Harnack, Mildred (1902–1943)

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Harnack, Mildred (1902–1943)

American-born anti-Nazi activist and member of the "Red Orchestra" spy network which supplied the Soviets with important data, including the schedule for Hitler's attack on the USSR. Born Mildred Fish in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on September 16, 1902; executed in Berlin, Germany, on February 16, 1943; grew up in Wisconsin; attended University of Giessen; married Arvid Harnack (1901–1942).

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on September 16, 1902, Mildred Fish was studying modern American literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, when she met Arvid Harnack, a serious, intelligent German graduate student from a highly distinguished academic family. They fell in love and married, moving to Germany in 1928 to complete their doctoral degrees. This they did at the University of Giessen, moving in 1930 to a Berlin already exploding with radical ideas and almost daily street clashes between unemployed Marxist workers and squads of equally desperate and ruthless Nazi brownshirts. Mildred Harnack observed these events with great interest while she worked as a translator and began her German academic career as a lecturer at the University of Berlin. By 1933, when the Hitler dictatorship was established, the Harnacks had become convinced that Nazism meant war and suffering and that the only reasonable alternative was a planned, Socialist society such as was apparently being created in the Soviet Union.

Despite the dangers inherent in such activities, both the Harnacks were involved in illegal anti-Nazi work virtually from the first day of the dictatorship. By the late 1930s, using his high position at the Reich Ministry of Economics, Arvid was able to secure important economic data and pass it on to the Marxist underground for study and dissemination; it could then be used in both secret seminars and the propaganda work of the anti-Nazi underground. By 1936, the couple was involved in the Communist underground organization led by John Sieg, one of the most dynamic resistance leaders in Nazi Germany at the time. By 1939, they had become acquainted with other anti-Nazi activist couples in Berlin, including Adam and Greta Kuckhoff and Harro and Libertas Schulze-Boysen . With the start of World War II in September 1939, this group was determined to assist the Soviet Union, which, despite the apparent stabilization brought about by the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939, remained in danger of Fascist aggression. The result of these concerns was the "Red Orchestra" spy organization, which for over a year was able to transmit extremely important military and political intelligence to Moscow.

In time, Nazi counter-intelligence broke into the "Red Orchestra" network, with tragic consequences for virtually all of its members. Both Mildred and Arvid Harnack were arrested on September 7, 1942. As a key leader of the spy organization, Arvid was sentenced to death and executed on December 22 of that year in Plötzensee prison. Mildred received a sentence of six years' imprisonment from the Reich War Tribunal, but when Adolf Hitler was apprised of the punishment he furiously demanded that the judgment be annulled and a new tribunal rule again in her case. This session took place on January 16, 1943, during the battle of Stalingrad, and the spirit of a vengeful Hitler hovered over the judges, who now ruled that a death verdict was appropriate punishment for Mildred Harnack. In her death cell in Plötzensee prison, the student of literature spent her final days translating verses by the German poet Goethe into English. Her mother had died in the United States at the beginning of the war, and Harnack decided not to write any farewell letters. Overheard by the prison chaplain, her last recorded words before her execution were, "And I have loved Germany so much." She was executed at Berlin's Plötzensee prison on February 16, 1943. Found among her effects was a poem by Goethe that she had translated while in her cell:

Noble be man
Helpful and good,
For that alone
Him from all beings
On earth known.


Biernat, Karl Heinz, and Luise Kraushaar. Die Schulze-Boysen-Harnack-Organisation im antifaschistischen Kampf. Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1970.

Brysac, Shareen Blair. "She Spied, but Hitler was the Traitor," in The New York Times. February 20, 1993, section A, p. 19.

Kraushaar, Luise. Deutsche Widerstandskämpfer 1933–1945: Biographien und Briefe. 2 vols. Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1970.

Rürup, Reinhard. Topographie des Terrors: Gestapo, SS und Reichssicherheitshauptamt auf dem "Prinz-Albrecht-Gelände": Eine Dokumentation. 7th ed. Berlin: Verlag Willmuth Arenhövel, 1989.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia