The Times of Israel had a feature on Rebecca Donner’s new book, “All The Frequent Troubles Of Our Days”, about the life and tragic death of her great-great-aunt, Mildred Fish-Harnack. The title of the article claims that she “led the largest resistance group in Nazi Germany” — which would have been news to the Valkyrie plotters. Granted, hyperbole is the stock in trade of newspaper headline writers.
I speed-read the book: I was familiar with parts of the story, as the Harnack family was related by marriage to the Bonhoeffer, Delbrück, and von Dohnanyi families, two of which feature through secondary characters in my WW II alternate history “Operation Flash”. Also, I had read Red Orchestra chief Leopold Trepper‘s autobiography, “Le Grand Jeu” (The Great Game) in my youth.
At any rate, Donner’s book is neither an objective history nor a historical novel (which her editor felt she should write instead), more a sort of docudrama. In an interview, she said she was inspired to write it also by the 2016 election (oh, puhleeze). Overall, it is an excellent read, written with obvious admiration for her ancestor.
Mildred Fish was born in 1902 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to parents of German ancestry (like much of the town’s population at the time). She learned to speak and write German fluently in her youth. Her father (who passed away when she was an adolescent) had been a teacher; she followed in his path, getting a Bachelor’s and then a Master’s Degree in English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
In 1926, she joined the faculty of the Milwaukee State Normal School [today U. of Wisconsin – Milwaukee] as a lecturer in English. There she met Arvid Harnack, Doctor of Law and a nephew of the German Lutheran theologian Adolf von Harnack[*]; Arvid had come to the US on a Rockefeller Fellowship. After a brief, apparently passionate affair they married; unusual for the time, Mildred hyphenated her name rather than taking the surname Harnack. Arvid returned to Germany at the end of his fellowship, Mildred joined him there a year later, on a fellowship from the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) to work on a doctorate on American literature, first in Jena, then at the Liebig University in Giessen (where Arvid got a second doctorate, with a thesis on “The Pre-Marxist Workers Movement in the USA”). As you might have guessed from the title, the couple were already involved with far-left politics at the time.
She later got a Humboldt Foundation fellowship to study and lecture at what is now the Humboldt University of Berlin. She was a popular lecturer there (she introduced her students to then-recent American writers like John Dos Passos and Walt Whitman), but was told in early 1932 that her services were no longer required. Instead, she found an outlet for her energy and teaching skill as an English teacher at the Berliner Abendgymnasium, a night school for adults who had not had the benefit of an academic-track high school and wanted to remedy this.
Arvid too saw his academic career thwarted because of his far-left views, then completely blocked after the National Socialist takeover and the forced Gleichschaltung [“switching into line”] of the universities. (At least part of the academic establishment appears to have needed little “switching”, as the contemptible behavior of such figures as Martin Heidegger and Johannes Stark illustrates.) From 1931 until 1933, Arvid Harnack had been co-running (with his Doktorvater/Ph.D. advisor Friedrich Lenz) a “Scientific Society for the Study of the Soviet Planned Economy”, meeting of which were attended by figures ranging from Marxists to the maverick nationalist writer Ernst Jünger, and even a Nazi politician or two.
Ironically, Arvid Harnack, barried from a position in academia, did get one in the Reich’s government apparatus! He worked as an expert at the Reich Economic Ministry in 1933, rising to the rank of Oberregierungsrat (Senior Government Counselor) in 1938. He appears to have been recruited by the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) as early as 1932, during a “study trip” to Russia, but later both Harnacks also supplied intel to the First Secretary of the US Embassy, Donald R. Heath . Ms. Donner claims he held “two positions, one at the U.S. embassy in Berlin and one in the ranks of a department that has no official name or organizational structure, although soon it will come under the auspices of a hastily cobbled-together wartime intelligence group called the Office of the Coordinator of Information, the precursor to what will eventually become—after several iterations, upheavals, shake-ups, and shakedowns—the Central Intelligence Agency.” I could not readily find other sources that he actually worked for them — OCI was only founded in July 1941, less than half a year before the Reich declared war on the USA. (June 13, 1942, FDR split it into the public Office of War Information and the clandestine Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA.) Still, it is quite possible that Heath indeed was involved in information gathering — his young son, under the cover of taking German lessons from Mildred, remembers acting as a courier.
There was never a group that named itself the Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra): that moniker was coined by their pursuers, specifically by the Abwehr office in Belgium who first picked up Morse transmissions to the Soviets in June 1941. [Colloquially, Morse code telegraphists were referred to as “pianists” at the time — hence “orchestra”.] Instead, there were a loose alliance numbering several interconnected groups in Germany alone: one circle around the Harnacks, another around a Luftwaffe lieutenant named Harro Schulze-Boysen and his wife Libertas (“Libs” to her friends), who came from one of Germany’s most socially prominent families (her relatives included a former lover of the Kaiser. (Later, one would marry into the Spencer-Churchill family to become the 11th Duchess of Marlborough.[**]) Schulze-Boysen worked at the Luftwaffe Ministry; none other than his supreme chief Goering himself had been a witness at the Schulze-Boysen’s wedding.
A Jewish communist named Herbert Baum (died under “severe interrogation” June 1942) ran yet another group. Also involved was Adam Kuckhoff (married to Mildred’s close friend Greta Kuckhoff). Arvid’s brother Falk Harnack, a student in Munich, was involved with the White Rose society there, which was Christian and pacifist rather than left-wing in its orientation. (Unlike many members, Falk survived to become a screenwriter after the war.)
By marriage, the Harnacks were related at one or two removes to people in the conservative resistance group working out of the Abwehr (military intelligence) headquarters: legal expert Hans von Dohnanyi and Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.[***]
While many “Rote Kapelle” activists were either Marxists or at least socialists, this was definitely not the case for all of them.
In contrast, the Belgian and French cells were run by seasoned GRU operative Leopold Trepper.
At any rate, a radioman for the group was caught in Brussels (through signal triangulation). Under protracted torture, he gave up the code: a pile of encrypted messages waiting to be transmitted was decrypted, and found to contain both information about the upcoming Case Blue (the upcoming Wehrmacht drive for Stalingrad)… and addresses of “safe houses” in Berlin. These led directly to the arrests of the Schulze-Boysens and many others: the Harnacks were arrested during a holiday on the Baltic coast.
[It should be noted that the “Red Orchestra” trials were kept in camera, no news published, even relatives of the executed were sworn to secrecy under threat they themselves might be in the dock.]
The book paints the prosecutor, Manfred Roeder, as an ogre. Journalist Heinz Höhne, in his 1971 book Kennwort: Direktor (“Code name: Director”, originally serialized in Der Spiegel, where Höhne was editor of the Anglo-American desk) paints a more complex picture here (in German). (The late Höhne was extremely well-informed about the inner workings of the Reich.)
It appears that the original plan was to put the accused in front of a People’s [Kangaroo] Court: however, the military court system asserted its jurisdiction on cases of espionage for a hostile army, and tried to guard a vestige of judicial independence and procedural safeguards. That Schulze-Boysen and Harnack had let themselves be recruited by Soviet intelligence, not even people deep into regime change plots like Hans Oster [the Abwehr’s #2] could swallow, let alone the army judges: however, it appears they made plays to save some of the others from the gallows (and succeeded in some cases, such as Greta Kuckhoff). Arvid Harnack was a lost cause, but the judges found Mildred only guilty of Beihilfe (aiding and abetting), not of Hochverrat (high treason, i.e., against the regime — which theoretically carried only a prison sentence) not of Landesverrat (treason against the country, which carried the death penalty), nor of the “rubber band crime” of Wehrkraftzersetzung (subversion of military strength, also punishable by death). Mildred was thus at first only sentenced to six years in prison.
When Hitler, y”sh, got the sentences for approval, he was so furious at the prison sentences for Mildred and for Erika Gräfin [=countess] von Brockdorff that he ordered a retrial for them, before a different court-martial. Here he got his wish: both women were sentenced to death. (As was Greta Kuckhoff: she however was given a retrial later, and only found guilty of aiding and abetting preparations for treason — she was sent to prison and survived the war to become the head of the GDR’s central bank.)
Abwehr chief Canaris and army judge Karl Sack, both part of the nationalist anti-Hitler resistance, refused to lift a finger for the Red Orchestra group, whose actions they called “glatten Landesverrat” (flat-out treason) — Canaris claimed they cost 150,000 soldiers their lives, a claim peddled by postwar, radical rightist elements in Germany who likely applauded Canaris’s own execution at Flossenbürg concentration camp. Heinz Höhne, hardly a flaming leftie, finds only evidence for an Abwehr sabotage team being accorded a Red Army “Reception committee” with machine gun fire — several dozen dead, not hundreds of thousands.
Mildred was in poor health by then: she had had an ectopic pregnancy some time before, and appears to have had tuberculosis — whether from the poor conditions inside Plötzensee Prison or from before is not clear, but her imprisonment conditions for sure didn’t help matters, let alone the “sharpened interrogations” [verschärfte Vernehmungen, official euphemism for torture] she underwent.
As she was on death row, she kept her nerve by reading a volume of Goethe that was smuggled in for her, and penciling English translations into the margin. This is how the Lutheran prison chaplain, Harald Poelchau [****] found her. The book takes its title from this passage she translated:
“In all the frequent troubles of our days
A God gave compensation — more his praise
In looking sky- and heavenward as duty
In sunshine and in virtue and in beauty.”
Reportedly, her last words as she was laid on the guillotine were Und dennoch habe ich Deutschland so geliebt [“And yet I have loved Germany so much”].
[*] Adolf Harnack was ennobled in 1914 by Kaiser Wilhelm II
[**] Winston Churchill was a first cousin of the 9th Duke of Marlborough — his father Randolph Churchill had been the second son of the 7th Duke, who had been careful to father “an heir and a spare” as it was put at the time.
[***] Later, Nazi prosecutors would sometimes use the term “Schwarze Kapelle” (Black Orchestra) for this group, to distinguish it from the “Rote Kapelle”.
[****] Rev. Poelchau was himself a member of the Resistance, and later awarded Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem for hiding Jews and helping others escape. https://www.raoulwallenberg.net/saviors/german2/harald-poelchau-43/