Saturday, February 21, 2009

Mildred Harnack: Resisting Fantasy

I recently completed reading “Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack And The Red Orchestra”, Shareen Blair Brysac’s book (published in 2000) about Mildred Harnack, the only American woman executed in Germany during World War II.

Harnack was the woman whose life Lillian Hellman “borrowed” for the “Julia” episode in “Pentimento” (although certain details of the story of “Julia” were borrowed from the life of Muriel Gardiner as well).

That the tale of “Julia” was entirely fictional was established before Hellman died, but Hellman was distinctly unmoved at being revealed as a fraud, largely because she was deeply involved at the time in a defamation and slander suit against Mary McCarthy, who had proclaimed, on national television, that every single word Hellman had ever written had been a lie, including the words “and” and “the”. Before the suit could proceed to trial, Hellman died, and the suit was dismissed. (As a matter of law, one cannot slander or defame the dead.)

It was fitting that Hellman, at the end of a long and sordid life, was publicly revealed to be the fraud she was, and that she spent the final four years of her life consumed by McCarthy’s remarks, expending a considerable portion of her waning energies in an unsuccessful attempt at vindication. Such a deplorable figure richly deserved such an unhappy and ungracious end.

Before “Pentimento” was published, the story of Mildred Harnack (1902-1943) was known only to a few. Aside from family members and a small coterie of aging Leftists who had heard details, spurious and otherwise, about Harnack during the 1930’s and 1940‘s, the name Mildred Harnack meant absolutely nothing to American scholars or to the American public.

The publication of “Pentimento” in 1973, and the ensuing revelation that “Julia” was a fraud, spurred renewed interest in the story of Harnack. “Resisting Hitler” was one of the results.

Harnack was a Wisconsin girl, Milwaukee-born and –bred, who in 1926 married Arvid Harnack, a German student studying in the U.S. on a German-American exchange program. When Arvid’s U.S. studies concluded in 1929, he returned to Germany, and Mildred accompanied him to his native land.

For the next fourteen years, Arvid worked in the German Civil Service in Berlin while Mildred picked up odd jobs whenever and wherever she could, mostly in the fields of teaching and translation. Their lives were completely unremarkable—except for the fact that, as a sideline, both Harnacks spied for the Soviet Union.

Arvid had been recruited by the Soviets as an NKVD agent in 1935. Shortly thereafter, Arvid and Mildred became founding members of what the Gestapo called “The Red Orchestra”, a group of Germans working for the overthrow of the German regime. They did so by passing vital military information to the Soviets.

The Harnacks and other members of The Red Orchestra were in personal contact with Soviet agents in Berlin throughout the 1930’s. After the war started, they were in wireless contact with Soviet agents from 1940 through the first half of 1942, when Germany at last figured out how to decode The Red Orchestra’s radio messages.

The Gestapo immediately pounced. Arvid and Mildred were arrested, imprisoned and tried for espionage and treason. Both were found guilty. Arvid was sentenced to death—and shortly thereafter executed—but Mildred was sentenced only to six years’ imprisonment.

When Hitler learned of Mildred’s lenient sentence, he ordered a new trial. At her second trial, Mildred was sentenced to death, and soon thereafter beheaded.

Spies are treated harshly in wartime, and in Germany’s battle-to-the-death against Russia, spies were treated especially harshly.

At the war’s conclusion, the United States conducted an investigation into Germany’s execution of Harnack. The purpose of that investigation was to determine whether German lawyers and judges, or anyone working in Germany’s wartime court system, had committed war crimes in condemning and executing an American citizen. After a brief investigation, the U.S. government closed the case, having concluded that Harnack did indeed engage in espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union and that her conviction and execution for espionage and treason had been fully justified under German law.

Such truisms need to be stated, because “Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack And The Red Orchestra” is a very foolish book about a very foolish woman. It attempts, unsuccessfully, to turn Harnack into some sort of intellectual humanist heroine, working on behalf of all humanity in pursuit of a noble cause before she was senselessly and viciously silenced.

The hagiographic treatment of Harnack in “Resisting Hitler” is precisely the kind of nonsense one might expect from a family memoir, but not in a serious publication.

In life, Harnack was a very limited woman. Of average looks, intelligence and industry, with no gift for friendship and no gift for emotional generosity, Harnack was a dour, unfeeling and unsubtle Wisconsin hausfrau, prone to rigidity in her habits and thoughts, without remarkable or redeeming qualities. Indeed, even Harnack’s sisters thought she lacked a well-rounded, integrated personality, and cared only about herself.

In “Resisting Hitler”, the effort is made to transform Harnack into some kind of heroine for the ages. The effort is absurd.

In the book, Harnack is portrayed as a great, striking beauty—but in life, she was anything but, as the many accompanying photographs in the book reveal. The photographs show Harnack to be the plainest of Plain Janes, with the face and bearing of a scullery maid, straight out of central casting.

In the book, Harnack is presented as a fearsome intellectual, fully capable of translating towering masterpieces, from English into German and from German into English, at the most exalted levels—but in reality, Harnack translated only two English-language books into German (the insufferably lowbrow “Lust For Life” and “Drums Along The Mohawk”) and only one German-language book into English (the even more insufferable “Mein Kampf”). That latter project, understandably, receives scant attention from Brysac, as it does not fit comfortably into the story line she has crafted for her heroine.

In the book, Harnack is characterized, relentlessly, as “noble”, “humane” and “courageous”—but in reality, Harnack was more patsy than noble, more dangerous than humane, and more stupid than courageous. She was little more than a silly, misguided, half-educated, easily-manipulated fool, yet one more victim of the insane ideologies of the 1930’s.

Arvid, too, is presented as something he was not: in real life a lower-middle-class, low-level bureaucrat of no intellectual distinction and a man with a most unpleasant and authoritative—even overbearing—personality, he is presented in “Resisting Hitler” as one of Germany’s very finest men, a member of one of Germany’s leading families, a positive exemplar of that nation’s long intellectual tradition. All such claims are rubbish.

It remains a matter of dispute how much damage The Red Orchestra caused to German military fortunes during the crucial early years of the war against Russia. Some German historians insist, to this day, that The Red Orchestra was responsible for the disaster at Stalingrad, a claim hard to swallow, given that The Red Orchestra was shut down in late-summer 1942.

Nonetheless, it is undisputed that The Red Orchestra passed to the Soviets vital information about Luftwaffe operations on The Eastern Front, Germany’s invasion and attack plans on various Russian fronts, arms production in occupied zones, Germany’s fuel position, the locations of German military headquarters, the extent of German losses of personnel and material, and Germany’s success in breaking Russian codes, all of which proved invaluable to the Russian military. Persons who pass on such information to an enemy in wartime must be prepared to bear the consequences of their actions, and are entitled to little sympathy from any quarter.

Such realities, however, are not permitted to intrude upon Brysac’s fantasies. Brysac is far more interested in working within the realm of fairy tale, creating a saccharine whopper about an all-American beauty caught behind enemy lines during wartime and wantonly murdered for her many good deeds.

Such an approach exhibits all the political sophistication of a third grader. Indeed, were “Resisting Hitler” not so long and tedious, I would have guessed that third graders were the intended readership of the book.

The book must be read in large part as fairy tale, because so much of the Harnack story will never be known. No witnesses remained at war’s end to tell the full story of Harnack’s activities from the late 1930’s until her 1943 death.

I question whether many of the “facts” presented in the book are accurate, especially the “facts” addressing events in Germany, virtually none of which are verifiable. Time after time, the book presents “facts” that do not ring true and for which no sources are offered. There are so many questionable “facts” in the narrative that I did not believe a single word I read in the portion of the book addressing Harnack’s German years.

Some enterprising scholar needs to fact-check virtually every sentence in the portion of the book that covers the German period and issue a corrective, noting what is fact and what is mere supposition. Until such occurs, “Resisting Hitler” must be classified as fiction.

Alas, there was a great story here for a talented author and writer, but Brysac was not the person to present it.

An amazing, even glittering, cast of characters was associated, at least loosely, with The Red Orchestra. The Bonhoeffers, the Dohnanyis, members of The White Rose, Helmut Roloff and many others worked behind the scenes to thwart the German war effort and undermine the National Socialists. A competent author and writer might have weaved their many stories together into a spell-bounding narrative, full of incident, intrigue and drama, but such was beyond Brysac’s skill set.

Brysac lacks even the most rudimentary writing skills. Presenting herself as “producer, writer and director of documentary films”, Brysac has no talent for the printed page. Her prose is clumsy and inartful. She is utterly incapable of crafting a pleasurable paragraph.

More significantly, Brysac lacks storytelling skills. Even the most gripping portions of the Harnack story, sure-fire in anyone else’s hands, stubbornly fail to come to life.

Much of the blame must be directed at Brysac’s lack of skill in knowing how to organize a book. The organizing principle in “Resisting Hitler” appears to be personal interviews with persons who knew Harnack or who knew of Harnack, transcribed one by one, start to finish, and then assembled into a daisy chain. I cannot imagine a more inept way to tell a story.

Beginning her book with a melodramatic reenactment of Harnack’s execution, Brysac soon retreats to the Harnack childhood home in Milwaukee and tries to develop the story from there, more or less chronologically. However, Brysac cannot even put together a simple chronological story competently.

All sorts of non-germane characters from Harnack’s Milwaukee days make extended and irrelevant appearances early in the book, leading the reader to believe they will achieve significance later in the story. As things turn out, such characters have no significance whatsoever, and never reappear. They simply pad an overlong, boring and meaningless account of Harnack’s childhood years, and should have been omitted from the story.

Harnack’s time at the University Of Wisconsin at Madison receives pages and pages of the very dullest writing, populated with characters of no importance to the story. I presume this section of the book was included so as to demonstrate Harnack’s “great social awakening”, but the people described are dishwater-mundane and dullards to the core, the most boring and provincial group of Wisconsin yokels imaginable.

Once the author moves her story to the Germany of the 1930’s, one expects the story to improve considerably. It does not.

The German associates of Arvid and Mildred in the 1930’s, a much livelier crew than those dreadful Wisconsin bumpkins, with much more impact on the Harnacks’ burgeoning careers as spies, make brief appearances and then sink without a trace. Many of these persons have themselves been the subjects of riveting books elsewhere, but in Brysac’s telling they are just as grim and just as gruesome as that unfortunate group of nitwits back in Madison.

In Brysac’s hands, everything is hopeless.

The book is a jumbled mess, desperate for the intervention of a skilled editor. I cannot remember the last time I read such a completely botched writing job.

How did this project go so wrong?

The answer is an easy one: (1) it had the wrong author; and (2) it had the wrong publisher (Oxford University Press no longer edits its publications to a high standard).

Oddly, the name Mildred Harnack carries greater resonance today in the German-speaking countries of Central Europe than it does in the United States (even though the State Of Wisconsin has set aside one school day each year as “Mildred Harnack Day”, a rather alarming choice, all in all, for observance and remembrance in an educational setting).

“Resisting Hitler” was translated into German and published in Central Europe three years after the English-language edition appeared (the book has never been translated into Russian, French, Italian or Spanish, and is unlikely ever to be translated into those languages).

Central Europe’s interest in Harnack is the result of the former East Germany’s canonization of the Harnacks after the war. Under Soviet domination and control, East Germany seized upon the Harnacks as martyrs to the Soviet cause and elevated them to iconic status. An Arvid and Mildred postage stamp was issued in East Germany, and a school in East Berlin was named after Mildred. The school carries her name to this day.

In the former West Germany, the Harnacks never enjoyed a good name, and this is still true today. They are remembered, when they are remembered at all, as common spies and traitors, and nothing more.

In Austria, the Harnacks are known to historians and scholars of the period, but not to the general public.

When I studied in Vienna, one of my professors—a professor of German literature—was reading the English-language edition of “Resisting Hitler”, and I asked him to tell me what was the Austrian view of Harnack. “She was a terrible translator—on the level of a translator of romance novels—and that’s the only thing she’s remembered for here” was his response. He was dismayed that anyone, more than half a century after her death, would attempt to assign scholarly or intellectual pretensions to Harnack or to her work.

Ironically, Brysac’s book claims, unconvincingly if not absurdly, that Harnack spent her final days translating Goethe in her prison cell as she awaited her execution. Brysac also claims, even more absurdly, that Harnack’s final words, prior to her execution, were, “And I loved Germany so much”.

Harnack loved Germany so much that, in wartime, she spied for its mortal enemy.


  1. "Harnack loved Germany so much that, in wartime, she spied for its mortal enemy."

    So, she should have been a "Good German" and worked for the Nazis. What a sick, pathetic review: you know nothing of the Harnack family and its importance in Germany.

    "Persons who pass on such information to an enemy in wartime must be prepared to bear the consequences of their actions, and are entitled to little sympathy from any quarter."

    The comments of an authoritarian personality. How dare anyone work to undermine Hitler!

  2. Your comment is so foolish and so unsophisticated I hardly know what to say.

    Pray for brains.

  3. To save yourself some grief and to save your readers some grief, you may want to amend your post.

    You should add a note pointing out that the author of the Mildred Harnack book has no standing in the fields of history, biography and World War II. You should point out that her book is not accepted as the last word on Mildred Harnack and that she is neither a respected authority on the subject nor a qualified academic.

    You may also want to make a point of noting that EVERYTHING available online about Mildred Harnack is inaccurate. ALL online information about Mildred Harnack is based upon an inaccurate book or is sponsored by the Harnack family or some VERY strange people in Wisconsin who don’t know what they’re talking about. There is NOTHING accurate or truthful available online about Mildred Harnack, and nothing much accurate about the Red Orchestra, either.

    Not only will you save yourself some grief, you will not have to wade through dumbo mumbo comments by dumbo mumbos like Elaine, eager to demonstrate their ignorance and embarrass themselves on your real estate.

    You handle dumbo mumbos well.

    Why such an interest in Mildred Harnack?

    I am staggered by the quality of your writing and the quality of your analysis. You are wasting your talents as a lawyer.

  4. My talents are ideally suited to the law. I like to argue, I like to make fine distinctions, and I like to discuss the relative importance of those fine distinctions vis-à-vis other fine distinctions. That’s what lawyers are paid to do.

    I have no particular interest in Harnack. She was a very silly and very foolish and very misguided woman. I simply read a very bad book about her.

    Yes, there is an amazing amount of online bosh about Harnack, but intelligent persons can immediately see that it is bosh and surely pay no attention to it.

  5. I must say, it is refreshing to see a clear-eyed view of the Harnacks. The US government got it right right after the war, when it found out the Harnacks were nothing more than traitors and saw no point in pursuing an investigation.

    The Red Orchestra was not a resistance movement. It was a ring of Soviet agents. I cringe when I read efforts to revise the history of the Red Orchestra. The group had no purpose other than to aid the Soviets.

    Among many things that prove that the Red Orchestra was not a genuine resistance movement, the group made no effort to aid England or France for the two years those countries were at war with Germany but Russia was not. There were English and French agents all over Europe they could have worked with, but they didn’t. It was a pure Soviet organization.

    Arvid began his association with the Soviets more than a year before Hitler gained power. No Hitler government was even thought possible then. This proves that his work with the Soviets was not purely an anti-Hitler thing.

    The Soviets handlers of the Red Orchestra had no sympathy for them as individuals and didn’t even respect them. To the Soviets, they were only “useful idiots”. The Soviets were responsible for the Germans catching the group, because the Soviets demanded long and detailed broadcasts. That’s what did them in.

  6. Yes, I have read extensively about The Red Orchestra.

    It's too bad Shareen Blair Brysac didn't do some research about The Red Orchestra prior to writing her book.

    May I assume you know that the German-language edition of Brysac's book did not sell well in Germany and was not even reviewed there? I believe the German-language edition is already out of print.

  7. Her real last words were "And I loved Germany so much, but I loved the Soviets much, much more."

  8. The author of the comments above should have checked his facts first. The book, Resisting Hitler, was a finalist for the L.A. Times book prize as the best history book of the year. It was also picked by German book critics as one of the best books of the year. German historians from Mommsen and Richard Evans have commented favorably on the book. It was reviewed in Die Zeit and the Suddeutsche Zeitung, the NY Times and the (London) Times Literary Supplement and the New York Times when it was published. It has inspired 3 exhibits at the German Resistance Museum in Berlin, Essen and most recently Dusseldorf. Some of the reviews are posted online at

  9. Thank you, Miss Brysac.

    And I will allow you to make a plug for your own website—after all, your books do not sell, and you and your husband need all the web traffic you can generate. All who visit your website will instantly recognize puffery when they see it.

    The problem with a book such as yours, Miss Brysac, is that it prevents serious writers and serious historians from revisiting the subject for another fifty years. No publisher will soon sponsor another book on Mildred Harnack, even though a corrective to your own effort is sorely needed. No publisher will do so because the financial losses would be too great (I need hardly remind you that your own book was remaindered in the U.S. within weeks of publication).

    Your book was a prime example of a book that should never have been published. A case study in very bad writing and very bad scholarship, your book was as bad a book in the field of history as I have ever read. You must have called in every chit you built up over a lifetime of working in the news media to get such an inept manuscript published.

    Your book was reviewed as a “trade publication”, Miss Brysac, and you very well know it. It did not attract serious reviewers from the field of history or biography—it attracted trade reviewers, when it attracted any reviewers at all.

    You will be long gone by the time a corrective to your own volume is published, Miss Brysac, but I shall be around to see it.

    I look forward to it.

  10. Florabunda522: Your claim that one or both of the Mommsen twins, Theodor and Hans, and Richard Evans are worthy champions of the Harnack book—presumably yours—is laughable. The Mommsen twins and Evans, all three highly controversial figures (to say the least), even rabble-rousers, are so far left they would salivate over anything written about an old, forgotten Stalinist such as Harnack, even worthless drivel like Brysac’s (yours).