Operation Valkyrie, the July 1944 military-led plot to assassinate Hitler and install a new government, remains the best-known act of German resistance against the Third Reich. But it was the culmination of years of mostly clandestine dissent by Germans of various political stripes — and one brave American woman.
That woman, Mildred Harnack, is the subject of Rebecca Donner’s passionate, page-turning book, “All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days,” which melds history and biography. Donner, a novelist by trade, also happens to be Harnack’s great-great-niece. She brings forensic and literary skills — along with access to family papers and a key witness — to a story at once deeply personal and broadly inspiring.
Beginning in 1933, Hitler sent thousands of political opponents — mainly Social Democrats and Communists — to prisons and concentration camps. After that, both his terror regime and his popularity forestalled most public protest. Still, a dedicated, if inchoate, resistance gradually coalesced. Mildred and Arvid Harnack and their associates distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, helped Jews escape, and ultimately turned to espionage.
The couple had met at the University of Wisconsin, when Arvid, a German graduate student in philosophy, mistakenly wandered into a lecture given by Mildred Fish, a graduate student in American literature. The attraction seems to have been immediate and intense. About six months later, they were married, and, in 1929, Mildred joined her husband in Germany.
The duo, who shared leftist sympathies, could have exited the country when Nazism took hold. Instead, they decided to do their part to undermine it. Mildred Harnack conducted an initial meeting in 1932, even before Hitler took power, seeding what Donner calls “the largest underground resistance group in Berlin by the end of the decade.”
While Mildred carefully recruited dissidents from the classes she taught, her husband took a post in the German Ministry of Economics. There he was ideally placed to acquire and pass on high-level information to both the Soviets and the Americans. Mildred assisted in the espionage by conveying and encrypting messages.
“All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days” is a tale of heroism, but equally of colossal blunders and misjudgments. While Arvid risked his life to warn his Soviet contacts that Hitler was planning an invasion, Stalin apparently scoffed. The Americans and the British committed errors of both sympathy and imagination, not just refusing to extend aid to the German resistance but evincing skepticism of its very existence.
Meanwhile, Stalinist purges were denuding the ranks of Soviet spies. Their inexperienced replacements were often bumbling, passing on inadequate radio transmitters and confusing instructions. Worst of all, one missive included the real names and addresses of German resisters. The information was encrypted, but when the Nazis broke the code, the Harnacks and others — dubbed “the Red Orchestra” by the Germans, for their Soviet ties — were exposed.
Donner writes mostly in the present tense, breaks her story into short takes, and employs a novelist’s toolkit to set scenes and imagine her characters’ thoughts. Some might prefer a more conventional narrative — the story surely is interesting enough without such gimmickry. But the devices do serve both to immerse readers in the rush of history and paper over evidentiary gaps.
The book’s limits reflect the limits of historical knowledge. Mildred burned her journals, and her sister, Harriette, in a spasm of rage and grief, ordered the destruction of her letters and photographs. Most of the Harnacks’ comrades were executed before they could pen memoirs.
But, along with intelligence files, Donner has Mildred’s letters to her mother, letters from Mildred’s niece (and Donner’s grandmother), Jane Esch Donner — and the recollections and family papers of Donald Heath Jr., an American diplomat’s son who served as a courier for the Harnacks. As a result, Heath’s story, though historically marginal, looms large in the book.
Other fascinating characters parade through its pages. Martha Dodd, the American ambassador’s daughter who was a key figure in Eric Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts” (2011), becomes first the lover of a Nazi Gestapo chief and then the dupe of a Soviet spy — but also an intimate of Mildred’s. The American novelist Thomas Wolfe turns up in Berlin, where both Mildred and Martha befriend him, to no political effect. “To be an American in Berlin is to turn a blind eye to atrocity,” Donner writes.
The narrative turns grimmer once the Harnacks are seized by the Gestapo. Mildred, mostly in solitary confinement and suffering from tuberculosis, is interrogated, tortured, and betrayed. Minimizing her involvement, she receives a sentence of six years of hard labor, while her husband is condemned to death. But Hitler orders her execution as well.
Harnack spends some of her final hours translating Goethe into English. The book’s title is lifted from one such translation, preserved for posterity. Even more miraculous is the survival of a farewell letter from her husband, consigned by Harnack to her prison cellmate, who guarded it in a concentration camp.
Citing the beauty of Walt Whitman’s verse, Arvid waxes nostalgic about their marriage and confirms his enduring love. “You are in my heart. You shall be in there forever,” he writes to Mildred. Donner’s achievement is to inscribe her in ours.
ALL THE FREQUENT TROUBLES OF OUR DAYS: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler
By Rebecca Donner
Little, Brown, 576 pp., $32
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.