The word Tarnschriften means ‘hidden writings’.
It is used to describe the approximately one thousand publications which were produced covertly by a variety of anti-Nazi groups between 1933 and 1945 as a form of political resistance to Nazi rule. They were produced with the intention of informing and inspiring dissent among the general public in Nazi Germany.
While the extent of their use in the Third Reich was unprecedented, publications similar to Tarnschriften had been used as a form of political resistance in Germany 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 surrounding countries such as Czechoslovakia and France from where they were then smuggled into the Third Reich.
Authors of the Tarnschriften
Tarnschriften were produced by many different groups, including the German Communist Party (KPD), Social Democratic Party (SPD), New Beginning, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), Comintern (Communist International), The Black Front, The German Popular Front, the 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 in fact took place in Kunzewo, near Moscow), where the SPD and KPD decided to unify in their fight against fascism, several Tarnschriften appeared highlighting the discussions at the conference.
Overall, communist organisations were responsible for the majority of the Tarnschriften produced, with scholars estimating between 67.6% and 80% can be attributed to groups such as the KPD, KJD, CPSU and Comintern. In comparison, the SPD produced significantly less, with research suggesting that the group are responsible for just 2.9% of the Tarnschriften produced between 1935-1939.
Although communist groups were responsible for the majority of the Tarnschriften, other groups also produced a variety of pamphlets. This publication, concealed as a cookbook entitled ‘Twenty Recipes for Delicious Baked Goods’ and aimed at German women and housewives, in fact contains material by Kurt Heinrich and the Social Democratic Party, entitled ‘New Programs of the German Social Democracy (Explained for Social Democratic Workers)’. C.1934.
While the vast majority of Tarnschriften produced were anti-Nazi, not all were anti-fascist. The Black Front (also known as the Combat League of Revolutionary National Socialists), for example, was a fascist political party founded by Otto Strasser in 1930 after his resignation from the Nazi Party. Strasser founded the Black Front to oppose the Nazis and continue what he believed to be the movements original mission – anti-capitalism.
While the Black Front was not politically successful, the organisation did create several Tarnschriften publications in an attempt to gain more support and bring about the demise of the Nazi Party.
This example, entitled ‘The German Revolution: European Sheets of the Black Front’, was produced in Copenhagen and Prague by the Black Front during the mid-1930s, whilst its leader, Strasser, was in exile.
Although this publication itself was not concealed, likely because it was printed outside of Germany, pamphlets such as this were then smuggled into Germany for distribution and hidden as inserts inside Nazi newspapers, or Nazi-approved books. This edition urges German citizens to form a ‘front against the Hitler system’, questions whether Hitler was achieving his election promises, and highlights the pitfalls of the Nazis’ economic policy.
This pamphlet (left), entitled ‘Dictatorship, Pogrom, War!’ was a collaborative anti-Nazi endeavour by Otto Strasser and Hans Jaeger of the Popular Socialists Movement of Germany. Produced in Brussels in 1939, the pamphlet contains anti-Nazi articles by several authors, including B Günther (‘The German Front Against the Hitler System and Antisemitism’) Hans Jaeger (‘Discontent, Pogrom, War’), Otto Strasser (‘A Word on the Jewish Question’), Dr E Pant (‘Church and Antisemitism’), Dr Alfred Fuchs (‘The Jewish Question from the Catholic Standpoint’).
In Otto Strasser’s article on the ‘Jewish Question’ he rejected the ‘aim, content and method of Hitlerite antisemitism’ and emphasises that ‘as people and Germans [we] are ashamed of the things that are being committed today in our fatherland to the Jews’.
To counter the Nazis’ oppressive system of propaganda, any anti-Nazi material to be circulated in Germany had to be easy to conceal. To achieve this, those producing the Tarnschriften usually disguised the publications in one of two ways.
The first was to expertly disguise publications everyday items, such as advertisements for products or places, information manuals or pieces of popular German literature. This pamphlet (right), which was actually produced by the Comintern (an international organisation that advocated for world communism), appears to be an advert for the popular skin cream Nivea. Once the reader opens the delicate and carefully duplicated cover and first few pages, however, the pamphlet reveals its true content: a speech given by the French communist leader Maurice Thorez on 4 August 1935 at the 8th World Congress of the Comintern, entitled ‘The Popular Front for Bread, Freedom and Peace. The Successes of the Anti-fascist United Front in France’, and advice for creating Tarnschriften.
The second method used to conceal anti-Nazi pamphlets and leaflets was to hide them inside genuine products or publications, such as seed packets, tea samples, and newspapers. Often, to add a further layer of concealment, the publications were bound in plain covers.
Some Tarnschriften were designed with a specific audience in mind and, as such, were concealed as a product that would be easily associated with this audience.
Von den Gefahren, die jeden Haushalt bedrohen : ein Ratgeber fur die Hausfrau, for example, which appears to be guidance 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 – in fact conceals anti-Nazi, anti-war material under headings such as ‘German Women are Sorry and Unhappy’, ‘And What About the Upbringing of Children?’.
This leaflet, which was disguised as a publication by the official Nazi youth group for girls, the Bund deutscher Mädel (BDM), entitled ‘Letters from German girls from the Third Reich’, in fact conceals anti-Nazi material aimed at young people in Germany, including a discussion of Hermann Göring’s ‘Four Year Plan’ and the Soviet Union.
This information pamphlet, entitled ‘The Craft Workshop’, was published in 1934. Aimed at German workers, it in fact concealed material produced by the KPD entitled ‘The Meaning of the Illegal Press’, which discussed the various illegal publications attempting to get information into the Third Reich.
Topics discussed within the Tarnschriften
The Tarnschriften cover a huge range of issues, but they are almost all anti-Nazi and predominantly anti-fascist – with the notable exception of several produced by the exiled former Nazi and fascist Otto Strasser for the Black Front.
Some of the creators focused on analysing significant issues, such as the Spanish Civil War, Nuremberg Laws and the Sudetenland Crisis. Others took a 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 humourous, satirical anti-Nazi parody account (in epic poem) of the Nazis’ rise to power and the Third Reich.
“Hero Kahr, a grim fighter, then put him (Hitler) into jail,
But the imprisonment was bearable because Fricka* guides the soldier,
And some Viennese pastries and Nibelungerl (supporters)
Delighted the redeemer at the dungeon’s table.
Imprisoned, the Noble (Hitler) wrote together with his assistant Hess
The bible of the German people “Mein Kampf”, a special kind of book,
It seems like the book was written by a Slovak,
Unfortunately, German is indeed a difficult language.
With the heroic book in his hands he was let go,
It was over now with Munich and he glanced at Berlin.
And as he was looking north with teary eyes,
He met Jupp von Rheine, the propagandist.”
*A goddess in Northern mythology, associated with marriage, prophecy and motherhood
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?’, for example, 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 broadcasts.
Many covered various topics and several articles/contributors in one issue (such as The Communist International journal), but others focused on single issues, such as the Spanish Civil War or the trial of Joseph C. Rossaint – a German anti-Nazi, anti-war, Communist priest who advocated against the Nazi regime, arrested in 1936 and imprisoned for the duration of the war.
Right and below: The cover of, and an example of the hidden content from, 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.
Responses to the Nazis’ persecution and murder of Jews
Although not a 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, for example, 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 material highlighting the persecution (and murder) of Jews under the Nazi regime and antisemitism across wider Europe.
(Below) The inside cover and first page of ‘The Foundations of the Jewish People: A Necessary Reckoning’, containing pro-Jewish material.
This pamphlet advertising ‘Excentric Shampoo, The Best for Haircare‘ conceals anti-Nazi material criticising the November Pogrom (Kristallnacht) against Jews, with essays entitled ‘Who Organised The Pogroms?’, ‘Synagogues Are Burning’, ‘The Defence of The Pogroms Helps to Liberate Germany’, ‘The Indignation of the World’, ‘The Echo Among The Peoples’. c.1938.
The inside of the concealed pamphlet, containing an article entitled: ‘Synagogues are burning’.
An undisguised anti-Nazi, pro-Jewish, communist leaflet entitled ‘Against the Pogroms Against the Jews! For the Peace! For the Overthrow of Hitler! : To the People of Rhineland-Westphalia’, produced by the KPD in 1938 in response to Kristallnacht.
The Library’s collection
The bulk of the Library’s collection of Tarnschriften arrived together as one donation in the first half of 1959. The Wiener Library Bulletin reported that the acquisition of ‘an important consignment of 164 illegal anti-Nazi pamphlets’ which ‘enlarge our already existing collection of skilfully camouflaged pamphlets’. Since 1959, the collection has been further expanded and now contains over 488 pamphlets – the largest of its kind outside of the Bundesarchiv collection in Berlin, Germany.
Altogether, the collection offers a valuable insight into covert methods of resistance to Nazis, and the efforts and risks that people went to in order to communicate during the Third Reich. By furthering our understanding of opposition politics and their priorities and tactics at the time, these pamphlets allow for a greater appreciation of the uncoordinated but extensive underground political resistance to the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Library hopes that by digitising the Tarnschriften, we will be able to ensure their preservation but make the collection more accessible and thus more fully researched. It is hoped that future research will advance our knowledge into their content and impact, and methods of anti-Nazi resistance more widely.
Suggested further reading
Illegale antifaschistische Tarnschriften 1933 bis 1945, Heinz Gittig, 1972.
Bibliographie der Tarnschriften 1933 bis 1945, Heinz Gittig, 1996.
‘Tarnschriften’, The Holocaust Explained, 2020.
Persecution and Resistance Under the Nazis, The Wiener Holocaust Library, 1960.
Persecution and Resistance Under the Nazis, The Wiener Holocaust Library, 1978.
Tarnschriften: Covert Resistance in the Third Reich
Exhibition Type: Online Exhibition