The story of two lovers who infiltrated the Nazis to help German resistance is a tale of great courage, says Nicholas Jacobs
04 March, 2021 — By Nicholas Jacobs
Harro and Libertas in Berlin
SOME books are impossible to read without the desire to share them with others. This is one such book.
In 1954 the distinguished Italian publishing company, Einaudi, published an 800-page collection of the last letters written before their execution by political prisoners during the years of Nazi occupation. The letters came from every occupied country in Europe, from Albania, to France and Soviet Russia. This remarkable book appeared in German in Switzerland in 1955, and in an abbreviated version as a mass paperback in Germany, with an introduction by the great German novelist Thomas Mann, in 1962.
Two of those letters, by Harro and Libertas Schulze Boysen, are in Ohler’s book, which would be worth obtaining for them alone.
Harro and Libertas were free lovers, not only overwhelmingly for each other, but for others too. They were, after all, brought up in the free spirit of Weimar Berlin, famous for its sexual liberation and licence.
Harro was born in 1909 into an aristocratic family – he was a nephew of Grand-Admiral Tirpitz – in 1909. In 1932 he was working as a journalist in Berlin, before founding the journal, published irregularly, called Der Gegner (The Adversary).
Libertas was the daughter of a distinguished fashion designer father, and something of a playgirl, a keen horse-woman and prolific accordion player.
When Hitler came to power in January 1933, Harro didn’t immediately close down his journal. He believed in the social radicalism of the Nazi programme, and hoped to influence its course. This didn’t last beyond the Reichstag Fire that February, after which Gegner meetings were sought after by the newly formed SS (armed police) and – aged 23 – Harro was arrested and so thoroughly whipped and beaten about the body that his kidneys were damaged and his sexual functioning affected. His Gegner colleague, the half-Jewish Henry Erlanger, was tortured to death. Himself undergoing continual torture, Harro was released in mid May as a result of his mother pulling strings, as she knew the Berlin police president.
Meanwhile, the 19-year old Libertas Haas-Heye had begun her life in Berlin, working for the Berlin branch of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which had just fired the bulk of its Jewish staff. This didn’t worry her. Like many at this early stage, she was excited by the Nazi new broom, and she herself wanted to become a film-maker.
Sailing with a boyfriend on one of Berlin’s many lakes, she met and immediately fell in love with Harro, though startled to see the wounds on his body. The love was mutual and continuous, and they married immediately.
In the meantime, Harro managed to get a simple clerical job in the Air Ministry, full of technical experts, not necessarily Nazi Party members. He started collecting secrets straight away.
The first concerned German soldiers being sent clandestinely to Spain to fight for Franco. He communicated this to a London journalist in Berlin, who thought it too dangerous to handle.
Harro’s position at the Air Ministry was greatly enhanced after Libertas had personally approached the air minister, Goering (a family friend), Harro was soon in a position to pass classified information to Moscow at the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Stalin trusted Hitler and poured abuse on all those who warned him of an impending German attack. “Send your informant [ie, Harro] from the staff of the German Luftwaffe back to his whore of a mother…”, signed J St. Harro’s go-between to the Soviets was the economist Arvid Harnack, who had studied in the USA on a Rockefeller grant and married Mildred Fish from Wisconsin, who became the only American citizen to be beheaded by the Nazis. She translated Goethe in her cell, and her last words were: “But I loved Germany so much”, words recorded by the sympathetic prison chaplain.
In communicating state secrets to the Russians, Harro, and by association Libertas, formed part of what the Gestapo called “Die Rote Kapelle” or “Red Orchestra”, always a fatal address.
This book is full of outstanding people who went to their deaths in the orgy of vengeful killing as defeat confronted the Nazis. Their names alone should stand and can be researched: the psychoanalyst John Rittmeister, the journalist John Graudenz, the dancer Oda Schotmüller and her lover Kurt Schumacher, the Countess Erika von Brockdorff, the dentist Helmut Himpel, the resister Adam Kuckhoff, the theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the resisters Hans and Hilde Coppi (the latter beheaded after giving birth, thus unprotecting her as a pregnant woman), and many others named in this valuable book.
This book’s German original title translates as Harro and Libertas – A Story of Love and Resistance. The present English title does not do this justice. “Infiltration” is an insufficient word for what the resisters were doing. And there was no single “German Resistance” for any one person, or two, to lead.
• The Infiltrators: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis. By Norman Ohler. Translated from the German by Tim Mohr and Marshall Yarborough, Atlantic Books, £20