Silence and Spotlight: The Extremes of Activity in Resistance Women by Jennifer Chiaverini

“If the Führer says it is true, it must be true, however preposterous.”  – Arvid, Resistance Women, p. 438


In 2019, when we hear the word “resistance” in the context of politics, images of boisterous, possibly angry, protests spring to mind. Even when we think of the word in the context of World War II, we tend to think of the French and English resistance with their relatively public acts like bridge bombings and guerilla warfare.

But what Jennifer Chiaverini’s sweeping new novel, Resistance Women (William Morrow, 2019), teaches us is that resistance hasn’t always been loud and daring; in fact, in Hitler’s Germany it was nearly silent. Being the center of the Reich, this was of necessity. “At the height of the Nazi regime, overt public demonstrations such as large marches and other protests simply weren’t possible because anyone attempting these kind of activities in the heart of Berlin would have been arrested or shot on the spot,” she said.

In fact, even today, many outside of Germany are not aware of the German Resistance’s existence. Chiaverini has brought their stories to light by showing readers what life was like for three historical and one fictional German men and women, beginning in the days leading up to Hitler’s ascent to power, through the end of the war, covering the years 1929-1944. “Learning about Mildred Fish Harnack, Arvid Harnack, Greta Kuckhoff, and the other members of their resistance network inspired me to write about their lives and the cause that mattered so much to them,” she explained.


Small, Quiet Steps

Germany’s Resistance, or at least the branch at the center of this book—described by Chiaverini as “a circle of American and German resistance fighters the Gestapo called the Rote Kapelle, Red Orchestra, for the treasonous ‘music,’ crucial military and economic intelligence, they broadcast to enemies of the Reich”—began innocently enough with the blatant violation of a rule most citizens deemed ridiculous: Hitler’s April 1, 1933, national boycott of Jewish businesses. This is the first act of defiance carried out by Sara, Amalie, Mildred and many other women in the book.

Not long after, the artistic community of actors, playwrights and producers began to get in on the quiet protest, writing subtle satire and allegory into their shows. At the same time, groups of men began covertly producing flyers and other literature speaking out against the Nazis. While Mildred dared not join that dangerous band, she used her role as a university professor to teach “her students how to recognize and refute propaganda, how to defend themselves against it with reason and logic,” (p.154) assigned them to write “essays that inspired a better vision of humanity” (p.235) and ran a study group where it was safe for students to speak against the Nazis and discuss subversive ideas.

Jennifer Chiaverini

Slowly, the resistance became more organized as they widened their scope to include Soviet Communists and were able to take advantage of the intelligence their new allies gathered. In addition, they gained a bit of support from the United states in August 1935 when the historical Clara Leiser, a writer working for the court of New York, arrived in Berlin as an official observer of the Nazi mass trials. Mildred and Greta were able to use their burgeoning network to gather intelligence that Clara could take back to the United States in hopes of moving the reluctant government to join the war.

Eventually, the women were accepted as couriers as well, passing information and equipment on to other members of the resistance and putting themselves in equal danger with the men, despite their male counterparts’ insistence on dismissing their contributions as inferior. “What I found most remarkable about Mildred’s resistance circle was that at a time when the Third Reich vigorously strove to limit women’s roles in society to Kinder, Kirche, Küche (Children, Church, Kitchen), nearly half of the Rote Kapelle were women,” Chiaverini said. “Although most of the strategic decisions were made by the group’s male leaders, Arvid Harnack and Harro Schulze-Boysen, the women assumed responsibility for recruiting members, organizing meetings, collecting intelligence, acting as couriers, translating, copying, distributing leaflets, concealing radios and other illicit equipment, sheltering fugitives, and many other activities that put their lives at risk, often to a greater extent than their male counterparts.”


The Power of Propaganda

Contrast this covert activity with the highly public spectacles of the Nazi regime. Seemingly random to the average citizen, the party carefully planned riots, rallies, and other demonstrations of strength, even well before Hitler became the supreme power in Germany. During these dangerous events, hundreds of men pushed their way through otherwise peaceful town streets, breaking windows (especially of Jewish-owned establishments), setting fires and firing guns, all the while shouting their support of Hitler and disdain for the Jews. They rejoiced when average citizens joined in their hate-fueled demonstrations, but did not hesitate to beat, bully or even kill those who did not and were unfortunate enough to get in their way. This was followed by highly public book burnings as the Aryan Laws went into effect. As Mildred presciently thinks, “Where they burn books, in the end they will also burn people.” (p.119)

As Hitler steadily rose in the German government, these events became more targeted, and, in a sick way, revered. They “had become the Nazi equivalent of a Holy Day of Obligation.” (p.365). The first and most scared of these was the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s November 9, 1923, failed coup attempt that landed him in jail on charges of high treason and made him a hero to his followers. Another was Kristallnacht, November 9–10, 1938, a night in which “tens of thousands of Jews had been arrested…dragged from their homes, paraded through the streets and eventually forced into trucks and hauled off concentration camps…Almost every synagogue in Berlin has been desecrated and severely damaged, or destroyed utterly” (p.367). Despite their obvious victimization, the whole event was officially blamed on spontaneous uprisings of the people at the urging of the Jews.

“Hitler understood very well the power of propaganda, theatrics, and appearances, and he used public spectacles to drive his narrative of a unified, powerful Third Reich in order to energize his supporters and intimidate his enemies,” Chiaverini noted.

But perhaps the most obvious sign of Hitler’s willingness to go to any lengths to publicly display his country in its best light came in his efforts to clean up Berlin for the 1936 Olympic games. As Chiaverini writes:

“…More important to Hitler was the appearance of prosperity. Pamphlets were distributed to every household encouraging citizens to grow flowers rather than vegetables in their gardens and window boxes. Vacant shops and offices on main thoroughfares were leased at significantly below-market cost, with additional subsidies available so that proprietors could spruce up their new storefronts. Unsightly Roma camps were demolished overnight…familiar tokens of the new Germany began quietly disappearing. The ubiquitous signs in store windows declaring “Juden unerwünscht” were removed…Posters announcing the Nuremberg Laws and other regulations stripping Jews of their civil rights were torn down, every trace of paste and paper scrubbed from the brick. (p.289)

In addition, Hitler used the opening ceremonies to praise the countries that cheered for him and Reich, in an act of “sports as political theatre” intended, as one character notes, to motivate the international spectators to “carry home the impression that Germany is the most hospitable, peace-loving nation on earth, if you can overlook all the martial flourishes.” (p.296)


Hitler’s Reality versus the Real World

In the end, it was the juxtaposition between Hitler’s version of reality and the reality of the German resistance against him that made Hitler hate them with such vengeance. Chiaverini explained: “He was so deeply offended and outraged by the Rote Kapelle because the resistance network included many members of the academic, political, and military elite, people who could have expected to prosper beneath Nazi rule. Hitler blamed any dissent in Germany upon Jews, Communists, and other ‘undesirables,’ and he was stunned when he learned about these respected theologians, esteemed professors, an employee of the Ministry of Economics, a Luftwaffe intelligence officer, and others who had also rejected his plan for a Thousand Year Reich.”

Which may explain why he came down so hard on them when the Rote Kapelle was discovered through errors made by the Soviets. “Of the forty-five members of the Rote Kapelle who received death sentences in the Nazi courts, nineteen were women—courageous women from all walks of life, not trained spies or armed soldiers, but ordinary and extraordinary women who risked everything to fight injustice and defend the persecuted,” Chiaverini said. One of them was Mildred Harnack, the only American woman executed on direct orders of Adolf Hitler, and whose story is told so compellingly in Resistance Women.


About the contributor: Nicole Evelina is a historical fiction and women’s fiction author, as well as a book reviewer for HNS, Historical Honey and Sirens. She can be found online here.

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