Ohler, Norman. “The Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis ”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020.
Leading the Resistance
Through the story of Harro and Libertas Schulze-Bowen Nelson Ohlen’s “The Bohemians” tells us about the resistance of the titular Bohemians in war-time Berlin. The Bowens engineered their activities within and around the Nazi party. They are young people from good families who become part of a group of young artists, writers, musicians, activists and others who became known as The Red Orchestra and they attempt to undermine the fascist control of the Nazi party over the citizens of Germany. Harro was an idealist from a young age had been tortured by the Nazis because of his writing in the leftist-liberal magazine “Der Gegner”. When he meets Libertas, she has become disillusioned with her life and joins him and his friends in performing acts of espionage and anti-Nazi propaganda activities. The group was eventually discovered through a radio counterintelligence operation.
Ohler had access to much information about his subjects through surviving family members and de-classified information. It is not enough that he shares this information with us but he does so in fine prose filled with revelations of intimate details. As we read, we feel that we are part of the group. The Nazi party tied to kill everything about the Red Orchestra and the way they do this makes for a fascinating read. The characters that we meet are both amazing and flawed who risked their lives to fight fascism.
The story begins in the summer of 1935 on a lake near Berlin where Harro sees Libertas and is smitten. This is the beginning of their romance and one of history’s greatest conspiracies. The couple soon leadsa network of antifascist fighters that across Berlin’s bohemian underworld. Harro infiltrated German intelligence and began sending Nazi battle plans to the Allies, including the details of Hitler’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union. Harro and Libertas suffer betrayals in a struggle in which friend and foe are indistinguishable.
Harro and Libertas were the center of a number of circles of resistance. In the beginning there were mostly discussion groups; then they distributed anti-Nazi postcards and plastered walls with provocative statements. But when, as a result of his Luftwaffe work, Harro learned that Germany planned to break the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and attack the USSR and he knew he had to step up his activities. He knew that this attack would destroy Germany since if it was successful—nothing would be able to stop Nazism bringing about the end of Harro’s mother country. He decided to work with a Russian to warn the Soviets.
Stalin could not be persuaded that Hitler would betray him, and Harro was implicated when one of his compatriots was captured and tortured into giving up an encoded key that allowed the Nazis to crack communications that identified Harro. Harro and Libertas were arrested in August, 1942, tortured, and executed in December. Many resisters connected to them faced the same fate.
Ohler has done great research to bring us this story of love, bravery and self-sacrifice. This is a fascinating look at life in Nazi Germany, where self-assertion of youth was political act and daily life was dangerous.