Wisconsin woman executed by the Nazis is hardly ‘forgotten’

With a new book, the rest of the world is discovering what a Madison TV journalist unearthed a decade ago.
Three side by side black and white archival mugshot photos of Mildred Fish-Harnack looking slim and grim with her hair pulled back into a bun and a steely gaze into the camera.
Courtesy of the German Resistance Memorial Center.
Wisconsin-born Mildred Fish-Harnack, then 40, was the only American woman ever executed by the Nazis on direct order of Hitler.

It was a Wall Street Journal print edition headline earlier this month that finally led me to call Joel Waldinger to see what he made of it all.

The headline read: “Mildred Harnack, Forgotten Heroine.”

The Aug. 4 story was a review of a new book, Rebecca Donner’s “All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler.”

Reviews for the book have been highly positive, from the New York Times to the Irish Times to the Wall Street Journal.

The book is a biography of Harnack: Milwaukee-born, University of Wisconsin–Madison educated, and a scholar who was teaching in Berlin in the early 1930s as the Nazis rose to power. Harnack became involved with the resistance inside Germany and was caught and guillotined at Hitler’s insistence — the only American woman ever executed by the Nazis on the direct order of Hitler.

Donner, the author, is Harnack’s great-great-niece.

It’s a compelling story and apparently Donner does a terrific job telling it.

But one thing Harnack was not, was “forgotten” — or, as a line from that Wall Street Journal review asserted, “Until now, not much has been known about Harnack.”

A decade ago, PBS Wisconsin’s Waldinger produced a riveting hour-long documentary, narrated by actress Jane Kaczmarek, titled “Wisconsin’s Nazi Resistance: The Mildred Fish-Harnack Story.”

It drew wide praise. The PBS Wisconsin website notes of the film, which may be viewed on YouTube, “The German-American jury of the Radio in the American Sector Berlin Commission unanimously awarded [it] the First TV Award. … The transatlantic competition is open to all American and German television stations.”

Waldinger, who is still producing at PBS Wisconsin, was philosophical when I reached him to see how he felt about the new book and the claim Harnack had been forgotten till now.

“I’m just happy more people will discover Mildred’s story,” he said.

In fact, two books telling her tale — “Resisting Hitler” by Shareen Blair Brysac and “Red Orchestra” by Anne Nelson — had already been published when Waldinger first heard Harnack’s name.

That was in 2006. Waldinger was on his last day of a journalism fellowship when he visited the “Topography of Terror” exhibit on the site of the former Gestapo headquarters in Berlin.

It included a small display — three photos, a blurb — about a woman identified as “Mildred Fish-Harnack.” It referenced her 1943 execution, noting she was from Wisconsin and had studied at UW–Madison.

Waldinger was astonished. How had he not heard of her? Back home, he did some research and learned hardly anyone in Harnack’s home state knew any more than he did.

“I couldn’t find anyone in the state to interview,” Waldinger says. “Nobody knew anything about her.”

Waldinger was hooked.

He made a second trip to Germany in 2007 — “I kind of walked in her footsteps around Berlin,” he says — and visited another exhibit devoted to Harnack at the German Resistance Memorial Center. There he signed the guest book, noting he was a journalist from Wisconsin where, Waldinger wrote, “she’s all but forgotten.”

That led to a correspondence with the exhibit curator, and his eventually bringing it Madison, to the Hillel Center on campus. Waldinger spoke one evening, telling the assembled what he’d learned about Harnack.

She was born Mildred Fish in Milwaukee in 1902 and came to Madison to study first journalism (she wrote some feature stories for the Wisconsin State Journal), then English. She fell in love with Arvid Harnack, an economics student from Germany. He proposed as they canoed around Picnic Point.

Black and white photo of Mildred Fish-Harnack at UW–Madison in 1926, holding what looks to be an artist board and wearing a wide, soft scarf and winter hat with the lake in the background.

Mildred Fish-Harnack at UW–Madison in 1926, courtesy of the UW–Madison Archives.

By 1930, they were in Germany, where she taught American literature at Berlin University. During Hitler’s rise, they joined the secret resistance, dubbed the Red Orchestra by the Gestapo. They helped Jews escape Germany and passed intelligence to American and Soviet officials. Intercepted radio communication led to their arrest. Arvid died by hanging; Mildred was beheaded.

Waldinger’s research eventually included a third trip to Germany and a stopover in London. He interviewed surviving members of Harnack’s family as well as the authors of the two previous books.

The documentary premiered Nov. 7, 2011, on Wisconsin Public Television.

It has continued to resonate. “I’m still getting requests to come and speak,” Waldinger said last week. “People who are just learning about her and want some more depth. I’ve probably spoken to 70 or 80 groups from all over the state.”

Waldinger said he heard from Donner, the author of the new book, three or four years ago, and they shared a phone conversation. “We talked about a lot of stuff,” he says. “She interviewed some of the same people I did.”

Waldinger is pleased by the success of Donner’s book, and said he’ll be traveling or he would have attended Donner’s upcoming Sept. 23 event at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee.

In the same spirit, Waldinger donated his Harnack research to the UW Archives.

“I want someone else to be able to use it,” he says. “Maybe they’ll go beyond where I went.”

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