Sharing my learnings from the book, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days by Rebecca Donner
All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days by Rebecca Donner
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Mildred Harnack was twenty-six when she enrolled in a PhD program in Germany and witnessed the meteoric rise of the Nazi party. In 1932, she began holding secret meetings in her apartment—a small band of political activists that by 1940 had grown into the largest underground resistance group in Berlin. She recruited working-class Germans into the resistance, helped Jews escape, plotted acts of sabotage, and collaborated in writing leaflets that denounced Hitler and called for revolution. Her coconspirators circulated through Berlin under the cover of night, slipping the leaflets into mailboxes, public restrooms, phone booths. When the first shots of the Second World War were fired, she became a spy, couriering top-secret intelligence to the Allies. On the eve of her escape to Sweden, she was ambushed by the Gestapo. At a Nazi military court, a panel of five judges sentenced her to six years at a prison camp, but Hitler overruled the decision and ordered her execution. On February 16, 1943, she was strapped to a guillotine and beheaded.
Historians identify Mildred Harnack as the only American in the leadership of the German resistance, yet her remarkable story has remained almost unknown until now.
Harnack’s great-great-niece Rebecca Donner draws on her extensive archival research in Germany, Russia, England, and the U.S. as well as newly uncovered documents in her family archive to produce this astonishing work of narrative nonfiction. Fusing elements of biography, real-life political thriller, and scholarly detective story, Donner brilliantly interweaves letters, diary entries, notes smuggled out of a Berlin prison, survivors’ testimony, and a trove of declassified intelligence documents into a powerful, epic story, reconstructing the moral courage of an enigmatic woman nearly erased by history.
- This is the story of their determination in the face of overwhelming oppression.
- Mildred Fish’s family had often struggled to get by. But Mildred proved herself to be a dedicated student, earning a bachelor’s degree in humanities and a master’s degree in English. By 1926, she was teaching American literature at Wisconsin University. That’s where she met Arvid Harnack.
- upon seeing Mildred, he was immediately smitten. When he showed up a second time, he was carrying a bouquet of wildflowers he’d picked himself. By the end of the year, the two were exchanging vows, and Mildred Fish became Mildred Harnack.
- One of the things that Mildred and Arvid truly bonded over was a deep mutual commitment to social causes. In Arvid’s case, this meant periodically traveling to Moscow to serve as secretary for a group called ARPLAN, or the Working Group for the Study of the Soviet Planned Economy. The Harnacks didn’t know it at the time, but Arvid’s involvement in ARPLAN would have profound consequences in both their lives in the years to come.
- in the early 1930s, things began to change at a rapid pace. Berlin entered, as Mildred put it, “such very dark hours.” On July 29, 1932, Mildred held her last lecture at the University of Berlin. No reason was given as to why she was asked not to return – but it wasn’t hard for Mildred to understand. Two days after Mildred’s final lecture at the university, an election was held. In 1932, the Nazi party had earned 37% of the vote making the Nazis the largest party in the German parliament. Their slogan – “Work! Freedom! Bread!” – could be seen all over Berlin.
- Many in Germany were concerned by the Nazi party’s gains, but they weren’t yet panicking. People believed the government, the rules of the constitution, and more experienced politicians in parliament would keep Hitler and the Nazis in check.
- On February 27, 1933 – just a few weeks after Hitler had been sworn in as chancellor – a fire broke out in the Reichstag that completely gutted the German parliament building. it placed immense pressure on Germany’s president as well as members of the parliament. Despite vocal opposition from a few of those members, a vote was taken; the majority approved a new law, the “Law to Remove the Distress of People and Reich.” It essentially tore the Weimar Constitution to shreds.
- the law, along with a presidential order titled “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of the People and State,” effectively turned Germany into a dictatorship. It was a bloodless coup. Hitler was no longer the chancellor; he’d become the Führer, or leader. And he now had the legal backing to silence all opposition and arrest anyone who spoke ill of him or the Nazi party.
- More laws – some official, some simply ideological guidelines – soon followed. The Weimar-era attitude of female liberation was now a thing of the past. Joseph Goebbels, the head of the Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, publicly declared that Germany’s recent problems were partly due to the fact that women had been granted too many freedoms. In the public sector alone, over 19,000 women were fired from their jobs.
- Once she’d left the University of Berlin, Mildred didn’t stay jobless for long. She soon found work teaching English at the Berlin Night School for Adults – or the BAG. The BAG wanted to help people escape poverty by teaching them things like history, philosophy, literature, and science – things that could potentially broaden their horizons.
- Early into her teaching career at BAG, Mildred launched an extracurricular English club that met on a regular basis. She invited provocative people from her social circle.
- At first, the club met in Mildred and Arvid’s apartment. But by early 1933, this was deemed too much of a risk. The walls weren’t very thick, and rumors were already circulating about people turning in neighbors who they suspected of committing treason. The secret police, known as the Gestapo, and Hitler’s SS, a paramilitary unit, acted with impunity. They broke down doors and hauled people off for interrogation, enforcing Hitler’s new laws with extreme prejudice. The threat of indefinite imprisonment, torture, or death was very real.
- The Harnacks took this threat seriously, but it didn’t stop them from pushing back against the new regime. Before long, Mildred was using her English club to recruit people into what became known as “the Circle.” The Circle was part of a German resistance movement that was very much in its infancy in 1933; it would become more complex and even international in the years ahead.
- new and increasingly oppressive laws kept getting passed. On September 15, 1935, the “Reich Citizenship Law” and the “Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor” stripped Jewish people of their citizenship as well as their civil and human rights. The growing marginalization, segregation, and confinement were all leading up to the larger Nazi plan of extermination.
- In 1933, the Nazi government rounded up 20,000 political prisoners. a former gunpowder factory in Dachau was going to house political prisoners in what was called “protective custody.” About 170 smaller, makeshift camps were set up in Berlin; over the next ten years, larger-scale camps like Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and Auschwitz were also established. One called Ravensbrück would be for women prisoners only.
- For many Jewish families, the decision was clear: leave. And for the Harnacks, the need to help Jews escape was equally clear. To do this, they would use their connections as best they could.
- having Adolf von Harnack as his uncle was still paying dividends for Arvid, and he was able to get a job at the Ministry of Economics. This also gave him access to the Deutscher Club, a social club for high-ranking Nazis – a place where he could meet others in the upper echelon of the government who were interested in undermining Hitler’s plans.
- Mildred had connections at the US embassy and the American Women’s Club, which was populated with the wives of diplomats.
- the Harnacks socialized and rubbed shoulders with some of Berlin’s most influential figures. Thanks to this, Mildred was able to obtain visas and help people like the Jewish editor Max Tau, who found safe haven in Norway.
- The Circle’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed. In 1934 alone, the Gestapo confiscated more than a million of their leaflets. But by that time, more resistance groups had emerged.
- The risks weren’t diminishing, either. In 1936 alone, over 12,000 people were arrested for distributing opposition leaflets. Two of them were individuals Mildred had recruited through her BAG meetings.
- But keeping secrets was starting to take a toll on Mildred and Arvid. Both Mildred and Arvid also had to spend their days posing as Nazi supporters. For Arvid, it was more than just posing; he’d made the difficult decision to officially register himself as a Nazi in order to keep his job and gain access to the people at the Deutscher Club. Mildred, on the other hand, frequently posed as a supporter in order to recruit people into the resistance.
- Hitler wanted “peace.” Of course, he was lying through his teeth. In their positions at the finance and aviation ministries, both Arvid and Harro Schulze-Boysen could see that the Führer was gearing up for a large-scale war.
- The Soviet Union was becoming concerned; it wanted good intel. Alexander Hirschfeld, an old friend of Arvid’s from his days in ARPLAN, tried to recruit Arvid to be a Soviet agent, but Arvid refused – for the most part. He wouldn’t take any money, and he wouldn’t be controlled or answerable to Moscow Center, but he would provide information.
- Germany invaded Poland and France in 1939, and over the next few years, Moscow Center made similar arrangements with a number of people from the loosely connected Berlin resistance groups.
- the German resistance had become irrefutable: an invasion of Russia was imminent. But Soviet leader Joseph Stalin wouldn’t believe it.
- at the start of the war, Hitler and Stalin had signed a nonaggression pact. Hitler was sending Stalin tanks in exchange for gasoline, and to Stalin, the idea that Germany was simultaneously plotting to invade Russia just seemed absurd.
- the Great Purge. Between 1936 and 1938, Stalin had ordered the executions of around a thousand people a day. These were people he suspected of being threats.
- The fact that Moscow Center was being run by less experienced minds at such a crucial time would also have a fateful effect on the German resistance.
- On August 26, 1941, the young new director of Soviet intelligence, Pavel Fitin, sent an encrypted message telling one of his agents to visit three addresses in Berlin and ensure that the radios were operational.
- It was one of the more egregious intelligence mistakes of WWII, as Fitin listed the addresses and the full names of Harro Schulze-Boysen, Adam Kuckhoff, and Arvid Harnack.
- The Nazis immediately intercepted the message. Although it was encrypted, code breakers were on the job
- As the war escalated, the leaflet campaign continued. Some resistance groups also got more aggressive. And as early as 1938, high-ranking members of the German and Austrian military plotted ways to kill Hitler. Their efforts became known as the Oster Conspiracy, named after General Hans Oster, one of the group’s masterminds. Their efforts culminated in Operation Valkyrie, an attempt to assassinate Hitler by planting a bomb that, in the end, only partially detonated and left Hitler with minor wounds.
- So many executions took place in Nazi Germany that beheadings were reintroduced. At one prison in Berlin in 1935, there were over 80 beheadings. Execution was the threat that loomed large over the Berlin resistance.
- on July 14, 1942, Nazi decoders cracked the message. The names and addresses of three key resistance leaders were laid bare.
- It’s not clear whether Mildred and Arvid knew that the Gestapo was closing in on them, but they did plan their escape at precisely this time. In the summer of 1942, the Harnacks fled Germany for Lithuania, where they planned to take a boat to Sweden. However, before they even managed to set foot on the boat, they were captured at a house by the Baltic Sea and dragged back to Berlin.
- All of the circles in the Berlin resistance were together. Over the following days, the Gestapo tortured them in order to obtain statements that implicated each other in treason and named other conspirators.
- After arresting 76 people who would stand trial, the Gestapo branded them the Red Orchestra. On December 15, 1942, Mildred and Arvid Harnack began a trial that lasted four days. It was the first time they’d seen each other in months. And when the trial ended, it became the last. While they weren’t allowed to speak to each other, Arvid was able to get a letter passed along to Mildred. It contained his last words.
- Nearly everyone who was arrested in connection with the Berlin resistance groups received a death sentence. On December 22, 1942, Arvid, Harro Schulze-Boysen, and eight others were executed by hanging. As for Mildred, she was given a six-month prison sentence at first. But Hitler found this unacceptable and demanded another trial. One of Mildred’s BAG recruits testified that she had coerced him into being a spy – and Mildred was sentenced to death by beheading.
- On February 16, 1943, Mildred was awaiting the guillotine. She gave Arvid’s letter to her cellmate, Gertrud Klapputh, for safekeeping.
- After Mildred’s execution, Gertrud was taken to Ravensbrück, the concentration camp for women. Gertrud was there on April 30, 1945 – the day Hitler committed suicide and the Red Army discovered the Ravensbrück camp. She was left to wander the bombed-out streets of Berlin looking for a place to sleep. By 1952, Gertrud had married a journalist and was mother to three children. She now had the strength to write to Clara Harnack, Arvid’s mother. She explained how she met Mildred in prison, and enclosed the letter she’d been given.
- The letter is five paragraphs long. Arvid recounts the many “wonderful moments of our marriage.” These are the moments he cherished in his last months. It ends with the words, “You are in my heart. You shall be forever. My greatest wish is that you are happy when you think of me. I am when I think of you.”