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Murdo McLeod in Scotland on Sunday
Sunday, 21 January 2001

            Born in Wisconsin and raised as a Christian Scientist, Mildred Fish - a journalist, scholar and poet - first met and fell in love with student Arvid Harnack when he was in the USA on an exchange. She went with him to Weimar Germany, immersed herself in the culture of her adopted country, and became a particular fan of Goethe. The Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Depression led her and her husband, disillusioned with capitalism, to embrace Communism.
            However, Arvid Harnack decided, as a civil servant, to become a member of the Nazi Party in order to undermine the Nazi regime. The tall, striking blonde, blue-eyed, Aryan couple were forming a nucleus of anti-Nazi resistance along with more famous figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a friend. In Berlin, Mildred and Arvid became part of the wartime Rote Kapelle or ‘Red Orchestra’ - the Soviet radio intelligence network which transmitted information each night from all over occupied Europe.
            In this book, Shareen Blair Brysac makes use of interviews and newly released KGB files to piece together their activities, weighing conjecture and rumour against existing evidence. Occasionally Brysac takes us out of the narrative as she searches for the facts. Her book illustrates the courage and ability of the spy network, but also the blunders of those who directed them.
            The Harnacks and those close to them gathered a huge amount of information which was never properly used by the Russian leadership who refused to believe that an invasion of Russia was imminent.
            The Harnacks were arrested in late 1942. Hitler himself took a special interest in Mildred’s fate and she was initially sentenced to six years in prison. But two weeks after the Germans’ catastrophic defeat at Stalingrad, Hitler ordered her to be guillotined.
            This book contributes to the debate about the true extent of resistance to Hitler within Germany. By the mid-1930s the Nazis had rounded up and killed tens of thousands of Communists and Socialists - the only organisations capable of organised resistance.
            Brysac is also scathing towards both East and West for suppressing the Harnacks’ memory. The Americans condemned them as Communist dupes while the Soviets were unwilling to reveal the extent of their wartime spy network wishing to forget the warnings which could have avoided the deaths of millions of soldiers.
            It is high time this book appeared. Mildred Harnack deserves her place among the ranks of those who stayed in Hitler’s Germany and indeed could have thrived under the regime. Instead she went courageously to her death - convinced that she was doing the best for her adopted land.

Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra by Shareen Blair Brysac (Oxford University Press, 2000) 
by Ursula Duba*

            I recently came across the book Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra in which I learned about an exceptional American woman [from Wisconsin!] and a dedicated group of Germans who had maintained their humanity and who had courageously acted on this humanity during the Hitler regime.
            Resisting Hitler starts with the stark recounting of Mildred Harnack’s last few days at the Ploetzensee prison and her execution by beheading in February of 1943 – the winter, when Hitler’s army were incurring major losses in the Soviet Union. That chapter remained as a looming backdrop in my mind throughout the reading of the rest of this riveting book. 
            Who was Mildred Harnack, an American woman, forty years old at the time, born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and how did she become involved in the resistance to Hitler and in espionage against the murderous Hitler regime?
            After the ominous first chapter, Brysac takes us back to the Milwaukee of the turn of the century where three out of four Milwaukeeans were of German descent, had established music academies, art institutes, and richly endowed lending libraries. Fine public parks displayed statues of von Steuben, Goethe, Schiller and the immigrants’ interests were musical and literary. Later in the book, those treasured values of German culture are in grim contrast to the picture which Brysac paints of Hitler’s Germany. 
            We meet Mildred Harnack, born Fish in 1902, as the youngest of four children, adored by her family and friends. She blossoms into a radiant, beautiful young woman who “yearned to be remarkable”. Good education was prized above all else in her family, and fine literature and especially poetry became Mildred’s lifelong passions. 
            In 1926, Mildred met 25-year-old Arvid Harnack, blond blue-eyed and tall, the physical counterpart of herself, and a Rockefeller Scholar from a prominent German academic family. They married, moved to Germany where they joined the renowned Harnacks and three other prominent families who eventually fought Hitler and Nazi Germany: the Bonhoeffers, Delbruecks and Dohannyis – who were all intermarried. “In this circle, Protestant but secular, the children were raised on ‘Goethe, Goethe and more Goethe’. This special soil nurtured self-confidence, tempered with a sense of fairness and justice for the underdog. It was not enough to know what was right, they must act upon it no matter what the consequences might be.” Since so many Germans went along with the order of the day during the Hitler regime, learning about those who didn’t embrace the Nazi ideology, gives us valuable insights into education and upbringing which stresses the importance of ethics. Brysac provides fascinating information why the above mentioned families were compelled to swim against the stream and were able to convince others to join them in their struggle – knowing full well all of them were endangering their lives in the process.
            We follow Mildred in Germany enthused with high ideals and lofty goals through the next fifteen years of her life during which she blossoms into a fine scholar and researcher and a much beloved professor of English literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin. We see her mature into a woman who dares to see the ugly, cruel and barbaric underbelly of Nazi Germany and who decides to undermine the regime as much as she can. In turn, we see her become skillful in using her dual citizenship for that goal and make use of any and all connections she has established. The idealist becomes a realist without giving up her ideals, and even though she does everything possible to hasten the defeat of Hitler’s Germany, her love for this country never wavers.
            Resisting Hitler is actually a book of at least half a dozen stories – all of them contained within a richly woven intricately connected tapestry.
            Besides Mildred’s story, there is the story of Arvid Harnack, and their compelling love story. There is the story of Arvid’s academically renowned family and the equally renowned Bonhoeffers, Dohannyis, and Delbruecks who are all intermarried. By tradition, these families were all destined to enjoy exceptional careers, but instead they were hunted, trapped and jailed. Nearly all the men of these families were executed. There is the story of the American Embassy in Berlin during the late twenties and during the Hitler regime, and the Berlin cultural circle in which the Harnacks began to travel in 1930. There is the story of Martha Dodd, the Ambassador’s daughter and Mildred’s close friend who is impervious to the scandals she creates with her belief in the communist system and with her impulsive love affairs with foreign diplomats, visiting authors and anybody else who captures her imagination. There is the story of the roughly 120 resisters led by Harro Schulze-Boysen, a lieutenant in the Luftwaffe and of Arvid Harnack who had joined the Nazi party as a cover and who had accepted a position in the Economic Ministry so as to have access to vital information. There is the shocking-beyond-belief story of the bungling of the USA, Great Britain and the Soviet Union – all of whom made scant use of the information which this group provided to them under enormous difficulties, not to mention the risk, and which eventually cost the lives of the resisters. And finally, there is the shameful story of the cold-war United States and postwar Germany which not only refused to honor these resisters but instead chose to commit character assassinations by inventing and distributing the vilest possible slander – this about people who had given their lives to defeat Hitler and his cohorts.
            These stories at times run consecutively, at other times parallel, weaving in and out to create a rich tapestry of people compelled by their love for high ideals, their beliefs in ethics and the devotion to a country they wanted to save from barbarity and destruction. Their actions are juxtaposed by the actions and non-actions of the major political players in Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union whose bungling ineptness, paranoid distrust of each other, incredible cynicism and appalling disregard for the lives of the population of dozens of countries eventually contributed to the death of tens of millions of people. I couldn’t help but think of the millions of lives which might have been saved if those major players (I am hesitant calling them ‘politicians’ or 'leaders'!) had had similar morals and ethics as Harnack and his group and if they had made use of the information provided to them.. 
            Reading this book, I learned to my utter astonishment that according to Gestapo records approximately 800,000 Germans in a population of 66 million were jailed for active resistance during the 12 year reign of the Thousand Year Reich . I understand why most Germans obscured this record after 1945, since the myth ‘that one couldn’t do anything’ had to be maintained at all cost and because the fact that choices had in fact been possible, was highly unpopular. But why did my staunch anti-Hitler, socialist father not tell us seven children who were used to passionate political debates around the dinner table not tell us about the socialist heroes of this murderous regime? 
            Was he himself ashamed that he had not done anything besides using every possible ruse not to fight in Hitler’s army and besides protecting his wife and seven children?
            My father had himself been a communist as a young man, but had early on switched to the socialist party of the Weimar Republic. He remained a socialist – of the Willy-Brandt-kind - and loyally voted for this party (which is right now in power in German) all his life. He also never let up on his condemnation of the Hitler regime, the Gestapo, the SS, the Nazis, the brutality of the Wehrmacht and especially of the so called former Nazis who quickly regained important positions in Adenauer’s postwar Germany. From him I knew that former Nazis wielded enormous power in the postwar government, in the extensive civil service, the ministries, the judiciary, the education system, the medical community. Those former Nazis of course saw to it that as few of them as possible were being held responsible for the crimes committed during the Third Reich. Did he feel compelled to keep silent about his socialist comrades who had sacrificed their lives in active resistance, because he was ashamed that he had not done anything besides using every possible ruse not to fight in Hitler’s army and besides protecting his wife and seven children?
            Despite all the efforts Germany has undertaken in the past fifty odd years to master (=bewaeltigen) their past (personally, I find this term commonly used in Germany quite troubling. a) It smacks of master race ideology and b) it denies the fact that at best anyone of us can only learn to LIVE WITH our past) most of the resisters have yet to be honored. 
            It took an American Jew to honor Oscar Schindler, another American Jew to honor the rescuers of Jews (Eva Fogelman: Conscience & Courage: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust) and here is yet another American who devoted considerable effort and time researching the lives and actions of a group of resisters to the Hitler regime. Brysac made full use of the opening up of KGB files and the declassification of CIA files, and is thus able to reveal important new information about those resisters and about the political conduct of the allied forces.
            Needless to say, I read Resisting Hitler with rapt attention and highly recommend it to the subscribers on this list. This book kept my attention till the very end – as a matter of fact, I found myself going back to the beginning after I turned the last page, eager to read it again, because of the richness of details and because of its complex historical story.
            Brysac’s book is a spellbinding interweaving of the painstakingly researched historical, political and personal – without ever resorting to psychobabble. Despite the wealth of details offered in this book of almost 500 pages, the book does not bog down due to the preponderance of details. Instead the reader is consistently propelled forward through the ability and power of Brysac’s captivating narrative. 
            Resisting Hitler is a must-read for anybody who is interested in teaching the complexity of Hitler’s Germany, for anybody who wants to know about the unsung heroes of this murderous regime and for anybody who wants to know why these heroes weren't honored by the so-called liberators. 

*Ursula Duba is the author of Tales from a Child of the Enemy (Penguin 1997), the essay Germany: The Legacy of Bystanders, Cowards, Informers, Desktop Murderers and Executions (Yale 1999) and Inherited Pain and Defective Genes: Descendants of the Shoah and the Third Reich.


from the Los Angeles Times

by Merle Rubin

            ...In her riveting biography of Mildred Harnack, an American-born woman executed by the Nazis in

1943, Shareen Blair Brysac presents the story of a heroine who failed to receive her posthumous due in

the West because of her communist affiliations.

            ...Drawing on a variety of primary sources, including letters, personal interviews with those who knew them and recently declassified CIA and KGB files, Brysac fleshes out a vivid picture of the Harnacks and the turbulent times in which they lived, from the intellectual and cultural ferment of the Weimar Republic to the constricted and hypocritical atmosphere of the Nazi dictatorship.  In addition to the colorful portraits of the Harnacks and their circle, Brysac provides a lucid account of the workings of the so-called Red Orchestra, the Nazis' name for the clandestine hidden radios.  We also learn many heart-rending details of the Harnack's imprisonment, trials and deaths, his by being hanged from a meat hook, hers by the more human method of the guillotine. "Despite everything," wrote Arvid to Mildred shortly before his death, "I look back gladly on my life. The darkness was outweighed by the light.  And this is largely because of our marriage....Our intense work meant life was not easy for us, and the danger of being overwhelmed not slight.  Nonetheless, we remained living human beings."  The last words Mildred spoke prior to her execution affirmed her conviction that working against an immoral regime was an action of true patriotism: "And I have loved German so much."

            "The rope and blade/Are not the final arguments/And our judges today/Are not the Last Judgment."

Brysac cites these lines from a poem by the Harnacks' comrade Harro Schulze-Boysen that was later

found jammed in the floorboards of his cell.  Her well-researched, fair-minded and moving account of the

Harnacks and their fate should go a long way toward restoring the reputations of these idealistic and

heroic resisters.

Biographical Summary | Timeline | Resisting Hitler | Plötzensee
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