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

Harro Schulze-Boysen and his wife Libertas sailing on Wannsee. Credit: The German Resistance Memorial Centre, Berlin

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.

The resisters are hauled in, there are sham trials, convictions, then sentences of death

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.

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