The brave German “orchestra” that tried (and failed) to stop Hitler

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White Knights in the Black Orchestra: The Extraordinary Story of the Germans Who Resisted Hitler
By Tom Dunkel
Hachette books, 464 pages, $32

Last year, Rebecca Donner’s gripping biography, “All the Frequent Troubles These Days,” explored her American great-great-aunt’s exploits in the anti-Nazi resistance. Along with her German husband, Arvid, Mildred Harnack was active in left-wing opposition and spy circles which the Third Reich contemptuously dubbed “the Red Orchestra” and eventually crushed.

For students of the generally underrated (and mostly unsuccessful) German resistance, Tom Dunkel’s “White Knights in the Black Orchestra” is essential reading.

Despite our knowledge of the story arc, Dunkel’s non-fiction narrative is surprisingly suspenseful, as well as elegantly written. Deftly interweaving divergent stories, Dunkel emphasizes ironies and unforeseen twists as his characters navigate Nazi bureaucracies, shifting ideological undercurrents, and the pressures of war.

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Like Donner’s book, “White Knights in the Black Orchestra” is a story of great heroism, clouded by wickedness and mixed motives, at a time and place where the moral stakes couldn’t have been higher.

Among Dunkel’s protagonists, most of them are German government officials or military leaders, are reformed or wavering Nazis. (Some had committed war crimes themselves, a narrative thread that Dunkel does not pursue.) Many, unlike the members of the Red Orchestra, held conservative or authoritarian views.

Their motivations for rejecting the regime varied. Some had opposed Hitler from the start. Others were repelled by his increasingly disastrous war and the rise of barbarism in its wake, including the mass deportation and massacre of European Jews.

The resisters of the Black Orchestra (again, a Nazi label, rather than their own) turned not to the Soviet Union, but to Britain and the United States, for help. But the Allies, despite numerous approaches, remained suspicious and determined to surrender unconditionally. Concrete help never materialized, to Dunkel’s undisguised dismay.

One of the bases of resistance operations was the German Abwehr, the regime’s highly competent intelligence service. Oskar Schindler, later a famous Holocaust rescuer, was an Abwehr agent in Czechoslovakia. The head of the agency was Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, “an eccentric character apparently from a Charles Dickens novel”, a man who “didn’t like violence, tall people and anyone with small ears”.

Alongside him were Colonel Hans Oster, the agency’s “traffic controller,” and Hans von Dohnanyi, a lawyer with a Jewish grandparent. Dohnanyi compiled a “Chronicle of Shame” detailing Nazi abuses and crimes, evidence that he had become frantic to hide and then destroy. Dunkel calls the chronicle “the score of the black orchestra”.

These dissidents helped some Jews flee Germany and repeatedly tried to warn the Allies of Nazi invasion plans. Along with an ever-changing array of military leaders, officials, and others, they also plotted, abandoned, and botched various coups.

The first, scheduled for 1938 and 1939, would have derailed the Third Reich and averted the Holocaust. But the circumstances were never favourable, at least that is what the generals conclude. After all, Germany’s victories during those years were swift, even bloodless, and popular support for Hitler remained strong. “Soldiers on these kinds of winning streaks are not inclined to stick their heads in and commit treason,” Dunkel writes.

An unrelated lone assassin—Georg Elser, a carpenter with communist sympathies—attempted to blast Hitler in Munich in November 1939. Two efforts by the Black Orchestra to kill Hitler, in March 1943, also failed.

The German resistance is best known for its July 20, 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler and his henchmen at his headquarters at Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia. As Germany headed for catastrophic loss in the war, Operation Valkyrie was belated and desperate, a last-ditch marker for history. At its center was Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, maimed in battle, who had to arm a bomb with just three fingers. (Couldn’t we find anyone more suitable – and brave enough? Apparently not.)

The conspirators’ goals included the overthrow of the Nazi government, the installation of a new regime, and the negotiation of peace with the Allies, who would eventually realize that the resistance was serious.

It was also bad luck. Stauffenberg left a briefcase containing a bomb in a conference room with Nazi leaders, then left – and another officer moved the bomb “inadvertently”. As a result, Hitler survived the explosion and, unsurprisingly, vented his rage on the conspirators. Along with an estimated 5,000 relatives, supporters and other unfortunates, they were hunted down, tortured, executed or forced to commit suicide without any semblance of a fair trial.

A mainstay of Dunkel’s narrative is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “a fast-track German theologian” who helped found the anti-Nazi Confessing Church of Germany. As Dohnanyi’s brother-in-law and Arvid Harnack’s distant cousin, he had ties to a wide variety of resistance fighters. After Hitler came to power in 1933, the well-connected Bonhoeffer had the option of remaining in the United States or England, but continued to return home. In an effort to escape military draft, he joined the Abwehr, traveling across Europe on behalf of the dissident cause.

A 1943 raid on the Abwehr swept away Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer, among others. While in prison, the Protestant pastor produced voluminous writings, including poetry, plays, and theological works, and exchanged letters with his young fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer. This literary cornucopia allows Dunkel to tell Bonhoeffer’s story in vivid detail.

Another fascinating character is Harald Poelchau, a prison chaplain who cared for convicts and helped them communicate with loved ones, including other dissidents. It was traumatic work, but also a mission of mercy. Poelchau’s sympathies and clandestine activities also put him in danger.

Dunkel’s epigraph is a quote from Edmund Burke, an 18th-century Irish author and politician associated with British conservatism: “No one has made a greater mistake than he who has done nothing because he could do little. Because the German resistance failed to stop Hitler; because many resisters died in the attempt; because they did so, at best, only a little, the immense courage they often displayed was overlooked. Dunkel’s book is a moving corrective.

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