The Red Orchestra and the Story of Mildred Fish-Harnack


Recent events that have been happening in this country about the rise of white supremacy has made me interested in looking closer at the rise of National Socialism and Nazism. I want to be able to see the correlations between modern day and 1930-40’s Germany. The U.S. and World War 2 Germany are very close in terms of government structure and political views. What happened back then could definitely happen now (or perhaps already happening) in this country. Getting familiar with how Hitler rose to power and the various groups that resisted could help with preventing it from happening again. One of the resistance groups that I decided to focus on this semester was the Far-Left German espionage group known as “Die Rote Kapelle” or The Red Orchestra. The name was given to them by the Gestapo, which was the German secret police, for the purpose of identification. While they didn’t physically fight against the Nazis, the group provided valuable intelligence to both the Soviets and the US. But what really struck me was the rarely known story of Mildred Fish-Harnack.  

The CIA Files

While on a search to find a primary source where I could get firsthand knowledge of the far-left resistance movements against the Nazis in Germany, I came across a woman named Mildred Fish-Harnack who was a member of the Rote Kapelle or “Red Orchestra”. Mildred was the only American woman and civilian to be executed personally by Adolf Hitler during World War 2. She was born in Milwaukee and attended the University of Wisconsin in the 1920s. While there, she met a handsome German student, Arvid, who came to study labor history and economics. They got married and moved to Berlin in 1932. A year later, Hitler soon rose to power and became the dictator of Germany. Arvid had joined the National Socialist Party, to the surprise of his friends, and was posted in the Ministry of Economics. Mildred was also assumed to have become a Nazi until the truth later became apparent after the war. 

The various letters were written by Mildred to her family who still lived in Milwaukee. Some letters can be found online at the Wisconsin Public Television website while the rest remain with the family’s private collection. Various documents can also be found about witnesses who knew Mildred as well as government documents by the CIA, the Gestapo and various news clippings in the Milwaukee Journal about her and her husband’s death. I chose this collection of sources, and Mildred and Arvid specifically, because I needed to know someone who fought in a far-left group of the Nazi resistance. What better people to talk about than the founders of the Red Orchestra network in Berlin. This allows me to dig further into the resistance group called the Red Orchestra and their dealings with Russian and American intelligence. 

The Eastern German Stamps 

My object is a stamp which was made in Eastern Germany in the 1960s after World War 2. The German Democratic Republic issued six commemorative postage stamps that glorified seven members of the Red Orchestra group who were executed at the hands of the Nazis. They were considered heroes for their anti-fascist work. One of the stamps included both Arvid and Mildred Harnack. The stamps were widely used in Eastern Germany at the time and most of the stamps survive at the Mildred Harnack exhibit at the German American Heritage Center in Davenport, Iowa. The stamp designer is currently unknown. 

One of the stamps that shows a drawing of Mildred and Arvid, used in the German Democratic Republic in the 1960s.

The stamps were used by the government as a way to enshrine them as Communist heroes. The Soviets predated the Red Orchestra member’s Communist membership cards and made them much better Communists than they might have been. Part of this propaganda was to put Mildred and Arvid’s pictures on a series of stamps honoring the resistance. Even though they were now deceased, the stamps became part of a top-secret CIA file about them. The Harnack family also learned that the Stasi (the German Democratic Republic secret police) engraved Arvid’s image on a medal and was used as a reward for informants.  

Historian Shareen Blair Brysac

My first scholar that helped me study the Mildred and the Red Orchestra is Shareen Blair Brysac. She attended the Juilliard School and graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in Archaeology and Art History. In 1974 she went to work for CBS first as a researcher and subsequently as a director, producer and writer of network documentary films for CBS News Specials and CBS Reports.Her films won five Emmys, the George Foster Peabody Award, a Dupont Citation, the Writers Guild Award, gold and silver medals from the New York and Chicago Film Festivals, and a special award at the Edinburgh Film Festival (1979).The book she wrote, Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra, helped me immensely in understanding the Red Orchestra and their story.In her book, she discusses the history of the Red Orchestra through the unjustly forgotten woman, Mildred Fish-Harnack. Shareen depicts the human side of a controversial resistance group that for too long had been portrayed as merely a Soviet espionage network.The book was also a finalist for the LA Times History Book of the Year. In 2008, the book was optioned for a feature film but, sadly, it didn’t come to fruition. In the preface of her book, she talks about her colleague “had not heard of Mildred. Nor had I, the unusual circumstances of her death notwithstanding. She was the only American woman executed on Hitler’s orders during the Third Reich. She was killed in secret and in wrath.” This shows that even she didn’t know anything about Mildred until it was brought up by her husband. He had only learned of her through his mother through which Shareen interviewed and gained a brief insight into Mildred’s life. This is what made her delve even further into Mildred’s story and the history of the Red Orchestra.  

Historian Peter C.W. Hoffmann

My second scholar is Peter C.W. Hoffmann. He is a German Professor who attended the universities of Stuttgart, Tübingen, Zurich, Northwestern University and Munich. He received his PhD in 1961.His main area of research deals with the German Resistance against National Socialism, and in particular, the resistance efforts of Claus von Stauffenberg. For those who don’t know, Stauffenberg was one of the leading members of the 1944 failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler which was called Operation Valkyrie.In Peter’s book called The History of the German Resistance, 1933-1945, he discusses in depth the numerous plans for a coup against the regime and the planned or attempted assassinations of Hitler. Hoffmann pays more attention to the conspiracies of the military establishment than to those of the various political factions such as the Red Orchestra. In his book, Peter briefly he talks about the various non-military factions: “[The Red Orchestra] passed its intelligence to Russia by radio; its findings included Hitler’s decision to pursue the offensive in Southern Russia in the spring of 1942. Whether their names have been quoted or not, all these people ‘did’ something to sabotage the government and assist in bringing about the fall of the regime.” He described it as an espionage organization that sent intelligence to Russia. However, I later learned through Brysac’s book that Arvid Harnack also provided top secret intelligence information to America via Donald Heath who was the First Secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power. 

Historian Dustin K. Lowe

Lastly, the last historian to help bring Mildred’s life into the limelight is me. My name is Dustin Lowe and I expect to get my bachelors in English and a Minor in History around 2020 from The Ohio State University. My main influence for why I find the World War 2 era so interesting is because of my History teacher in high school. I took his World War 2 class and it was very interesting to really get into the specifics of the war and the history of Germany from the Weimar Republic to the rise of National Socialism. I also feel as though learning about this history can help with our current political climate and the worrying rise of Neo-Nazi and far-right groups around the world. For my influences and how I feel about the two scholars: I was deeply invested into Mildred Fish-Harnack’s life after I first read Brysac’s Resisting Hitler. Her life felt inspiring to me in that she didn’t just “follow her husband’s orders”, as the Gestapo and CIA framed it, but she did what she could to help in intelligence gathering and refused to leave (3 different times) both her husband’s side and Germany itself. In regard to Peter’s book, he gave a lot of insight into the Red Orchestra’s actions involving their espionage activities but not much else. But he understood that their contributions were significant in helping to bring an end to Hitler and the Nazi regime. 


While reading the collections of various reports and with the help of Shareen and Peter, I was able to find out a lot about the Red Orchestra; the various dealings they had with both Soviet and American intelligence, the organization’s history which was subject to a lot of misinformation, and the preferred progressive and Marxist ideals that they wished to implement in Germany. Arvid was influenced by the Great Depression to see the Soviet model of a planned economy as more preferable to the free-market economy. He became a Nazi to infiltrate the economics ministry and learn the various German secrets. Arvid later met and partnered with Harro Schulze-Boysen who was a young Luftwaffe Lieutenant from a very distinguished German family. The resistance network began sending both military and economic secrets to both the Soviets and Americans. The group smuggled important secrets about the Nazis to the U.S. and Soviet governments and helped Jews escape from Germany. This particular group was actually doing extremely well with hiding their presence until the Soviets, desperate to gain intel due to the Nazi’s encroaching on Moscow, broadcasted the real names of their informants instead of using their code names. The Nazi regime successfully translated the Soviet message and arrested the members mentioned which included Arvid and Harro.  

According to Brysac during an interview with PBS, she believed the Red Orchestra wasn’t successful as she explained, “their resistance activities made no difference at all, and their spying for the Soviets: Stalin didn’t believe them. And the Americans didn’t believe them. So, I don’t think you could say they were a success. Now, that doesn’t mean that they weren’t noble and worthwhile people and role models for people. But I don’t think you could call them successful.” However, despite the group’s efforts (or lack therefore of), Mildred’s story should still be honored as a hero of the resistance against the Nazi regime. She never turned her back against Germany an while she wasn’t without fear, Mildred was very brave to fight against Hitler. Mildred and the rest of the group wouldn’t want to be remembered as heroes, but as people. After her husband attempted to convince her to return to the United States, Mildred famously said, “it’s not a question of how dangerous it is, I’ve got work to do, I’m not going.”  

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