The young writers of a student newspaper have gathered on a cloudless spring day in Berlin to discuss the frighteningly fast expansion of the new Nazi regime. Their topic is the role of the Church, and the ideas are flowing when there is a loud knock at the door. Men in black shirts stand outside.
Barging into the building, they throw notebooks and photos into a suitcase before pushing the newspaper’s editor, 23-year-old political science student Harro Schulze-Boysen, and his best friend Henry Erlanger into a small van waiting outside.
At the headquarters of the local SS police, the pair are interrogated. Harro says he’s done nothing wrong – he simply publishes a newspaper that discusses the future of his beloved Germany and the rest of Europe.
But this, it seems, is now a serious offence. The two friends are bundled back into the van. The vehicle stops and they are led down a flight of worn steps to a small cellar with straw on the floor and old Weimar Republic flags for bedding. Night falls.
PIctured: Harro and Libertas Schulze-Boysen sailing on Wannsee. The two young people are in love, healthy, wealthy and ‘Aryan’ through and through. Both are from highly respectable German families, so what about them could possibly arouse suspicions?
Bright lights stay on. There’s no chance to sleep. A uniformed guard keeps watch by the door, sitting on a stool, toying with a pistol.
At 1am, the door flies open. Henry and Harro are taken outside and their hair is cut with garden shears.
Henry, whose father is a Jew, is made to strip to the waist and run around a courtyard while SS men stand in the centre, beating him with whips.
‘You, too!’ somebody yells at Harro. ‘Undress!’ He takes off his jumper and, like his friend, is beaten and the whips rip open his skin.
He’s grabbed by four men and his trousers are pulled down. He’s stabbed with a knife through the thigh and a swastika is carved into the flesh.
With every cut, the hatred in Harro grows.
After four days of merciless beatings, Henry Erlanger’s heart gives out. Gentle, thoughtful and reserved, he had been the good spirit of the newspaper.
Now his corpse sits in the corner of their cell, like rubbish that’s been swept into a pile. Harro has been unable to protect him from the SS, unable to do anything.
His resolve hardens. He will not let these brutal idiots break him.
The whipping starts again. His left ear is half detached from his head and he’s bleeding everywhere, inside and out.
‘Man, you’re one of us!’ shouts an SS man, impressed by Harro’s courage. ‘We should sign you up!’
But Harro is not one of them. He will devote the rest of his life to fighting them.
When he is finally released, he runs into a friend, a writer named Ernest von Salomon, who later recalls: ‘His face had greatly changed. He was missing half an ear and his face was stamped with red, barely healed wounds. He said, “My revenge will be served ice-cold.” ’
PRETENDING he has learned his lesson and feigning deep remorse, Harro enlists with the German air force, the Luftwaffe. This is how he will avenge the death of his friend: from inside the very heart of the Nazi machine.
He will use the information he can glean to start an underground movement hostile to the evil regime he so hates. Germany’s resistance movement will be led not by a secretive rebel, but by an enemy within: a Luftwaffe officer. And Harro’s camouflage works superbly – he has recovered from his injuries, externally at least, and his uniform sits well. His military performance is flawless, which is not surprising since his father and great-uncle were both high-ranking German Navy officers and his superiors name him ‘the best horse in the stall’.
Nobody has any inkling of what is in his mind. Nobody notices that he avoids the showers. He doesn’t want anyone to see his telltale scars.
Instead, they focus on his strong chin, his penetrating blue eyes, his svelte torso and his air of assured self-confidence. The Nazi obsession with breeding perfect human beings seems to have been realised in him.
His credentials as a loyal servant of the Reich are boosted still further when he marries the glamorous, charming, ferociously intelligent Libertas Haas-Heye, a secretary at MGM’s studio in Berlin and the daughter of a German aristocrat. Otto Ludwig Haas-Heye, her father, was one of Berlin’s most famous couturiers, who also served as the head of the Arts and Crafts School in the city.
Pictured: Libertas Schulze-Boysen enjoying the freedom of being on the water. His credentials as a loyal servant of the Reich are boosted still further when he marries the glamorous, charming, ferociously intelligent Libertas Haas-Heye, a secretary at MGM’s studio in Berlin and the daughter of a German aristocrat
The two young people are in love, healthy, wealthy and ‘Aryan’ through and through. Both are from highly respectable German families, so what about them could possibly arouse suspicions? They become the model couple of the Reich capital.
In October 1936, Harro and Libertas move into an airy, roomy top-floor flat around the corner from one of Berlin’s most fashionable streets. It’s a bohemian abode and at its heart is a four-tube radio with a powerful receiver.
‘We can pick up broadcasts from all over the globe with no interference,’ writes Libertas to her mother-in-law.
She is as committed to the anti-Nazi cause as her husband.
The flat becomes a regular meeting place for Harro’s old friends from the newspaper, along with new acquaintances: doctors, artists, lawyers and other intellectuals, all critical of the country’s government.
As the wine and music flow, Harro works out who he can trust to join his resistance movement: it’s a crime punishable by prison to make derogatory statements, even in private, about the Reich, so he must be careful.
The apartment is also the backdrop for intrigues and dalliances among his free-spirited friends, the flamboyant young bohemians enjoying naked picnics and beach parties, open marriages and sexual freedom. They sense that life is short.
Libertas becomes involved with a writer named Gunther Weisenborn, despite her love for Harro. He helps her to become less dependent on her husband – all the better to survive without him in case of an emergency, she reasons. It’s even rumoured that she introduces Harro’s 16-year-old brother Hartmut to sex.
Is this another way of thumbing their nose at the Nazis, with their restrictive notions of the perfect Aryan family?
In the autumn of 1938, Harro and Libertas take a holiday to Italy and Yugoslavia. They discuss whether they should leave Berlin altogether, forget the battle against the Nazis and begin a new life in paradise. But they cannot. There is a job to be done.
They arrive home on the evening of November 9, a date that will go down in history as Kristallnacht, those terrible hours during which thousands of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were looted and destroyed.
That night, Harro pledges his eternal love to his wife with a kiss of Libertas’s beloved silver ring, which she always wears. One single kiss.
With it they are together now, united for ever, even until death.
The storm clouds are gathering. The Second World War is just months away.
WITH the invasion of Poland in 1939, rationing begins. Harro bears up better than Libertas, who grieves constantly for the casualties. He is ‘working himself to death’, says his wife in a letter, but staying ‘high-spirited, positive and full of hope’.
The couple’s circle of friends expands to include Arvid Harnack, who works for the American department of the German Trade Ministry, and his wife Mildred, who is from the US Midwest. With their links to the US community in Berlin, they will prove invaluable allies. But Arvid also has connections with the Soviet regime.
As Harro and Arvid see it, the USSR is the only power with the military might to destroy the Nazis. Appalled though they are by Stalin’s brutality, gulags and show trials, their great neighbour to the east offers, they believe, their only hope.
Through his work at the Air Ministry, Harro hears of secret plans by Hitler to invade Russia.
Now, at last, the time has come for him to execute his plan.
Using this piece of intelligence, he takes his first audacious steps towards bringing down the regime and avenging his friend Henry’s death. What could be worse, he thinks, than if Hitler managed – with another Blitz, like the one he has already unleashed on Britain – to get hold of all the gas and oil in the Ural mountains? The Nazis’ global domination would be all but assured. Russia must be warned.
A meeting is arranged between Harro and one of Arvid’s Soviet contacts, an envoy for the Moscow intelligence agency NKVD, named Alexander Korotkov.
The Russian is impressed with the courageous Harro. ‘He is, it appears,’ Korotkov reports to the Lubyanka, the central intelligence office in Moscow, ‘a fierce man of inimitable enthusiasm and passion.’
Shortly afterwards, Korotkov receives from Harro’s circle a portable battery-powered radio receiver which they can use to contact him with military secrets. Harro is given the code-name Starshina by the Soviet authorities, meaning ‘sergeant’.
But through his meeting with Korotkov, Harro has committed Landesverrat, or treason. It is the most ignominious crime a German officer can commit. Hanging is the punishment. His life is now in mortal danger.
On June 17 at the Kremlin, information provided by Harro about the finalisation of military preparations for the invasion of the USSR is brought to the table. But Josef Stalin shakes his head. ‘Propaganda!’ he says.
He is convinced that a pact he has made with the Third Reich will endure.
‘Send your “informant” from the staff of the German Luftwaffe back to his whore of a mother,’ he scribbles in the margins. ‘He’s not an informer but rather a disinformer. J. St.’
Pictured: A German military officer, member of the resistance group “Rote Kapelle” (Red Orchestra), portrait, wearing a Luftwaffe uniform
Five days later the German Army marches into Russia.
THE resistance movement is flourishing, and Harro’s life is a constant round of activity. By day, he is an impeccable German officer, resplendent in his uniform. But by night he transforms into an anonymously dressed subversive, organising the distribution of anti-Nazi pamphlets and stickers around the streets of Berlin, and furiously working on his next campaigns.
Harro wants to build ties between the US, the Soviets and the German resistance, and he’s trying to set up links with the British through contacts in Switzerland. But Moscow are becoming impatient with their mole. By the end of 1941, not enough radio information is getting through to them.
A Soviet intelligence officer with the codename ‘Kent’ is sent to Berlin to find out why the contact appears not to be working and to agree a new wavelength for the radio link.
But the couple are now in even graver danger. The only thing separating them from arrest is the brilliance of Russian encryption, said to be the best in the world.
At the beginning of 1942, Harro writes a highly inflammatory new pamphlet setting out the manifesto of the conspirators. Copies are secretly distributed to their fellow Germans, foreign correspondents and diplomats in Berlin. A forensic investigation into the pamphlet by the Gestapo yields no results, leaving propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels furious.
But there is bad news for the conspirators, who have come to be known by the authorities as the Red Orchestra, or Rotekapelle, as a result of their links with Moscow. Kent’s radio assistant, Johann Wenzel, has been captured by the Nazis in Brussels. They order him to decipher messages sent between Western Europe and Moscow, including a broadcast about Harro and Libertas.
The couple’s survival now depends on the ability of Wenzel to keep quiet.
But after weeks of torture, Wenzel tells his Nazi captors how to decode the messages they have intercepted between Moscow and Berlin. Harro’s personal details are among them.
On August 31, 1942, Harro is in his office at the Air Ministry when the phone rings. Libertas is out of town.
The man on the line asks Harro to come downstairs to the lobby – it’s urgent. Harro sets down his fountain pen. He hesitates for a moment, and then he stands up.
As he trails his fingers one last time over the handrail, he sees the guards, and the car waiting outside to take him away. It is over.
HARRO’S fellow conspirators, including Libertas, Arvid and Mildred, are rounded up and arrested. Regular reports of the Gestapo investigation are sent to Hitler.
What astonishes the police is the sheer variety of illegal activity that has taken place – way beyond the espionage that had first been suspected. Leaflets, posters, underground meetings, support for Jewish refugees, a multilingual newspaper for forced labourers.
There hasn’t been anything like it before in Hitler’s Reich – and there won’t be again.
‘To show leniency or hesitation in fighting this sabotage would be a crime against the very war effort itself,’ writes Goebbels in his diary.
In prison, Harro is visited by his father. His face is ashen and gaunt.
‘It is impossible and hopeless to try to help me in any way,’ says Harro. ‘I have acted in full knowledge of the danger, and am now resolved to bear the consequences.’
Watched by two guards, they try not to let their emotion show.
As his father stands to leave, Harro’s eyes brim with tears. His father says: ‘I had other hopes for you… I have always loved you.’
It is an irony that when they come for Libertas, they take her to Gestapo headquarters at 8 Prinz Albrechtstrasse – a building that once housed the Arts and Crafts School. She is said to have laughed ruefully to find herself sitting in the art school where her father had been rector.
By the end of November 1942, a 90-page report is delivered to Hitler, Himmler, Goring, Goebbels and other high-ranking Nazis, and a month later the conspirators’ trial begins. All are found guilty.
On Monday, December 21, Hitler dictates the following: ‘I uphold the verdict of the Reich Court Martial against First Lieutenant Harro Schulze-Boysen and others. I decline to issue a pardon. The sentences are to be administered, and in the case of Harro Schulze-Boysen [and three others] are to be carried out by hanging. The other death sentences by means of beheading.’ Libertas is among those to be guillotined.
The Fuhrer shows no mercy. It is decreed that even the memory of the group will be erased. Records will be destroyed, and the families will not be allowed to bury their dead. Nobody can be allowed to survive to tell the true story.
On execution day, Harro and his friends are collected from Spandau prison and the vehicle also picks up Libertas. She wears a grey suit, a silver bracelet and a silver ring. Harro bends forward and silently kisses the ring, reaffirming the oath he swore to her on Kristallnacht. The lovers are together again now, united for all eternity.
To this day, relatively little is known about the complex, disparate but phenomenally committed German resistance movement. With all the official records expunged, including a transcript of Harro’s trial and the interrogations, facts are hard to come by.
Only in 2006 did Harro’s brother Hartmut, a diplomat who worked in West German embassies in Tokyo and the US, finally manage to have the verdict of the 1942 trial nullified after a decades-long campaign.
But Harro had provided his own poignant legacy. During his last days in jail, he had come to an agreement with his guard, Heinrich Stark, a bricklayer by trade. Stark promised to hide a poem written by Harro in the wall and seal it up so that he could recover it afterwards and hand it to his prisoner’s parents. And that’s exactly what he did.
‘Hangman’s rope and guillotine
Won’t have the final say.
The world will be our judges,
Not the judges of today.’
There could be no more fitting tribute to an unsung hero who faced overwhelming odds with breathtaking bravery, and, in the end, tranquillity. Even after his death, his defiant spirit shines out still.
The Infiltrators, by Norman Ohler, is published by Atlantic on Thursday, priced £20.