Die Rote Kapelle (the Red Orchestra) was the name given by the Gestapo to two resistance rings, partially with Communist backgrounds, in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II.
The Gestapo used the name Red Orchestra to refer to the Schulze-Boysen / Harnack group, an anti-Hitler resistance movement in Germany with international connections to countries like the USA, the Soviet Union and others. The Gestapo also used the same name to refer to Communist spy groups, including the Soviet NKVD-controlled Trepper espionage group. Though the Berlin resistance network was not Soviet-operated, the Trepper ring was, and the Gestapo's generalized use of the term was continued in most postwar history books.
The name "Rote Kapelle" or "Red Orchestra" came from German counterintelligence's practice of referring to spies' radio transmitters as "music boxes," and calling their agents "musicians". "Red" stood for Communism. Thus, the German counterintelligence called the perceived Soviet covert network die Rote Kapelle, the "Red Orchestra".
The Nazi government set up the Gestapo's "Red Orchestra Special Detachment" (Sonderkommando Rote Kapelle) with the intention of destroying the Berlin resistance network and Trepper's group.
The Trepper group
An actual Soviet espionage group was coordinated by then-NKVD agent Leopold Trepper. Anatoli Gurewitsch alias KENT, an agent of Trepper's network, went to Berlin on October 29th 1941 to seek contact with the Schulze-Boysen / Harnack resistance movement. It was the only time that a contact was made. Trepper never went to Berlin or met any of the conspirators there.
The Trepper ring made reports to the Soviet Union on German troop concentrations in German-occupied areas of the Soviet Union, air attacks on Germany, German aircraft production, and German fuel shipments. In France, they worked with the underground French Communist Party. Agents of this spy ring even succeeded in tapping the phone lines of the Abwehr in Paris.
Belgian-born socialite Suzanne Spaak joined the Parisian network of the Trepper Group after being appalled by the conduct of the Nazi occupiers in her country.
Eventually the Abwehr triangulated the radio transmissions of Johann Wenzel, an agent of the Trepper organization in Belgium, and arrested him. Wenzel agreed to turn double agent and then informed on the leaders of the network.
Based on Wenzel's information, German Counterespionage was also able to decode a Morse transmission from 1941 that had sent KENT to Berlin. They arrested Schulze-Boysen and his wife on August 30, 1942, and Arvid Harnack and his wife in September of that year, along with 106 fellow resisters (see below). It was through this incident that the erroneous connection between the two groups came into existence.
Some persons are believed to have broken under torture and almost all persons accused of having been members of the so-called "Red Orchestra" were sentenced to death and executed. Trepper was captured however he managed to convince his captors that he would serve them by supporting a policy of an independent peace settlement between the USSR and Germany, he managed to smuggle out an explanation of his activity to the Soviets and thus the Soviets were able to extract information which served their purposes from the Nazis themselves. Trepper escaped and joined the French underground, where he worked until the liberation of Paris. On return to the USSR he was arrested and spent years in prison, under Kruschev Trepper was rehabilitated.
Operations by the Trepper ring had been entirely eliminated by the spring of 1943. Most agents were executed, including Suzanne Spaak at Fresnes Prison just thirteen days before liberation in 1944.
The Schulze-Boysen / Harnack Organization
German counterintelligence also used the name "Red Orchestra" to denote a group engaged in pure resistance to the Nazi regime. This group was a friendship network centred around Harro Schulze-Boysen an intelligence officer for the German Air Ministry and Arvid Harnack in the German Ministry of Economics. Running the gamut of German society, it contained Communists and political conservatives, Jews, Catholics and atheists united in to fight the Nazis and their human rights violations. Unusual for that time and unique within the forms of German resistance, this group contained 40% women, working equally alongside the men. The oldest person arrested was 86, the youngest 16. Among the arrested were theatre producer Adam Kuckhoff and his wife Greta Kuckhoff, Horst Heilmann codebreaker in the Wehrmacht communications division, Günther Weisenborn German author, the journalist John Graudenz who had previously been expelled from the Soviet Union for reporting negatively about their famine, the potter Cato Bontjes van Beek, the pianist Helmut Roloff and others.
The main activity of the Schulze-Boysen group was collecting information about Nazi atrocities and distributing leaflets against Hitler rather than espionage. Part of their information campaign included the communication of Nazi secrets to foreign countries, specifically through personal contacts with the US embassy and a less direct connection to the Soviet government. A problem arose when, in addition to Kent, Soviet agents were parachuted into Germany to contact the resisters. Their arrival was observed and interspersed by the Gestapo. Before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Schulze-Boysen had made contact with the Soviet Embassy. However, when the Soviets tried to enlist the resistance group in their service, the resisters refused. They wanted to maintain their political independence and were wary of Stalin.
German intelligence chose to label the Schulze-Boysen group as the Red Orchestra, in order to justify their persecution of anti-Nazi Germans. Many different people were arrested and listed under that name. Rudolf von Scheliha, who was in charge of countering foreign press reports about Nazi atrocities at the German Foreign Office, had irritated Gestapo officials by requesting details about actual atrocities, and became a target for annihilation because of his activities. The Gestapo claimed to have intercepted a message about NKVD agents coming to help von Scheliha and arrested him. Von Scheliha was sentenced to death and executed by hanging on December 22, 1942 together with resistance fighters of the group around Harnack and Schulze-Boysen. Hilde Coppi's execution was delayed until her son was weaned, and she was executed immediately thereafter.
After the war, Helmut Roeder, the Prosecutor in the trial against the Red Orchestra, was charged because of his role in that trial, and as a defense, invented the story of the Red Orchestra as an important Soviet espionage ring. Roeder became an informant for the Counter Intelligence Corps.
Hitler ordered the traitors hanged to make an example of them. Berlin however contained no gallows by which to do this since executions were usually carried out with an axe. To get around this the executioners fabricated a crude garrote using a meat hook and pieces of rope by which each traitor was suspended until dead by strangulation. This meat hook method became the standard for all traitors until the end of Nazi Germany except in the case of the July 20 plotters who were strangled using piano wire instead of rope.