It was Harro Schulze-Boysen’s idea: The activists would go around Berlin disguised as couples and while pretending to hug and kiss, one of them would discreetly place a sticker on a bus shelter, streetlight or anywhere else the message could be read.
This was no vacuous PR stunt. It was an attempt by a group of brave men and women – in the spring of 1942, no less – to speak directly to fellow Germans about the Nazis’ ruinous war efforts. “The Nazi Paradise: War. Hunger. Lies. Gestapo. How much longer?” the sticker declared.
Within the year, all of the ringleaders involved in its production would be dead, executed for their treasonable deeds by a fascist regime that, to the end, was baffled by their actions.
If you’re thinking that a book about German resistance fighters might be rivaled for brevity only by “Great British Recipes” and “My Favorite Novels” by Donald Trump – think again. “The Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis” is full of amazing stories about Harro Schulze-Boysen and his wife Libertas, a young couple that was part of a free-thinking, free-loving informal network in the 1930s and early ’40s that was so unconventional, it didn’t even give itself a name.
Its 150 or so members – almost half of whom were women – did have a mission, though: to speak out against Hitler and the Nazi regime, which went against everything these overwhelmingly middle class, liberal “patriots” (their term) believed in.
“The Bohemians” was written by Norman Ohler, who came across Harro Schulze-Boysen while researching for his previous nonfiction book, “Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany” – which became an international bestseller in 2016 thanks to its jaw-dropping revelations about a German army hopelessly addicted to a “speedamin” called Pervitin and Hitler’s voracious drug habit, plus tabloid-esque chapter headings like “Sieg High,” “High Hitler” and “Everyone says ‘High’” (only two of those are true).
In “The Bohemians,” Ohler explains to Haaretz, he wanted to tell the story of what it felt like to live in Berlin during the 1930s and ’40s, and “to really imagine how it was for Harro and Libertas and their friends to live in this city when suddenly the Nazis come and destroy everything they love.”
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Ohler, 50, actually lives a short distance from Harro Schulze-Boysen Strasse in Berlin. But the fact that the street is situated in what was once East Germany is telling.
“East Germans, when you say Harro Schulze-Boysen, they kind of say, ‘Yeah, I heard the name, he was a resistance fighter, anti-fascist.’ But that’s basically all they know. And in [what was] West Germany, people don’t really know anything. Not many people have heard about them because the remembrance about them was repressed, since in West Germany they were also considered communist spies – and why would communist spies be remembered in capitalist, American-oriented West Germany?”
We’ll get to the Russian angle later, but for now let’s concentrate on that somewhat oxymoronic concept of “German resistance fighter.”
There are a handful of well-known Germans who tried to stop Hitler: Most famously, Claus von Stauffenberg and his July 1944 attempt to blow up Hitler in a bunker (close but no cigar, as Churchill might have said); and Georg Elser, the lone wolf who tried to assassinate the “führer” in Munich in November 1939. Sophie Scholl was executed in February 1943 for handing out anti-war leaflets at the University of Munich as part of the nonviolent White Rose movement.
You’d think that Germany – like France and Poland have done before it – might be eager to play up a story that presents some of its wartime citizens in a more favorable light. Yet when the German version of the book came out last fall, Ohler admits to being surprised that his revelations about the Schulze-Boysens and their friends didn’t cause more of a stir.
“I felt a little bit that the press was embarrassed that they hadn’t written about them before,” he says. “It’s a bit strange: We should be so happy to have more resistance fighters – because we didn’t have many – but somehow the Germans have a problem with resistance, acknowledging who and what” happened. “I thought they would be even more appreciated,” he says, laughing as he adds: “I thought I would maybe have a reading from the book in front of the German president or something, but it just didn’t happen.”
Nearly a year on, he’s still puzzled by that Germanic nonreaction to the heroics of Harro and Libertas. “We have White Rose and we have Stauffenberg – those are the two [resistance fighters] everyone agrees on,” Ohler says. Perhaps the difference in attitude stems from Harro’s characterization as a free thinker – and socialist. “Socialist ideas are not very welcome in Germany these days,” Ohler notes.
“I think people just have a problem with getting their head around Harro – and this was actually true back when he was still alive,” he adds. “He’s an out-of-the-box thinker and person; he doesn’t fit into any system. He didn’t give his group a name because he didn’t want to be labeled – which I think is very smart, but it didn’t help him in terms of being remembered.”
The lieutenant and the film censor
What’s remarkable about the Schulze-Boysens is that they inhabited a world of privilege but were prepared to risk it all. These apparent bastions of Nazi Germany – Harro a lieutenant in the Reich Air Ministry run by Hermann Göring; Libertas a film censor in a senior position at the Kulturfilm-Zentrale – were involved in the writing and distribution of anti-Nazi pamphlets, holding secret meetings with like-minded liberals and still have time for affairs other than those of state.
Indeed, with its extramarital flings and unconventional couplings, “The Bohemians” feels at times like a sequel to “Cabaret” and those decadent last days of the Weimar Republic. “For me, that was the most surprising thing: That they kept some of the ways of social and sexual interactions that developed during the Weimar Republic, which was an open time,” Ohler notes. “Their kind of continuation of that, I think, is quite fascinating – they understood that politics is the private life. [French social theorist Michel] Foucault would probably agree with that.”
I suggest to Ohler that as a resistance group, the Schulze-Boysens and their acolytes were far too nice to ever have a chance of fomenting change. They were more likely to lead a hunting party than a revolution.
“I think so, too,” he responds. “But I did wonder to myself, can we judge them in that way? Can we say they were naïve, they didn’t do the right thing? Then again, what was the right thing? Was the aggressive communist resistance better? No, because they were infiltrated by the Gestapo in five minutes and all destroyed. So, in a way, they were quite successful by being so unorthodox.” It’s a word Ohler uses several times to describe Harro’s group.
“It’s a very unusual movement, it’s true,” he continues. “That’s why people have such problems describing it or understanding it. And I think that’s why Hitler was so puzzled when he found out that these normal people made this network in quite a smart way. I mean, there were a lot of people engaged and they did give military information to Hitler’s enemies, which is quite a severe thing – it’s not nothing.” But we’ll get onto the Russians later.
‘Expunged for all time’
Harro and Libertas are a charismatic “it couple” in Ohler’s recounting of their brief lives: Harro was 33 when he died at the hands of a Nazi hangman, Libertas just 29 when she was executed by guillotine. The author has managed to present a vivid portrait of them – especially impressive since the Nazis vowed that Harro’s name would be “expunged from human memory for all time” after his execution on December 22, 1942.
“Even though the Nazis tried to wipe out their memory, there is quite a bit of stuff written on them – but most of it comes from an ideological perspective,” Ohler explains. “There was stuff written on them in the East, but you can’t really use it because it’s all about the glory of the communist spy ring in Berlin.”
Files released briefly in Moscow in the ’90s showed that the couple was not part of said spy ring – the brilliantly titled Red Orchestra – and had in fact resisted being drafted into helping Russian intelligence.
Ohler sums up his research efforts by saying he was trying to get close to the story “through people and through documents.” Key to that was the German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin – again, in case you’re wondering, not the smallest museum in the world – and meeting surviving relatives of members of the Harro and Libertas gang.
He also managed to grab five minutes in the couple’s old Berlin apartment and visited former German towns and cities that are now part of Russia and Lithuania, that were integral to the story. Particularly memorable are the tense images he conjures up after Libertas is briefly arrested in the German resort town of Nidden (now Nida, Lithuania) after taking a photograph of a ship overflowing with fleeing Jews bound for Latvia, misguidedly thinking it would be a safe haven. Libertas lived to fight another day.
Armed with all of his research, the writer was able to map out how this amorphous group functioned. “I think Harro was the motor, together with Arvid Harnack. I think in East Germany they call it the Harnack-Schulze-Boysen Organization, which doesn’t make sense as it wasn’t an organization. Arvid and Harro were the thinkers and doers.”
As for Libertas, Ohler thinks she “kind of ran along with Harro,” but notes that she also conducted her own acts of resistance – most notably, collecting documents that depicted German war crimes on the Eastern Front while working in her day job as censor.
“It’s hard to reconstruct because we weren’t there, but it feels like she was very into it at times and at other times she was doubting, not sure, afraid,” Ohler says. “She was, for sure, more afraid than Harro – I don’t think he was afraid. I think Libertas was afraid a lot of the time, and nervous. I wouldn’t call her the soul of the group, but she was, I’m sure, very soulful and energizing and a lot of fun. I think they were a good couple that complemented each other.”
Despite her obvious achievements, Ohler notes that Libertas is “not really honored in Germany” today – not even at the decent-sized resistance memorial.
“When you walk up the stairs, you see portraits of the most important resistance fighters – Stauffenberg, Sophie Scholl, Harro Schulze-Boysen. The head of the German resistance memorial is a big fan of the Harro network, he thinks they’re really important and undervalued in Germany, but still there’s no portrait of Libertas. It’s really strange,” Ohler reflects.
All things come to those who wait
We’re used to wartime tales in which resistance fighters reach out to the West in a bid to scupper the Nazis – the most recent example being Jack Fairweather’s “The Volunteer,” which chronicled a Polish detainee’s efforts to warn Britain and America about Auschwitz. But one of the most fascinating things about “The Bohemians” is that the nameless network’s resistance efforts pointed eastward.
“I think that’s actually the reason why they were looked at – at the time and even now, and in the decades in-between – with very skeptical eyes in Germany. Because they actually did favor the Russians, I would say,” Ohler says. “Harro was quite anti-capitalist. He thought, Who’s going to save us from this menace? It’s going to be the Red Army, it’s going to be Stalin, it’s going to be communism.
“He had a lot of interest in the Soviet Union, a lot of hope that they could bring something good to the planet – which later they did not because Stalin was a monster, just like Hitler.”
I point out that Harro’s handlers in the GRU (the Soviet military’s in-house intelligence unit) were Jewish, and wonder if this was a common occurrence at the time. “I don’t really know, because I didn’t research the Red Orchestra in depth,” Ohler says, noting that the GRU’s main spy in Paris was also Jewish. “I don’t know if that’s a coincidence or if there was a strong Jewish influence in the GRU. I’m not an expert on the Soviet Union, so I don’t know, I can’t answer that. But I also did see that, and there’s more people working in Brussels and Paris who were Jews. That’s why Hitler always said Bolshevism is a Jewish-communist thing.”
It must also be said that the Russian spies didn’t display much “intelligence” when they tried to reach out to Harro in Berlin, effectively blowing his cover and sealing his and so many others’ fates. And they do seem to talk remarkably quickly once they fall into the hands and fists of the Gestapo.
Ohler isn’t so quick to damn the Russians under these circumstances. “I wouldn’t judge someone who talks under Gestapo torture,” he says. “I think it’s very scary and probably at that moment, you just want to get out alive without too much pain and you’re just going to rat on everybody – at least, that’s what many people did. It’s obviously unfortunate, but that’s the reality of what actually happened.”
‘My Dinner with Arafat’
There’s now talk of “The Bohemians” being turned into a TV miniseries (“The person who wants to do it also wants to do this in German, which I think actually is the right approach,” Ohler says), but you suspect that, based on previous experiences, the author won’t be holding his breath.
About a decade ago, for example, Danny Boyle, fresh from winning an Oscar for “Slumdog Millionaire,” was in talks to direct a film version of Ohler’s 2003 novel “Ponte City,” and German filmmaker Wim Wenders wanted to adapt his first novel, but that didn’t pan out either. “Blitzed,” meanwhile, was optioned by a Hollywood studio and Leonardo DiCaprio wanted to star in it as Hitler’s doctor, Theo Morell. “There’s a lot of talk, but I’m still waiting for something to happen,” Ohler sums up about his “film” career.
Still, if he is looking for another film idea, he may want to revisit an experience he had while serving as writer-in-residence at the Goethe-Institut in Ramallah back in 2004.
Ohler was the last writer to enjoy an audience with Yasser Arafat, just four weeks before the Palestinian president died, after begging an acquaintance to get him an interview. Arafat was no longer meeting journalists, so the friend described Ohler as a German poet, and Arafat “said he would meet with a poet for lunch,” Ohler recounts.
Nearly 16 years on, Ohler is still able to recall the meeting vividly: Arafat sharing his plate of broccoli with him; the president’s bodyguards cautioning Ohler never to walk behind Arafat’s back; Arafat saying that as the Berlin Wall had fallen, so too would the West Bank Separation Barrier one day. It was all rather surreal, Ohler reflects.
But it was an event the week after that meeting which gave Ohler his strongest insight into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I had a reading in West Jerusalem and a few Orthodox people were there. I was just talking about meeting with Arafat, and the people were furious that I would meet with a terrorist, someone with Jewish blood on his hands, me the German meeting with this guy, the murderer. And then I realized – I mean, I realized it all the time, but I again realized – how deep the rift is between these two cultures or nations in this small place. Such a small country, and yet such a big psychological place at the same time.”
“The Bohemians,” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, priced $28, is out now.