Rebecca Donner first heard about her great-great-aunt Mildred Harnack when she was 16 years old. Donner‘s grandmother Jane — Harnack’s niece — handed her a bundle of Harnack’s letters and some of her books. Then she asked her to promise to one day tell the world Harnack’s story.
Donner, who grew up to become a writer, made good on her promise with her new bestselling book, “All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler.”
The work of literary nonfiction, published in August, is the powerful true account of how Harnack, an unassuming professor of English literature from the Midwestern United States, ended up an intrepid leader of the underground anti-Nazi movement in Germany — and a Soviet spy.
Harnack and her German husband Arvid, also a leader of the resistance, were ultimately arrested together with other underground members by the Gestapo in 1942, imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to death in sham trials. Arvid was hanged. Mildred was beheaded and her corpse dissected.
The title of Donner’s book is Harnack’s translation of the first line of a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Harnack wrote the translation in pencil in the margin of a page of a volume of Goethe’s poetry just hours before her execution. Both the book and the pencil had been smuggled to her in solitary confinement.
It took Donner a long time to be ready to tell her great-great-aunt’s story.
“I had been gathering information since my grandmother gave me Mildred’s letters when I was a teenager. And in 2008 I visited Berlin and went to the German Resistance Memorial Center and introduced myself to the director there, and he gave me access to the archives there and I took some materials with me,” Donner said.
“But then I put it aside. It still seemed too much to me. I needed more time to think about how I would approach it,” she said.
Donner spoke to The Times of Israel from her home office in Brooklyn, New York, where binders full of photocopied archival documents fill bookcases lining the walls.
In 2016, the author began her research for “All the Frequent Trouble of Our Days” in earnest. She scoured in person and remotely archives in the US, the UK, Germany and Russia.
She used her familial connection to Mildred Harnack to her advantage. While Donner doesn’t think that archives would have refused access to other writers or scholars, she knew that her being Harnack’s great-great-niece opened doors — especially in Berlin.
“When I introduced myself, there was a great deal of interest among the archivists who were familiar with this material to find things for me. There was a lot of digging involved. There seemed to be the motivation to go the extra distance for me,” the author said.
She was also extremely fortunate to have met and extensively interviewed Donald Heath, Jr. in 2016. Heath was the son of an American diplomat-spy in Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and served as a courier for Harnack. As an 11-year-old boy, he would visit Harnack at her apartment for English literature lessons, and then carry messages from Harnack — tucked inside his books — back to his father in his knapsack.
Although Heath, who referred to Harnack as “Aunt Mildred,” had been interviewed about Harnack for a previous biography, Donner reported that he felt more comfortable and was more forthcoming with her because of her familial connection.
Unfortunately, Heath, almost 90, died shortly after meeting Donner. However, his family was happy to share with her 12 steamer cases full of saved material. The contents of three of them were from the period the Heaths were in Berlin, including Heath’s mother’s journals and date books, which were extremely useful to Donner.
Producing a meticulously researched book of nonfiction was of great importance to Donner, who has a background in fiction. When she brought the book’s proposal to editors, some suggested she write the story as a historical novel. She rejected this out of hand.
“I felt strongly that the power of the story is that it is true,” she said.
As Donner conducted her research, she was so fascinated by the physicality of the historical documents that she decided to feature images of them throughout the book.
“It reinforces the notion that this is a true story. This is important because there is this distrust these days… the idea of fake news and that people can look at a fact that is demonstratively a fact with tremendous skepticism,” Donner said.
She was also careful not to lionize Harnack.
“There is this viewpoint that if you are related to someone who did something heroic that there is an inclination to make this person larger than life, a person who doesn’t have flaws. That was never my aim,” Donner said.
It was challenging for Donner to get a grip on her great-great-aunt’s character and what motivated her to bravely start and sustain the secret resistance group, known as The Circle.
The Circle began as a small group of political activists meeting in Harnack’s living room in 1932 and eventually grew to the largest underground resistance group in Berlin by the end of the decade.
Having been dismissed from her job at the University of Berlin because of her outspokenness about her leftist leanings, Harnack ended up teaching at a night school where the students were mainly laborers and the unemployed. Harnack recruited many of her students to The Circle, which in large part resisted the regime by publishing anti-Nazi leaflets and stealthily leaving stacks of them in public areas and workplaces.
Harnack was a plain woman who measured her words. Despite keeping a low profile in many ways, she managed to insinuate herself into high-ranking political and diplomatic circles, where she gleaned and passed on information.
“I was always grappling with this contradiction that was her personality… She would get up at a podium and lecture for an hour, but when she sat down she was more inclined to listen. She was a great listener and that was one of her techniques how she recruited people into the resistance. She would ask questions, and listen.
“I didn’t want to try to solve these contradictions. I wanted her to remain this paradox… From what I was told by a retired CIA agent I consulted, it was exactly Mildred’s type of positioning and personality that allowed her to be an ideal operative and fly under the radar,” Donner said.
Even after having published this book, the author is left with the question of why Harnack chose to remain in Germany and resist the Nazis when, as an American, she could have left in the 1930s. In fact, she visited home in 1937 and her family begged her to stay. Her husband Arvid had even bought her a return United States Lines ticket to America, which she had in her purse when she was arrested by the Gestapo.
Donner discovered evidence that Harnack used her connections with the US embassy to get exit visas for Jewish friends and acquaintances. But one is left to wonder whether she might have been able to do more to get Jews, her husband, and his large and actively anti-Nazi family to safety had she been on American soil.
Donner can’t know definitively why Harnack remained, but she surmises that it has something to do with her having been inspired by her mother Georgina Fish, who participated in the suffragette movement.
Harnack was also likely greatly influenced by her husband Arvid’s family. The Harnacks were one of three large, prominent intermarried families (the others were the Bonhoeffers and the Delbrücks), whose members were outspoken in their social-democratic and anti-Nazi views. Many of Arvid’s cousins joined the resistance.
“Arvid wrote in a letter to his mother around the time that he and Mildred were engaged that he felt like the first time he laid eyes on her, she felt like a member of their family,” Donner said.
“All The Frequent Troubles of Our Days” introduces us to a courageous woman whose story the US government sought to bury for decades. The US government provided assistance to resistance movements in other countries like France and Poland, but none to the one in Germany. Despite pleas for help, Mildred, Arvid and the others were left to their own devices, and therefore limited in their abilities.
Harnack’s decision to spy for the Soviets (though never on the payroll) did not earn her points with the US government in the Cold War era post-1945. As a result, the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) within the US Army buried Harnack’s case for decades until documents were declassified beginning in 1998.
“She was very naive about Russia… But I always thought of her spying for the Soviet Union in the context of her efforts to assist Hitler’s enemies,” Donner said.
“It was very shocking to me to read these declassified memos written by members of the CIC after the war. On one hand there was this acknowledgment that Mildred had tried to fight the Nazi regime… but a high-ranking officer basically said she deserved her punishment,” Donner said.
“To read an American official say this about an American citizen who fought the Nazi regime and was then beheaded… He used the word ‘justified.’ It just took my breath away,” she said.
According to Donner, Harnack has been an inspiration to her from the moment she learned the basic outlines of her story from her grandmother. Having now discovered so much more about Harnack, that admiration has grown exponentially.
“This is a woman who had the courage of her convictions. She stood up for what she believed in and took it to its extremity,” Donner said.
While Donner doesn’t directly equate 1930s Germany with today’s political landscape, she does take a lesson from Harnack and her associates.
“I am ever more convinced that we — individually and collectively — need to stand up to bullies. We have to have the courage to live our lives in a moral way, with integrity, and to take risks,” she said.
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