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.
Our podcast is brought to you by our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other content. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory
You can listen to our podcast on the below links, or on any major podcast app. Links to a few below.
- 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.
- 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 (Little Brown, 2021).
- “The Early Labour Movement in Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Historical Society, accessed February 2, 2022, https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS1709.
- “The Progressive Era: 1895-1925,” Wisconsin Historical Society, accessed February 2, 2022, https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS3588.
- Gilles Dauvé and Denis Authier, The Communist Left in Germany 1918-1921 (2006), accessed February 3, 2022, https://libcom.org/library/communist-left-germany-1918-1921.
- “Concentration camps, 1933-39,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, accessed February 3, 2022, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/concentration-camps-1933-39.
- Pamela E Swett, Neighbors and Enemies: The Culture of Radicalism in Berlin, 1929-1933 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
- Florian Wilde, “Divided they fell: the German left and the rise of Hitler,” International Socialism 137 (January 2013), accessed February 9, 2022, https://isj.org.uk/divided-they-fell-the-german-left-and-the-rise-of-hitler/.
- Helge Döhring, Syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism in Germany (Bremen: FAU, 2006), accessed February 3, 2022, https://libcom.org/history/syndicalism-anarcho-syndicalism-germany.
- “Treaty of Versailles,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, August 19, 2021, accessed February 3, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/event/Treaty-of-Versailles-1919.
- Michael Ellman, “Stalin and the Soviet Famine of 1932–33,” Revisited Europe-Asia Studies (June 2007) Vol. 59, No. 4, 663–693.
- John Simkin, “The Great Purge,” Spartacus Educational, accessed February 4, 2022, https://spartacus-educational.com/RUSpurge.htm.
- John Simkin, “Nikolai Yezhov,” Spartacus Educational, accessed February 4, 2022, https://spartacus-educational.com/RUSyezhov.htm.
- Frank Jellinek, The Paris Commune of 1871 (Read Books, 2013), 227.
- Journal Of The Paris Commune cited in “Against the Logic of the Guillotine,” CrimethInc, April 8, 2019, accessed February 8, 2022, https://crimethinc.com/2019/04/08/against-the-logic-of-the-guillotine-why-the-paris-commune-burned-the-guillotine-and-we-should-too.
- Franklin E. Zimring, The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment (Oxford University Press 2004) 33.
- Robert Frederick Opie, Guillotine: The Timbers of Justice (History Press, 2013), 131.
- Annie Jacobsen, Operation Paperclip: the Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America (Little Brown, 2014).
- “Nazi Doctors in Demand,” CovertAction 25 (Winter 1986), 26, accessed September 3, 2020, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP90-00845R000100170004-5.pdf
- Tom Bower et al., The Paperclip Conspiracy: The Hunt for the Nazi Scientists (Little, Brown, 1987).
- Danny Lewis, “Why the U.S. Government Brought Nazi Scientists to America After World War II,” Smithsonian, November 16, 2016, accessed September 3, 2020, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-us-government-brought-nazi-scientists-america-after-world-war-ii-180961110/.
- Mary Fulbrook, Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice (Oxford University Press, 2018).
- Anatoly Zak, “German A-4 Team in Moscow,” Russian Space Web, accessed May 10, 2021, http://www.russianspaceweb.com/a4_team_moscow.html.
- “Schleyer, Key Figure in Industry, Once a Top SS Official in Prague,” New York Times, October 20, 1977, 16.
- Philip Rucker et al., “The Attack,” Washington Post, October 31, 2021, accessed January 5, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/interactive/2021/what-happened-trump-jan-6-insurrection/.
- Jorge Fitz-Gibbon, “Neo-Nazis among Protesters Who Stormed US Capitol,” New York Post, January 6, 2021, accessed January 5, 2022, https://nypost.com/2021/01/06/neo-nazis-among-protesters-who-stormed-us-capitol/.
- 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.
- “Trump directly involved in plans to seize voting machines – reports,” Reuters, February 1, 2022, accessed February 7, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/us/trump-directly-involved-plans-seize-voting-machines-reports-2022-02-01/.
- Jeremy Scahill, “Mike Pence Will Be the Most Powerful Christian Supremacist in US History,” Intercept, November 15, 2016, accessed February 9, 2022, https://theintercept.com/2016/11/15/mike-pence-will-be-the-most-powerful-christian-supremacist-in-us-history/.
- John Simkin, “Was Winston Churchill a supporter or an opponent of Fascism?,” Spartacus Educational, accessed February 8, 2022, https://spartacus-educational.com/spartacus-blogURL118.htm.
- “E39-40: The Spanish civil war – an introduction,” (podcast) Working Class History, June 17, 2020, accessed February 8, 2022, https://workingclasshistory.com/podcast/e39-the-spanish-civil-war-an-introduction/.
- 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.
Listen and subscribe to WCH in the following ways: Apple Podcasts | RSS | Spotify | Amazon Music | Anchor | Castbox | Google Podcasts | Overcast | Pocket Casts | Podbean | Radio Public | Stitcher | TuneIn
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.
Before we get on with the episodes, just a reminder that our podcast is brought to you by our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other content. For example, our patreon supporters can listen to both parts of this double episode now. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes.
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. Music used in these episodes is .
This episode was edited by Jesse French.
Thanks for listening. Catch you next time.
Interview audio transcribed by Podtranscribe
Part 2 coming soon…