Arvid von Harnack
The Red Orchestra is perhaps one of the best known espionage cases of the Second World War.1 The U.S. Army’s Investigative Records Repository (IRR) file on the Soviet espionage network, being released under the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, contains documents related to an investigation of the Red Orchestra case during the early postwar period.
One of the most interesting documents in the file is a report dated February 11, 1952. The report concerns a meeting between a special agent of the 66th CIC Detachment and Dr. Manfred Roeder, formerly the Judge Advocate of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) who served as the assistant prosecutor in the espionage case involving Red Orchestra agents. The meeting, which took place in Hannover, Germany, was arranged through Graf Wolf von Westarp, a leading figure in the Sozialistische Reichspartei (Socialist Reichs Party, or SRP), a postwar German rightist party. At this time, the CIC was actively pursuing leads concerning the Red Orchestra case. According to rumors, some “eight crates of documents” concerning the case had been hidden by German intelligence personnel in the LÜneburger Heide shortly after the war. Thus, the meeting with Roeder was intended to elicit information necessary to allow CIC agents to locate and exploit the Red Orchestra records.2
The U.S. Army file also contains several pieces of correspondence from British intelligence and U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps offices. These letters relate to early postwar efforts to ascertain the whereabouts of former German intelligence personnel, particularly members of the “Special Detachment Red Orchestra” (Sonderkommando Rote Kapelle) who were believed to have extensive knowledge of the German investigation into the Red Orchestra espionage ring.
Intelligence professionals and historians alike have long regarded the Red Orchestra as one of the most successful spy rings that operated during the Second World War. However, the network that became known as the legendary “Red Orchestra” had humble beginnings. In 1939, Leopold Trepper, an agent for the Soviet military intelligence service, established an intelligence network in Western Europe. At its height, the network carried out intelligence collection operations in Germany, France, Holland and Switzerland.
The Red Orchestra spy ring consisted of three main branches: the network in France, Belgium, and Holland; the Berlin network; and a remarkable group of agents, known as the “Lucy Ring,” that operated from the relative safety of neutral Switzerland. The Berlin-based Red Orchestra agents included Harro Schulze-Boysen, an intelligence officer assigned to the German Air Ministry, and Arvid von Harnack, an employee of the German Ministry of Economics. These men, as well as several other men [and women, including Arvid’s wife Mildred Fish-Harnack], reported extraordinarily sensitive information from key areas of the German bureaucracy in the German capital itself.
The Lucy Ring, perhaps the most important branch of the Red Orchestra, possessed some impeccable sources of information. These sources included Lieutenant General Fritz Theile, a senior officer in the Wehrmacht’s communications branch [who was later involved in the plot to kill Hitler], and Colonel Freiherr Rudolf von Gersdorff, who eventually became intelligence officer of Army Group Center on the eastern front. The Lucy Ring provided Soviet leader Josef Stalin with extraordinarily accurate information on Nazi intentions vis-à-vis operations on the German eastern front. The Germans apparently knew of the existence of a Soviet spy ring operating in fairly high levels of the Reich Government administration as early as 1941. However, like many counterespionage cases, it was only after two years of painstaking investigation that the case was finally broken.
In the spring of 1942, the first Red Orchestra agents were arrested in Belgium. Over the next year and a half, a total of more than six hundred people were arrested in Germany, as well as in Paris and Brussels. Both Schulze-Boysen and von Harnack, who had operated in Berlin for some time, were arrested following the initial wave of arrests in Brussels. Several other network agents were arrested in subsequent months. Those arrested included employees of the German military intelligence service (Abwehr), Ministry of Labor, Ministry of Propaganda, Foreign Office, and the city administration of Berlin. The list of those arrested was damning evidence of just how deeply the Soviet military intelligence had penetrated the German government administration and the Wehrmacht High Command.
German interrogators employed “intensified interrogation” techniques and some Red Orchestra agents broke under the torture. As a result, the Germans were able to eradicate most of the spy network in Belgium, Holland and Germany. After a trial, held in camera, 58 members of the network were condemned to death and many others were sentenced to long periods of imprisonment.
Mildred Fish-Harnack and her husband were arrested on September 7, 1942, while on a short vacation in Priel, a seaside town near Königsberg, and taken to Gestapo headquarters. At their trial on December 15-19, 1942, Mildred was sentenced to six years in prison for “helping to prepare high treason and espionage.” Arvid and eight others were given the death sentence and, on December 22, Arvid and three others were hanged from meat hooks suspended from a T-bar across the ceiling of the execution chamber at Plötzensee Prison. The others were beheaded by the guillotine. On December 21, Hitler reversed the sentence on Mildred and, at her second trial on January13/16, 1943, she was sentenced to death and beheaded on February 16, 1943. Mildred Elizabeth Harnack was the only American woman to be executed for treason in World War II.
Despite evidence of Gestapo mistreatment of Red Orchestra agents, there was apparently little interest on the part of the western Allies in prosecuting German officials connected with the Red Orchestra investigation. Indeed, as differences between East and West grew greater in the postwar period, American intelligence officers showed more interest in the Red Orchestra case as a source of information on Soviet intelligence trade craft and methodology, rather than as a case for possible prosecution in the wake of Germany’s defeat.
1 In Soviet intelligence jargon of the period, radio transmitters were referred to as “Music boxes,” and radio operators as “Musicians,” thus the German label, “Red Orchestra” or Rote Kapelle in German. For further information concerning the Red Orchestra, see V.E. Tarrant, The Red Orchestra: The Soviet Spy Network Inside Nazi Europe. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1996); Gilles Perrault [Pseud., Jacques Peyroles]. Tr., Peter Wiles. The Red Orchestra. (London: Barker, 1968); Leopold Trepper. The Great Game: Memoirs of the Spy Hitler Couldn’t Silence. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1977); and U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Counterintelligence Staff. The Rote Kapelle: The CIA’s History of Soviet Intelligence and Espionage Networks in Western Europe, 1936-1945. (Washington, DC: University Publications of America, Inc., 1979).
2 U.S. Army Investigative Records Repository (hereafter IRR) File on the Red Orchestra. National Archives and Records Administration, RG 319.
Sources: Paul Brown, “Report on the IRR File on The Red Orchestra,” National Archives, (August 15, 2016).
George Duncan’s Women of the Third Reich.
Photos: Public Domain, Wikipedia.