Monthly Fragebogen: Teacup Revolutionaries

Nationalist writer Ernst von Salomon’s experiences with the ‘Red Orchestra’ anti-Hitler resistance movement


The ‘Red Orchestra’ is one of those exalted historical resistance movements in today’s Germany, along with the ‘White Rose’ student group and the aristocrats & officers of the 20th July assassination plot. It seems to be a common theme on this blog that aspects of history are never as black-and-white as they’re typically presented in modern discourse, that reality is complex and that peoples’ motivations are rarely as easy to categorize as we might like them to be. This is the case with the Red Orchestra as with anything else. Nationalist writer Ernst von Salomon’s friendship and association with two central figures of the Orchestra – Harro Schulze-Boysen and Arvid Harnack, as well as their respective wives Libertas (‘Libs’) and Mildred – is evidence enough of this. von Salomon was a Freikorps veteran, a nationalist revolutionary who endured multiple jail sentences for his involvement in anti-Weimar terrorist movements, yet when the Third Reich emerged his deep-seated open-mindedness and his natural aversion to the regime’s excesses saw him moving in circles as opposed to National Socialism as he had been to the earlier ‘November Republic’. Despite his obvious sympathy for Schulze-Boysen (a former national-liberal type whose links to far-left and far-right have seen him sometimes classified as a ‘National Bolshevik’) and Harnack (an Arplan-member given to nervously hanging around the Soviet embassy), von Salomon’s reminiscences of his exposure to their conspiratorial activities paint a picture that is more human than hagiographical. Like the subversive Organisation Consul with which von Salomon had once plotted murder, the Red Orchestra come across as full of the recklessness of youth, dangerously careless and more than a little flippant in their scheming of drawing-room conspiracies. The author’s depiction is of brave men, principled men, but men who were still nonetheless ‘teacup revolutionaries’, freedom-fighters in far over their heads. The section below is taken from Section E. of the English translation of von Salomon’s post-war memoir Der Fragebogen

About the year 1931 a man named Harro Schulze-Boysen founded a periodical which he entitled Der Gegner (The Opponent). He explained to me that the crust which “the old men” had laid over us, which the last century had imposed on ours, was ready to break. He described this crust as being lethal to all true intellectual and spiritual life. He said that it was formed of the ideologies of an age that had achieved power too late and too unexpectedly, too feebly and too undeservedly, so that it knew not how to use it except through the dusty network of bureaucracy. Finally, he said, a younger generation had grown up in the shadow of that power which, though hitherto employing its outworn jargon, was yet now capable of making itself understood in its own language. “They are  beginning to poke their heads through the clouds and to call to one another,” he said. He also said that his periodical was intended to give these youthful forces a chance to make themselves heard. It was to be a magazine for radicals, regardless of what particular platform they should speak from.

The man who told me all this was a slender, well-built, blond young man, with a rather stiff manner, carefully parted hair, and light, somewhat hard eyes. His words seemed unsuited both to his appearance and to his manner. When first I met him I had taken him for a junior naval officer, and as it happened his father was an admiral and he was a grandson of Grand Admiral von Tirpitz. He soon had many contributors to his magazine, young men of all political views, Catholics, Socialists, Communists – and, to represent the Nationalists, Ernst Jünger, Bogumil and myself.

When I returned from Austria Der Gegner was no more. The opponents, however,  undoubtedly still existed. I ran into Schulze-Boysen in the street, towards the end of 1933, and failed to recognise him. He spoke to me. His features were very different from what they had been. He had lost half an ear and his face was covered with inflamed wounds that had scarcely yet healed. He had been arrested because well-known young Communists had contributed to his magazine. It was the SA who had treated him in the fashion to which his face bore witness.

“I have,” he said, “put my revenge in cold storage.”

He said it was his intention, with the assistance of his relatives, to enter the army. He may have felt that I did not think much of this idea, for he told me that he knew exactly what he was doing. It was a long time before I heard from him again.

One day in 1936 Rowohlt asked me to see a young lady who had offered him a noteworthy manuscript. This young lady had volunteered for the female branch of the Labour Service. She had done this from idealism, from enthusiasm for a cause that she regarded as the cause of youth, and after her term was completed she had written a very constructive, and at the same time very candid, book about her experiences. There could be no doubt that the National Labour Service would be highly displeased by this book, which for Rowohlt was all the more reason to publish it. But the young girl had no desire to do anything against the wishes of an organisation which she still, taken all in all, believed to be useful and animated by good intentions. She said that she would ask the heads of the National Labour Service for their opinion of her manuscript, and she would publish it or not according to what they said. I offered the young lady my help in seeing that the book reached the proper authorities, but she replied that her husband would arrange that. Her husband was Harro Schulze-Boysen. (The book was never published.)

The young couple lived very near myself. They had rented an attic in the Waiz Strasse which they turned into a studio. They lived modestly but gaily, and were very hospitable. The door was open to their friends at all hours, and in their home was to be seen what was still left of Berlin’s dated and vanishing Bohemia. Harro owned an old automobile in which we drove out into the country. We would go canoeing beyond the Spreewald, Harro and Libs, Ille and I. Harro often took photographs of us on these outings.

He was with the Air Research Institute, where Hartmut Plaas also worked. He knew Plaas well. When I asked him what he actually did there, he smiled and said:

“I stick flags into maps. All sorts of prettily coloured little flags into very ugly old maps.”

This seemed to be the principal occupation of the Air Research Institute. The Air Research Institute struck me as an altogether rather sinister organisation, and the air into which they researched seemed to me none too sweet.

He invited Ille and myself to come with him to see a friend, a certain Herr Harnack, a close relative of the celebrated theologian, the late Adolf Harnack. I had met Herr Harnack and his wife at both the Russian and the American Embassies. She was an American by birth and called herself Harnack-Fish. The young couple had an assured place in diplomatic circles. The Harnacks lived near the Halle Gate, in a large, well-furnished apartment. Ille and I went there, stayed for an hour, and then left. It was a bad habit of Ille’s and mine to discuss any gathering we had attended as soon as we had left, if possible the moment the door of our host’s apartment had closed behind us, at the latest as soon as we reached the street. On this occasion Ille began as soon as we were out of the apartment.

“I like that!” she said. “There they stand, leaning against the mantelpiece, with a cup of tea in their hand, quite casually discussing things… things, well, any one of those things they discussed could cost them their heads.”

I said nothing. She behaved in exactly this way in our home. Ille said:

“It looks all wrong to me. I feel there’s something very, very wrong. And I can trust my feelings, I think.” Then she said, with intensity: “Promise me this! Promise we’ll never go there again! I don’t want to have my head cut off just casually. I don’t want it.”

I said nothing and was glad Ille felt that way. If only she always thought so! She said:

“I like that! They stand about there, well-dressed, decent-looking people and they talk about ‘cross-channels of communication’ – do you know what that means?”

I did, but I said nothing. Ille said:

“They describe Hitler and Himmler and Rosenberg and Frick as utter fools, and they tell me, me who’ve never even met any of them before except the Harnacks and the Schulze-Boysens, they tell me…”

Ille broke off in the middle of her sentence. Then, stirring an imaginary cup of tea, she said:

“They say to me, ‘Do you know, dear lady, I have heard from an absolutely sure source, because you see I have a direct link with Zurich… of course we exchange communication.’ And then,” said Ille, “he suddenly catches sight of another man and says, ‘Excuse me for a moment, dear lady,’ and gives the other man a yellow envelope, saying: ‘Strictly confidential’ and winks… And there I sit on the sofa and can hardly breathe. So I ask who the decent-looking old man is and who is the one he spoke to, and they tell me that one’s a ministerial councillor and the other’s an adjutant, and that one over there is in the SS and this one here is a diplomat… now tell me, can you understand it all?”

I said:

“Yes, yes, that’s the way it is. Now let’s be getting home.”

But Ille would not move. She said:

“And Harro, good old Harro, I heard him saying to another man – they were discussing somebody: ‘He’s another dull fellow we’ll have to shoot.’ Harro! Our old Harro talking about shooting people.” Ille went on: “But I won’t hear any more about shooting people! I won’t! I don’t want to have people shooting people here and people shooting people there, and who shoots who? I won’t have it!”

I said:

“I won’t either. Now come along.”

But Ille said:

“Do you know what they’re up to, those people? They’re starting a revolution, the revolution of the adjutants. A tea-cup revolution. I don’t want a revolution. And I certainly don’t want one of that sort.”

She stopped in the middle of the sidewalk in the Friedrich Strasse, and shouted in the dark:

“I’ve had enough of revolutions!”

I promised her that there would be no more revolutions and I promised her that we should never visit those people again. The tea-cups seemed to embitter her particularly. I also promised her that we would not see Harro, but this promise I could not keep. I had at least to tell Harro my reasons for severing our relations.

I may say that I took just as serious, though a somewhat different, view of all this as did Ille. I myself had once balanced a tea-cup, and eaten horrible little pieces of bread covered with vegetables, and thus saved Germany. I too had once been convinced of the significance of my actions. I too had listened with satisfaction to men with opinions similar to mine while they discussed “spiritual bases.” I had been delighted to hear that they held appointments of remarkable influence, and that their bosses were fools. I had seen the winks exchanged, and the information passed and had been, in my time, impressed by the “important cross-channels” and the “direct link” to somewhere or other. And now Hans Dieter Salinger, who had once run his revolutionary salon, was an émigré in Holland, busily engaged with a cartel for the manufacture of enamel, tin and other household goods. Hans Zehrer was in Kampen reading the works of the Fathers of the Church. Ernst Samhaber was desperately trying to find a good Spanish word for Volksgemeinschaft in the articles that he wrote as Berlin correspondent for South American papers. Erwin Topf, an old tank driver of the World War, was running around dressed up as a new Panzer officer. Franz Josef Furtwängler was manager of a broken-down estate in Hungary. Bogumil, as a ‘private scholar,’ was cracking his wits over the problem of whether Wotan was blind in his right eye or his left. And I wrote film scripts, some good, some bad, but mostly bad. And it was quite right so. It all fitted in. It was good and right and beautifully normal, and we had all learned to distrust anomalies.

Yes, I had known it all. I had known the more or less inescapable destiny that awaited that class I had once unkindly described as the “academic proletariat.” The lucky one would find his niche in an administrative apparatus that was already terribly over-crowded, in the bureaucracy or on some editorial staff, where he would be the right- or left-hand man of an unspeakably idiotic boss: the unlucky one was simply out of work, awaiting his chance. The chance came when a man said: “Give me four years,” and proposed to conquer unemployment. He succeeded, by building autobahnen and public works, by rearmament and a rapid circulation of money, by enlarging the bureaucracy, by doubling the bureaucracy, trebling it. And suddenly there were places available, chance after chance for skilful, energetic, ambitious, alert young men with or without academic training. There were offices, newly created offices and boards, and jobs as adjutant or deputy or governmental councillor; and diplomas were handed out, nicely framed diplomas in which Hitler’s own signature proclaimed that the man in question stood beneath his own special protection. And suddenly there was the army too, with its gates wide open. And before those gates queued all those who had not done so very well in civilian life, insurance agents and vacuum-cleaner salesmen. For them no more the long climb up and down the hard stairs of strangers, but instead a handsome uniform and a pompous office complete with ante-room and female secretary and maps to stick flags into and a service car and “my driver.”

Still, they were no fools, those young men, far from it. They were not after sinecures, they did not wish to thresh dry straw, to waste time sticking flags in maps. They wanted to work, to do something useful. And then, automatically as it were, there it was, the easy offer, the frightful, musty silence among the coal-dust of power, the fire-damp in the shafts and pits of politics.

A man can only really play politics if he is provided with the necessary information, with intelligence in concentrated form. And every one of them wished really to play politics. Over a hundred years ago Joseph Goerres, speaking of Metternich’s political methods, said that he had constructed for himself a central position from which he might lift the world off its hinges but that all he had managed to do was to pull a cork out of a bottle. It was such a central position that they were now all anxious to create, and the way to do it was by the collection of information, the amassing of intelligence.

No office, no appointment, no branch was willing to deny itself the organisation of its own ‘secret intelligence service.’ Stool-pigeons and agents, informers and spies and counter-spies, these became, almost overnight, the most important people. Every man suddenly endeavoured to become his own policeman, and all at once the general behaviour was modelled on the methods of the police. From police documents a world was suddenly created, a world viewed in the perspective of police morality. But no morality is closer to that of criminals than is this one. Thus politics now moved into the sphere of the policeman and the gangster, and with politics went the component of power and the contrary component of revolution. In the long run it all came out of the same pot, impulse and counter-impulse, the poison and the antidote, all were boiled up together in one and the same saucepan, and its aroma did not smell sweet. Loyalty became a police loyalty and conspiracy a police conspiracy. It all followed quite logically. Once power moved away from the stream of social change, conspiracy must needs follow. Politics had been modernised, had become a secret art, not unlike atonal music or abstract painting.

I seemed to myself to resemble some solid old papa, warning his son about women and debts and knowing that it was all in vain. Harro Schulze-Boysen listened to me more or less respectfully. He smiled when I said that he might well consider me a ‘dull fellow’ who would ‘also have to be eliminated,’ and he was polite enough to say this was not so. He said I was completely right and that he would give up the chatter. Only once did he grow serious. This was when I told him that I regarded what he was doing as a crime, a crime against both himself and against the cause for which he thought he was striving. Surely I must admit, he said, that inactivity was the greatest crime of all. I would not admit this. When I said that things must run their course to the end, he produced all the arguments which I, fifteen years ago now, had myself discussed with the same enthusiasm. He talked of ‘forcing evolution on its way,’ he spoke of ‘lighting a beacon,’ he said it all, and over and over again all I could reply was simply that it was untrue. But inactivity is fatalism, he cried, inactivity is anarchy – and I knew that I was in a false position with respect to him when I replied that inactivity is suffering, inactivity is maturity, inactivity is the only, the constructive responsibility. He said I had moved away from the spirit of action, and I replied that action had moved away from the spirit, and neither statement was true. It was senseless to argue, and perhaps we both felt this, and that is what I most regret today, the fact of having given up so easily. Nothing was in accordance with the hypotheses any more, and each man had to go his own way. He laid his hand on my shoulder and said: “One day we must go canoeing again.”

I often met him after that. When he drove by in his car he would wave to me. I used to see Libs in the delicatessan, and I would say: “When are we going to go canoeing in the Spreewald again?” And Libs would say: “Yes, we must certainly arrange to go canoeing in the Spreewald again some day.”

We never did.

By 1942 a climax was approaching. There were rumours of mass arrests, of mass secret trials, finally of mass executions. This was the first of those mass trials, the first of many. There were rumours that for these executions a new mechanism had been invented, a double gibbet on which the struggling victims slowly throttled one another to death. Names were whispered, a certain Schulze-Boysen and his wife, a certain Harnack and his wife, some eighty other young people, eighty young people of good family, with good appointments, ministerial councillors and SS officers, eighty young people who were collectively known as “the red choir.” There were rumours of secret transmitters and of a direct link to Zurich and of espionage for Russia.

Many years later I heard that photographs had been discovered in Harro’s studio, photographs of a canoe. Harro and Libs and all the members of the “red choir” were cross-questioned in an attempt to discover who the man in the photograph might be, a somewhat stout man with a bald patch standing by the boat, and who was the young woman with dark hair seated beside Libs in the canoe. But nobody could be found who remembered their names.



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