One of the lasting questions of World War II is, when faced with unimaginable evil all around them, what did ordinary people do?
The consensus generally says that, in Nazi Germany, they did nothing. But a new book about resistance efforts by ordinary citizens of Berlin prior to World War II not only shows that some people tried, but that some who did so had strong Wisconsin ties.
"Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler" profiles a group that printed and distributed illegal flyers, provided intelligence to the Allies and helped Jews escape, all while working their jobs and raising their families. The book is part biography, part thriller and partly a stern warning against passive behavior in challenging times.
"The way I see these people is through the word 'decent,'" author Anne Nelson said in a phone interview. "These people woke up in the morning and these unspeakable things were happening and they said, 'Well, what's the minimum I can do to live with myself in these times?'"
Nelson structures her story around the life of Greta Lorke Kuckhoff, a Berliner who came to the United States to pursue graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the late 1920s. At an ice skating party at one of the city's lakes, she met Mildred Fish Harnack, a Milwaukee native, UW-Madison graduate and literature professor who had married Arvid Harnack, another German graduate student.
It was a friendship that would continue when Greta returned to Berlin in 1929; the Harnacks returned in 1930.
"They all loved Wisconsin," said Nelson, who teaches in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. "One of the orphans of the group, who Greta always looked after, kind of like a foster son, said she always talked about how much she loved Wisconsin and she said that was the happiest time of her life. And here she was, president of the East German Central Bank, dreaming of Wisconsin."
Greta Lorke Kuckhoff was one of the few members of the Red Orchestra resistance group to survive the war. Most were executed in 1942 and 1943, including Mildred Harnack, whose death was specifically ordered by Hitler after she originally got a 10-year prison sentence. She was the only American woman executed under the orders of Hitler during World War II.
The Red Orchestra, named such by the German government and not the group itself, was made up of a variety of German citizens. The Kuckhoffs and the Harnacks had formed a discussion circle to talk about politics, much as Greta had done in Madison as a member of "The Friday Niters" group hosted by distinguished professor John Commons.
Greta's husband, Adam, was a playwright and journalist, a contemporary of Bertolt Brecht. Mildred Harnack was a translator and professor of literature in Berlin. Her husband, Arvid, was an economist who had risen to work in the Economics Ministry of the Third Reich. Concerned by what they saw happening in Germany after Hitler came to power in 1933, they decided to do something about it. Members of the group contacted Soviets and Americans trying to thwart the Nazis. Their warnings were ignored.
Nelson's introduction to the story of the Red Orchestra was a fluke. She was in Berlin and had hoped to visit the Reichstag, the home of German parliament. It was closed, so she went for a walk and ended up at the ruins of the Gestapo headquarters.
"There was a picture of Mildred, beautiful Mildred, and it said 'Literature professor from Wisconsin, the only American woman to be executed under Hitler's orders,'" Nelson said, "and I thought, 'This was notin my history books.'"
Nelson, a former reporter specializing in human rights issues, knew she had found a story. She originally planned to write about Mildred Harnack, but shortly after Nelson began her research, a biography of Mildred, "Resisting Hitler," came out. So Nelson switched gears and decided to center her story on Greta Kuckhoff.
By doing so, Nelson discovered she could tell a different story because Greta survived. She died in 1981 at the age of 79.
"In a way, I think the postwar experience is some of the most interesting and novel material in the book," Nelson said.
Cold War politics had much to do with the fate of the Red Orchestra story. The West dismissed them as Communist spies, the East praised them as Communist heroes. Neither version was the truth, Nelson's research shows. (The Cold War chill was such that the UW itself was suspected as potentially breeding Communists because the alumni magazine ran an article in 1947 that praised Mildred Harnack's war efforts.) Nelson is developing a screenplay based on the book. She hopes the story of the Red Orchestra will endure not because the group members were heroic, but by how it shows that people were willing to make a stand in a dangerous time, even in Nazi Germany.
"It's one thing to talk about the victims, it's another thing to talk about the monsters of evil," she said. "Let's now look at everybody else, the difference between being simply passive and taking action in the face of injustice. That's an issue that's going to be present in every society for all time."\ \ Red Orchestra\ by Anne Nelson\ (Random House, 388, $27)\ On the Web:\ Facebook group\ "Red Orchestra by Anne Nelson"