Stephen Karlson (shkarlson) wrote in 50bookchallenge,
Stephen Karlson


Anne Nelson's Red Orchestra, reporting what she's learned about organized resistance to the Third Reich that involved a few people who held responsible positions in the government. It makes for an instructive Book Review No. 36 during a run of incivility in U.S. politics that is tame by our standards and free of any real danger from not-so-petty tyrants. Most of the principal characters lost their heads. Among them were an economist, Arvid Harnack, who once studied with John R. Commons at Wisconsin, and his wife, born Mildred Fish, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, and an air officer, Harro Schulze-Boysen, who had an open marriage with the intriguingly named Libertas.

The Red Orchestra (German counterintelligence referred to what we understand as cells as orchestras) drew heavily from Weimar Germany's artistic and intellectual circles. The book thus has plenty of material on marital infidelity and other transgressive behavior, including avant-gardism for the sheer shock value, of the kind that drives some people to support authoritarians. On the other hand, the protagonists demonstrate depth that's missing from the likes of Alec Baldwin or the Dixie Chicks or Kanye West.

As self-styled progressives of the 1920s, the protagonists understandably are enthusiastic about communism. That proves to be their undoing. Mr Harnack is privy to the Reich's plans for industrial mobilization (too little, too late) and Lt. Schulze-Boysen has the deployment and tasking orders for Fall Barbarossa. Soviet intelligence botches the delivery of radios (I learned that the BBC's Beethoven sign-on was a bad choice for opening forbidden broadcasts), refuses to believe the signals they do receive, and, when the invasion comes, issues a call for help sufficiently well-detailed for Gestapo decoders to round up the full orchestra.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)
Tags: history
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