Op-Ed Contributor to the New York Times
When the Red Orchestra Fell Silent
By SHAREEN BLAIR BRYSAC
Published: February 15, 2013
On Feb. 15, 1943, a green police wagon left Charlottenburg Women’s Prison in Berlin, making its way through streets pockmarked by Allied bombs to the infamous execution center at Plötzensee. The handcuffed prisoner, a 40-year-old American woman, scholar, journalist, lecturer, teacher and translator named Mildred Fish Harnack, was led to a first-floor death cell. She was beheaded the next day.
Then, for many years, Mildred’s reputation — like those of many who resisted Hitler in Germany before and during World War II — became hostage to the Cold War. In the West she was depicted as a Soviet spy, in the East as a Marxist saint. But she was neither, and only after the Berlin Wall came down and secret files were declassified was Mildred’s humanity restored, as poignantly defined by her final hours.
She spent them translating lines of Goethe into English and receiving a welcome visit from Harald Poelchau, the prison pastor who had borne witness to the execution of a thousand resisters — including men and women belonging to the Harnack-Schulze-Boysen group or those caught in the failed July 20 conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.
They discussed the Bible, then Goethe, and finally Poelchau described her husband’s brave end three days before Christmas. Arvid Harnack’s petition to see Mildred before his execution had been denied. During his final hour, Arvid asked if the chaplain could recite “Prologue in Heaven” from Faust. And as Poelchau prepared to leave, Arvid asked him to join in singing the chorale, “I Pray to the Power of Love.”
In his last letter to his wife, Arvid wrote that “despite everything,” he looked back on a life in which “the darkness was outweighed by the light” largely because of their marriage. He recalled that their “intense work” meant that their life was never easy.
After Hitler’s rise to power, the couple had founded an underground group that
- helped imperiled Jews,
- assisted forced laborers,
- documented and archived Nazi acts of violence, especially in occupied areas in the East,
- and distributed anti-Hitler pamphlets.
Mildred used her work as an English instructor to
- recruit resisters to travel abroad to assist potential émigrés.
Her close friendship with Martha Dodd, the daughter of the American ambassador, William Dodd, enabled her to obtain elusive visas to the United States.
Mildred had met Arvid, a German student in the United States on a Rockefeller Fellowship, while a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Following their marriage, the couple in 1929 settled in Germany, where they gathered a study group of artists, writers, academics and government officials. After 1933, this literary salon became a network of resisters, and in 1940, Arvid Harnack established contacts with Soviet intelligence. The group, subsequently named “Red Orchestra” by the Gestapo to underscore its ties to Soviets, was led by Arvid, by then an official in the Economics Ministry, and by Lt. Harro Schulze-Boysen, a member of Hermann Goering’s staff.
For nine months, the group provided vital military information to Moscow in the run-up to the June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. During the same period, Arvid Harnack met regularly with the first secretary of the American embassy, Donald Heath, for long walks in Berlin’s parks and forests, using their wives as cover. Thus Arvid kept Washington informed on the state of the Third Reich’s economy, its trade agreements, rearmament and war plans.
On two trips to the United States in 1938 and 1939, Arvid Harnack (with Heath’s help) met with Treasury officials and passed information about German assets in the United States.
After the Germans intercepted a radio communication, 120 persons were arrested by the Gestapo. Mildred and Arvid were arrested on September 7, 1942. After a secret trial, Arvid was sentenced to death. Mildred received a sentence of six years hard labor for “the preparation of high treason and espionage.” Hitler heard this after the German defeat at Stalingrad and refused to confirm the sentence. She was retried and sentenced to death.
Mildred’s last words, before she was executed on Feb. 16, 1943, were: “And I have loved Germany so much.”
For many years after the war, resisters remained suspect in West Germany, unwelcome reminders that opposition had been possible. Members of the Harnack-Schulze-Boysen group were dismissed as Soviet spies. By contrast, East Germans celebrated them as anti-fascist heroes who lent a measure of legitimacy to the Soviet-imposed regime.
After German reunification in 1990, I was able to obtain intelligence files from the United States, Russia and several East German archives, and to interview relatives and survivors. German scholars and I were able to piece together material that allowed a more nuanced account of the activities of the group. The “Red Orchestra” group came to be known as the “Harnack-Schulze-Boysen” group.
Two streets in Berlin and in Giessen — where Mildred received her doctorate — were named after her; memorial plaques dedicated to both Harnacks have appeared on public buildings in the German capital.
In 2007, the German artist Franz Rudolf Knubel, with the help of students of the Mildred Harnack High School in Berlin, created a memorial exhibit inspired by Mildred’s translations of Goethe. The exhibit was shown in Berlin and other German cities, as well as at the Hillel Foundation in Madison and at Milwaukee’s Jewish Museum. In 2011, Wisconsin Public Television aired a one-hour documentary film about her. Sept. 16, the date of her birth, has been designated Mildred Harnack Day in Wisconsin.
Many letters by members of the group have now been published. They include Schulze-Boysen’s final letter to his parents. “It is common in Europe for spiritual seeds to be sown with blood,” he wrote. “Perhaps we were simply a few fools; but when the end is this near, one perhaps has the right to a bit of completely personal historical illusion.”
Shareen Blair Brysac is the author, among other works, of “Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra.”