| Home |


About Resisting Hitler

(The following material is adapted from author Shareen Blair Brysac's website.)

           Mildred Fish Harnacka Milwaukee native and University of Wisconsin alumna and faculty member from the '20sjoined the German resistance and became the only American woman executed for treason during World War II, on the personal orders of Hitler. Her heroism and self-sacrifice were well known when the war ended, but her story was later suppressed or forgotten. Now, more than half a century later, Shareen Blair Brysac gives us the first full account of her incredible life story in Resisting Hitler, one of a few accounts of devoted to the brave women active in the German resistance.

           As members of a key resistance group, Mildred and her husband, Arvid Harnack, assisted in the escape of German Jews and political dissidents, circulated illegal leaflets, held surreptitious meetings with prisoners of war, documented Nazi atrocities on the Eastern Front and for years provided vital economic and military intelligence to both Washington and Moscow. But in 1942, following a Soviet blunder, the Gestapo arrested, tortured, and tried some four score members of the Harnack's group, which the Nazis dubbed the Red Orchestra. Mildred Harnack was guillotined in Berlin on February 16, 1943. Yet as World War II ended and the Cold War began, her courage, idealism and self-sacrifice went largely unacknowledged in America and the democratic West, and were distorted and sanitized in the Communist East. Only now, with the opening of long-sealed archives, has the complete story been told.

           At once gripping and heartbreaking, Resisting Hitler is based on extensive interviews with the Harnack family, friends and associates; it draws on personal correspondence, dozens of interviews, and formerly classified German and Soviet KGB files and recently declassified CIA and FBI dossiers. Resisting Hitler is a great love story of a Wisconsin girl whose intelligence and beauty captivated a visiting scholar, Arvid Harnack, a member of a distinguished German academic family. It explores for the first time the complex familial connections of the Harnacks, Delbrücks and Bonhoeffers, a number of whom were executed for resistance acts. It details Mildred's friendship with Martha Dodd, daughter of FDR's ambassador to the Third Reich, whose affair with a Soviet diplomat led to his death. And it depicts the human side of the Red Orchestra that for too long has been portrayed as merely a Soviet spy network. The extraordinary story of Mildred Harnack's nine dramatic years of resisting the Nazi regime also reminds today's readers of the desperate moral choices that beset opponents of a ruthless totalitarian dictatorship.

Finally, Resisting Hitler is the story of Mildred Harnack's great and abiding love for Arvid Harnack and for Germany. Her last words before the guillotine were "And I have loved Germany so much."


Interview  with

Shareen Blair Brysac

Q.   Mildred Harnack is not exactly a familiar name, how did you decide to write about her?

          Brysac:  Mildred was a  close friend of my husband’s family.  I thought the story—a woman guillotined for opposing Hitler—was quite extraordinary.  I was immediately attracted to the idea of a biography.  My husband’s family knew the Wisconsin parts of the story and her final fate.  It was left up to me to find out about her middle years in Berlin (1929-1942)—the real heart of the story.

Q.   How did you go about doing that?

         Brysac:  It was a very long and complicated task.  When I started the book in 1989, I was still able to interview people who had known her.  I traveled all over East and West Germany talking with relatives and friends of the Harnacks. Mildred’s own archives  were in East Germany—there was still the Berlin Wall in 1989—and I had to obtain special permission to see them.  I also had to file under the Freedom of Information Act in the U.S. to obtain Mildred’s records and those of the Red Orchestra from the CIA, the FBI, and military intelligence.  They dribbled out over several years.   I received the Harnack’s KGB files from a former agent in 1993.  I secured the records of the SED, the East German Communist Party records in 1995 during a year I spent living in Berlin.  Other material was in Prague.  So the book took several years.  The essential story remained the same but the details kept changing.

Q: How did a beautiful woman from Wisconsin get involved in espionage for the Soviets?

          Brysac: Mildred Fish, as she was then known, was born in Milwaukee—a German city at that time in 1902.  She attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  After she graduated, she taught English there and met Arvid Harnack, an exchange scholar from Germany, and married him in 1926.  In 1929, she returned to Germany with him, completed her doctorate in American literature while she taught—at the University of Berlin and the People’s University.  After Hitler came to power in 1933, she and her husband formed a group to actively oppose Hitler. At first the opposition consisted of study groups which involved various opponents of Hitler.  Later this was expanded into active opposition and from 1938 onwards the Harnacks passed on information to the Americans and Soviets on what to expect from Hitler—i.e. war.   Arvid Harnack was a middle level official in the Economics Ministry and was sent to the U.S. twice in 1938 and 1939 to secure German assets in the event of war so he had a very good idea of what was going on. 

Q.   What is the Red Orchestra? 

           Brysac: The Red Orchestra, Rote Kapelle, in German was the generic name given to  Soviet intelligence rings by the Germans.  Red, was for the Communists, orchestra because  the radio operators who were called musicians.   Although there were branches of the so-called Red Orchestra in Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, France,  and Japan, the most important members were in Berlin.  The two leaders of the Berlin group were  Mildred’s husband, Arvid Harnack and a young lieutenant in the Luftwaffe, Harro Schulze-Boysen.   But, of course, they never called themselves the Red Orchestra.  Nor did they have any idea of the other groups.

Q.   You say that Harnack and Schulze-Boysen were the most important Soviet agents of WWII?

          Brysac:  They would not have considered themselves agents.  They viewed the Soviet Union as the most likely opponent of the Nazis—they were very disappointed in the lack of opposition to Hitler in the U.S. and Britain.  Even during the Nazi-Soviet Pact that lasted from 1939 to June 1941, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, Harnack and Schulze-Boysen believed that there would be a war between the Soviets and the Germans.  The only way to stop Hitler, they felt,  was by helping the Soviets.

Q.   But were they successful?

          Brysac:  If you believe the Nazis… very.  They were responsible for  the loss of 250,000 Germans—not to mention—Austrians, Italians, Rumanians—at Stalingrad, the most famous battle of WWII.   At the trial of the Harnack group in December 1941,  the Germans claimed that they relayed 500 radio messages to Moscow.  Actually, between June and November 1941 there was only one radio message that was successfully transmitted to Moscow.

Q.   Why was that?

          Brysac:  Arvid Harnack did provide the Soviet agent resident in Berlin, Alexander Korotkov, with many details of the planned invasion of the Soviet Union—including the Luftwaffe order of battle—which did reach Moscow, Stalin and his minions in the NKVD, the KGB’s predecessor, didn’t want to do anything to provoke Hitler.  Stalin was sure it was disinformation.   And, although just before the Germans launched their offensive, Korotkov provided Harnack and Schulze-Boysen with two radios, the Soviets failed to train an operator.  The person chosen was totally inexperienced, he didn’t even know Morse code.  He plugged  the one radio into the wrong kind of current and blew the tubes; the other radio was dropped and had to be repaired.  So the vaunted Red Orchestra in Berlin was totally silent and unprepared to pass on their very valuable information such as information they obtained from informers in all the important ministries, the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, etc.

Q: How then did they get their information to Moscow?

          Brysac:  After about six months, a Soviet agent, operating out of Brussels, was contacted by radio and ordered to Berlin.  The names and addresses of the Berlin group were sent in code.  Unfortunately, after he returned and transmitted the information from the Berlin group,  the Brussels group was picked up by the Nazis and when they finally obtained the key to the Soviet code by torturing a radio operator, they could finally decipher the messages and the addresses.

Q.   Who was Martha Dodd?

          Brysac:  Martha Dodd  was Mildred Harnack’s best friend.  She was the twenty-something daughter of the American ambassador  in Berlin.   Martha was from Chicago and she slept her way through the German and French diplomatic corps. She had an affairs with Rolf Diels, the head of the Gestapo, Louis Ferdinand, the grandson of Wilhelm II, the flying ace Ernst Udet, the American writer Thomas Wolfe, and the occasional stray newspapermen, and, most importantly,  a Soviet diplomat named Boris Vinogradov.

Q: Why was Vinogradov important to your story.

          Brysac:  Martha Dodd fell in love with Vinogradov—they even wrote to Joseph Stalin for permission to marry.  And it was through Boris that Martha Dodd fell in love with the Soviet Union and offered her services to the Russians.   She basically opened her father’s mail and passed it on to the Russians plus any other information she was able to garner through her affairs.

Q.   Mildred Harnack was guillotined.  Was that a usual practice of the Nazis?

          Brysac:  Actually, the Nazis brought the practice back.  Prisoners were given guillotine kits and assembled them.  However, it was usually used only for women as it was thought to be the most humane method of execution.  Death comes within a few seconds.  They hung male civilians and shot the soldiers.

Q: What’s new in the book?

          Brysac: A good deal.  Mildred’s story has never been told.  There are many new details about Martha Dodd.  And, I think even those intelligence buffs who are familiar with the Red Orchestra will find a lot of new information.  In addition, the fact that the Harnacks were also working with the Americans for a couple of years will come as a surprise to many experts. 

Q: Did you have a sense of identification with Mildred?

          Brysac:  It’s been said that biographer’s often show signs of the Stockholm syndrome—although they identify not with their torturers but with their subjects.  I didn’t really identify with Mildred.  In fact, I found it very hard to sympathize with her infatuation with Communism although when I really got into the period and realized just how desperate Germany was during the Weimar depression I could see how appealing a planned economy and a country with supposed equality for women and justice for all might have looked if you were sitting in Germany.  But I did find that I became Mildred’s advocate.   Sitting in Hanover for a week reading the transcripts of what the Nazi judges and Gestapo torturers said about Mildred  and the group—after the war when they were unable to defend themselves from their tormentors insulting, self-serving remarks—I was outraged.   It was not the Nazis and their judicial system that was on trial—after all, testimony in the case was obtained through torture—but their victims, the men and women of the resistance who were being slandered.

Q.   So Resisting Hitler is a blend of espionage, Third Reich history  and biography?

          Brysac:  Actually I think of the book as all that but it’s a story of courage under impossible odds.  These people worked against Hitler from 1933 to 1942  before Germany was losing the war.  They wrote leaflets, saved Jews, collected files on war crimes.  But above all it’s three great love stories—the primary one being that of  Mildred and Arvid Harnack, but also the tragic story of Martha Dodd and Boris Vinogradov. Vinogradov was executed by the Soviets in 1938 and she died in exile in Prague.  Also the story of Harro and Libertas Schulze-Boysen—they were executed together, as Libertas said, for having the “misfortune to fall in love in this rotten country.”


from the New York Times

by Shareen Blair Brysac in "Ideas": At Last, Recognition and Praise for the Resistance in Nazi Germany
7 October 2000

           When the British historian A. J. P. Taylor declared in the 1960's that German resistance to the Nazis was a myth, his was a widely held view. Even today many people in Germany and elsewhere believe there was little internal opposition to Hitler.

           After decades of bitter debate, however, the German resistance's tangled history is coming into sharper focus. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war in 1989, newly released K.G.B. and C.I.A. files and long-ignored documents in the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., reveal that the once-scorned Communist and socialist resistance deserves more credit.

           As Germany celebrates the 10th anniversary of reunification this week, there are signs that the left's contributions are finally being recognized. Streets in western Germany are being named for members of the Red Orchestra, a leftist resistance group that had been maligned for decades, while the high-speed trains plying from Hanover through the former eastern zone to Berlin bear names of German resisters like Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, who had been honored only in the former West Germany.

           But this searching re-examination has not been painless. Old East-West antagonisms have shot through attempts to correct the record.  Delicate political sensibilities are part of the reason that a more complete picture of the German resistance has been so long in coming. During the Nazi era the breadth of internal opposition was hidden from the German people and, except for the failed Stauffenberg plot of July 20, 1944, to assassinate Hitler, from the rest of the world. Yet Gestapo records reveal that approximately 800,000 Germans in a population of more than 66 million were jailed for active resistance during the Reich's 12-year reign. Indeed, the first concentration camps, notably Dachau, built near Munich in 1933, were meant for left-wing dissidents. In 1936, a typical year, 11,687 Germans were arrested for illegal socialist activity, according to Peter Hoffmann's standard 1977 study, "The History of the German Resistance, 1933-1945."

           Even after the war the record was obscured. To many Germans the resistance was an awkward reminder that choices were possible, even in wartime. In Germany's western sector, influential voices echoed the Nazi judiciary in defining all resistance against the fatherland as high treason.  This view persisted after the founding of the German Federal Republic, or West Germany, in 1949. Survivor benefits, for example, were denied to the widows and children of the conservative officers who tried to kill Hitler in 1944, even though the widows of SS officers were receiving benefits.

           As West Germany became the anchor of Western Europe, its frontiers guaranteed by NATO, a less defensive populace began to honor some resistance leaders like the army officers led by Count Stauffenberg who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944, churchmen like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Catholic students in the so- called White Rose group. Even so, Communist opponents were still shunned. In 1956 the Bonn Parliament voted to compensate many German victims of Nazism, but when the Communist Party was declared illegal in West Germany, the Communists were excluded from any benefits.

           Perhaps no group was more consistently misrepresented during the cold war or better illustrates the current re-examination of German resistance than the Red Orchestra. The Red Orchestra was a loosely organized group of about 120 Catholics, socialists, conservatives and former Communist Party members centered on Arvid Harnack, a former Rockefeller scholar and official in the German Economics Ministry; his American wife, Mildred; a Luftwaffe lieutenant, Harro Schulze-Boysen; and his wife, Libertas, who worked for the film section of the Propaganda Ministry.

           Although often portrayed as a Soviet agent, Harnack in fact provided top-secret intelligence to an American diplomat in Berlin as well as to the Soviets. And despite Soviet requests to cease all resistance activities, the group printed and distributed anti- Nazi literature and helped Jews and dissidents escape until, because of a gross Soviet intelligence blunder, the Gestapo arrested 120 people in 1942 and 1943. One result was the torture, secret trial and execution of 31 men and 18 women, including Mildred Harnack.

            In East Germany, the Soviet-installed government celebrated the Red Orchestra and other "anti-fascist heroes" to lend a measure of legitimacy to the regime. Streets and schools were named after Marxist resisters. History was rewritten with Orwellian zeal. Arvid Harnack's last words, uttered before he was executed, were changed from "I believe in the power of love" to "I die as a convinced Communist!"

           In West Germany the truth was obscured in a different way. Writing in 1954, the historian Gerhard Ritter expressed a common West German judgment about the Red Orchestra: "This group had nothing to do with `German resistance.' They were frankly in the service of the enemy. They not only sought to induce German soldiers to desert, but they also betrayed important military secrets and so destroyed German troops." They were, Ritter declared, traitors.

           Information that emerged after reunification has renewed the debate over who deserves to be honored. In 1992, for example, the Memorial Museum of the German Resistance in Berlin installed a corrective exhibition on the Red Orchestra intended as a "tardy atonement for the victims and their survivors, and an apology for long neglect in the history of the German resistance." But the group's inclusion at the memorial site provoked an outraged protest by families of the July 20 conspirators.

           And when an exhibit from the museum was sent to Washington and New York in 1994, Maria Hermes, the daughter of the Catholic resister Josef Wirmer, insisted that a distinction be made between the men who planned the overthrow of Hitler to restore peace and re-establish Germany as a free constitutional state "and those of the anti-fascists who wanted to establish Communist rule." Schulze-Boysen's brother, Hartmut, fired back that unlike the officers who served Hitler loyally until 1944, his brother and friends had never served the National Socialist state. They "had given their lives not for Stalin but rather in fighting Hitler," he said.

           Yet with the 10th anniversary of reunification, critical opinion is decisively turning in the revisionists' favor. A permanent exhibit honoring Schulze-Boysen and a comrade, Erwin Gehrts, opened last December in the Finance Ministry, a building which at onetime housed Hermann Göring's Luftwaffe.

           Perhaps the most telling signal of the shift in German public opinion was the warm reception accorded "This Death Suits Me," the collected letters of Schulze-Boysen, when it was published last fall. Many people were moved by the final letter that the 33-year-old Schulze-Boysen sent to his parents: "I am completely calm and ask that you accept this with composure. Such important things are at stake today all over the world that one extinguished life does not matter very much. . . . Everything that I did was done in accordance with my head, my heart, my convictions, and in this light you, my parents, must assume the best. . . . It is usual in Europe for spiritual seeds to be sown with blood. Perhaps we were simply a few fools, but when the end is this near, one perhaps has the right to a bit of completely personal historical illusion."  Even the reviewer in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the most conservative of dailies, described the Red Orchestra as one of the "most moving, most courageous and most farsighted groups of the German resistance."

about the author:

Shareen Blair Brysac is the co-author with her husband, Karl E. Meyer, of the acclaimed Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia. A former producer for CBS News, her landmark documentaries "1968," "American Dream, American Nightmare," "The Cowboy, the Craftsman, and the Ballerina," and "Juilliard and Beyond: A Life in Music, Once in Lifetime," won several Emmys, a Dupont Citation, the George Foster Peabody Award, the Writers Guild Award, and medals from New York and Chicago film festivals. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, and Lear's Magazines. Currently, she is contributing editor of Archaeology Magazine. She lives in New York City and Weston, Connecticut.


Biographical Summary | Timeline | Resisting Hitler | Plötzensee
Tribute to Mildred | Book Reviews | Women in the Third Reich

| Home |