I have been an avid student of World War II history all of my life. Over the years, I have read dozens of books on the period, but I only recently learned of the amazing story of the American citizen Mildred Harnack and her anti-Nazi resistance group which she called The Circle and the German government labeled the Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra). Harnack’s heroic true story is documented in the award-winning, New York Times bestseller All The Frequent Troubles Of Our Days, which was written by her great-great niece Rebecca Donner.
Born in Milwaukee, Harnack was 26 when she moved to Germany to pursue a PhD. As an American grad student in Berlin, she saw the rise of Nazism and the persecution of Germany’s Jews and other minorities. Eventually, Mildred Harnack and her husband Arvid began holding secret meetings in their apartment. She recruited working-class Germans into the resistance, helped Jews escape, plotted acts of sabotage, and collaborated in writing leaflets that denounced Hitler and called for revolution.
The Circle group was diverse: its members were Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, atheist. They were factory workers and office workers, students and professors, journalists and artists. Over 40% were women.
The Gestapo arrested Mildred Harnack on Sept 7, 1942. Postwar testimonies and notes smuggled out of a Berlin women’s prison describe the daily interrogations and torture that Mildred and others in the group endured.Harnack and 75 of her German co-conspirators underwent a mass trial at a military court in Berlin. A panel of 5 judges sentenced her to 6 years at a prison camp but Hitler overruled the decision and personally ordered her execution.
On February 16, 1943 at Plötzensee Prison in Berlin, Mildred Harnack was strapped to a guillotine and beheaded. According to records, she was the only American in the leadership of the German resistance to the Nazis.
The title of Donner’s book, All The Frequent Troubles of Our Days, is a line from a Goethe poem that Harnack translated while in prison awaiting execution . A prison chaplain smuggled out the book of poems under the folds of his robe.