The inspired life and tragic death of the only American woman to be executed on Hitler’s command.
Mildred Harnack and her husband Arvid were members of the Nazi resistance group known as the Red Orchestra, which provided intelligence to the US and Russia during WWII. As members of the German opposition, their decade of work has been largely hidden from history until now. Brysac (Tournament of Shadows, not reviewed) examined Mildred’s correspondence with her mother and friends, interviewed surviving acquaintances, and combed through a wealth of previously classified German, Soviet, and American documents in the course of her research: the result is a careful and intricately detailed account of the Harnacks and dozens of the political activists, diplomats, and academics they knew. The study begins, however, as an intimate biography, tracing the youth of a beautiful girl raised in Wisconsin, recording her passions for literature and drama, considering the poetry she wrote in friends’ yearbooks and the fiction she wrote about herself. In 1926, at the University of Wisconsin, Mildred fell in love with German academic Arvid Harnack. They soon married and moved to Berlin, where she continued her graduate studies in philosophy, American literature, and translation. Brysac does a good job recreating the literary and academic atmosphere of 1920s Berlin and stresses the influence of neighboring Russia on the German capital’s political climate. Arvid’s socialist tendencies grew, Mildred sympathized with his political views, and both developed strong interests in Soviet life, politics, and economics. Although many of the exploits described here cannot be documented, the author reveals how the Harnacks’ lives were transformed, how they helped Jews and political dissidents escape Germany, and how they maintained their outward appearance while working as spies in the German underground. They were captured by the Gestapo, imprisoned, tortured, and put to death in 1943 at the order of Hitler.
A sensitive and in-depth portrait of two “good Germans” who have remained unrecognized for over half a century.