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Kreises of conscience

All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days
The True Story of the Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler
by Rebecca Donner
Canongate, £16.99, pp576

In 1928, modest young blue-collar English lecturer Mildred Fish arrives in Berlin to begin her PhD in American Literature.

In the febrile, polyglot atmosphere at the ‘crossroads of Europe’, some papers are still mocking Adolf Hitler; few take him seriously. Mildred sees (up close) the brokenness of American and German capitalism, and (distantly) the apparently level playing-fields of Communist Russia. As the Nazi Party gets its claws into the body politic, she teaches an overtly socialist syllabus: Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, et al. Halfway through her dissertation, the university fires her. She promptly starts work at a free night-school for working class students. “Should Hitler be Chancellor?” she asks them, in her ‘English’ class.

But within six months he turns the country into a dictatorship. Newspapers are closed, political opponents taken into ‘protective custody’, camps built. ‘The situation grows steadily worse,’ Mildred writes to her uncomprehending mother back in Wisconsin. ‘We must change this situation as soon as possible.‘ She and her friends convene a regular ‘discussion circle’ (or Kreis) in her apartment, made up of students, aristocrats, bohemians – even a former member of the Hitler Youth.

She marries the equally-earnest Arvid Harnack (they honeymoon on a picket line in Colorado), a German economist with a fondness for the Soviet model. Arvid is a cousin of the Bonhoeffers, one of whom gets him a job at Lufthansa, then at the Ministry of Economics, where he reports directly to Hjalmar Schacht. He begins urgently leaking evidence of Germany’s war preparations.

Mildred, meanwhile, leverages her friendship with the US ambassador’s giddy daughter Martha Dodd for access to sympathetic American officials, their drinks parties and high-ranking guests. Working as a literary scout, she is able to travel surprisingly freely. In London, once, she tries to recruit Rebecca West.

The Kreis steal documents, print and distribute leaflets, helps Jews escape through consular contacts, translate and smuggle foreign speeches into German factories and government departments (incl. Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry!), expose war-profiteering and German atrocities in uniform, and attempt to give crucial economic and military intelligence to the soon-to-be Allies.

The tragedy of Harnack’s life is that it was all for nothing. The British and French having bailed on them (and the nascent Oster conspiracy) at Munich, the Western allies continued to dismiss the idea of any German resistance movement throughout the war. Despite countless warnings, Stalin continued to stare into the funfair mirror of his paranoia until the morning after Barbarossa.

But at the time of her arrest in December 1942, Mildred Harnack was simultaneously teaching English to the SS and at the centre of one of the largest anti-Nazi resistance groups in Germany – a chaotic Venn diagram of diplomats, ministry officials, military officers, broadcasters, engineers, socialist literati, socialites, actual spies, an American 11-year-old, and a journalist turned ‘fortune-teller’ who used her sessions with German soldiers to extract strategic information. Thanks to Arvid’s formal (if reluctant) conversion to paid espionage, she was also very actually in bed with Soviet interests.

It was the Russian connection which ultimately did for them, a callow NKVD chief sending a telegram including Mildred’s name and address undisguised in it: ‘one of the most significant espionage blunders of the Second World War’. The Abwehr dropped the net, and one of the fish (not to say Fish) gave up most of the others.

Arvid received the death sentence. Mildred, extraordinarily, was given only six years’ hard labour – until Hitler personally intervened. She spent her final days in solitary confinement, translating Goethe (whence Donner’s title). On February 16 1943, Mildred Harnack was executed, age 40, in Plötzensee Prison, under the guillotine.

The job of bringing this surprising and courageous woman back to life has fallen to her great-great niece, the Canadian-American essayist and novelist Rebecca Donner.

Donner acknowledges the difficulty of biographing someone whose aim, by definition of her work, ‘was self-erasure.’ Frankly, what Harnack even did from day to day is fairly unclear. I’m not convinced the book quite lands its stated ‘heart of the resistance movement’ claim. And the material does feel a little stretched between Harnack’s arrest and even legitimately related events – like Operation Walkyrie – towards the war’s end.

But Donner’s pacey present-tense narrative – assembled from testimonials, memoirs, diaries, etc. – astutely papers over most of these unfortunate lacunae, while the short chapters and numbered subdivisions combine with clippings, photos, handwriting and so on, to reapply the human touches, add salt for international flavour (English, German and Russian), and illustrate the nightmarish job of tracking Harnack through the often-literally fragmented documentary evidence.

And out of necessity, virtue. From the Chatwinesque details – like the Moscow import-export front called ‘Foreign Excellent Trench Coats’, or the hideously creepy questionnaire the day she died: ‘Do you have especially strong passions? (Drinking, smoking, sexual excess?)’ – to the group’s mugshots, terrible in their banal officialdom, it’s an impressive and compelling excavation.

‘The archives tell us a great deal,’ writes Donner, but ‘much is missing from them.’ Now, at least, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days stands as a memorial for Mildred Harnack. As one of her interrogators once said: “It would make a wonderful novel, if it weren’t so sad.”

For The Spectator, in a different edit

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