As long as poeple write history, truly impartial reportage remains impossible. When people speak of rewriting history, they refer to reinterpreting those events that have already been recorded though someone else's vision. Such is the case of Mildred Harnack Fish. Fish is the only American woman executed, in a bizarre twist, actually guillotined on direct order of Adolph Hitler, during World War II. She was a fascinating woman either unknown or ignored in her native country.
After hearing of Harnack Fish, Shareen Brysac, a former producer at CBS News, determined to unravel her story. Brysac traveled to Germany and found conflicting tales of Harnack Fish and the resistance group dubbed by the Nazis as the Rote Kappele, the Red Orchestra. In West Germany this was largely considered a group of Soviet spies. In East Germany, however, they were recognized as heroes. As long as Germany existed as a divided nation, this group went unrecognized because of its association with our onetime ally, the USSR. Brysac resolved to prove that "the Harnacks and the Red Orchestra ... belonged admirably to the anti-Nazi resistance, that the Harnacks risked their lives to provide vital information not just to the Soviet Union, but also the United States, and that they saw themselves as patriots seeking to oust from power an illegal despotism led by a fanatic and hateful usurper."
Mildred Fish was born in 1902 and raised in Milwaukee, Wis., which Brysac describes as "a city nearly as German as the city where she would end [her life], Berlin." Her feckless father proved unable to support his large family, which "rented out rooms and took in borders," but still "moved nearly every year to different houses in the same neighborhood when they could not pay their rent." Mildred herself wrote of her childhood as "a certain materialization of tragedy," though she determined to use the strengths she learned "productively and not let unproductive forces destroy them."
Beautiful, intelligent, and possessing a will to cure societal ills, Mildred developed an early predilection for nonconformist ideology. At college in Madison, Wis. she felt drawn to transcendentalist writers Emerson and Hawthorne, and especially Thoreau's anti-capitalist ideals. Spurning sororities and working her way through school, she identified with the underclasses. She began to write seriously, poems and essays, and for two years edited the school's literary journal. Brysac writes, "In later years her relatives attributed Mildred's left-wing views to her university years in Madison."
Mildred stayed on in Madison to teach, and it was there that she met the husband who would eventually draw her into the German Resistance. Arvid Harnack, in the United States on an academic fellowship, promised to be a husband, friend and comrade. His own family suffered the financial ills of a Germany in economic ruin. He and Mildred shared the belief "that capitalism was bankrupt and looked with hope and interest to what they believed was an egalitarian system that promised jobs and dignity to all."
The complexities of the story of Mildred Harnack Fish dictate a necessary subtext to Brysac's book, that of filtering out the truth. Contradictory stories, files from the old Soviet Union and FBI, varying opinions of friends and relatives, all must be considered equally. Brysac accomplishes this feat by including extensive quotes, letters and testimonies. Some (especially a story involving writer Rebecca West) show Mildred in a decidedly unflattering light. At times this methodology weighs the narrative down in necessary detail. At best, however, the technique paints a vivid narrative collage, which includes fascinating insight into the disintegration of German society during World War II. Mildred's depth of feeling for this country is reflected in her poignant last words, "I have loved Germany so much."
Reading the story of Mildred and Arvid Harnack's lives in Berlin and their tragic end is as captivating as reading the most thrilling spy novel. It is a story of idealism and betrayal, constant danger and fatal error. Rarely do readers get such insight into the havoc wreaked within Germany. Brysac has done her homework and done it well. Her writing is impeccable. We can only hope that the inevitable movie script will fall into similarly competent hands.