The KPD and The Red Orchestra by JJ Toner

Posted by on Aug 22, 2016 in Featured Book, Historical Tidbits, World War Two | 4 comments

the-serpents-egg185x280Before 1933, the Communist Party of Germany, the KPD, was a significant political party in Germany, with 100 seats in the Reichstag. Their main rivals were the NSDAP, the right wing Nazi Party. Running battles between the two groups were commonplace in the streets of every major city in Germany.

On February 27 1933, the parliament building, the Reichstag in Berlin, was burned to the ground. The KPD was blamed for the fire.

Describing the arson as the opening salvo in a putative Communist uprising, Adolf Hitler, the newly appointed Chancellor, was able to throw millions of Germans into a frenzy of fear at the threat of a Communist terror campaign.

Within hours of the fire, dozens of Communists were arrested and thrown into jail. The next day, the nascent Gestapo, led by Hermann Göring, the Prussian Minister of the Interior, suggested using an emergency presidential decree to copper-fasten the legality of the arrests.

The ‘Reichstag Fire Decree’ gave the president far-reaching powers to protect public safety without the consent of the Reichstag. Under the pretense of preventing further Communist violence, most civil liberties were suspended and any publications not aligned to the Nazi cause were banned.

On March 5 1933, six days after the fire, the Germans went to the polls, electing 288 Nazis and 81 Communists. Every one of the elected Communists was immediately arrested, as membership of the KPD was now an act of treason. The remaining leaders of the party went into exile in the Soviet Union.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviets (signed on Aug 23, 1939) caused consternation among the diplomats engaged in negotiations designed to avoid war with Nazi Germany. Faced with the prospect of a war against the combined force of the Nazis and the Red Army, the British and French devised a plan for a joint pre-emptive air strike against the Soviet oilfields and refineries in Caucasia. This plan was called Operation Pike. It was well advanced, with a planned operational date of May 15 1940, when, on May 10, the Nazis invaded Belgium, the Netherlands and France. Operation Pike was abandoned.

Harro Shulze Boysen Red Orchestra

Harro Shulze Boysen Red Orchestra

During World War II, branches of the KPD were set up in various cities outside Germany, such as Paris, Prague and Zurich. In Germany, they continued as an underground movement, enlisting the help of a group of Marxist intellectuals to resist the Nazis wherever and however they could. Harro and Libertas Schulze-Boysen, Adam and Greta Kuckhoff and Arvid and Mildred Harnack were some of those involved. The expanded group, named the Red Orchestra by the Gestapo, published anti-Nazi leaflets and collected intelligence from a variety of sources in the government and the military. Harro Schulze-Boysen, for instance, worked in Luftwaffe Intelligence.

The Soviets had a long-standing network of spies in Western Europe. Their key man was an agent named Trepper who operated a radio transmitter from Belgium. Before 1941, there was little or no contact between the Soviet spy network and the Red Orchestra, however, as Stalin didn’t trust the KPD. During the purge of 1937, several notable members of the party in exile were executed by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police.

Lacking a radio, the Red Orchestra in Berlin passed their intelligence to the Soviets through an NKVD contact called Alexander Korotkov at the Soviet embassy. However, right up to the invasion of the Soviet Union in July 1941, Stalin never believed any of the intelligence received from the Red Orchestra. Operation Pike was a case in point. It was clearly flagged by the Red Orchestra, but Stalin refused to believe it, and, when the plan never materialized, his skepticism seemed to have been vindicated.

In June 1941 Stalin recalled Korotkov to Moscow, and the Red Orchestra began to pass their intelligence to the United States through an embassy attaché, called Donald Heath. The British had rejected their offer of intelligence; the USA, having no spy network or their own in Europe, were delighted to accept it.

Following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, unexpected in the Kremlin, although clearly predicted by the Red Orchestra, Stalin’s attitude to the German group changed. He moved to re-establish contact with the group in Berlin.

Arvid Harnak Red Orchestra

Arvid Harnak
Red Orchestra

During the second half of 1941, the three branches of counter-espionage in Germany, the Gestapo, the Abwehr and the SD, began to work together to neutralize the threat of Soviet espionage. And in December the Gestapo moved to arrest a group of three agents transmitting to the Soviets from their base in a villa near Brussels. The trio managed to burn most of their codebooks before they were captured, but the Gestapo found a fragment of a signal half-burnt in the fireplace. It took several months, but eventually, the German military managed to break the code, thanks to that small half-burnt fragment. After that, the signals they had collected over several years turned into a treasure trove of information. The whole Red Orchestra network was revealed to them.

In a major blunder by the Soviets, the names and addresses of the leading members of the Red Orchestra in Berlin were included in a message sent from Moscow to their agents in Brussels. Within a few days, the whole network was arrested by the Gestapo. Very few survived.

Arising from the brutality of Stalin and his Red Army, there are those today who are unwilling to acknowledge the bravery of this resistance group. But to me they were all heroes. Adherents to a Socialist ideology that, in its purest form, could provide a viable alternative to the evils of Capitalism and the ‘free market’, these were idealists. The tireless way they worked to undermine the Nazi regime is undeniable testament to the purity of their motives. We should not allow the wisdom of hindsight to blind us to the wonderful actions of these brave men and women.

JJ Toner, August 22, 2016

JJ Toner has written four WW2 spy thrillers. The latest one, The Serpent’s Egg, features the Red Orchestra.



  1. In depth research evidenced here. This should be a brilliant read.

  2. Looks fascinating! I’m very much looking forward to reading

  3. Fascinating story, James. Thanks.

  4. Sounds like this would make a great film. Fascinating history.