were executed. By Markus Schweiss, via Wikicommons

Their acts of resistance might not have been as dramatic and drastic as those of the 20th July plotters around Graf von Stauffenberg (which Weisenborn portrayed as the screenplay writer for Falk Harnack’s Der 20 Juli film), and they didn’t have the same youthful and tragic idealism that have given Sophie Scholl and the White Rose group such an enduring legacy today. But the members of the ‘Red Orchestra’ were nonetheless pacifists who fought the Nazi state in any way that they could, taking huge and brave risks to provide safe spaces and moments of relief and even joy during a time of injustice and terror.

Had their evidence of mass-murder operations on the Eastern front been taken more seriously by the Allies, the group’s efforts may well have been more effective. They may have even shortened the war or diminished the horrors of the holocaust (as was their aim). Nonetheless, Günther Weisenborn never stopped fighting for the honour and memory of the friends he and Joy had lost. In 1945 he founded the Berlin Hebbel Theater together with Karlheinz Martin, and also co-founded Studio 46, which premiered his first play about his experiences in the German Resistance in 1947, Die Illegalen (The Illegals). In 1953, he published his book Der lautlose Aufstand (The Silent Rebellion), the first comprehensive report of German resistance against the Nazis.

Joy and Günther Weisenborn, ca. 1940, (c) Christian Weisenborn

He also continued to fight Nazis in the German courts. Shortly after the war, Manfred Roeder, by now a holocaust denier and member of Neonazi parties such as Sozialistische Reichspartei (SRP) and Deutschen Reichspartei (DRP), began working as a judge again. He published articles and books about the members of the ‘Red Orchestra’ in order to continue defaming them as spies and traitors. In 1947, Günther, Adolf Grimme and Greta Kuckhoff had already filed a lawsuit against Roeder, but the state’s attorney in Lüneburg, where Roeder lived, delayed the trial until the end of the 1960s, when it was dropped. Roeder continued live a good life on a judge’s pension until his death in 1971.

Günther and Joy increasingly spent time away from Germany and travelled widely to China, India and the USSR. Günther died in 1969, Joy in 2004; both are buried in Aragone in Switzerland. In his memoir Memorial (1947), Günther again remembered his friends and their fight for a better Germany:

A large part of the body of the German people had been trapped and thrown into the country’s basements. And here, not in the Nazi regime’s sunlit daily life of hate, down here the beauty of human greatness, the silent comradeship of the dedicated, the brotherhood of noble suffering was revealed. Down here humanity progressed on its painful way into the future. Down here the torches of humanity were passed from the hand of a noble dead to the next, from scaffold to scaffold.


Let me also report to future generations that the deep sadness into which the death of so many of our friends has thrown us was increased by the encompassing disappointment that the development of the world after the war has brought us. But what is the use of lamentations amidst a sea of wailing?    

Sculpture by Achim Kühn created in 2010, located in Schulze-Boysen-Straße 12, Lichtenberg, Berlin. Photo via Wikicommons.

You can find out more about the Red Orchestra at Berlin’s German Resistance Museum, as well as in Anne Nelson’s book Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler