New biography on Mildred Fish-Harnack illuminates the life of the resistance leader, alumna

A New York Times bestseller by Rebecca Donner, the great-great-niece of Mildred Fish-Harnack, is shedding light on the life of the famed resistance leader, Wisconsinite, and UW–Madison alumnus. The biography, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, is being hailed by readers and experts for the new depth it adds on Mildred, who became a resistance leader in Germany leading up to and during World War II.

Working on the project for Donner meant discovering secrets and history that first surfaced during the author’s childhood.

Rebecca Donner
Rebecca Donner

A decades-long mystery

Donner first learned about her great-great-aunt at age 9 after she saw a mark on the wall of her great grandmother’s house measuring height. Donner asked who the mark belonged to and was told it was Mildred’s.

“The mystery of Mildred began for me then, because that’s when my great-grandmother mentioned her name to me, but wouldn’t tell me anything more. There was a hint of anger or sadness, and even at 9 I could tell there was a story there.”

The next piece of the puzzle was given to Donner by her grandmother in the form of a bundle of letters sent by Mildred—her grandmother had hidden them away in the attic to prevent them from being destroyed. Her grandmother asked her to one day tell Mildred’s story. From then on, it became not a matter of if, but when.

Donner began writing in earnest in 2016. She first considered writing the story as fiction, having already written two novels, but opted for a biography because to her, “the power of the story is that it is true.” Even with her commitment to fact, the story Donner weaves reads less as a conventional linear biography, and more as an espionage thriller or scholarly detective story that uses historical documents and newly discovered primary source materials to bring to life the people and events from Mildred’s upbringing until her tragic execution by the direct orders of Adolf Hitler.

Mildred in Wisconsin

In telling the story of Harnack’s life, Donner also discusses her time in Wisconsin, which the author said had a formative effect on the resistance leader.

Born in Milwaukee, Mildred Fish enrolled at UW–Madison in 1921. She found herself pursuing a passion for writing and poetry, finding an outlet for her creativity through contributing to the Wisconsin Literary Magazine. She graduated in 1925 with a bachelor’s degree and decided to attend graduate school at the university while also teaching English. It was while teaching on campus that she met her husband, Arvid Harnack, a Rockefeller Scholar from Germany who was working on his second doctorate. Mildred and Arvid married at the Fish family farm on Aug. 8, 1926, two days after passing her master’s degree exam.

Soon after, she and Arvid would move to Germany, where Mildred would work on her doctorate while Arvid worked for the German government. Both would become resistance leaders against Hitler and the Nazi regime.

“Her time here was enormously influential,” said Donner. “Her mother was a suffragette and she very much believed in women’s rights. Mildred came to UW–Madison and joined the Friday Niters, becoming more political. It was a bond she shared with her husband, Arvid, a passion for women’s rights and a passion for worker’s rights.”

Mildred’s Wisconsin connections continue to play a role throughout the story via life with Arvid, visits with family, and even gives perspective on some of her final days through a Wisconsin friend and fellow dissident who briefly share a prison cell with her.

With the new details on Mildred’s life, Donner hopes that in reading about Mildred and discovering more about her, audiences will not focus solely on her tragic end, but instead the heroic example she set with her life.

“I would like people to feel emboldened and know that it’s important to stand up to bullies and fight for what you believe in. It is important to have courage of their convictions. It is important to do the unpopular thing if it is the moral thing, if it is the right thing. If you believe it is wrong and you need to stand alone, that is what one should do.”

All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days is available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

Donner visited campus on April 13 to present as the keynote speaker for the Mildred Fish-Harnack Human Rights and Democracy Lecture. Her presentation, “Mildred Harnack: An American Graduate Student at the Center of Berlin’s Underground Resistance to Hitler” discussed research and findings present in her book and the lessons we can draw in considering today’s global issues. The lecture was hosted by the International Division and the Human Rights Program, and cosponsored by the Global Legal Studies Center and European Studies. European Studies previously hosted Donner on campus in November 2021.

About All the Frequent Troubles of our Days

Born and raised in Milwaukee, Mildred Harnack was 26 when she enrolled in a PhD program in Germany and witnessed the meteoric rise of the Nazi party. In 1932, she began holding secret meetings in her apartment—a small band of political activists that by 1940 had grown into the largest underground resistance group in Berlin. She recruited working-class Germans into the resistance, helped Jews escape, plotted acts of sabotage, and collaborated in writing leaflets that denounced Hitler’s regime. Her coconspirators circulated through Berlin under the cover of night, slipping the leaflets into mailboxes, public restrooms and phone booths. When the first shots of the Second World War were fired, she became a spy, couriering top-secret intelligence to the Allies. On the eve of her escape to Sweden, she was ambushed by the Gestapo. At a Nazi military court, a panel of five judges sentenced her to six years at a prison camp, but Hitler overruled the decision and ordered her execution. On February 16, 1943, she was strapped to a guillotine and beheaded.

Historians identify Mildred Harnack as the only American in the leadership of the German resistance, yet her remarkable story has remained almost unknown until now.

Harnack’s great-great-niece Rebecca Donner draws on her extensive archival research in Germany, Russia, England, and the U.S. as well as newly uncovered documents in her family archive to produce this astonishing work of narrative nonfiction. Fusing elements of biography, real-life political thriller, and scholarly detective story, Donner brilliantly interweaves letters, diary entries, notes smuggled out of a Berlin prison, testimony of survivors, and a trove of declassified intelligence documents into a powerful, enthralling story, reconstructing the moral courage of an enigmatic woman nearly erased by history.