Mildred Harnack: Remembering The Wisconsin Woman Who Resisted Hitler

By Meg Jones | September 21, 2016


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Mildred Fish Harnack was the only American woman executed by Hitler during World War II. Writer Meg Jones tell us about the Milwaukee-born literature teacher turned spy.

Mildred Harnack spent her last hours reading Walt Whitman. She knew exactly where and when and how she was going to die. I wonder what she was thinking in those last moments before she was beheaded at a prison near Berlin. All that’s known of her final thoughts were the last words she spoke to a chaplain. She told him right before the guillotine blade fell – “and I have loved Germany so much.”

Mildred Harnack is a World War II hero who didn’t earn any medals and whose name seemed to be lost to history until recently. She was the only civilian American woman executed on direct orders of Adolf Hitler.

She grew up in Milwaukee and earned a degree at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where she met a German exchange student named Arvid Harnack. They got married at Picnic Point on Lake Mendota and moved to Germany in 1929.

Mildred and Arvid were Communists at a time when Communism was not yet considered evil. It was the 1930s and much of the world was mired in the Great Depression. Arvid was an economist in Germany’s government. Mildred taught English literature and translated English language books into German. When Hitler and the Nazi party rose to power, Mildred and Arvid became alarmed and began to pass government secrets to the Soviet Union. They became part of what the Nazis called the Red Orchestra, a code name for the anti-Nazi resistance movement in Germany. Mildred translated Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches into German as well as news from America, which was printed in leaflets quietly distributed as a way to bypass the Nazi-controlled press.

I think the saddest part of Mildred’s fate is that all of the secrets passed to the Soviets fell on deaf ears. The Red Orchestra told Stalin that Germany would invade the Soviet Union but Stalin didn’t believe it. And it was the incompetence of their Soviet spy handlers that led the capture of  Mildred, Arvid and their friends. They were rounded up in the fall of 1942 and almost all were sentenced to die. Except Mildred. Initially she was sentenced to five years in prison because judges believed her lawyer’s argument that she was merely a German hausfrau following her husband’s orders. But Hitler intervened and ordered her to be retried with only one outcome – execution. Arvid was slowly strangled on a meathook. Two months later, it was Mildred’s turn to die. This is going to sound strange but the Nazis actually considered it a favor to Mildred to kill her by guillotine, because it was a quick death.

After the war, the Red Orchestra became a silent footnote to history. Even though the Soviets were America’s allies during World War II, they quickly became enemies as an Iron Curtain dropped across Europe. Instead of being hailed as patriots who tried to stop Hitler and end the war, Mildred, Arvid and the rest of the Red Orchestra were considered traitors because they were Communists. In the last decade or so, however, that’s changed and Mildred Harnack has been featured in books and documentaries. In Wisconsin schools, Sept. 16 is celebrated as Mildred Harnack Day. It’s her birthday.


Meg Jones

Meg Jones

Meg Jones was a longtime reporter with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the author of “World War II Milwaukee.” She passed away in December 2020.
2018-01-19T17:53:01-06:00Tags: , , , , |

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