1943: Mildred Fish-Harnack, an American in the German Resistance

On this date in 1943, the Milwaukee-born translator and historian Mildred Fish-Harnack was beheaded at Plotzensee Prison — the only American woman executed by Hitler’s order.

A graduate student at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee,* she met German jurist Arvid Harnack when the latter was a visiting scholar at the university’s sister campus in Madison.

In 1929, the couple moved to Germany where they worked as academics: Mildred, a teacher of language and literature; Arvid, of economics and foreign policy.

Both watched the rise of Third Reich with growing horror, and soon began converting their circles of academics, artists, and expats into a hive of opposition doing what they could to aid the many classes of excommunicate humans Berlin was busily proscribing. As the Nazi enterprise intensified, that opposition demanded ever more dangerous — more treasonable — extremities.

Good friends with American diplomats, the Harnacks for a time used Arvid’s placement in the Reich economic ministry to pass information to the United States. In 1940, they made contact with Soviet intelligence and from that time until the Gestapo snatched them in September 1942 the so-called** Red Orchestra sent furtive coded radio transmissions to Moscow reporting war preparations, economic data, and whatever else their circle could lay hands on among their various posts.

We have treated the fate of the Red Orchestra elsewhere in these pages; Mildred Harnack did not go to the meathook-nooses with her husband Arvid and others on December 22 because she was sentenced initially only to a term of years. These judgments came down at just the same time as the USSR was drowning the Wehrmacht in blood at Stalingrad, so there might have been a bit of personal pique when the Fuhrer personally quashed Mildred’s lenient sentence and demanded a, ah, reconsideration.

“And I have loved Germany so much,” she murmured as she was thrown under the fallbeil.

There’s a Mildred-Harnack-Schule in Berlin (also a Mildred-Harnack-Straße); her birthday, September 16, is observed every year in Wisconsin schools — although Mildred’s red associations meant that widespread recognition in her native country had to await the end of the Cold War.

Trailer for a Wisconsin Public Television documentary that can be viewed in full here.

* Then known as the Milwaukee State Normal School.

** Though this is the name history remembers them by, Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle) was conferred by the German intelligence working to stop them. Confusingly, the name was applied to multiple different, and unrelated, spy networks.

On this day..

3 thoughts on “1943: Mildred Fish-Harnack, an American in the German Resistance

  1. Unfortunately, fighting one evil with another one. Russia far surpassed the number of innocent people killed by the regime than did the NAZIs.

    Sadly, this kind of story tends to gloss over the horrors of Soviet Russia.

    • Indeed, Suzy. Because the left dominates academia, we know far too little about Communist atrocities. While I commend anyone who fought against the National Socialists, one wonders what Soviet policies Harnack would have supported if she had lived.

  2. i am always saddened and shocked when I am introduced to the individuals who especially in the early days of the Third Reich went up against Hitler. In the late 1960’s I started my own research committed to the study of this horrific period. My art during the period starting in the late 1970’s and up until the present focused on this period. I have not been able to sell my art except in one or two instances. That was never my goal, but I have shown my work in some very reputable galleries and museums. I just retired after 43 years of teaching art and design. I am 79.

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