Double podcast episode about Mildred Fish-Harnack, the US-born woman at the centre of the underground resistance to Nazism in Berlin during World War II. In conversation with Rebecca Donner, Mildred’s great-grandniece and author of All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days.
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- Part 1: Background, Mildred’s early life, the Nazis’ rise to power, the resistance, and the beginnings of espionage
- Part 2: Disaster, repression, aftermath, the response of Allied powers, and historical legacy
Get Rebecca’s book and learn more here:
- Rebecca Donner, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler
- Rebecca’s website and Twitter.
We have made available artwork by 1930s German antifascists in our online store to help fund our work. Check it out here.
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- Mary Fulbrook, Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice (Oxford University Press, 2018).
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- Jaclyn Diaz and Rachel Treisman, “Members Of Right-Wing Militias, Extremist Groups Are Latest Charged In Capitol Siege,” NPR, January 19, 2021, accessed January 5, 2022, https://www.npr.org/sections/insurrection-at-the-capitol/2021/01/19/958240531/members-of-right-wing-militias-extremist-groups-are-latest-charged-in-capitol-si.
- Ed Pilkington, “‘A roadmap for a coup’: inside Trump’s plot to steal the presidency,” Guardian, October 30, 2021, accessed January 5, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/oct/30/trump-2020-election-steal-presidency-coup-inside-story.
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- Thanks to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. Special thanks to Conor Canatsey, Shae, James, Ariel Gioia, Stone Lawson, and Fernando López-Ojeda.
- Episode graphic courtesy of the Donner family.
- Our theme tune is Bella Ciao, thanks for permission to use it from Dischi del Sole. You can purchase it here. Or stream it here.
- This episode was edited by Jesse French.
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In 1930s Germany, despite Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the implementation of the brutal Nazi dictatorship, many ordinary people risked their lives to fight against fascism. One of them was Mildred Fish-Harnack, a woman born in the US who became a key figure in the underground resistance in Berlin. This is Working Class History.
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While some anti-fascist resistance movements during World War II are quite well-known, like the French resistance, others are much less so. And it might seem strange, but the underground resistance to Nazism in Germany itself is spoken about very little. And within that resistance, as in most history, the role of women in it is underplayed even further. We’re going to talk about the reasons for this later on in these episodes.
In our episode 4, we spoke about the role of working class youth movements in the resistance to Nazism in Germany. With a few exceptions these were primarily countercultural, rather than overtly political resistance groups as such.
By contrast, Mildred Fish-Harnack and her resistance group, or more accurately, a constellation of overlapping resistance groups, were deeply political. Known to its members as the Circle, the group is better known to most people today by the name given to them by the Nazis: the Red Orchestra. Mildred was a leading activist in the Circle, which was the biggest resistance group in Berlin. Her story is important, not only because it’s a story of bravery, and tenacious resistance to despotism, because it’s also a story about complacency, and the complicity of so many others. It’s also a story in which the major anti-Nazi Allied governments, the US, UK and Soviet Union, don’t come off too well either.
But until recently, Mildred’s story was relatively unknown. The person who is most responsible for Mildred gaining some prominence now is Rebecca Donner.
Rebecca: Mildred is my great, great aunt. And so, she is my grandmother’s aunt; and my grandmother actually gave me her letters when I was 16 years old and started to tell me about Mildred and the story of Mildred and what happened to her.
In August 2021 Rebecca released the fantastic New York Times bestselling book, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler. The book, by the way, is available on the link in the show notes.
We first made contact with Rebecca in February 2021, after she commented on one of our On This Day in History posts about Mildred on our Facebook page and provided some more information and context. We were super excited to learn that Rebecca was writing a detailed account of Mildred’s life, because all the information we had had just been pieced together with snippets from various sources, much of which contained inaccuracies and all of which was lacking anything in terms of real detail.
After the book came out, it was an instant hit, being featured in all kinds of best book and must read lists, like by the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine. So we were very grateful to Rebecca for being able to find the time with us to sit down and chat about her ancestor.
Rebecca: Mildred Fish was her name; that was her maiden name. Mildred Fish was born in 1902 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and she had a rather impoverished childhood; she moved from boarding house to boarding house to boarding house. She had three older siblings. Her father, William Cook Fish, was a frequently unemployed insurance salesman slash butcher slash horse trader. Every time they couldn’t pay the rent they would move. Her mother Georgina Fish was a suffragette with an eighth-grade education; She was a self-taught typist, and she supported the family when William went off on benders, which happened also frequently. And, Mildred grew up watching her mother work very hard to support the family.
In addition to her personal and economic circumstances, Mildred was influenced by the political and cultural background at the time in the midwest. Following on the back of an upsurge in worker organising, in particular a militant struggle for a maximum eight-hour working day in the 1880s and 90s, a powerful progressive and socialist movement in the region had sprung up.
Rebecca: She was deeply inspired by the progressive movement in Wisconsin, which was the first state to ratify the 19th amendment in 1919 and grant women the right to vote. And so, these were the beginnings, and Mildred, I think from those early beginnings and from her acquaintance with strife that served her well later on in Germany. She, in 1921, decided that she wanted to go to college. Again, neither one of her parents… Her mother had an eighth-grade education, and her father hadn’t gone to college, but she decided that she wanted to; and so, she attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and it accepted both men and women and tuition was free to state residents; and so, she received her bachelor’s degree there as well as her master’s degree.
The University of Wisconsin was where Mildred developed political radicalism herself.
Rebecca: She joined a student group called the Friday Nighters, which was a kind of fizzy mix of self-proclaimed socialists and communists and suffragettes and anti-fascists, and she met other students who were like-minded. She met Arvid Harnack, who was also a Friday Nighter, as they called themselves; and, he was a German student on a Rockefeller Scholarship; he was also a graduate student; and, they fell swiftly in love; and, a week after she received her master’s degree, they got married. And shortly thereafter, they hitchhiked to Colorado, where they participated in a strike with coal miners who were protesting poor working conditions. So, they very much were United in their political views, their progressive views. He also was a big proponent of women’s rights.
And then, in 1929, she decided that she would enroll in a PhD program in Germany, and so she joined Arvid there; Arvid was finishing up his PhD there. And it was really then when she, in those early years, really the early thirties, when she became involved in the resistance; when she and Arvid began a group that would become by 1940, the largest underground resistance group in Berlin.
The late 1920s and early 1930s were turbulent times in German politics. Around a decade had passed since the German revolution began in 1918, when sailors mutinied and workers went on strike, putting an end to Germany’s participation in World War I and threatening to seize power and abolish capitalism. The revolution overthrew the Kaiser and ushered in the Weimar Republic. But workers kept pushing for more, until eventually they were crushed by the new social democratic government. One tool used by the Social Democratic Party, the SPD, was the right-wing paramilitary Freikorps, who massacred workers, socialists, communists and anarchists who attempted to push beyond the bounds of moderate reform within a capitalist economy. Their victims famously included revolutionary socialists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Much of the Freikorps would later become part of the Nazi party, and turn on their former masters.
Rebecca:So, Mildred was at the University of Giessen and working on her dissertation, and she was also lecturing at the university of Berlin about the American literature. And, she was appalled by the spectacle of swastikas everywhere; she was appalled by the prevalence of students at the University of Giessen who considered themselves Nazis, that 50% of the students there at that time in 1929, 1930, were members of a Nazi fraternity.
Soon, Mildred began lecturing at the University of Berlin. There, she incorporated her socialist political views into her teachings.
Rebecca: She also began recruiting students that shared her antipathy toward the Nazi party. And, she would invite these students and friends and friends of friends to their Berlin apartment to discuss what was going on in Germany; this is in 1931 and 32. This is before Hitler was chancellor, but she bore witness to the meteoric ascent of the popularity of the Nazi party and also Hitler’s popularity; and so, she wanted to discuss what to do about it with Germans.
Mildred was able to introduce themes of class and struggle into her lectures with working class and radical literature.
Rebecca: And, I think that when she lectured in her classes at the University of Berlin, she lectured about William Faulkner and Theodore Dreiser, and John Dos Passos, and she incorporated her political views into these lectures; and, these lectures moved fluidly from these American novelists to the prevalence of the poor in Germany and the troubling ascent of the Nazi party.
Economic conditions for working class and poor people in Germany at the time were terrible. This had been fertile ground for the growth of socialism and communism amongst the working class. But with the failure of the revolution, and the complicity of the social democrats in the status quo, it became instead a boon for the Nazis who could blame an easy, albeit of course fake, scapegoat for people’s problems: Jewish people.
Rebecca: She was deeply moved by the struggles of the poor, who she saw around her; the unemployed, Germans, the people begging on the streets; she saw lines of shanties. She wrote to her mother in the United States frequently about the spectacle of poverty and how she felt that something must be done. She also felt that something must be done about the strife that she saw; she would see social democrats and communists being bludgeoned by police officers. There was a tremendous amount of violence on the street that she bore witness to and she wrote about. And so, these two things kind of went hand in hand for her; the poverty and the violence, and really, what she was witnessing was also the rise of fascism.
The rise of fascism in Germany was shockingly swift.
Rebecca: It’s important to understand that Germany went from a parliamentary democracy to a fascist dictatorship in the blink of an eye, and Mildred, as an American, was there and bore witness to it. The year before she moved to Germany in 1928, the Nazi party got less than 3% of the vote in their Reichstag election in Germany’s parliament; two years later, it got 18%; and then, two years after that, on July 31st, 1932, it got 37%; and for the first time, the Nazi party was the largest party in the Reichstag, so she bore witness to this, and it did happen so quickly.
People often seem to think of Germany before World War II as being a place which is impossibly different from the world we live in today, but really it wasn’t.
Rebecca: But in those early years, before Germany became a fascist dictatorship, there was still a Weimar Constitution. Germans still enjoyed freedom of speech, freedom of the press. Berlin had 90 daily newspapers that represented every possible political view from extreme left to extreme right and everything in between. And, when Mildred was lecturing at the University of Berlin and quite candidly shared her views, her antipathy about the Nazi party, she could still legally do so, but she was fired. And, the administration apparently didn’t take too kindly to her candor about her political views; and so, she got a job at a night school for adults in Berlin; the students who attended were factory workers, unemployed Germans; and, this became a pool of recruits for Mildred. And, this was also where she found herself deeply moved by the struggles that these impoverished Germans endured. And, she was also quite aware that this was a segment of the population that the Nazi party sort of relentlessly targeted with their propaganda.
We plan to talk about resistance to the Nazis more generally in future episodes. But, briefly, tens of thousands of Germans did what they could to combat the rise of fascism. In 1924, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) set up the Alliance of Red-Front Fighters to defend working class and left-wing protests from police and fascist attacks, and its members fought in the streets against Nazi paramilitaries known as the SA, or Brownshirts. The Red Front was banned by the SPD in 1929.
Workers also took strike action against the Nazis. In the second half of 1931, there were 25 strikes against fascism by 30,000 workers, with many more the following year. But the stoppages were mostly brief, and confined to small and medium-sized enterprises, and so did not have much of an impact.
There were also rent strikes against the Nazis. For example, hundreds of tenants in an estate in Neukolln withheld rent in an attempt to pressure their landlord into evicting the SA, which was unsuccessful.
The SPD set up a militia, the Iron Front to fight against the Nazis, while the KPD established Anti-Fascist Action, and anarchists set up the Black Band. All of these groups fought the Nazis in the streets, ultimately unsuccessfully.
Rebecca: After Hitler became chancellor and very quickly Germany progressed from a parliamentary democracy to a fascist dictatorship, it became very difficult to oppose the government. There were a series of laws that were passed that basically ensured that every Germans, their civil rights were taken away; you couldn’t joke about the German government; there was something called the Malicious Practices Act that prohibited Germans from expressing their disapproval about anything Hitler did; they couldn’t even tell a joke; and the, newspapers and magazines that once criticized Hitler and the Nazi party quickly with one exception; the Munich Post continued to Lampoon Hitler until storm troopers basically barricaded, or rather raided their office and arrested everybody, and then, hauled off the journalists to a concentration camp; one was actually taken to Dachau, and he was murdered by the SS.
Very quickly, from there being relative freedom of speech and organisation, opposing the Nazis became extremely dangerous. Soon after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, concentration camps were set up around the country, and primarily used for the extrajudicial detention of supposed “subversives”. Many of these were communists, socialists and trade unionists, and some were merely democrats who spoke out against the Nazis.
Rebecca: It became very clear that to oppose the Nazi regime was to risk your life. Mildred was aware that even trying to recruit Germans into the resistance, she was risking arrest; when her group began to produce leaflets that criticized the Nazi regime and called for a revolution; it sounds rather mild to us to distribute leaflets, to put up posters, but actually, such an act could not only invite the Gestapo to your door, but you could be hauled off to a concentration camp, and indeed, that’s what happened to several of her recruits, and they remained there for a year, and then, they came back and got right back into it then. So, I marvel at that kind of commitment and courage even after having experienced the horrors of a concentration camp, getting beat and so forth.
After the parliament building the Reichstag was set on fire in February 1933, it was used as an excuse to crack down further on dissent. The KPD headquarters were raided, and thousands of its activists were rounded up and arrested.
A snap election took place in March 1933, which took place with Nazi paramilitaries observing polling places. But still, the Nazis did not win absolute majority, but they were able to form a coalition government with the right-wing German National People’s Party. Hitler then passed the Enabling Act which awarded him dictatorial powers. This law was approved by all of the political parties in parliament, with the exception of the SPD and the KPD, which had been essentially excluded.
A question that comes up again and again with Germany in the early 1930s is why the German population allowed Hitler’s dictatorship to be established. Even if all of the centrist and right-wing parties supported Hitler, the number of votes for the left-wing SPD and KPD combined, even in the 1933 election was still over 12 million, over 30% of the total.
But once the Nazis had power, any one individual raising any objection risked severe personal consequences.
Rebecca: So, very quickly, I think when we try to understand why so few Germans resisted: one explanation, and it’s not the only one, but one explanation is, is that it became just one risked one’s life often if one even expressed disapproval. And yet, there were people like Mildred and others in her group who continued to do this; refusing to say, “Heil Hitler.”; That could also bring the Gestapo to your door, and not only would you be punished, but also, increasingly, your family members would also be arrested; and so, then, no longer are you simply as an individual opposing and taking a risk in opposing the Nazi regime, but you were risking the lives of your children and your spouse. So, these were very strong deterrence, and I think the Nazi regime was very effective in silencing opponents.
Rebecca’s book really lays out in more detail how this process happened, and paints a really vivid picture of how and why it was so hard to resist. And it certainly functions as a warning against complacency today, because it does show you how the dictatorship came into being, first with the thin end of the wedge, so that there was not too much resistance at first, and by the time the full horrors of the regime were apparent, it was too late. How the book gets across this information and feeling is one of the big things we would recommend getting hold of it for.
Facing this kind of extreme repression, most people just decided to keep their heads down and get on with their everyday lives.
Rebecca: A term, “mitläufer”, which means one who follows along either due to cowardice or opportunism, and there were certainly a lot of people who qualified as mitläufer, who could be described as such; Mildred and others in her group were the exception; and I think other groups, the underground groups that did emerge, they were small and scrappy; they emerged fitfully; they were weakened by attrition, and they never really posed a serious threat to Hitler’s regime.
With the machinery of the Nazi dictatorship now firmly in place, Mildred, her husband Arvid and their circle of anti-fascist allies had to keep their resistance activities under the radar. So publicly, to avoid arrest they now had to pretend to be supporters of the Nazis.
A primary goal of the group early on was producing and circulating anti-Nazi propaganda, in the hopes of inspiring more widespread resistance to the regime.
Rebecca: Well, leaflets were the primary weapon against the Nazi regime for this group, and they slipped them into mailboxes and they left them in piles in factories; and then, Mildred’s group merged with at least three other underground resistance groups who also participated in leafleting, and they formed a kind of interlocking chain, these groups. Their primary weapon was paper, these leaflets that urged Germans to oppose the Nazi regime, that exposed Nazi atrocities and so forth.
As time went on, arrests piled up, and it became clearer that despite their efforts, there was no groundswell of popular resistance to Nazism. So the group decided to reassess their strategy.
Rebecca: But by 1934, Mildred and Arvid determined that, really, they needed a new strategy; leafleting exposed them to arrest, and as I mentioned before, several of the members of the group had indeed been arrested and hauled off to concentration camps. So, they decided in 1935 that they would focus their efforts now on reaching members of the resistance beyond Germany’s borders and making connections with people in other countries who could assist the German resistance; so, Mildred got a job as a literary scout for a Berlin based company, Rütten and Loening. And, her job was essentially her cover; it was a sly way for her to travel to other countries and meet with contacts and resistance. Because she had an American passport as well as a German passport, she was able to move more freely than her German co-conspirators.
Mildred was able to use this cover to travel and meet contacts in places like England, France, Norway, Switzerland and Denmark.
Rebecca: And at the same time Arvid in 1935, got a job at the Ministry of Economics and rose up in the ranks, rather swiftly, and that the reason he got this position was the express purpose of this. He really wanted to be a university professor, he got his PhD for this purpose. But in 1935, he decided his commitment to the resistance was so strong that he would abandon those professional ambitions and get a job at the Ministry of Economics so that he would have access to top secret documents about Hitler’s operational strategies and later his military strategies as it developed.
So between 1935 and 1939 Mildred and Arvid were both leading a double life, Arvid was masquerading as a loyal Nazi official, and Mildred was masquerading as the American wife of a Nazi and a woman who was sympathetic to the Nazi cause. It was in this post when Arvid realized that Hitler contrary to his assertions and was indeed preparing for war.
Publicly, the Nazis were claiming they had no plans for war. After Germany’s defeat in World War I, they signed up to the Treaty of Versailles, which place limits on Germany’s military ambitions. For example, their army wasn’t to exceed 100,000 troops, they agreed not to manufacture tanks, submarines or military aircraft, and there would be strict limits on the manufacture of arms and ammunition. But Arvid soon realised this was a lie.
Rebecca: Arvid at the Ministry of Economics stole documents about Germany’s foreign trade agreements and investments that indicated that Hitler was steering Germany toward full economic independence. And he also began to learn that Hitler was laying the groundwork for war. It was apparent not just to him, but to others as well that he was expanding his military. He began to violate the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, expanding the military, he aimed to triple the size of his army and built a fleet of bombers.
Arvid’s socialist views, and sympathy for the Soviet economic system, as well as a belief that the USSR would be a natural opponent of Nazism, led him to pass the information he could get hold of to the Soviet Union.
Rebecca: And so Arvid as much as he was capable, was giving this information to key figures at the Soviet embassy in Berlin. And he also was swiftly recruited by Russian intelligence and he wasn’t aware that he actually, they had his eye on him and had been basically grooming him since the early 30s. He as a devout, anti-fascist determined that to give this information to Hitler’s enemies might be the only way of effectively defeating the Nazi regime. And so he was basically, if he undermined the Nazi regime from within then it would crumble. That was the vision. That was the hope.
While Arvid was now engaged in international espionage, before all else he still saw himself as an anti-Nazi activist, who had been pushed into spycraft by circumstances, which gave him few other options which had a realistic chance of toppling Hitler.
Rebecca: And this went on until, and he had a control officer if he was given a code name at this point Balt, and he was rather resistant to the idea of being a spy, he would insist over and over again that he was an anti-fascist and to the extent that Moscow Center could assist him in defeating Hitler, he would cooperate and giving information, but he refused to accept money, and he refused to follow orders.
Despite Arvid’s reluctance, he was getting hold of extremely high value intelligence, and passing it in complete secrecy to the very efficient machine which was the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the NKVD. The NKVD was the forerunner of the KGB, responsible for both internal security within the Soviet Union and espionage abroad.
But the organisation itself was thrown into complete chaos by the Great Purge in Russia. In 1936, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin appointed Nikolai Yezhov as head of the NKVD. The NKVD then began rounding up critics of Stalin and forcing people to confess to plotting against the government, under threat of arresting and executing their relatives if they didn’t confess. First, a large chunk of the Communist Party leadership, including many who were leaders in the original 1917 revolution, were arrested and either shot or sent to the gulags. Then the Red Army was purged, and finally the NKVD itself was purged, amidst escalating paranoia about subversion and collaboration with Germany. In 1938, Yezhov was removed from his post and later executed himself.
By the time the killing was over, the NKVD had lost a lot of its most experienced and effective agents. This significantly impacted on its intelligence operations in Germany.
Rebecca: So Stalin’s purges basically wiped out the Russian embassy in Berlin and among of its context there, he had about nine contacts there. Five of them were executed, including his control officer at the NKVD Boris Gordon. And so he lost his connections to the Russian embassy.
This left Arvid completely alone, with no one to funnel his vital intelligence to, so he and Mildred had to decide what to do with it.
Rebecca: Mildred and Arvid changed strategy and began to then pass this information to the U.S. government through their contact at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, Donald Heath.
Mildred would be the conduit for this confidential information, and she would pass it to the embassy by meeting with Donald’s young son, Don.
A little later, Mildred and her circle were shocked, learning about a new development from the Soviet Union.
Rebecca: In August, 1939 Arvid and Mildred and everybody else in their group were absolutely appalled when the Soviet Union and Germany joined forces and under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, communism and fascism shook hands, and they basically Stalin and Hitler agreed not to attack one another. And then they followed this nonaggression pact with a trade agreement. And so Arvid at the Ministry of Economics saw a lot of this paperwork, but was the wilderness was up to this point it seemed impossible that Stalin and Hitler, whatever become friends.
Under the German-Soviet pact, the two countries agreed not to attack each other for 10 years. The Soviet Union would also supply Nazi Germany with military equipment and fuel, and they handed back numerous German communist exiles who had sought refuge in the USSR, who were then sent to concentration camps. Secretly the agreement also divided Eastern Europe into separate German and Soviet spheres of influence, and partitioned Poland. Nazi Germany invaded Poland just a few days later on 1 September, triggering World War II in Europe, and the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the East on 17 September. Communists across Western Europe were outraged at the deal, and there was a mass exodus of members from Communist Parties across the region.
In spite of this, the following year, Moscow got back in touch with Arvid.
Rebecca: There was a while when Arvid lost contact with Moscow Center because of the purges, but in 1940 Moscow Center made contact again with Arvid and he was given a new control officer given that the last one was executed and his code name changed from Balt to Corsican.
Despite Arvid’s misgivings about the pact with Germany, he immediately resumed sending intelligence to Russia. This was particularly crucial now because he had learned that Hitler was planning to doublecross Stalin and invade the Soviet Union.
Rebecca: And Arvid also through his job saw that this was his plan and another one of his co-conspirators Harro Schulze-Boysen began collecting intelligence about Hitler’s plan to invade the Soviet Union. And then they pass this on to Moscow Center in the hope that Stalin would heed their warning.
And on September 26th 1940, Arvid sent his control officer Kuckhoff, his first intelligence report. And basically it informed, Kuckhoff and his colleagues at Moscow Center that by the beginning of next year is what he said, Germany will be ready for war with the Soviet Union. And between January and April 1941, Moscow Center received an intelligence report from Arvid almost every week.
But Arvid’s warnings went unheeded.
Rebecca: And so Stalin is getting deluged with warnings from Arvid and his co-conspirator Harro Schulze-Boysen and yet Stalin simply refuses to believe that this intelligence is accurate, and in fact, he’s convinced that these are the fantastical constructions of double agents and enemies, and liars people who are conspiring to defeat him.
Now, often, present-day supporters of Stalin typically claim that things that he is criticised for doing either didn’t happen, or that if they did, Stalin himself wasn’t aware of them personally. But in this case, even this latter defence doesn’t really work.
Rebecca: And on June 17th, 1941, he was presented with a full report that basically synthesized all this intelligence that Arvid and Harro Schulze-Boysen had obtained with very specific information about missions that were being developed to basically invade the Soviet Union. And Stalin scrawled across the cover of this report. Something very profane that I probably shouldn’t repeat here, but it had to do with what the authors of the report should do to their mothers.
I’m sure that listeners can probably guess what Stalin told the German anti-fascists who had risked their lives to get him this intelligence to do to their mothers…
Rebecca: And six days later, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.
However, the Soviet Union wasn’t alone in ignoring the information Arvid and Mildred were trying to offer.
Rebecca: Arvid approached the U.S. government and try to share information and position himself as a source. His cousin Dietrich Bonhoeffer also positioned himself as a source and reached out to the British government and both of them were greeted by the Americans and the Brits and with profound skepticism and suspicion. And they found that really their warnings had fell on deaf ears. And they’re pleas for help were met with a refusal to engage in any kind of communication with them.
It is likely that Mildred attempted to pass this information to the British government as well, during her travels to England, however in her research Rebecca was unable to find specific documentary evidence of this, whereas there is proof of Bonhoeffer’s efforts.
Rebecca: I really love this quote by CIA director, Allen Dulles, who after the war observed that the resistance in every other country at resistance groups in France and German occupied countries received large-scale support from powerful, from allies, they got arms and supplies and they received help in organizing and they got moral support, but he said that the west did not take too seriously the pleas of those anti Nazi Germans who tried to enlighten it, and that’s a quote, this was after the war. But during the war, and in the years proceeding the war, the Germans had to fight alone, the Germans and the resistance had to fight alone. Yeah, anyway, I find that at least somebody admitted it later, it was a little too late, but yeah.
Despite this lack of support, numerous resistance groups formed across Germany, including many related groups in Berlin.
Rebecca: Well, I can begin by saying, Mildred had a nickname for her group and it was The Circle, and there were other circles, other resistance circles who they linked with. One was called, and these were not official names but how their members referred to themselves. One was Gegner Kreis, one was Rittmeister Kreis, there was the Tat Kreis, these were all circles. And there was typically one or two men at their center, and no more than a dozen people. And they were small scrappy groups that by their design, there was no sort of hierarchy, and that was intentional because if you did get arrested by the Gestapo, and if you were tortured, you could only name one of your friends.
You wouldn’t be able to name everybody because you didn’t know them all, you only had a few contexts. And there were also, there was the Kreisau circle, which was in operation.
Mildred’s Circle had about 60 members in 1940, and it continued to grow as World War II progressed. Some of these circles became involved in very high-profile plots to topple the regime.
Rebecca: Rebecca: In 1938 relatives, cousins of Arvid Harnack began to organize a plot to oppose the Nazi regime, it developed into a plot to assassinate Hitler. And it became the Valkyrie plot, the so-called Valkyrie plot, the July, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler.
There was an attempt to blow up Hitler on a plane, which failed, then the Valkyrie plot was put into practice. The plot is pretty well known, and was subject of a film starring Tom Cruise. But essentially the plan involved numerous Nazi generals, some of whom were war criminals themselves, blowing up Hitler and seizing power by arresting Nazi officials and SS officers. The plot crumbled after the bomb they planted failed to kill Hitler.
Rebecca: So Arvid was, and Mildred were well aware were these other groups and they connected with some of them as I mentioned before. And Arvid’s brother Falk Harnack was a member of the White Rose. And so he also Falk endeavored to make linkages between these groups. And in fact, right before members of the White Rose were arrested, he tried to arrange a meeting between members of the White Rose and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but then unfortunately the Gestapo got to them first.
The White Rose were a predominantly student, pacifist resistance group, who distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, most of whom were arrested and executed. We talk about them in our podcast episode 4. Falk Harnack was arrested alongside White Rose activists, but ended up being the only one of 14 detainees not being executed. He was sent to Greece to fight in the Wehrmacht, but deserted and joined the Greek anti-Nazi partisans.
As for the Circle, soon disaster would strike. Next time on Working Class History.
Well, that’s all the time we have today. In part 2, we will learn what went wrong with the Circle, what happened to its members and what the attitude towards them was of the Allies.
Our patreon supporters can listen to that now. For everyone else, part 2 it will be out in the next couple of weeks. It is only support from you, our listeners which allows us to make these podcasts, so if you appreciate our work please do think about joining us at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes. In return for your support, you get early access to content, as well as exclusive bonus content, discounted merch, and much more. If you can’t spare the cash, absolutely no problem, please just tell your friends about this podcast. If you have a Spotify account, Spotify now lets you review podcasts, so we would really appreciate it if you would take a second to give us a five-star review
If you want to learn more about Mildred, can’t recommend enough getting hold of Rebecca’s book, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days. Link to grab it from an independent bookstore in the show notes. As always, we’ve got sources, links to more info, photos, transcripts, further reading and more on the webpage for this episode, link in the show notes.
Thanks again to our patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. Special thanks to Conor Canatsey, Shae, James, Ariel Gioia, Stone Lawson and Fernando López-Ojeda.
This episode was edited by Jesse French.
Thanks for listening. Catch you next time.
Welcome back to part 2 of our double podcast episode about Mildred Fish-Harnack, the US-born woman at the heart of the German resistance to Nazism. If you haven’t listened to part 1 yet, I would go back and listen to that first.
We left off last time with Mildred Fish-Harnack, her husband Arvid and their resistance Circle organising in Berlin. First and foremost, they considered themselves anti-fascists. But when it became clear that they were unable to inspire a mass movement topple Hitler, they began supplying valuable intelligence to rival governments, particularly the Soviet Union.
To this aim, the Circle agreed to take radio transmitters to be able to send encrypted messages to Moscow. But this led to a catalogue of mishaps, which were the result of a pretty ragtag, untrained bunch of anti-fascists attempting to get involved in the high-tech and complex world of espionage.
Rebecca: So Moscow Center sent radio transmitters to this Berlin group and hastily trained several members of the Circle to operate these radio transmitters. And mistakes were made in sending enciphered messages to Moscow Center. There were also problems with the radio transmitters themselves, one blew up when one of the operators plugged it into the wrong plug. There also another person dropped one of these transmitters and somebody else had to come and repair it.
As a reminder, this is Rebecca Donner, Mildred’s great great-niece and author of All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days.
Rebecca: And it was just… there was one mishap after another and involving these radio transmitters. And another problem was that they had to encipher these messages that they would send to Moscow Center via the radio transmitters. And this was a very painstaking process to encipher and Mildred was involved in enciphering as well as other members of the group. So they worked long hours through the night. It was exhausting, there was constant fear that the Gestapo would track them down, even upgrading one of these radio transmitters exposed you to arrest. And so amidst all of this, the Gestapo was attempting to intercept these messages.
Eventually, German military intelligence, the Abwehr, was able to do just that.
Rebecca: And on June 26th, 1941, Abwehr agents intercepted an enciphered message from a short wave radio transmitter and they didn’t know what this was, but they forwarded this message to the folk other, which is the signals intelligence branch of the other that was dedicated to monitoring elicit broadcasts, and deciphering signals from the allies. These agents only worked a few blocks from Mildred and Arvid’s apartment, but they couldn’t determine where the message came from or who the intended recipient was. And then two months later, they intercepted a second message. And this was again, still enciphered, they didn’t know yet what it said, but it said basically it named three people in the resistance group and it included their addresses. And there were instructions for the recipient of this message to basically seek out this recipient of this message to basically seek out to these three people in this underground resistance group and to basically try to figure out why they stopped receiving messages. And of course, they stopped receiving these messages because the radio transmitters had broken, and there were difficulties in transmitting. But what’s important to understand is that now the Funkabwehr had intercepted this message with the names of three people in a resistance group. And it included their real names, not their code names and their addresses. Now, this was an espionage 101 failure. You do not send, even if it’s an enciphered message, as they all were, you do not send the actual names of the people. You do not. You use their code names. And worse, their names and their addresses were revealed in this message.
This mistake was the kind of thing that experienced intelligence operatives would never have done. But the experienced NKVD officers in Berlin had mostly been executed in the Great Purge, and they had been replaced by relative rookies. And it was a mistake that would prove fatal, to many.
Rebecca: And so it was just a matter of time before the Funkaufklärung cryptologists deciphered this message, and the Gestapo cast their net and began to arrest everyone in the group beginning with those three. One of those three was Arvid and another one was Harro Schulze-Boysen, and Harro was the first person who was arrested.
Harro Schulze-Boysen was arrested on August 31st, 1942. His wife Libertas found out and tried to warn as many members of the group as possible. So Mildred and Arvid actually fled, and they planned to escape to Sweden. And a high ranking SS officer named [unclear] basically pursued them and discovered them in Nazi occupied Lithuania. And they were arrested and led back to Berlin and thrown into the basement prison at Gestapo headquarters. And in the weeks that followed, they would find that that basement prison would fill with all their friends and their resistance.
Mildred and Arvid’s arrest was one of the scenes in the book told in the most detail, due to circumstances which were very fortunate for Rebecca as a writer.
Rebecca: We know about the arrest because Mildred and Arvid were staying with a historian who was their friend, Egmont Zechlin and his wife Anneliese. And Egmont wrote about this arrest after the war. And it’s a long article that he wrote and published. And in it, he actually includes dialogue. It’s not just the account of a historian. It’s almost like the account of a novelist. And he’s describes moment by moment what this Gestapo officer said, and what this other Gestapo officer said, and what Arvid said in response. And, and so as a writer, this was solid gold to me because I was able basically to describe in great detail, the moment of Mildred and Arvid’s arrest.
While Mildred and Arvid didn’t give up any names, some of those arrested did. And soon, 119 people associated with the Circle were rounded up.
Rebecca: So 119 men and women in this group were arrested and thrown in prison. And pretty soon the Gestapo basement prison filled to capacity. And so the men were sent off to the men’s prisons, and the women were sent off to the women’s prisons.
As we mentioned right at the beginning of these episodes, this group of defendants became known by a new name.
Rebecca: And it was not a name that they used among themselves, but it was a name that was given to them by the German intelligence, which called their group, the Red Orchestra. And this is a name that some people are familiar with today who are familiar with this group. Essentially the German intelligence used the word orchestra to describe any espionage network. And when they discovered that Mildred’s group was sending coded messages to Moscow, they called the orchestra red.
Mildred was sent to a women’s prison, and put in solitary confinement.
Rebecca: And she was not allowed to read a book, to write a letter, to write anything. And Arvid was given these privileges and other members of the group were in fact, but Mildred was not. She was interrogated every day as many others in the group work as well. And she was tortured as many others were.
Her torturer was Walter Habecker who was this sadistic Nazi who was renowned for his brutal torture techniques. And in fact, several members of her group committed suicide when they learned that they would be interrogated by Habecker.
Despite the terrible conditions, and an environment which is probably about the most repressive one you can imagine, a Gestapo prison, in Germany, Mildred and her friends still found ways to resist.
Rebecca: Mildred was prohibited, as I said, to write letters. The prisoners were also prohibited from communicating or talking at all. Every day, they would go into the prison yard, and they would have a very short time to sort of basically walk around its perimeter and then they would be thrown back into their cells. And during this walk, this was an occasion for notes to be passed. They’re called Kassiber. And they’re basically, these notes were really among my most significant archival discoveries. Sometimes they’d slip these notes to each other during that walk. Sometimes they would sort of hide them in the broken mortar between bricks or in the cracks and fissures of the walls for other prisoners to find. They were strictly prohibited.
These notes were strictly prohibited at the prison. Guards were paid for each one of these notes they confiscated. And the prisoners were punished severely if they were caught passing them or writing them. And in fact, Mildred had been writing. Somehow she got her hand on a pencil stub and paper, and she had been caught writing and passing them to Libertas Schulze-Boysen who was also the only other member of their group who was kept at this particular women’s prison in Berlin. And the notes were confiscated. And these were used against Mildred in a trial that the Nazi authorities were planning for this group
And they were very inventive in how they found ways to communicate the Kassiber, these notes. Sometimes they would sew them in the garments of their clothing. I found it quite interesting that one way that the prison saved money was to require the families to come and pick up their prisoners whatever a member of their family was incarcerated, they would pick up the dirty laundry of that prisoner and take them home and launder the laundry, and then bring it back. And of course this became an ideal way of passing notes back and forth.
And so this is why we have these notes today, actually. So family members would save these notes. And sometimes these notes were little prose poems about what the light looked like on the wall of the prison. And sometimes women would describe the forced labor that they had to do, making fabric flowers, boxes and boxes and boxes of them.
Some of these notes would just be gossip, but some were a way of communicating information about their upcoming trials, about interrogations, about different guards, who they should look out for, they should avoid and so one.
While the women passed notes, Rebecca’s research uncovered a way that the imprisoned men communicated.
Rebecca: They developed in this group kind of a knock language. It’s sort of like a Morse code, and this is how they communicated. One member Gunter Weisenborn talks about this explicitly, writes this about this in his memoir. He was one of the survivors. And it’s fascinating how basically he and his co-conspirators were able to communicate with each other and pass information about interrogators, about evidence that was discovered. And they would basically communicate with this knock language and try to help each other survive.
Eventually, all 119 prisoners were to be put on trial en masse, for treason.
Rebecca: So the mass treason trial was to be held at the Reich Court Martial, the Reichskriegsgericht which was an organ of the high command of the armed forces. And three high ranking officers and two civilian judges formed a panel, and they would determine the innocence or guilt of the defendants who stood before them. Mildred was one of those defendants which was unusual because typically the people who would show up in court at the Reich Martial were soldiers who were charged with desertion or generals who were charged with insubordination. But Mildred and her co-conspirators were, with one exception Harro Schulze-Boysen. They were not military officers. They were civilians, but they were all charged with treason.
And there are two kinds of treason that German criminal law recognises. There’s treason against the government, Hochverrat and treason against the country, which was Landesverrat. A defendant who was found guilty of treason against the government was punished with a prison sentence, and a defendant who was convicted of treason against the country was punished with death. So the mass trial was essentially set up to determine which form of treason these people in the resistance were guilty of. And Goering handpicked a prosecutor for this mass trial. His name was Manfred Roeder. He was nicknamed by his colleagues, Hitler’s bloodhound. And over the course of three and a half months, he compiled transcripts of all of these interrogations in these binders to be used as evidence against Mildred and her co-conspirators. And by December, 1942, there were 30 binders. So there was a tremendous amount of evidence against Mildred and her co-conspirators. And there were 19 separate trials planned for about 75 of them.
The trial began in December 1942. And its result was pretty much a foregone conclusion.
Rebecca: So at the first trial Mildred, after three and a half months of being locked in a solitary cell, she walked into a courtroom, and she saw Arvid for the first time in three and a half months. And she saw Harro Schulze-Boysen and Libertas Schulze-Boysen and a number of others in their group. And they were all convicted of treason. Mildred was given a prison sentence. Arvid and the others were given death sentences. So Mildred’s life was spared. And the records, the transcripts from the trial were destroyed by the Nazis. And so we don’t know exactly why, but we do have the sentencing document that did survive.
Mildred’s nationality, and the sexism of the judges, contributed to a different verdict in her case to everyone else.
Rebecca: And so it’s pretty clear from this document that the panel of judges determined that Mildred, because she was an American and also because she was just a wife and she didn’t know what her husband was doing, and also that she was a scholar and loved German literature and admired Goethe, she would be given some leniency. And this is what the sentencing document indicates. Mildred successfully argued that she knew nothing and that she was just a wife, but of course that was just a defense strategy.
In a normal court case, after you get the verdict you can process it and then try to move on with your life. But political trials in Nazi Germany were not normal, and everything was subject to the whims of the dictator, Adolf Hitler.
Rebecca: Two days later, Hitler looked at the report of this trial and saw that Mildred Harnack had not been given the death penalty and was outraged and ordered a reversal.
And so Mildred underwent a second trial, and she was found guilty. But this time she was given a death sentence. And so on February 16th, 1943 at Plotzensee prison in Berlin, Mildred Harnack was strapped to a guillotine and beheaded.
Mildred was 40 years old.
Rebecca: The other members of her group, the men were either hanged or shot, and Arvid was among them. He was hanged, and the women like Mildred were decapitated by guillotine.
People are often surprised to learn of the Nazis’ use of the guillotine, but they were big proponents of the device, executing over 16,000 people with it, including Mildred, and other resistance activists like Sophie and Hans Scholl. Some people on the left glorify the guillotine, due to its famous application against aristocrats during the French Revolution. But in France, the new “revolutionary” government soon began using it against those to their left, and France used the guillotine widely in its colonies, as well as domestically, where the last person executed by guillotine was a Tunisian agricultural worker convicted of murder who was beheaded in 1977. In 1871 during the socialist uprising known as the Paris commune, mutinous national guard troops seized the local guillotine, smashed it to pieces and burned it to the applause of onlookers, who saw the guillotine as a sign of capitalist authority and brutality.
Back in Berlin, the Nazis were not just content to take Mildred’s life. Rebecca’s book recounts how after the war, Arvid Harnack’s niece Margarete was studying to be a doctor at the University of Berlin, and one day one of her professors said he needed to return something to her family. He gave Margarete a vase. The vase contained Mildred’s ashes, and the professor claimed that he saved Mildred from being dissected. Margarete was so grateful for what he had done. Until decades later she found out it was a lie.
Rebecca: The head of the anatomical department at the University Berlin had a secret arrangement with the director of Plotzensee Prison to deliver women’s bodies to his laboratory, where he dissected them to investigate the effects of stress on their reproductive organs. His name was Dr. Hermann Stieve, and he kept a list of the women who he dissected. And Mildred was on this list as were many others in her group.
182 women were on the list, including number 84, Mildred Harnack, and number 37, Libertas Schulze-Boysen. Nearly 80 years later, the stories of these women are still being written.
Rebecca: I can also mention that the microscopic remains of some of these women were discovered recently. And in 2019, actually an article in the Guardian reported on a ceremony where basically these microscopic remains were given a proper burial, and the New York Times subsequently picked up that story as well. So the story of the women in this resistance is still developing. We’re still finding out more about them.
As listeners will be aware, Germany eventually lost World War II, and after the conflict ended, the “anti-fascist”, “democratic” Allies set about investigating Nazi war crimes. One of the cases investigated was that of Mildred Fish-Harnack.
Rebecca: In 1998, under a mandate from the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, the CIA and the FBI and the US Army began to release records that were once classified as top secret. And this process continues to this day. And MI6 has done the same. And we now have conclusive evidence that Mildred Harnack’s involvement in the underground German resistance was viewed through a cold war lens. As early as 1946, an officer with the CIC, which was a sort of a predecessor of the CIA, evaluated Mildred Harnack case, and concluded that her execution by guillotine was justified. Which I find astonishing that we have an American official who was saying that an American woman who tried to fight the Nazi regime was justified in having her head chopped off to be crude.
Not only that, but Mildred had even supplied German intelligence to the US government through her contact at the embassy.
But the US government seemed to be more keen on the German torturers and murderers, than on an anti-fascist US citizen.
Rebecca: And in researching this story and looking at British and US intelligence files, I discovered that immediately after the war, British and US intelligence recruited a number of high ranking German officials in Hitler’s regime, and that two of these Germans were directly involved in arresting, prosecuting, torturing, and executing Mildred. So one of them was Hitler’s bloodhound, the Reichskriegsgericht prosecutor, otherwise known as Manfred Roeder. And he was just on the verge of being indicted as a war criminal in Nuremberg in 1947, when the US Army’s Counterintelligence Corps whisked him away to a top secret intelligence location and disguised his identity with the codename, Othello, and basically interviewed him for an extended period of time. They were under the impression that Manfred Roeder possessed a wealth of information that could be valuable to the United States about Soviet espionage techniques and actually Roeder fed the CIC, this fiction that Mildred and her co-conspirators had been members of a massive communist espionage.
Her co-conspirators have been members of a massive communist espionage ring that was still alive and active in the United States and posed a threat to the United States.
As World War II ended, many governments were keen to recruit Nazis to work for them, especially as rivalry between the West and the USSR began re-emerging right away. Most famously, the US government launched Operation Paperclip. Originally dubbed Operation Overcast, it was a plan to make use of German technology in order to rival the Soviet Union. Around 1600 Nazi technicians largely avoided war crimes prosecution and were brought to the US to work on projects like the space programme, and on the notorious MKUltra “mind control” experiments. Similarly, the USSR recruited Nazi scientists with their Operation Osoaviakhim. After implementing a very half-hearted “denazification” process, West Germany quickly reinstalled many former Nazis in positions of power.
To illustrate just how half-hearted this was, out of around 1 million people involved in the Holocaust, only around 600 received life imprisonment or death sentences. Even convicted war criminals like Hanns Martin Schleyer rapidly regained power: Schleyer himself quickly became president of Germany’s main employer associations, helping to break strikes and workers’ organisation. Incidentally, the chickens only eventually came home to roost for Schleyer when he was killed by the urban guerrilla group the Red Army Faction, but that’s a story for another day…
Similar to the US, with its own anti-communist paranoia, the UK was also keen to engage former Nazis as new cold war allies.
Rebecca: British intelligence was likewise duped by the Nazi who personally arrested Mildred Harnack and presided over her torture. Right after, in 1945, Horst Kopkow was arrested and he told his British captors that he could provide valuable information about this sprawling communist espionage ring that included Russian plots against British interests. So MI6 agents responded by faking his death and they gave him a new identity as the manager of a textile factory in west Germany. They gave him the name, Peter Cortez. So neither Manford Roto or Horst Kopkow faced trial at Nuremberg.
This kind of information, about Britain and the US at best ignoring, or at worst betraying the German resistance, and cosying up to the Nazis who helped crush it is most likely a major reason the German resistance isn’t spoken about much in these countries today. Another factor could be that mainstream narratives, both on the political right as well as much of the left, like to talk about historical conflicts as being conflicts between nation states. This approach completely neglects the often much more significant, conflicts within nations themselves, between different classes and other groups.
This World War II is a good example of this. In the UK and US, the conventional narrative is that they fought for democracy, against the unacceptable evils of German Nazism, Italian fascism and Japanese imperialism. The reality of course was very different. As Britain at that point still possessed a vast empire, which was not particularly democratic, seeing as it was made up of numerous undemocratic, white supremacist regimes which used concentration camps both before and after the war. And Western governments had no issues with fascism as such. Even figures painted as legendary anti-fascists, like British prime minister Winston Churchill, openly declared his “whole-hearted” support of the fascism of Benito Mussolini in Italy, as a solution for the “bestial appetites and passions” of communism. As we discussed in detail in our episodes 39-40 about the Spanish civil war, both the US and UK effectively supported general Francisco Franco and the fascists in their war against the democratically elected Republican government, by blockading the Republic while enabling and sometimes directly providing supplies to Franco. And after the war for democracy was declared over, the dictatorship in Spain, as well as the Estado Novo over the border in Portugal, remained intact for decades. The fascist Axis powers only became a problem when they threatened Western geopolitical interests.
In addition to the history of the German resistance being sidelined, as with most history, the role of women within it has been sidelined even further.
Rebecca: Well, as I like to point out, the scholar, Claudia Koonz, has observed that many historians writing about the German resistance downplay, marginalized, or entirely ignore women’s participation. The historians writing about the red orchestra typically name Arvid Harnack or Harro Schulze-Boysen, or both of them, as a leader and either ignore Mildred entirely or mention her nearly as Arvid’s wife. The students who Mildred recruited into the resistance are not referred to as Mildred’s recruits they’re referred to as Arvid’s recruits or contacts. Arvid is presented as presiding over the meetings of this group with Mildred as a kind of silent partner. But, in fact, according to the archives, beginning in 1935, she led most of the meetings when Arvid began working at the ministry of economics.
So these are just some examples, but nearly all accounts of the group focused on the men. I found this post-war US intelligence file on the group where you see the names of the people in the group, and one column as their name and then the other column is their profession. So, all the men are listed according to their… Harro Schulze-Boysen is listed as being an officer in the Luftwaffe, Arvid Harnack is listed as being a senior official at the ministry of economics, and the women are all wives. So even though Mildred was, at that point, a scholar and taught at the university of Berlin, she is just a wife. There are other professors and authors who were women, and they are also listed as wife, just wife. And so you can see kind of a bias in this intelligence document, this US intelligence document about the role that women played in this group. They were just supporters. They didn’t even have a profession of their own.
In addition this kind of distortion and bias in the documentation, some historians also just made sexist assumptions about Mildred and repeated them as fact.
Rebecca: In terms of Mildred specifically, the historian David Dolan in his book, Soviet espionage in 1955, describes Mildred, and I’m quoting, as essentially a nonpolitical person interested only in literature and languages. Heinz Hona in 1970, in his book about the Red Orchestra says, and I quote, as a wife, Mildred followed her husband’s line, she was basically nonpolitical. There was another, Gilles Perrault, a French author who just fetishized Mildred in his book about the Red Orchestra. He describes her gleaming blonde hair, and then makes a bunch of factual errors about her. He describes her as climbing the scaffold to be hanged, when she was not hanged at all, she was decapitated by guillotine.
These are important details and I think that you can see how over the years, from one decade to the next, there are these misapprehensions about Mildred, crucial facts about how she died and about her essential role in this group, and also about her motivations. She was clearly a political person, she had very strong political views, and she was a primary recruiter of people. She was able to, again, under the guise of an American literature professor, be very effective at recruiting Germans into the resistance. But here she is treated by historians as a nonpolitical person who was standing by her husband’s side.
Even brilliant and well-meaning historians have brushed over Mildred’s role.
Rebecca: In 2008, the British historian, Richard Evans, wrote that women played a particularly prominent role in the underground resistance. He actually explicitly mentions Mildred. He says, “notably Harnack’s American wife, Mildred Harnack Fish…” And then he goes on to ignore her contributions entirely. So he doesn’t really explain how she played this particularly prominent role, and we were left to just guess. One of my aims in writing this book was to provide the details that are missing from accounts like Richard Evans’ account. He does acknowledge that she played this prominent role, but he doesn’t tell us how. And so with my access to family archives, my access to her letters and other documents, and with my extensive archival research, I, in this book, was able to provide a very full explanation about how Mildred was not only a member of this group, but according to all available records, she was the only American, man or woman, in the leadership of the German underground resistance during the Nazi regime.
Rebecca being Mildred’s great great niece, and having access to family archives is one of the reasons All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days is such a fantastic book. She told me how she first found out about Mildred and her life, at the age of 16, at her grandmother’s house.
Rebecca: I was at her house in Chevy, Chase, Maryland, and she produced a pile of books, actually, that they were Mildred’s books, and they her name on the fly leaf; And then, she gave me the letters, and then, she told me about a little boy who was 11 years old when he was Mildred’s courier, an American boy whose father was a diplomat at the US Embassy in Berlin, and his name was Don Heath; and she told me that between 1939 and 1941, he basically had an arrangement; his parents had worked out an the arrangement with Mildred and Arvid Harnack using him as a courier to pass information from the Harnacks to his father at the US Embassy in Berlin. And so, I tracked him down when he was 89 years old, and he told me quite a bit about Mildred’s involvement in espionage.
Rebecca’s grandmother had even been a witness to some of Mildred’s resistance activity, although she didn’t realise it at the time.
Rebecca: My grandmother was 21 when she decided to go to Berlin and stay with Mildred; and this was in 1937, quite a time to go to Germany for a while, and as an American. And, so, while Mildred was continuing her work in the resistance, Jane, my grandmother, basically went on picnics with her and went to concerts with her and never suspected that a lot of these social gatherings were occasions for passing information, top secret intelligence, that Mildred’s husband Arvid had obtained from the Ministry of Economics about Hitler’s operational and military strategies.
Since then, writing the book about Mildred’s life has been something that Rebecca just had to do.
Rebecca: When my grandmother gave me Mildred’s letters when I was 16, that was the first moment when I thought I should write this book. In fact, she explicitly said to me, you must write this book one day. She knew that I wanted to be a writer, and that I wanted to write big books, and she thought this would be a worthy topic of a big book. And then I began researching the book off and on over the course of many years, but really, I knew that I did not want this to be my first book. It was too much of a heavy lift. I knew that I had to get a few books under my belt and really have a sense of, I wanted this book to be a very big book. The scope of this book and might the scope of my ambitions were very large. And so I waited until the moment was right to me.
After my second book was published, I found myself in Berlin and I visited the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand, the German Resistance Memorial center. That was the second moment for me when I thought, all right, I’m getting ready to write this book. I met with the head of the center and asked if I could gain access to the primary source documents there, and he said, yes of course. I then decided, instead of writing this book, I would write another book because I still wasn’t quite ready. It seemed too formidable a topic I thought, at least at that very moment in time.
Eventually, current events finally convinced Rebecca that now was the right time for the book to be written.
Rebecca: I was reading around the German resistance and sort of gathering information, but really I began in earnest to visit archives and to start writing the manuscript in 2016 in the run-up to the presidential election. At that moment, I thought resistance was in the zeitgeist. We have somebody running for president who posed a threat and I thought, I want people to know about Mildred and this group of Germans in the underground resistance who risked and indeed lost their lives, fighting a bully, fighting a fascist dictator.
I felt that people could gain some kind of, not only just an intellectual understanding of what happened in Germany, understanding of the people as we haven’t heard many of their stories before. Unfortunately, I think that the recognition that many Germans supported the Nazi regime tends to silence the stories of those who opposed it. So I felt that it was time for people to hear these stories. My hope was that that people could also find themselves inspired and even emboldened in hearing them. Well, the democracy is fragile. And I think that is something that we need to understand and appreciate. After the storming of the Capitol and on January 6th, I think people started to understand on a visceral level, that this was possible. Luckily the guard rail stayed up, but that was, I think, a defining moment for people in this country. I have heard from readers who cite that as an event that, even today, they’re still very fearful of what could happen here. They’ve said it was very useful for them to read in my book about how Germany progressed from a parliamentary democracy to a fascist dictatorship. Certainly the circumstances are different. I’m not saying that there is a one-to-one correlation at all between then and now, but people are connecting certain ideas. Certainly the idea that we can not take democracy for granted is something that I have heard from readers over and over again.
On 6 January 2020, thousands of supporters of far right Republican president Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol building in attempt to overturn the results of the election, which Trump lost by over seven million votes. The crowd included many white supremacists and neo-Nazis, people waving Nazi flags, Confederate flags, and people wearing t-shirts celebrating the Auschwitz concentration camp, and declaring that the six million Jewish people exterminated in the Holocaust “wasn’t enough”.
While it is tempting to dismiss the event as laughable, and a joke, led by incompetent weirdos, shamans and so on, they did have powerful allies in government, and as time goes on more and more revelations have emerged about how there was a genuine coup plot from within the administration, with executive orders drafted ordering the seizure of voting machines. And in Congress, despite the crowd clearly wanting to kidnap and murder some of their colleagues, the majority of Republican representatives then voted to overturn the results of the election.
In the end, serious civil disorder was probably only avoided by the far-right, Christian supremacist vice president, Mike Pence, refusing to exceed his authority and overturn the election. It was a close call, and a timely reminder that liberal democracy is not as stable as it may appear.
Writing sections of the book during the Covid-19 pandemic and isolation gave Rebecca an opportunity as well to feel connected with Mildred.
Rebecca: It’s interesting because when I was writing the sections of the book that had to do with Mildred’s incarceration and torture, and revising that section, that all happen during the pandemic. So I was quite isolated and sequestered in my office in Brooklyn. Every day, every hour of the day, every minute of the day, I felt like I was, in a sense, sort of in Mildred cell with her. I tried to imagine what that was like. There is no primary source documentation of that period, that three and a half month period, because she was prohibited from writing anything, and there are no reports that have survived. So, I am left to fill in the picture with the primary source documentation, like the notes and testimony and so forth from her co-conspirators, and left to sort of conjecture what Mildred’s experience was. Later, she was given a cellmate Gertrude Clapeth, and she wrote two letters that described in detail what prison life was like with Mildred in that cell. So, I know what her life was like for that month that she had a cellmate in between her first and second trial.
The book paints an extremely rich picture of snippets of Mildred’s everyday life, which really transport you to the time and place. And you can really feel how much work and thought must have gone into writing it.
Rebecca: But, here I am in Brooklyn, sequestered in my study during the pandemic. It was a very emotionally intense period for me. And I found myself going to sleep and just thinking about her experience. In the middle of the night sometimes I’d wake up with a sentence in my head and I would grab my phone and dictate it as a voice memo. Sometimes I’d wake up the next morning and listen and think, oh, that’s such a great idea, and sometimes I would listen and it’s complete gibberish. This is to say that I was absolutely immersed in the story of her incarceration and all that followed. In some ways I wouldn’t want it any other way. It was a way of me getting extremely close to that part of the story without any distractions.
Sometimes, the reality of the subject matter just got a bit too much.
Rebecca: But of course it’s emotionally draining. Sometimes I just had to stop, especially when I got to the sections where Mildred was dissected, and the women in her group as well. And also when I follow Gertrude Clapped, to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. I did a great deal of research on her. I described there’s this wonderful book, Sarah Holmes you book, about Ravensbruck that was very useful to me in understanding the day-to-day life of women who were incarcerated there. Some of the descriptions that are in the book about that experience are just so horrific, but so important for people to understand and to not avert their eyes from. I think we really need to know what happened. I do believe that we need a history lesson.
While Rebecca’s book is structured around Mildred and her life, there is a large cast of other characters who you also get to learn a lot about.
Rebecca: I feel that it was incumbent upon me to sort of bring this information forward in the context of Mildred Harnack. So yes, she’s a family member of mine, and I think that that personal connection may have motivated me all the more. I think I’m interested in all the stories of the people in this book. I’m tremendously interested in and very passionate about my desire to tell their stories and to make sure that they are remembered, and that their acts of heroism were not committed in vain. I believe that they were not, I fervently believe that. I think that the fact that Mildred was my great, great aunt maybe gave me just even a little extra motivation because there I had this connection with somebody who I have heard about for most of my life from my family. I feel all the more passionate about telling her story.
Another great feature of the book which helps bring the history to life are the photographs of primary materials Rebecca located. One of them is particularly poignant, and was the inspiration for the books title.
Rebecca: There are a number of documents, primary source documents and artifacts that I discovered in archives and in another places as I was researching this book. I think one of the most powerful was the book that Mildred was translating in prison shortly before her execution. It was a volume of Gerta poetry, and she spent the last hours of her life translating these poems and scribbling with a pencil stub in the margins of this book. The prison chaplain, his name was Harold Porsche, was a secret member of the resistance. He came in to basically give her spiritual counsel as he did with other condemned prisoners, and he wrote about this in his memoir. So this is how we know about the book and about what she was doing. After he left, he smuggled the book out. This is why we have this book today. The title of my book, All The Frequent Troubles Of Our Days, is aligned from one of the poems that Mildred Harnack translated. I actually feature a scan, a photograph, of that page of the book in my book, so that readers can see her handwriting and in a sense be there with her in her prison cell, imaginatively.
That concludes our double podcast episode about Mildred Fish-Harnack. If you want to learn more about her life, definitely get yourself a copy of Rebecca’s book, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days. Link to grab it from an independent bookstore in the show notes.
Also in the show notes is a link to the webpage for this episode, where we’ve got sources for everything we spoke about, a transcript, photos and more.
Before we go, just a reminder that this podcast is only possible because of support from you, our listeners on patreon. So if you can, please consider joining us at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes. In return for your support, you get early access to content, as well as exclusive bonus content, discounted merch, and much more. If you can’t support us right now, absolutely no worries. Please just share a link to one of our episodes on social media, and give us a five-star review on your favourite podcast app like Apple or Spotify.
Thanks to all of our existing patreon supporters for enabling us to make this podcast. Special thanks to Conor Canatsey, Shae, James, Ariel Gioia, Stone Lawson and Fernando López-Ojeda.
This episode was edited by Jesse French.
Thanks for listening. Catch you next time.
Interview audio transcribed by Podtranscribe