The Red Orchestra was one of the most famous resistance and espionage networks operating in Nazi-occupied Europe.


Rather than a single organisation, the Red Orchestra is best understood as a collection of resistance networks operating in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland. It consisted of three main branches, the Berlin network, a network in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and a group operating out of neutral Switzerland that included the ‘Lucy Ring’ of spies.

The name ‘Red Orchestra’ was created by German counter-intelligence, who described resistance radio operators as ‘pianists’ while investigating these networks.


At the core of the Red Orchestra was the spy ring established by Leopold Trepper, a Polish communist and agent of the Red Army Intelligence, codenamed ‘Otto’. He set up a spy network that covered France, the Netherlands and Belgium, which successfully gathered intelligence on the German war effort, including industrial production and Nazi troop movements. Importantly, Trepper provided the Soviets with information regarding the Nazis’ planned invasion of Russia, though his warnings fell on deaf ears in Moscow. 

Leopold Trepper
Leopold Trepper

Eventually, on 5 December 1942, Trepper himself was arrested by the Germans in Paris. Rather than killing him, they sought to deploy him as a double agent, making him send misinformation back to Moscow. Remarkably, however, he escaped in the autumn of 1943 and made contact with the resistance in France. While he survived, his network did not and the Germans eliminated most of it in 1943. 



Perhaps the most effective part of the Red Orchestra was the group operating out of neutral Switzerland. Known as ‘The Red Three’ and headed by the Soviet military intelligence agent Alexander Radó (codenamed ‘Dora’), the network consisted of three subgroups led by Rachel Dübendorfer, Georges Blun and Otto Pünter. Feeding information to this network was the Lucy Spy Ring, led by Rudolf Roessler.

Rudolf Roessler
Rudolf Roessler

This ring included high-level German sources, such as Lieutenant General Fritz Theile, a senior officer in the Wehrmacht’s communications branch, and Colonel Freiherr Rudolf von Gersdorff, an intelligence officer on the Eastern Front. Together they provided the Soviets with extremely accurate and timely information on Nazi plans in Eastern Europe. 


Remarkably, the Red Orchestra also had a network of antifascists operating right under the Nazis’ noses in Berlin. By 1940/41 a group of around 150 people, including journalists, students, artists and civil servants, were organised by Arvid and Mildred Harnack, and Harrro and Libertas Schulze-Boysen, into a network of resistance in Berlin. The group took enormous risks to distribute anti-Nazi leaflets, letters and posters. They also helped persecuted people and documented Nazi crimes. They passed any information of military importance to the Soviet Union. 

Mildred Harnack
Mildred Harnack

In February 1942 they produced several hundred copies of a letter titled ‘The People Are Troubled about Germany’s Future’, written by Harro Schulze-Boysen with assistance from John Sieg. The letter read:

"Treat the SS with contempt! Let them feel that the people abhor murderers and spies from the depths of their souls! […] Every penny, every act of help for the ruling regime, prolongs the war and leads us all even deeper into despair! Put a stop to thoughtlessness and sentimentality.

"Everything that has to be said can be summed up in the call to be serious at last! Send this letter out into the world as often as you can! Pass it on to friends and workmates! You are not alone! Start fighting of your own accord, then in groups. TOMORROW GERMANY WILL BE OURS!" 

Similarly, in the spring of 1942 the Nazis launched a major anti-Soviet exhibition called The Soviet Paradise with the aim of showing the “poverty, misery, depravity and need” in the Soviet Union. Berlin was plastered with adverts and posters for the exhibition, which aimed to justify the war against Russia. Posing as lovers and under the watchful eye of Schulze-Boysen and his military-issue gun, members of the Red Orchestra covered the exhibition posters with antiNazi propaganda stickers that read: “The Nazi Paradise – war, hunger, lies, Gestapo – how much longer?” 

"Treat the SS with contempt! Let them feel that the people abhor murderers and spies from the depths of their souls! […] Every penny, every act of help for the ruling regime, prolongs the war and leads us all even deeper into despair! Put a stop to thoughtlessness and sentimentality."


Unfortunately, this story of unimaginable courage ends with heart-breaking tragedy.

this story of unimaginable courage ends with heart-breaking tragedy

Late in 1942, the Gestapo caught up with the Red Orchestra and arrested more than 100 members. Many were sent to the notorious Nazi prison at Spandau in Berlin, where they were tortured by the Gestapo. Over 50 people were sent to concentration camps, while 49 were executed straight away. 

As WWII ended and gave way to the Cold War, the Red Orchestra became a pawn used by both East and West in an ever-increasing propaganda war. In the West, their brave anti-fascism was often forgotten as they were written off as Soviet stooges. Those who survived, such as Trepper and Radó, headed East only to find themselves arrested by the Soviets, charged with espionage and thrown in prison.