Mildred Fish Harnack
1929: Easing into life in Germany
In late 1928, Arvid Harnack left for Germany. Mildred joined him the following year. They settled in 1930 in Berlin, where Mildred worked at the University while completing her doctorate (she received it in 1939, with her dissertation Entwicklung der amerikanischen Literatur der Gegenwart), and Arvid received his second law degree. The images below of photographs published by the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand show, respectively, the couple in Berlin in 1929 and in Saalfeld in 1931.
1920s-1930s: A passion for the literary
The publication of Mildred’s literary endeavors began in the 1920s with her participation as editor and contributor to the Wisconsin Literary Magazine.
Mildred’s passion and devotion to literature continued in Germany in the 1930s and early 1940s through her translations of books and poems (e.g. Goethe) into German and English, as well as her teaching – introducing her students to the likes of Thorton Wilder, Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner.
The following images represent examples of Mildred’s translation of books from English into German.
In the United States, Arvid Harnack had studied political economics, specifically organizational and economic policy. After returning to Germany, he wrote his second dissertation which dealt with the history of the American workers movement, out of which came the written work entitled Die vormarxistische Arbeiterbewegung in den Vereinigten Staaten; Eine Darstellung ihrer Geschichte.
This was to be the “ersten Teil” or first part of the history of the American worker’s movement which, Arvid states in the preface, “…basiert in der Hauptsache auf dem Urkundenmaterial, das sich in der Staatsbibliothek von Wisconsin und in der Bibliothek des Kongresses in Washington befindet.” (Roughly translated, Arvid states that his writing is based mainly on the documents that were found in the State Historical Society Library in Wisconsin and the Library of Congress.) It is not clear if Arvid Harnack ever had the chance continue the history before he was executed in 1942.
1939-1941: Foreshadowing danger
Clara Leiser was a good friend and colleague of Mildred Fish Harnack. Both attended the University of Wisconsin in the early 1920’s. Later in the 1930’s, Clara traveled a few times to Europe to visit Mildred and her German-born husband, Arvid. The last time Clara saw Mildred in the U.S. was when Mildred stayed with her in New York in 1937.
Clara received the following postcard from Mildred dated January 12, 1939 from London. In it Mildred writes Clara that she had “Better not write but don’t forget me and don’t be angry.” The next news she heard told of the execution of Mildred and her husband by Hitler and his war machine on February 16, 1943 and December 22, 1942 respectively.
This photograph, published by the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand in Berlin (“Arvid and Mildred Harnack,” Material 17.2; 10/91), bears the caption “Clara, Mildred und Arvid Harnack, Neubabelsberg 1941[?].”
1942: Arvid’s parting
Arvid and Mildred were arrested on September 7, 1942. On December 19, Arvid Harnack was sentenced to death and executed on December 22, 1942 for his role in the Red Orchestra. Arvid Harnack was one of the leaders of the Harnack/Schulze-Boysen group which was part of the ‘Die Rote Kapelle’, as it was known in German.
The Red Orchestra was an anti-Hitler, underground resistance organization. Spread throughout Europe, they attempted to bring an end to the war as quickly as possible and, in the case of Harnack’s group, to ensure the national existence of Germany.
The following two retyped and reformatted letters were written by Arvid right before his death. One is addressed to his family and one to his wife of 16 years, Mildred Fish Harnack.
On the day of his execution, he writes his family that they “…should celebrate Christmas well. That is my last wish.” and that he “would like to thank…[them] all again for all…[their] love which…[they] have shown…[him], especially of late. Thinking of it made all heaviness seem light.”
In Arvid’s last letter to Mildred, he reminds her of their beginnings – their first deeply meaningful discussion and their engagement while attending the University of Wisconsin – Madison. “Can you remember Picnic Point, when we got engaged?…And before that our first serious talk at lunch in a restaurant in State Street? That talk became my guiding star and has remained so.” He ends with the following: “You are in my heart…My greatest wish is that you are happy when you think of me. I am when I think of you. Many, many kisses! I hug you tight. Your A.”
1943: Mildred’s parting
Mildred Fish Harnack was executed by guillotine on February 16, 1943. Originally, on December 22, 1942, the same day her husband was sentenced to death, Mildred received a sentence of six years hard labor. However, on January 16, 1943, she was retried on Hitler’s orders. Without any new evidence, she was sentenced to death for her role in the Red Orchestra.
The following images are from Mildred’s time in prison. When she was arrested, Mildred had a volume of Goethe’s poems with her and spent her time in prison translating several of them. Mildred’s translation of Goethe’s poem “Vermachtnis” is shown in the two images on the right.
One is a photocopy of the German version with English translation notes scribbled on the sides, dated ’16.II.43′ – the day Mildred was executed. The retyped/reformatted English translation is on its right. This translation, which Mildred worked on right up until her execution, was found and saved by a prison minister.