The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis

By Norman Ohler









Os títulos deste livro são


na edição alemã (original)


Harro und Libertas: Eine Geschichte von Liebe und Widerstand


na edição americana


The Infiltrators : The Lovers Who Led Germany's Resistance Against the Nazis


e na edição inglesa


The Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany's Resistance Against the Nazis


São os três bastante diferentes e, no entanto, todos têm uma boa dose de veracidade.

Não conhecia estes personagens da resistência contra Hitler e, no entanto, eles suscitam a nossa simpatia. Há neles muito de entusiasmo juvenil e culto da boémia.  Desde o início, o leitor teme pela vida dos personagens e pressupõe que aquilo tinha de acabar mal.

O livro está bem escrito e lê-se com muito prazer.



  The New York Times


Young, in Love and Trying to Bring Down the Third Reich


The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis
By Norman Ohler


Vergangenheitsbewältigung is an amalgamation of the German words Vergangenheit, “the past,” and Bewältigung, “coping with,” and is often used to describe the effort to grapple with the repercussions of World War II.

Children of Holocaust survivors grow up in the war’s shadow. Unwittingly, we remain shackled to an inheritance that reverberates through generations. Yet the trauma is not limited to those close to victims. The families of the perpetrators, of those who resisted and of those who failed to act must all cope with the past.


The German writer Norman Ohler begins “The Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis” with a powerful scene from his own life that perfectly encapsulates the guilt, grief, anger and remorse that have haunted so many of us. As a 12-year-old, Ohler asks his beloved grandfather, his “Pa,” about his role in the war. Then an engineer, now a frail old man, he describes seeing SS guards, a freight train and then a child’s hand through a crack in the train car’s boards. But the grandfather does nothing. “I was scared of the SS,” he helplessly explains. Young Ohler is stunned, and in that moment of “stillness you could hear,” he cannot contain his hatred for his Pa.

Best known in Germany as a novelist, Ohler is also the author of “Blitzed,” a controversial 2017 best seller about rampant drug use in the Third Reich. With the opening scene of “The Bohemians,” another work of nonfiction, he masterfully establishes his trustworthiness as a narrator, which is crucial as we travel with him back to the 1930s and then on through the war. He weaves a detailed and meticulously researched tale about a pair of young German resisters that reads like a thriller but is supported by 20 pages of footnotes. “I find it particularly important in this case, where the truth has been distorted many times,” he writes, “not to add another legend but to report as accurately as possible, combining my skills as a storyteller with the responsibility of the historian.”

The story he reconstructs is that of Harro and Libertas Schulze-Boysen, drawing on letters, articles, diaries and interviews to acquaint us with the couple in all their complexity — engaging, bold and flawed. Harro, originally a student activist, underground writer and publisher, and eventually an employee of the German Air Ministry, is the pair’s intellectual driving force. He is ambitious and stoic, an idealist. Libertas is more whimsical, and also initially a Nazi Party member. She dreams of being a poet and is working for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when she first encounters Harro. Her decision to resist seems to be based more on circumstance than principle, but she is deeply resourceful and loyal. We feel the couple’s triumphs intimately and, as the net tightens around them, their sorrows.


Young, passionate and liberal, they defy the regime with their unconventional lifestyle — including an open marriage and love of wild gatherings bringing together people of diverse backgrounds and political leanings. And, more dangerously, they pass on information about Nazi atrocities to enemies of the Reich, support Jews, produce pamphlets and establish links with Soviet intelligence. At a time when, as Ohler puts it, “propaganda and suppression increasingly dominate daily life” and “culture is being destroyed,” they cut remarkable figures.

For decades, Ohler writes, historians were reluctant to carry out a “genuine investigation” of the couple’s anti-Nazi circle. It was widely believed that German resistance spread little beyond the White Rose and the Stauffenberg plot. For political reasons, both East and West Germany subsequently sought to erase from history details of the brave resistance work of Libertas and Harro and their group. Family and friends were silenced, and in both East and West Libertas and Harro were posthumously lionized as Soviet spies. The reality was more subtle and fraught. Theirs is a tragic tale of defiance, espionage, love and betrayal.

Ohler employs the present tense throughout, imbuing his account with a sense of urgency and reminding us that the past in many ways remains our present. His only deviation into the past tense is in the foreword, where he discloses his grandfather’s agonized recollection — a failure to act for which the resistance narrative of “The Bohemians” serves as a kind of atonement.

Ariana Neumann is the author of “When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains.”

The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis
By Norman Ohler
Translated by Tim Mohr and Marshall Yarbrough
Illustrated. 293 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $28.




3 August 2020


The young lovers who fought the Nazis through sex, lies and subterfuge



The Infiltrators, a new book by the German historian Norman Ohler, looks at the daring rebellion of the Rote Kapelle


By Rupert Christiansen


In the wake of the sensational worldwide success of Blitzed, an exposé of the extensive role that the consumption of amphetamines played in the Third Reich, the German popular historian Norman Ohler has turned his journalistic skills to an equally gripping subject – the Rote Kapelle, “the red chapel”, an episode in the resistance to the Nazis that, in comparison with Sophie Scholl’s White Rose movement and Claus von Stauffenberg’s assassination plot, has received little attention outside Germany.

This is a book that will appeal to anyone who relishes Ben Macintyre’s tales of wartime espionage and cryptic codes, underpinned by terrifying risk, desperate courage, and double dealing. For more fastidious tastes, Ohler’s prose may seem somewhat lurid and his narration too loosely novelistic: assumptions are made that a more cautiously academic approach might have baulked at, Christian names are liberally used and gratuitously gruesome details lingered over (the final pages are stomach-churningly horrible). Moving at a cracking pace through a succession of snapshot cross-cut chapters, it is ripe for transformation into a film or television series. But great heroism is properly honoured here: Ohler has done his research diligently and he has an enthralling story to tell.

Its central character is Harro Schulze-Boysen. Rebelling from his conservatively patriotic upper-middle class Prussian background (his great uncle was Alfred von Tirpitz, who did so much to build the German navy), he was a student of political science who ran an overtly liberal magazine that immediately got him arrested and beaten up by the Brownshirts when the Nazis seized power in 1933. Rescued by his connections but radicalised by the experience, he decided to feign remorse and apply for a humble post in the air ministry in the hope that he could gradually gain access to classified material.

It was a shrewd move, not least because the Gestapo had no jurisdiction over anyone employed by the Luftwaffe, and his impeccably Aryan appearance and manners made his persona convincing.

His milieu in Berlin was Bohemian, however, and in 1934 he encountered through his louche friends Libertas Haas-Heye, also a scion of an aristocratic Prussian family and an ebullient creature who had a glamorous job as a publicist for MGM. At the age of 19, she had mindlessly become a Nazi party member and initially she seemed to ignore the horrors of book burning, the Night of the Long Knives, the first waves of Jewish persecution and the decimation of civil liberties.

The affair with Schulze-Boysen that ensued was her moral awakening and they married in 1936. But it won’t altogether suit Hollywood’s purposes that despite the romance implicit in Ohler’s subtitle – “The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis” – their relationship emerges as rather puzzling and unsatisfactory – Schulze-Boysen had kidney stones that made sexual intercourse agonisingly uncomfortable, and both he and she openly had other affairs and spent long periods apart.

Through the personal patronage of Göring, a friend of Haas-Heye’s family, Schulze-Boysen was slowly promoted in the air ministry and was able to feed information about German involvement in the Spanish Civil War to the Russians (the British Foreign Office having shown little interest), establishing a radio link that continued throughout the crisis of Stalingrad.

Other activities were opportunistic and intermittent, including help for Jewish refugees and the flyposting of subversive stickers in public places, pasted to walls by couples whose diversionary tactic was to engage in energetic canoodling from which passers-by averted their gaze.

What will be most interesting to students of underground or terrorist activities, however, is that the “Rote Kapelle”, as the investigating authorities later decided to call it, was so fluid and amorphous. It was simply an organic growth of friends – and friends of friends – of Schulze-Boysen and Haas-Heye, “the vast majority of them unaffiliated with any party”, almost half of them women and largely from the intelligentsia – artists, writers, doctors, psychiatrists and academics who had managed to evade the claws of the totalitarian state.

As Ohler emphasises, “there was no controlling principle, no statute, no formal membership, no structure” to the “members” of the Rote Kapelle: what united them was not a shared political ideology but a bond of trust and revulsion to Nazi rule. Schulze-Boysen functioned not as a leader but a driving force, whose special value was as much his wide social circle as his fifth-column access to the War Ministry. But he sailed close to the wind, and it is somewhat astonishing that he was able to function as long as he did – especially as his student misdemeanours had earned him a place in Heydrich’s black book.

The denouement of the story should not be revealed; it’s enough to say that it shows human nature at both its best and worst. Yet one deeply moving moment occurs in a foreword, when Ohler meets an elderly historian called Hans Coppi, who becomes his primary source: in 1942 Coppi’s mother, associated with the Rote Kapelle, had been guillotined immediately after giving birth to him in prison. We may think we live in dark times, but here is black barbarity beyond imagining.

The Infiltrators by Norman Ohler, tr Tim Mohr & Marshall Yarbrough, is published by Atlantic at £20 (ebook £11.04).




Philippe Sands


The heroic couple who defied Hitler

Norman Ohler describes the courage of Harro Schulze-Boysen and his wife in infiltrating the Nazi hierarchy to aid the German resistance

From magazine issue: 8 August 2020


The Infiltrators: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis

Norman Ohler

Atlantic Books, pp. 293, £20


In the face of authoritarian rule, what is a citizen to do? Some will join the oppressors, while others, such as the diarist of the Nazi era Victor Klemperer, will keep their heads down, hoping the horrors will pass (they usually do not). Some, generally a tiny minority, choose the path of civil courage and resistance, of activity that aims to sabotage the regime. Such acts may take many forms, one being to work secretly from within the new establishment of which you are a part. That was the one taken by Libertas Haas-Heye and Harro Schulze-Boysen, two Berlin intellectuals who fell in love and worked to undermine the Nazi war effort.

The story told by Norman Ohler, which is not newly discovered but not well known, is deeply engaging, enticingly written and extremely affecting. The author opens with a personal episode, which has the effect of universalising one of the themes evoked, the consequences over time of nefarious actions taken long ago. He reveals the moment in which, at the age of 12, his grandfather disclosed his participation in elements of the Nazi period, handing over an envelope that contained a party membership book.

The Infiltrators — characterised as The Bohemians in the American edition — met in the summer of 1934 and married two years later. The relationship is one of equals, an arrangement that is open. At the time, Libertas is working as a publicist in the Berlin office of the MGM film studio, and is a member of the Nazi party who would prefer to be a poet. A photograph from 1933 shows her among a group of employees in the American company’s swastika-bedecked office, a disturbing image that raises questions about the studio whose German arm will soon be free of Jews.

Harro, an idealist from a distinguished family that includes the venerable Admiral Tirpitz, publishes Gegner, an intellectual magazine, and soon comes into conflict with the Nazis and their propensity for torture and killing. The welts on his back shock his new girlfriend, and make him adopt a different approach. He decides he will ‘appear outwardly unsuspicious in order to change the system from within’.

By 1938 the situation in Germany is becoming ever nastier, and by the time of Kristallnacht, in November, the turn to active opposition has been made, and jointly. Such activities are processed through the piecemeal construction of an extensive group of fellow travellers, not in a party political sense but as an ‘enigmatic network’ of bourgeois and bohemian resisters.

The risks they take are serious, as Ohler’s prodigious archival work makes clear. The letters of Libertas and Harro, in particular to their families, offer the beating heart of the narrative, pulling the reader into a story that seems to unfold in real time, urgently reinforced by the effective use of the present tense. The material is original and fascinating, drawn from family papers and German, Russian and other collections, offering detail and colour to the times and the dangers. To be required to read between the lines is to create a space in which the imagination begins to work its magic.

With the assistance of Hermann Göring, a friend of Libertas’s family, Harro obtains a position in the Reich air ministry. The young lieutenant becomes a contact point for Luftwaffe attachés from around the world, giving him access to confidential reports about military activities in various capitals. As documents cross his desk — including, in January 1941, the elements of a plan to attack the Soviet Union in what came to be known as Operation Barbarossa — he passes copies to friends and colleagues, knowing the material will make its way to the Soviets. He is 31 years old, and his parents have suspicions. ‘Please do not worry on my behalf,’ he tells them. ‘The length of a life is no measure.’

A contact is made with someone at the Soviet embassy. Harro obtains a code name, ‘Starshina’. He knows exactly what he is doing, and what the dangers are. So does Libertas, who supports him in his various efforts, including the production of a resistance pamphlet, ‘Concern for Germany’s Future is Spreading Among the People’. They are anti-Nazi, not pro-communist.

The community of resistance comes to be known to the authorities and is closely observed. A commission is established, in the Reich main security office, to hunt the Rote Kapelle, the Red Orchestra — as the Gestapo would call Soviet espionage networks in western Europe — headed by Friedrich Panzinger, who reports to Himmler. Harro and his colleagues are not careful enough, and clues emerge that allow the commission to pick off the infiltrators one by one. The net is cast ever wider as more are ensnared. Interrogations and torture produce details of acts that will be characterised as treasonable. One thing leads to another, the group is hauled in, there are sham trials, then convictions, then sentences of death, although not for everyone.

This is a remarkable story, powerfully told, of love and courage and of the balance in the relationship between a couple. Ohler writes compelling non-fiction, even if, as he confesses, what he really wants to do in life is write novels or make movies. Perhaps this remark left me wondering at times whether the line between fact and faction might have been crossed. There has been criticism of his acclaimed but controversial account of the propensity of senior Nazis to blitz their way into mass killing and other horrors assisted by high- octane narcotics.

There is, too, the occasional excess. Would that it was so simple to establish, as Ohler puts it, that ‘every single person in the giant machine of the Reich’ who gained knowledge of the move to mass killing is a participant who ‘becomes a murderer’.

And there are matters left unexplored. The writer Javier Cercas tells us that ‘it is more important to understand the butcher than the victim’. I would have liked more about the hunters. Panzinger, for example, was caught by the Soviets, spent years in their prisons, was turned, and returned as a Soviet agent to penetrate the West German intelligence service, the Gehlen organisation. They in turn recruited him as a double agent to play him back against the Soviets. The Nazi hunter of Libertas and Harro became a Soviet spy and a spy for the West. He eventually committed suicide in 1959 when arrested by the West Germans for war crimes — not the executions of Harro and Libertas, but the killing of a French general and POW.

It’s a filthy world. That’s what makes the resisters so rare and so fascinating. To take such risks deserves recognition, and this highly readable book should give Libertas, Harro and their comrades the greater attention they deserve. Their story is a timely reminder of what some citizens are willing to do in the face of autocracy and oppression that once again haunts our times.


WRITTEN BY Philippe Sands