Monday, 3 August 2015

Resistance and courage during World War II

By Kate Forsyth 

When I was twelve years old, I read The Diary of Anne Frank and found myself changed forever.

Anne Frank
Up until that point, my reading was dominated by Enid Blyton and C. S. Lewis, books in which there was always a happy ever after. I had never before read a book in which the heroine died in such awful circumstances. Anne Frank’s story sent a shock wave through my psyche.'

Author Kate Forsyth
World War II has fascinated me since, especially stories of resistance to the Nazis. I began to read books like I am David by Anne Holm, and The Silver Sword by Ian Serrallier.

As I grew up, I continued to read all the books I could find about World War II, from spy thrillers to Holocaust memoirs and poetry. I knew that I wanted to write a novel set during those dark and terrifying years.

I had always imagined I would set my novel in France, or Italy, or the Netherlands. It never occurred to me that I’d set my novel in Berlin itself, the nerve-centre of the Nazi death machine. Yet that is where my new novel, The Beast’s Garden, is set, among the courageous men and women of the German underground resistance.

Kate Forsyth's latest novel
I did not know, when I began working on The Beast’s Garden, just how many different German people had risked their lives – and the lives of their loved ones – to stand up against the Nazis. I had heard about Sophie Scholl and the White Rose group of students in Munich, and I knew about the Generals’ Plot to assassinate Hitler, given the Hollywood treatment a few years ago by Tom Cruise in the movie ‘Valkyrie’. Otherwise, I believed the Germans had been – in Daniel Goldhagen’s chilling phrase – ‘Hitler’s willing executioners.’

Over the course of months of research, I discovered that there were others who had tried to resist Hitler. Some worked together in large, well-organised groups that infiltrated the Nazis’ key organisations and sent inside information to the Allies that may have helped them win the war. Others were individuals who did small acts of extraordinary bravery on their own, risking everything for what they thought was right.
Most were betrayed, and paid for their courage with their lives.

In The Beast’s Garden I focus on five different circles of resisters.

The first was called THE RED ORCHESTRA by the Gestapo, because they were suspected of spying for the Soviets. In fact, this Berlin-based group did most of their work trying to change the attitudes of the German people towards the Third Reich. They published leaflets, spread anti-Nazi graffiti, and collected proof of German atrocities.

Mildred Harnack 
Its members were a mix of Jews, Catholics, Protestants and atheists, and included artists, musicians, journalists, actors and academics. Their ages ran from 16 to 86, and about 40% were women – including Mildred Harnack, the only American woman to be executed by the Third Reich. In The Beast’s Garden, my heroine Ava is drawn into this underground resistance group, risking her life to help those who were suffering under the Nazis’ brutal regime.

The group called THE BLACK ORCHESTRA by the Gestapo is better known today as the perpetrators of the July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler, called Operation Valkyrie. In The Beast’s Garden, my hero Leo is employed by the head of the Abwehr, Admiral Canaris.

Admiral Wilhelm Franz Canaris 
The Abwehr was the German military intelligence & espionage. They played a double game for most of the war, helping Jews escape Germany and the Netherlands, providing Hitler with false information, and making numerous attempts to assassinate him.

The Abwehr was ultimately brought down by the Gestapo’s infiltration into another small circle of resisters, generally called THE SOLF CIRCLE. A small group of friends who hated Hitler and his policies, they mainly worked to help ease the lives of the Jews and political prisoners used as slave labour in the armaments factories in Berlin. They smuggled them food and old clothes, and helped a few escape from Germany. One day, meeting to celebrate Frau Solf’s birthday, they were tricked into expressing anti-Hitler sentiments by a Gestapo spy posing as a doctor. They all paid for it with their lives.

One of the accused managed to send a warning to friends of his who were working for the Abwehr in Istanbul. Ordered back to Berlin by the Gestapo, they instead defected to Great Britain. The scandal brought down the Abwehr, and Admiral Canaris was one of those executed in the last days before the German defeat in April 1945.

Helmuth James Graf von Moltke
Another group of non-violent dissenters were THE KREISAU CIRCLE, led by Helmuth James Graf von Moltke. He and his friends met to discuss what kind of society they wished to build after the collapse of the Third Reich. Von Moltke was connected to both the Red and the Black Orchestras, and to The Solf Circle, and was arrested and executed after he tried to warn one of the Solf resisters to flee.

Herbert Baum
THE BAUM GROUP was one of the most tragic circles of resisters, with the participants nearly all in their late teens or early 20s. Led by the pro-Communist Herbert Baum, the resisters were mostly Jewish, and worked as slave labour in Berlin’s factories. They tried to blow up Goebbels’ anti-Soviet exhibit, “The Soviet Paradise”, in 1942. Not only did most of them pay for their defiance with their lives, either being beaten to death, beheaded, or sent to Auschwitz, but their action led to an escalation in the round-up and deportation of Berlin Jews.

Finally, in my novel I refer to THE BUCHENWALD RESISTANCE, one of the most valiant and heart-breaking bands of underground resisters. It was formed in one of the largest and most horrifying of the German concentration camps, infamous for its brutal commandant, Karl-Otto Koch and his wife Ilse (called ‘the witch of Buchenwald’). With no hope of escape, the Buchenwald resisters worked to sabotage the production of weapons in the camp’s armament factory, hid Jewish children from deportations, set up schools and hospitals for inmates, and stockpiled weapons in the hope of manning a camp insurrection.  They took over the camp just before its liberation by Allied forces, and, after the war, set up a support group for survivors.  

There were, of course, many hundreds of thousands of people in Germany (and elsewhere) who supported the Third Reich, whether through conviction, self-interest, or fear.

I have tried, in The Beast’s Garden, to imagine what it must have been like to be an ordinary person, living in such terrible and extraordinary times.

Would I have had the courage to resist?

I can only hope so.

Kate Forsyth will speak about Reimagining our History with Alan Gold on Sunday August 30 from 10am - 11am at Waverley Library in Bondi Junction as part of the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. Book now at


  1. Posts like this are a good reminder not to take for granted the lives that we have now. And I'm all the more grateful for my home and business in Sydney Inner West now!

  2. Posts like this are a reminder not to take for granted the lives that we have now. And I'm all the more grateful for my home and business in Sydney Inner West now!