September 16th is Mildred Fish-Harnack Day, the first of many Wisconsin Public Schools observation days throughout the school year. While most of these days are named for familiar people, events, or holidays—Christopher Columbus Day, Veteran's Day, Arbor Day—Mildred Fish-Harnack Day might not ring a bell. It should. This particular observation day is dedicated to a courageous and spirited Milwaukee native and University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who was executed by the Gestapo for being a leader of a Nazi resistance group during World War II.
Through a chance encounter on Bascom Hall, Mildred met a German exchange student named Arvid Harnack (see above photo) who was studying economics on a Rockefeller Fellowship. The two fell in love and were married at Mildred's brother's farm near Brooklyn, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1926. Arvid returned to Germany in 1928 in search of work and Mildred followed in 1929. By 1930 the couple was settled in Berlin, where Mildred worked as a lecturer and studied for her doctorate at the University of Berlin while Arvid took a government job.
The Harnacks were well known for hosting literary and cultural discussion circles with other Berlin intellectuals and students, many of which had socialist affiliations. As the Nazi Party's dominance grew, these discussions turned toward ways in which to foment a more structured resistance, giving rise to a group the Gestapo would later nickname the Red Orchestra. In the early 1940s, Arvid began to pass sensitive government information to the Soviet, British, and American embassies. Mildred served as a recruiter and communicator for the group, and may have passed information to the United States as well.
In the fall of 1942, German counterintelligence decoded the Red Orchestra's radio communications and the Harnacks were implicated. Arvid was arrested a few months later and was sentenced to death by hanging. Mildred was initially sentenced to six years of hard labor but was later executed as well for her role in the resistance.
But this is only the beginning of the Mildred Fish-Harnack story. A new Wisconsin Public Television documentary film that airs this fall, Wisconsin's Nazi Resistance: The Mildred Harnack Story, tells the little known yet fascinating tale of how an educated, courageous young woman sought to change the face of German society for the better.
"I discovered Mildred Harnack's history when I was part of an American-German journalist exchange program in 2006 sponsored by RIAS (Radio in the American Sector)," says WPT documentary producer Joel Waldinger. "It was quite by accident. I had some time to spare before leaving Berlin so I decided to tour the Topographie des Terrors exhibition at the former Gestapo Headquarters. I came across Gestapo mug shots and a brief history of a woman named Mildred Fish-Harnack."
Waldinger was more than surprised to find Mildred was from Milwaukee and that she had ties to UW-Madison. He'd never heard of her. "When I started my research I learned that by state law September 16th—Mildred's birthday—is a day to honor Mildred Fish-Harnack in Wisconsin Public Schools. I have two kids in the public schools and neither one of them had ever heard of her. In fact, in talking with the State Department of Public Instruction, along with the Madison and Milwaukee Public School Districts, I couldn't find a single school doing anything in her memory."
It was a hugely motivating factor for Waldinger's decision to embark on the creation of a documentary film. "There are honors and accolades for Mildred across Europe," he says, "but here in Wisconsin she is all but forgotten." It was unconscionable in Waldinger's opinion that the story of this courageous daughter of Wisconsin was untold and unsung.
Another factor in Waldinger's decision was that Mildred's story was so interesting, so compelling. "She was a scholar at a time when it was not common for women to reach the ranks of a PhD. Mildred Fish-Harnack believed in worker's rights, women's rights, and a free Germany for all Germans. She made difficult choices to stay in Germany and to resist the Nazis."
As his research progressed, Waldinger found a clue as to why so few people knew Mildred's story. Years after her execution by the Gestapo for crimes against the German state, Mildred Fish-Harnack's actions were used by the Americans for propaganda during the Cold War. "A UW alumni magazine article on Mildred in the 1940's triggered an FBI investigation, and, during the Joseph McCarthy era any talk of the UW honoring her was shot down because 'communist sympathies could not be ruled out'," says Waldinger. "It was only after the end of the Cold War and the subsequent opening of FBI, CIA, and KGB files that we learned the real truth about Mildred."