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Mildred Harnack (born Mildred Elizabeth Fish, 16 September 1902 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; died 16 February 1943 in Berlin-Plötzensee) was an American-German literary historian, translator, and resistance fighter in Nazi Germany.


Life in the United States

Harnack was the youngest child of William C. Fish and Georgina Hesketh Fish. Her siblings were Harriette, Marion Hesketh, and Marbeau (Bob). In 1919 she graduated from Western High School in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.. In 1926, she was studying and working as a lecturer on German literature at the Milwaukee State Normal School (now the University of Wisconsin‚ÄďMilwaukee). She met the jurist Arvid Harnack, a Rockefeller Fellow from Germany, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. They were later married in a ceremony at her brother's farm near Brooklyn, Wisconsin. She finished her senior thesis in 1928: "A Comparison of Chapman‚Äôs and Pope‚Äôs translations of the Iliad with the Original". During her time at Madison, she also worked on the Wisconsin Literary Magazine. In 1928-1929, she taught English at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.

Life in Germany

In 1929, she and her husband moved to Germany, where she worked on her doctorate at the University of Giessen.

In 1930 she moved from Gießen to Berlin to be with her husband, and to study at the University of Berlin on a fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. She also worked as an assistant lecturer (English and American literature and language) and a translator. She was also involved with the American Student Association, the American Women’s Club, where she served as president, the Berlin chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, where she served as secretary, and the American Church.

Political activities

It was during her time in Berlin that she became interested in the Soviet Union and Communism, seeing them as a solution to poverty. In 1932, however, she was let go from her teaching position, as were many other women and foreigners. She toured the Soviet Union later that year with her husband and leading academics.

In 1933, Harnack began teaching English literature at the Berliner Abendgymnasium (evening secondary school). She sometimes discussed economic and political ideas from the United States and the Soviet Union with her students. She also joined the National Socialist teachers’ organization, as required by law.

She also busied herself editing a book column in an English-language newspaper Berlin Topics along with the US Ambassador's daughter Martha Dodd. She also wrote in German for Berliner Tageblatt and Die Literatur until 1935, when the Nazis' strictures made this too difficult.

In 1936, she published her German translation of Irving Stone’s biography of Vincent van Gogh, Lust for Life. She also continued to work as a translator for various publishing companies.

In 1937, Mildred Harnack visited the United States and went on a campus lecture tour whose theme was "The German Relation to Current American Literature".

The Red Orchestra

Together with her husband Arvid, the writer Adam Kuckhoff and his wife Greta, Harnack brought together a discussion circle which debated political perspectives on the time after the National Socialists' expected downfall or overthrow. From these meetings arose what the Gestapo would call the Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle) resistance group.

In 1940-1941, the group was in contact with Soviet agents, trying to thwart the forthcoming German attack upon the Soviet Union. Harnack even sent the Soviets information about the forthcoming Operation Barbarossa.

Meanwhile, Harnack was making contact with people who were against the Nazi régime, recruiting some for the resistance, and serving as go-between for her husband, other members of the Orchestra, and Soviet agents.

Arrest, trial, and death

CIC file ref. Mildred Harnack (about 1947)

In July 1942, the Decryption Department of the Oberkommando des Heeres managed to decode the group's radio messages, and the Gestapo pounced. On 7 September, Arvid and Mildred Harnack were arrested while on a weekend outing. At this time, Mildred had been teaching English at the Foreign Studies Department of the University of Berlin. Arvid Harnack was sentenced to death on 19 December after a four-day trial before the Reichskriegsgericht ("Reich Military Tribunal"), and was put to death three days later at Plötzensee Prison in Berlin. Mildred Harnack was given six years in prison, although Hitler shortly afterwards cancelled that sentence and ordered a new trial, which ended with a death sentence on 16 January 1943. She was beheaded on 16 February 1943. Her last words were purported to have been: "Und ich hatte Deutschland so geliebt" ("And I had loved Germany so much").

When her friend and colleague Clara Leiser learned of the execution, she wrote the poem To and from the guillotine in remembrance of her friend, Harnack.


  • Irving Stone: Lust for Life (Vincent van Gogh. Ein Leben in Leidenschaft) Berlin 1936, Universitas.
  • Walter D. Edmonds: Drums along the Mohawk (Pfauenfeder und Kokarde) Berlin 1938, Universitas.


  • Mildred Harnack: Die Entwicklung der amerikanischen Literatur der Gegenwart in einigen Hauptvertretern des Romans und der Kurzgeschichte (The Development of Contemporary American Literature with some Main Representatives of the Novel and Short Story) (typewritten dissertation), Philosophische Fakult√§t der Ludwigs-Universit√§t zu Gie√üen, Gie√üen 1941
  • Mildred Harnack: Variationen uber das Thema Amerika: Studien zur Literatur der USA, Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 1988


  • Shareen Blair Brysac: Resisting Hitler. Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra. Oxford University Press 2000. ISBN 0-19-515240-9
  • Shareen Blair Brysac: Mildred Harnack und die "Rote Kapelle". Die Geschichte einer ungew√∂hnlichen Frau und einer Widerstandsbewegung. Scherz-Verlag, Bern 2003, ISBN 3-502-18090-3
  • Anne Nelson: Red Orchestra: the Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler. Random House 2009. ISBN 978-1-4000-6000-9
  • Stefan Roloff: Die Rote Kapelle. Die Widerstandsgruppe im Dritten Reich und die Geschichte Helmut Roloffs. Ullstein, Berlin 2004, ISBN 3-548-36669-4

External links




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