Der roman über den deutschen widerstand

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Some Introductory Words from the Author

Beloved parents!
The time has come. In a few hours I will exit this Self. I am totally calm, and I beg you to accept it calmly as well. Today in the whole world, things of such importance are at stake that one life that expires is not very much. Everything I did, I did with my head, my heart, and my convictions ... This death fits me. Somehow I have always known about it. It is »my own death«, as Rilke once put it. My heart only grows heavy when I think of you (Libertas is close to me and shares my fate at the same hour!) ...

›Wer wir sind‹ is a novel about the opposition against Hitler and National Socialism in Germany, spanning the years from the German empire, the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich to the post war period. It begins in the summer of 1917, in a garden in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. From here, it moves forward and backward in time, ending with the engagement of the young German Arvid Harnack to the American student Mildred Fish, the only American to have been sentenced to death by Hitler's judges. In the course of its more than 2,000 pages, it takes the reader from the mansions of imperial Berlin to the bohemian flats of the Twenties, from South Africa and China, London and Oxford to the Russian front and the German POW camps, from the castles and great estates east of the Elbe to the jails and concentration camps of the Nazis and from the lakes of Brandenburg back to Lake Mendota, Wisconsin, where the story finally comes full circle.

When I began work on the novel in 2006, I had not intended it to become quite so voluminous, nor to spend six years almost completely on this single project. My original plan had been to write about the Widows of July 20, the women whose husbands had lost their lives in the aftermath of Count Stauffenberg's attempt to kill Hitler. In the weeks that followed the failed coup, many of them had been imprisoned, their families' fortunes confiscated, their children taken away by the Gestapo. How did they feel? Well, heartbroken, of course, frightened, stricken with grief. But weren't they also furious? After all, some of them had not even known about the conspiracy. And now there they were, locked up alone in their prison cells, in a burning city, day and night exposed to the ceaseless bombing of the Allies. Their lives were in danger, their families ruined, their husbands had gotten themselves killed, and for what? In the end, their men had failed.

Or had they?

What, after all, had been their real objective? No matter what might have motivated the conspirators in the beginning: by July 1944, it must have been obvious to them that the end was near. The war was lost, the Hitler state would collapse, and soon it would all be over anyway. Why risk so much, so late in the day?

I began to read. Like probably everyone who has been through the German school system, I had thought I knew enough, indeed more than enough about this blackest period of German history. But now I realized that this was not so. I read and read, and the more I read, the more I wanted to read. The scope of the story began to expand. To limit myself to a few women, or to the year 1944/1945, soon seemed infeasible, even absurd. After all, about two hundred men had lost their lives for their involvement in the July 20 plot alone. And what about the others – the communist and the socialist groups, the Kreisau Circle, the Solf Circle, the White Rose, the Red Orchestra?

Of course, most of these names had been invented by the Gestapo in order to facilitate persecution once the arrests were beginning. The men and women involved did not think about themselves in these terms. They were connected to each other in multiple and intricate ways, not only politically, but through professions, friendships, love affairs, often family ties. Most of them were young, full of plans for the future – workers and students, soldiers and artists, Christians, intellectuals, countesses, dancers.

Some of them had been enemies of the Nazis from the very beginning, like the members of the Harnack family: Ernst von Harnack, reckoned among the men of July 20, his first cousin Arvid Harnack, executed as a leader of the Red Orchestra, and Arvid's brother Falk, loosely connected to the White Rose. Others had started out as fervent National Socialists and later became the regime's most relentless foes. Some were driven by feelings of guilt, like young soldier Axel von dem Bussche-Streithorst, who planned to kill Hitler in a suicide attack after having witnessed the mass murder of Jews in the Ukraine. Others were overwhelmed by pity and sadness like the young potter Cato Bontjes van Beek, or drawn into the circles of the opposition through their attachment to friends, lovers, husbands.

Some survived, as did Greta Kuckhoff, later chair of the East German Central Bank, Fabian von Schlabrendorff, later a Judge at the West German Bundesverfassungsgericht, or Harald Poelchau, prison chaplain in Berlin-Plötzensee and honoured at Yad Vashem as a Righteous among the Nations. But most of them died, like high school student Liane Berkowitz, who gave birth to a daughter while being imprisoned and was decapitated two days before her 20th birthday. And with a few exceptions, like Count Stauffenberg or possibly Count Helmuth James von Moltke, all of them are forgotten today – at any rate by the general public, though history knows about them, and somewhere in the outskirts of Berlin, a few streets might bear their names.

I would very much like to think that I have brought them all back to life. After all, they have accompanied me for six years now, night and day, waking and sleeping, indeed into my dreams. Mostly, what I did was ask them questions.

What enables a person to risk torture and death? Is it courage, bravery, carelessness, desperation, or simply a lack of imagination? Is it a process where one thing leads to another, so that in retrospect, when you find yourself under the gallows, this end seems all but inevitable? Or is there one single momentous decision, one precise point in time that you can easily recall, the instant when you had to make a choice? And what is the meaning of courage anyway? Is it the same as being brave? What is the difference between terrorism and heroism? Are good intentions of any use? Can you believe in God in a world full of evil? Does true love exist? And what would I do? What would I have done?

There are no absolute answers, of course. How you answer depends on who you are – and it determines who you will become. Hence the title of the novel: ›Wer wir sind‹.

As I mentioned before, story begins and ends in America. Also, there are bits and pieces of English and American (as well as German) poems and songs interspersed throughout the text. This is due to the fact that those who opposed Hitler generally had a much wider horizon than the average German – through travel, studies abroad, and in some cases, a multi-national background.

Mildred Harnack-Fish was born in America. Johnny Graudenz, who died in Plötzensee just minutes after Mildred's husband, had lived in England as a young man, and later he worked for United Press International in Moscow and for the New York Times in Berlin. Adam von Trott zu Solz was on his mother's side a direct descendant of American Founding Father John Jay. He had been to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, and he travelled around the world twice. Count Helmuth James von Moltke was the grandson of Sir James Rose Innes, Chief Justice of South Africa, he was an English barrister, as well as a German lawyer, and his wife would die an American citizien.

So, quite a few Americans and Britons put in an appearance in the course of the novel, among them Professor John R. Commons, Presidential adviser Felix Frankfurter, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union Roger N. Baldwin, Lady Nancy Astor and her circle of Appeasers, Eleanor Roosevelt, Anthony Eden, Sir Richard Stafford Cripps, Lionel Curtis, the Bishop of Chichester George Bell, and others. Sometimes, they show up in person, like Rebecca West who threw Mildred out of the house. Sometimes they leave only their name behind, like American diplomat Alexander Kirk, who in 1943 ignored Moltke's repeated requests for a meeting in Istanbul.

In this, Kirk was no exception. The German opposition against Hitler considered England and America their natural allies, their brothers-in-arms in their fight against Hitler. Again and again they sought the support of the West - as well known, always in vain. Though the coup d'état failed, ›Wer wir sind‹ does not end in death and despair. The story, albeit with accelerated pace, continues well into the postwar years. It ends with a kiss, and with some lines taken from Walt Whitman's poem ›So long‹.

I announce justice triumphant;
I announce uncompromising liberty and equality;
I announce the justification of candor and the justification of pride;
I announce a life that shall be copious, vehement, spiritual, bold;
Camerado! This is no book;
Who touches this touches a man;
It is I you hold, and who holds you;
I spring from the pages into your arms —

Written/ translated by Sabine Friedrich