Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra


This gripping and heartbreaking narrative is the first full account of an American woman who gave her life in the struggle against the Nazi regime. As members of a key resistance group, Mildred Harnack and her husband, Arvid, assisted in the escape of German Jews and political dissidents, and for years provided vital economic and military intelligence to both Washington and Moscow. But in 1942, following a Soviet blunder, the Gestapo arrested, tortured, and tried some four score members of the Harnacks' group, ...
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This gripping and heartbreaking narrative is the first full account of an American woman who gave her life in the struggle against the Nazi regime. As members of a key resistance group, Mildred Harnack and her husband, Arvid, assisted in the escape of German Jews and political dissidents, and for years provided vital economic and military intelligence to both Washington and Moscow. But in 1942, following a Soviet blunder, the Gestapo arrested, tortured, and tried some four score members of the Harnacks' group, which the Nazis dubbed the Red Orchestra. Mildred Fish-Harnack was guillotined in Berlin on February 16, 1943, on the personal instruction of Adolf Hitler--she was the only American woman to be executed as an underground conspirator during World War II. Yet as the war ended and the Cold War began, her courage, idealism, and self-sacrifice went largely unacknowledged in America and the democratic West, and were distorted and sanitized in the Communist East. Only now, with the opening of long-sealed archives from Germany, the KGB, the CIA, and the FBI, can the full story be told.

In this superbly told life of an unjustly forgotten woman, Shareen Blair Brysac depicts the human side of a controversial resistance group that for too long has been portrayed as merely a Soviet espionage network.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Brysac's aim is not to provide a biography in the usual sense but to share tantalizing insights into the espionage efforts of Mildred Fish-Hamack, the only American woman executed in Nazi Germany--under Hitler's personal orders--as an underground conspirator and co-leader, with her German husband, Arvid Harnack, of the leftist resistance group the Nazis dubbed the Red Orchestra. It is also Brysac's aim to vindicate Mildred and Arvid, long believed--because Arvid had assumed a position in the Third Reich (as a cover) and so little information was available until recently--to have "gone Nazi." Using Mildred's own letters and those from the daughter of FDR's ambassador, a friend in Berlin, as well as the recollections of survivors who knew her, newspaper articles and intelligence documents from Germany, Russia and the U.S., Brysac (co-author with Karl E. Meyer of Tournament of Shadows), concedes that her book is filled with inconsistencies and contradictions (a by-product of memories more than half a century old), but she offers a gripping narrative. Unfortunately, her presentation leaves some questions unanswered: for example, it is not clear how much of the couple's spying actually aided the U.S. or the Soviets, whose political vision the they embraced, although the Nazis blamed the Red Orchestra for the German defeat at Stalingrad, considered the turning point in the war. Yet Brysac presents a compelling tale of anti-Nazi resistance along with a colorful and vivid portrait of Fish-Harnack. This title should get attention in major book review media, and students of espionage, of WWII and general readers intrigued by the tale of a long-forgotten heroine will seek it out. 10-city author tour. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Brysac, an Emmy Award-winning producer, writer, and director of CBS documentaries, has painstakingly compiled personal interviews, letters, and historical documents into a balanced narration of the life of Mildred Fish-Harnack and her times. The book chronicles the story of several "Aryan elite" Germans, dubbed the Red Orchestra by the Nazis, who organized resistance to Hitler's regime. They included the Wisconsin-born Fish-Harnack, a teacher and scholar; her husband, Arvid Harnack, an economics minister in the Reich; and numerous friends and family (many of whom were later executed). Additionally, newly discovered information of this groups' Berlin activities are detailed here due to recently released documents from the KGB, FBI, and CIA. Although other books have been written about the Red Orchestra (notably, The Red Orchestra: The Soviet Spy Network Inside Nazi Europe), none has concentrated solely on the actions of the Berlin network. By detailing the life of Fish-Harnack, whose guillotining in 1943 made her the only American woman executed for treason during World War II, Brysac is able to put a very human face on these troubled times. With a supporting cast of Fish-Harnack's friends such as Martha Dodd, Brysac has developed a scholarly analysis of this forgotten group. Containing a lengthy bibliography, notes section, and index, this work is recommended for academic libraries.--Maria C. Bagshaw, Lake Erie Coll., Painesville, OH Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Kirkus Reviews
The inspired life and tragic death of the only American woman to be executed on Hitler's command. Mildred Harnack and her husband Arvid were members of the Nazi resistance group known as the Red Orchestra, which provided intelligence to the US and Russia during WWII. As members of the German opposition, their decade of work has been largely hidden from history until now. Brysac (Tournament of Shadows, not reviewed) examined Mildred's correspondence with her mother and friends, interviewed surviving acquaintances, and combed through a wealth of previously classified German, Soviet, and American documents in the course of her research: the result is a careful and intricately detailed account of the Harnacks and dozens of the political activists, diplomats, and academics they knew. The study begins, however, as an intimate biography, tracing the youth of a beautiful girl raised in Wisconsin, recording her passions for literature and drama, considering the poetry she wrote in friends' yearbooks and the fiction she wrote about herself. In 1926, at the University of Wisconsin, Mildred fell in love with German academic Arvid Harnack. They soon married and moved to Berlin, where she continued her graduate studies in philosophy, American literature, and translation. Brysac does a good job recreating the literary and academic atmosphere of 1920s Berlin and stresses the influence of neighboring Russia on the German capital's political climate. Arvid's socialist tendencies grew, Mildred sympathized with his political views, and both developed strong interests in Soviet life, politics, and economics. Although many of the exploits described here cannot be documented, theauthorreveals how the Harnacks' lives were transformed, how they helped Jews and political dissidents escape Germany, and how they maintained their outward appearance while working as spies in the German underground. They were captured by the Gestapo, imprisoned, tortured, and put to death in 1943 at the order of Hitler. A sensitive and in-depth portrait of two"good Germans" who have remained unrecognized for over half a century.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641695964
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/2002
  • Pages: 516
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 1.33 (d)

Meet the Author

Shareen Blair Brysac is co-author with her husband, Karl E. Meyer, of the acclaimed Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia. A former producer for CBS News, she is the recipient of several Emmys and the Peabody Award. Currently, she is a contributing editor for
Archaeology Magazine.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2008


    This book spends way to much time on the people around Mildred Harnack. I understand that the author does this so that we can see who and what influenced Mildred, but very little of the book seem to actually focus on Mildred. With the focus of the book off the main character, I found it to be very boring and I had to force myself to continue reading. Very disappointing.

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