In February 2021, The Wiener Holocaust Library began a one-year project to digitise and produce metadata for our entire rare and diverse collection of Tarnschriften (disguised anti-Nazi resistance pamphlets), as well as a small cross-section of the Library’s wider pamphlet collection. Both of these collections are significant historical documents that shed light on a variety of important aspects of Jewish history, as well as the history of Nazism and the Third Reich. Once digitised, the Library will make some of these often-overlooked documents accessible to global audiences via our popular educational website The Holocaust Explained.
The word Tarnschriften means ‘hidden writings’. It is used to describe the one thousand publications that were produced covertly by a variety of anti-Nazi groups between 1933 and 1945 as a form of political resistance to the Nazi Party’s rule. They were produced with the intention of informing and inspiring dissent among the general public in Nazi Germany.
Whilst the extent of their use in the Third Reich was unprecedented, publications similar to Tarnschriften had been uses as a form of political resistance before. During the Second Reich (1871-1917), the newly formed Social Democratic Party (SPD) produced camouflaged clandestine pamphlets to secretly spread their ideas and gain political traction in response to the then-Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws of 1878. In the Nazi-era, Tarnschriften were again produced covertly, often in neighbouring countries such as France and Czechoslovakia. Many of the Tarnschriften produced were expertly disguised as items such as advertisements for common products or places, information manuals or pieces of popular German literature, allowing them to be more easily smuggled into Germany.
Once the reader had opened the delicate and carefully duplicated cover and first few pages, the pamphlets revealed their true anti-Nazi content. Other Tarnschriften were not disguised and were instead disseminated as inserts in genuine Nazi publications and newspapers.
Who produced the Tarnschriften?
Tarnschriften were produced by many different groups, including the German Communist Party (KPD), Social Democratic Party (SPD), New Beginning, Communist Part of the Soviet Union (CPSU), Comintern (Communist International), The Black Front, The German Popular Front, German Communist Youth (KJD) and Catholic organisations.
To avoid repercussions, some Tarnschriften were produced anonymously and have no named author. Others were produced as joint publications. For example, in the year following the Brussels Conference of 1935 (which took place in Kunzewo, near Moscow), where the SPD and KPD decided to unify in their fight against fascism, several Tarnschriften subsequently appeared highlighting the discussions that had taken place at the conference.
Overall, Communist organisations were responsible for the majority of the Tarnschriften produced. Scholars estimate that between 67.7% and 80% can be attributed to groups such as the KPD, KJD, CPSU and the Comintern. In comparison, the SPD produced significantly less – between 1935 and 1939 just 2.9% of the Tarnschriten published can be attributed to the SPD.
What topics do the Tarnschriften focus on?
As is to be expected by the numerous organisations and authors producing them, the Tarnschriften cover a huge variety of issues although they are universally anti-Nazi and predominantly anti-Fascist. One notable exception to this are the pamphlets produced by the exiled former Nazi and fascist Otto Strasser (example above) for the Black Front, a fascist resistance group that aimed to split the right-wing vote and Nazi supporters and bring about the downfall of the Nazi regime.)
While some of the creators focused on larger issues, such as the Spanish Civil War, the Nuremberg Laws and the Sudetenland Crisis, others took a more light-hearted approach to convey their message. Das Nibelungenlied : Volksausgabe, for example, purports to be a copy of the popular heroic German epic poem Das Nibelungenlied (‘The Song of the Nibelungs’) but in fact conceals a humorous, satirical anti-Nazi parody account of the Nazi Party’s rise to power.
Other pamphlets in the collection sought to offer practical advice to help German citizens navigate the Third Reich. Wie antworte ich auf Schlagworte der Nazis?, or ‘How do I respond to Nazi slogans?’, contains anti-Nazi retorts to topics such as ‘The People’s Community’ and ‘The Race Question’. Another, Senden und Empfang kurzer und ultrakurzer Wellen. 1: Empfangstechnik, (‘Sending and Receiving of Short and Ultra-Short Waves. 1: Reception Technology’), published by Rolf Wigand in 1938, concealed anti-Nazi instructions on how to build and operate a secret wireless station to receive and listen to anti-fascist banned broadcasts.
Many covered various topics and several articles and contributions in one issue (such as The Communist International journal), but others focused on single issues, such as the trial of Joseph C. Rossaint – a German anti-Nazi, anti-war, Communist priest who advocated against the Nazi regime and who was arrested in 1936 and imprisoned for the duration of the Second World War.
Although not a particularly frequent topic, a small number of Tarnschriften focus, or feature articles, on the Nazis’ persecution of Jews. Die Grundlagen des judischen Volkes : eine notwendige Abrechnung appears to be a copy of an antisemitic pamphlet entitled ‘The Foundations of the Jewish People: A Necessary Reckoning’ published by Walter Pötsch in 1938, but in fact conceals pro-Jewish material publicising the persecution and murder of Jews under the Nazi regime and antisemitism across wider Europe.
It is clear from the Tarnschriften that the authors spent a huge amount of time carefully planning and designing the publications with their intended audiences in mind, as Von den Gefahren, die jeden Haushalt bedrohen : ein Ratgeber fur die Hausfrau exemplifies. This pamphlet (pictured below), which appears to be quidance aimed at women entitled ‘On the Dangers That Threaten Every Household: A Guide for the Housewife’ (complete with an advert for Lysol Disinfectants on the back cover) actually conceals anti-Nazi, anti-war material under headings such as ‘German Women are Sorry and Unhappy’, ‘And What About the Upbringing of Children?’
The Library’s collection of these fascinating pamphlets is the largest of its kind outside of Germany. With over 300 titles, the collection offers a valuable insight into opposition politics and anti-Nazi ideas in the Third Reich, furthering our understanding of their priorities and tactics at the time. It allows a greater appreciation of the (uncoordinated yet extensive) underground political resistance to the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Library hopes that by digitising this collection we will not only be able to ensure their preservation but make them more widely accessible. The project to digitise the collection will conclude in February 2022 with a panel event and online exhibition. To keep up to date with the project’s progress, please ensure you are signed up to the Library’s newsletter.
Suggested further reading
- Illegale antifaschistische Tarnschriften 1933 bis 1945, Heinz Gittig, 1972.
- Bibliographie der Tarnschriften 1933 bis 1945, Heinz Gittig, 1996.
- ‘Appearances are deceiving: an indicative study of the Tarnschriften (camouflaged pamphlets), 1934-1939’, Robert Smith, 2015.
- ‘Tarnschriften’, The Holocaust Explained, 2020.