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Mildred Harnack: How a Milwaukee woman became a hero of the Nazi resistance

Historians believe Mildred (Fish) Harnack was the only American, man or woman, in the leadership of the German resistance — but her story is largely untold.
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Posted at 4:40 PM, Mar 06, 2023

MILWAUKEE — Mildred, from Milwaukee. That's a name you should know. By all available evidence, historians believe Mildred (Fish) Harnack was the only American, man or woman, in the leadership of the German resistance — but her story is largely untold.

Harnack's story has been largely untold, until recently. Rebecca Donner wrote a New York Times best-selling book on the topic. She can still recall the very first time she heard her great-great aunt's name.

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"I was visiting my great-grandmother Harriet in Chevy Chase, Maryland and she was measuring my height against the kitchen wall," recalled Donner. "She put a ruler on my head and drew a mark, and then I pulled back and looked at the mark on the wall, and I noticed some faint marks. I pointed to one, there was a faint 'M' and I said, 'Who's that?' my great-grandmother said, 'Well, that's Mildred.' And she said it with some tension in her voice — and I sensed at the age of 9 that there was a story there."

That's when the mystery of Mildred began for Rebecca Donner. As she turned 16 that same great-grandmother handed her a collection of Mildred's letters and urged her to someday write a book.

She did. In 2021 it became an instant New York Times best-seller. Part biography, part spy-thriller, and part scholarly detective story. Over a decade of writing and research took Donner to Germany and England —pouring over letters, datebooks, diaries, and memoirs of Mildred Harnack's friends and co-conspirators.

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Donner describes Harnack's early life in Milwaukee like this.

"She was raised in a rather impoverished household. Her father was a frequently unemployed insurance salesman, butcher, or horse trader and they often couldn't come up with the rent. So they had to move sometimes every year," explained Donner. "I think during this time Mildred looked at her mother, to Georgina, who struggled to keep the family together and her mother was also a self-proclaimed suffragette. And Mildred grew up at a time when women's rights were part of the conversation in Wisconsin."

Mildred left Milwaukee to study at UW-Madison and it was there that she met and fell in love with a German man, Arvid Harnack. They got married and Mildred moved to Berlin as Hitler rose to power.

Donner recalls a letter that Mildred wrote to her mother at that time, "Basically she spoke about how thrilled she was to be doing what she wanted to do in her life, she was very concerned about what was going on in Germany, but she also felt that she could do anything she liked, accomplish anything she wanted to accomplish. And then the very next day that she wrote that, Hitler became Chancellor and everything changed for her."

During the rise of the Nazi party, Mildred began holding secret meetings that grew into the largest underground resistance group in Berlin by 1940. The group's main weapon was paper, producing pamphlets that called for a revolution. And she became a spy, intercepting top-secret intelligence and passing it to the Allies.

"I think it really points to the degree of courage she had," said Donner. "She knew every morning waking up what the risks were, and she was not protected as an American."

Page by page, Donner wrote her great-great aunt back into the pages of history — including Mildred's tragic end. She was caught, put on trial, and sentenced to six years in a prison camp. Then, Hitler intervened, ordering her execution.

"The second trial that was convened (was) really just a formality," explained Donner. "At this trial, she was sentenced to death. And on February 16, 1943, she was strapped down to a guillotine in Berlin and beheaded."

"What she provides all of us is a potent reminder about the importance of courage and standing up for what you believe in, even when the cost is great."

It's a sentiment that Art Heitzer echoes. He lobbied state lawmakers to establish Mildred Fish Harnack Day. It lands on her birthday, September 16.

"The fact that there was this heroine from Milwaukee... who was recognized with postage stamps in Europe and buildings and streets named after her, but totally unknown here, was the impetus to get the word out," said Heitzer.

State law says that the day is required to be observed in public schools, like Milwaukee School of the Arts, which Mildred attended (at the time it was West Division High). Heitzer is hopeful that is how her remarkable story will continue to be told.

But why was Mildred's legacy nearly erased? Heitzer believes post-war paranoia played a part. "There was a whole commission set up by the University of Wisconsin on how to recognize her," he recalled. "And then there is a file, an archive at the UW, about this. It ends up by saying the possibility of Communist influence cannot be ruled out — and then it stops."

By the 1970s, Heitzer said people were able to look at Mildred's story with fresh eyes.

"Look a little bit more objectively as to what people did, and what they stood for — what they died for."

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