Rebecca Donner heard about her great-great-aunt Mildred Harnack when she was 16. Donner’s grandmother, Jane, Harnack’s niece, gave him a bundle of letters from Harnack and some of his books. Then she asked him to promise to one day tell the story of Harnack to the world.
Donner, who grew up to be a writer, kept his promise with his new bestselling book, “
The literary non-fiction, published in August, is the powerful and true account of how Harnack, a modest professor of English literature from the Midwestern United States, ended up becoming a fearless leader of the underground anti-Nazi movement in Germany – and a Soviet spy.
Harnack and her German husband Arvid, also a resistance leader, were finally arrested along with other underground members by the Gestapo in 1942, imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to death in mock 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 a few hours before his performance. The book and pencil had been smuggled to him in isolation.
It took a long time for Donner to be ready to tell her great-great-aunt’s story.
“I had been collecting information since my grandmother gave me Mildred’s letters when I was a teenager. And in 2008 I visited Berlin and I went to the German Resistance Memorial Center and I introduced myself to the director there, and he gave me access to the archives there and I took documents away with me, ”Donner said.
“But then I put it aside. It still seems 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 his office in Brooklyn, New York, where filing cabinets filled with photocopied archival documents fill the bookcases lining the walls.
In 2016, the author began his research for “All Disorders Frequent Today” in earnest. She has searched in person and remotely archives in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Russia.
She used her family connection with Mildred Harnack to her advantage. While Donner doesn’t think the archives would have denied access to other writers or academics, she knew that being Harnack’s great-great-niece opened doors, especially in Berlin.
“When I introduced myself there was a lot of interest among archivists who knew this material to find things for me. There have been a lot of excavations. There seemed to be the motivation to go further for me, ”said the author.
She was also extremely fortunate to have met and interviewed at length Donald Heath, Jr. in 2016. Heath was the son of an American spy diplomat in Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and served as a courier for Harnack. At the age of 11, he would visit Harnack in his apartment for English literature lessons, then bring messages from Harnack – hidden in his books – to his father in his backpack.
Although Heath, who referred to Harnack as ‘Aunt Mildred’, was interviewed about Harnack for a previous biography, Donner said he felt more comfortable and open with her because of her connections. family.
Sadly, Heath, almost 90, passed away shortly after meeting Donner. However, her family was happy to share 12 steam crates full of saved material with them. The contents of three of them dated back to when the Heaths were in Berlin, including Heath’s mother’s diaries and diaries, which were extremely helpful to Donner.
The production of a meticulously researched non-fiction book was of great importance to Donner, who has a background in fiction. When she presented the book’s proposal to publishers, some suggested that she write the story as a historical novel. She dismissed it 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 physical nature of historical documents that she decided to feature images of them throughout the book.
“It reinforces the idea that this is a true story. It’s important because there’s that mistrust these days… the idea of fake news and people can look at a fact that is clearly a fact with tremendous skepticism, ”Donner said.
She was also careful not to glorify Harnack.
“There is this point of view that if you are related to someone who has done something heroic, there is a tendency to make that person larger than life, a person who has no flaws. It was never my goal, ”said Donner.
It was difficult for Donner to understand the character of her great-great-aunt and what motivated her to courageously launch and support 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 into Berlin’s largest underground resistance group by the end of the decade.
After being fired 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 mostly blue-collar workers and the unemployed. Harnack recruited many of his students to the Circle, which largely resisted the regime by publishing anti-Nazi leaflets and stealthily leaving stacks in public places and workplaces.
Harnack was a simple woman who measured her words. Despite a low profile in many ways, she managed to infiltrate high-ranking political and diplomatic circles, where she gleaned and passed on information.
“I was still grappling with this contradiction that was her personality… She would get up on a podium and give a lecture for an hour, but when she sat down she was more inclined to listen. She was listening and it was one of her techniques for recruiting people into the resistance. She asked questions and listened.
“I didn’t want to try to resolve these contradictions. I wanted her to stay that paradox … From what a retired CIA agent I consulted with, it was exactly Mildred’s type of positioning and personality that allowed her to ‘to be an ideal agent and to go unnoticed,’ Donner said.
Even after publishing this book, the author wonders why Harnack chose to stay in Germany and resist the Nazis when as an American she could have left in the 1930s. In fact, she visited the house in 1937 and her family begged her to stay. Her husband Arvid even bought her a United States Lines return ticket to America, which she had in her purse when she was arrested by the Gestapo.
Donner uncovered evidence that Harnack used his connections with the United States Embassy to obtain exit visas for Jewish friends and acquaintances. But one wonders if she could have done more to put Jews, her husband and her large and actively anti-Nazi family to safety had she been on American soil.
Donner can’t be sure why Harnack stayed, but she guesses it had something to do with the fact that she was inspired by her mother Georgina Fish, who was involved in the suffragette movement.
Harnack was also probably greatly influenced by her husband Arvid’s family. The Harnacks were one of the three great 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 he and Mildred were engaged that he felt the first time he laid eyes on her she felt like part of their family. “said Donner.
“All the Troubles Frequent Today” introduces us to a brave woman whose story the US government has sought to bury for decades. The US government has provided assistance to resistance movements in other countries such as France and Poland, but none to Germany. Despite the request for help, Mildred, Arvid and the others were left on their own, and therefore limited in their abilities.
Harnack’s decision to spy for the Soviets (but never on the payroll) did not earn him points with the US government in the Cold War era after 1945. As a result, the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC ) within the U.S. military buried Harnack’s case for decades until the documents were declassified in 1998.
“She was very naive about Russia… But I always thought she was spying for the Soviet Union as part of her efforts to help Hitler’s enemies, ”Donner said.
“It shocked me very much to read these declassified notes written by members of the CIC after the war. On the one hand, there was this recognition 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 time she learned the outline of her story from her grandmother. Having now discovered so much more about Harnack, that admiration has grown exponentially.
“She is a woman who had the courage of her convictions. She stood up for what she believed in and pushed it through to the end, ”said Donner.
While Donner does not directly equate 1930s Germany with today’s political landscape, she does learn a lesson from Harnack and his associates.
“I am more and more convinced that we must, individually and collectively, resist bullies. We have to have the courage to live our life morally, with integrity and to take risks, ”she said.