Book Reviews

Resisting Hitler - Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra
by Shareen Blair Brysac

Reviewed by Ursula Duba.

Oxford University Press, 2000

I recently came across the book ‘Resisting Hitler – Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra’ in which I learned about an exceptional  American woman and a dedicated group of  Germans who had maintained their humanity and who had courageously acted on  this humanity during the Hitler regime.

Resisting Hitler starts with the stark recounting of Mildred Harnack’s last few days at the Ploetzensee prison and her execution by beheading in February of 1943 – the winter, when Hitler’s army were incurring major losses in the Soviet Union.  That chapter remains as a looming backdrop in my mind throughout  the reading of the rest of this riveting book.

 Who was Mildred Harnack - an American woman, forty years old at the time of her execution, born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and how had she become involved in the resistance to Hitler and in espionage against the murderous Hitler regime?

After the ominous first chapter, Brysac takes us back to the Milwaukee of the turn of the century where three out of four Milwaukeeans were of German descent, had established music academies, art institutes, and richly endowed lending libraries.  Fine public parks displayed statues of von Steuben, Goethe, Schiller and the immigrants’ interests were musical and literary.  Later in the book, those treasured values of German culture stand in grim contrast  to the picture which Brysac paints of Hitler’s Germany.

Mildred Harnack, born Fish in 1902, the youngest of four children, was adored by her family and friends.  She blossomed into a radiant, beautiful young woman  who “yearned to be remarkable”.  Good education was prized above all else in her family, and fine literature and especially poetry became Mildred’s lifelong passions.

In 1926, Mildred met 25 year old Arvid Harnack, blond blue-eyed and tall, the physical counterpart of herself, and a Rockefeller Scholar from a prominent German academic family.  They married, moved to Germany where they joined the renowned Harnacks and three other prominent families who eventually fought Hitler and Nazi Germany: the Bonhoeffers, Delbruecks and Dohannyis – who were all intermarried.  “In this circle, Protestant but secular, the children were raised on ‘Goethe, Goethe and more Goethe’.  This special soil nurtured self-confidence, tempered with a sense of fairness and justice for the underdog.  It was not enough to know what was right, they must act upon it no matter what the consequences might be.”  

Since so many Germans went along with the order of the day during the Hitler regime, learning about those who didn’t embrace the Nazi ideology, gives us valuable insights into the importance of education and  upbringing which stresses ethics.  Brysac provides fascinating information why the aforementioned families were compelled to swim against the stream and were able to convince others to join them in their struggle – knowing full well all of them were endangering their lives in the process.

We follow Mildred in Germany enthused with high ideals and lofty goals through the next fifteen years of her life during which she blossoms into a fine scholar and researcher and a much beloved professor of English literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin.  We see her mature into a woman who dares to see the ugly, cruel and barbaric underbelly of Nazi Germany and who decides to undermine the regime as much as she can.  In turn, we see her become skillful in using her dual citizenship for that goal and make use of any and all connections she has established.  The idealist becomes a realist  without giving up her ideals, and even though she does everything possible to hasten the defeat of Hitler’s Germany, her love for this country never waivers. 

Resisting Hitler is a book of at least half a dozen stories – all richly  interwoven. Besides Mildred’s story, there is  the story of Arvid Harnack, and their compelling love story. There is the story of Arvid’s academically renowned family and the equally renowned Bonhoeffers, Dohannyis, and Delbruecks who are all intermarried.  By tradition, these families were all destined to enjoy exceptional careers, but instead they were hunted, trapped and jailed.  Nearly all the men of these families were executed.  There is the story of the American Embassy in Berlin during the late twenties and during the Hitler regime, and the Berlin cultural circle in which the Harnacks began to travel in 1930.  There is the story of Martha Dodd, the Ambassador’s daughter and Mildred’s close friend who is impervious to the scandals she creates with her belief in the communist system and with her impulsive love affairs with foreign diplomats, visiting authors and anybody else who captures her imagination.  There is the story of the roughly 120 resisters led by Harro Schulze-Boysen, a lieutenant in the Luftwaffe  and by Arvid Harnack who had joined the Nazi party as a cover and who had accepted a position in the Economic Ministry so as to have access to vital information.  There is the shocking-beyond-belief  story of the bungling of the USA, Great Britain and the Soviet Union – all of whom made scant use of the information which this group provided to them under enormous difficulties, not to mention the risk, and which eventually cost the lives of the resisters.   And finally, there is the shameful story of the cold-war United States and postwar Germany which not only refused to honor these resisters but instead chose to commit character assassinations by inventing and distributing the vilest slander about people who had given their lives to defeat Hitler and his cohorts.

These stories at times run consecutively, at other times parallel, weaving in and out to create a rich tapestry of people compelled by their love for high ideals, their beliefs in ethics and the devotion to a country they wanted to save from barbarity and destruction.  Their actions are juxtaposed by the actions and non-actions of the major political players in Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union whose bungling ineptness, paranoid distrust of each other, incredible cynicism and appalling disregard for the lives of the population of dozens of countries eventually contributed to the death of tens of millions of people.  I couldn’t help but think of the millions of lives which might have been saved if those major players (I am hesitant calling them ‘politicians’!) had possessed similar morals and high ethics or if they had made use of the information Harnack’s group provided them with. 

Reading this book, I learned to my utter astonishment that according to Gestapo records  approximately 800 000 Germans in a population of 66 million were arrested during the 12 year reign of the Thousand Year Reich. I understand why most Germans obscured this record after 1945, since the myth ‘that one couldn’t do anything’ had to be maintained at all cost and because the fact that choices had in fact been possible, was highly unpopular.  But I had to ask: why did my staunch anti-Hitler, socialist father not tell us seven children  who were used to passionate political debates around the dinner table not tell us about the socialist heroes of this murderous regime? 

Was he himself ashamed that he had not done anything besides using every possible ruse not to fight in Hitler’s army and besides protecting  his wife and seven children?

My father had himself been a communist as a young man, but had early on switched to the socialist party of the Weimar Republic.  He remained a socialist – of the Willy-Brandt-kind  -  and loyally voted for  this party (which is right now in power in German) all his life.  He also never let up on his condemnation of the Hitler regime,  the Gestapo,  the SS,  the Nazis,  the brutality of the Wehrmacht  and especially of the so called former Nazis who quickly regained important positions in Adenauer’s postwar Germany.  From him I knew that former Nazis wielded enormous power in the postwar  government,  in the extensive civil service, the ministries, the judiciary, the education system, the medical community.   Those former Nazis of course saw to it that as few of them as possible were being held responsible for the crimes  committed during the Third Reich.  Did he feel compelled to keep silent about his socialist comrades who had sacrificed their lives in active resistance, because  he was ashamed that he had not done anything besides using every possible ruse not to fight in Hitler’s army and besides protecting his wife and seven children?

In the past fifty odd years, Germany has undertaken to master this past.  The term used bewaeltigen is troubling. It smacks of master race ideology and denies the fact that at best any of us can only learn to LIVE with our past. Most of the resisters have yet to be honored.

It took an American Jew to honor Oscar Schindler, another American Jew to honor the rescuers of Jews (Eva Fogelman: Conscience & Courage: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust) and here is yet another American who devoted considerable effort and time researching the lives and actions of a group of resisters to the Hitler regime.  Brysac made full use of the opening up of KGB files and the declassification of CIA files, and is thus able to reveal important new information about those resisters and about the political conduct of the allied forces.

I read Resisting Hitler with rapt attention and highly recommend it to the subscribers on this list.  This book kept my attention until the very end - in fact, I found myself going back to the beginning after I turned the last page, eager to read it again, because of the richness of details and because of its complex historical story. 

Brysac’s book is a spellbinding interweaving of the painstakingly researched historical, political and personal – without ever resorting to psychobabble.  Despite the wealth of details offered in this book of almost 500 pages, the wealth of details do not bog down the book.  The reader is consistently propelled forward through the ability and power of Brysac’s captivating narrative. 

Resisting Hitler is a must-read for anybody who is interested in teaching the complexity of Hitler’s Germany and for anybody who wants to know about the unsung heroes of this murderous regime.

Ursula Duba is the author of the book Tales from a Child of the Enemy (Penguin, 1997), the essay Germany - The Legacy of Bystanders, Cowards, Informers, Desktop Murderers and Executioners (Yale 1999), and the book Inherited Pain and Defective Genes - Descendants of the Shoah and the Third Reich. Her Web site is at

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
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