Books and Arts
A Heroine of the Resistance - Together in Berlin
All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days. By Rebecca Donner.
In February 1943 a sympathetic chaplain at Plotzensee Prison in Berlin made one last visit to a condemned woman. She was bent over a book of Goethe’s poems, writing English translations in the margins. Mildred Harnack, an American teacher, was executed that day on Hitler’s direct orders. More than half a century later her great-great-niece found the book in the archives of the German Resistance Memorial. Harnack had been a leading figure in the anti-Nazi underground; yet whereas the world honoured such martyred anti-fascists as Sophie Scholl, killed six days later, almost nothing was known of this idealistic professor of literature from Wisconsin, or of how she came to lead the largest resistance cell in Berlin.
This obscurity was no accident. After the defeat of the Nazis, Harnack’s sister, aghast at reports of her involvement with anti-fascists and Soviet spies, ordered family members to destroy her letters. Fortunately her mother did not comply, stashing the correspondence in an attic. Harnack’s niece, Jane Donner, saw to it that the story was handed down to her own granddaughter, Rebecca Donner — who has produced a compelling portrait of her forebear’s courage, along with that of her German husband Arvid and their comrades.
Those who resisted the Nazis in Germany knew that they were marked. Harnack and Arvid, who met and married while at the University of Wisconsin, were a young academic couple living in Berlin when Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933. Immediately they formed a “discussion circle” of students, friends, factory workers, professors and writers, debating what to do as the Nazis locked up their enemies. Over the years the circle’s resistance strategies evolved, from leaflets to recruitment of new members to serving as Soviet spies while posing as “a dutiful servant of the Third Reich”.