New documentary highlights Mildred Fish-Harnack

A new one-hour documentary on Mildred Fish-Harnack—Milwaukee native, University of Wisconsin alumna, and the only American woman executed on direct orders from Adolf Hitler—is scheduled to premiere Monday, Nov. 7, at 8 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television (WPT).

Also, a free preview screening of Wisconsin’s Nazi Resistance: The Mildred Fish-Harnack Story is scheduled Thursday, Nov. 3, at 7 p.m., at UW Hillel/Barbara Hochberg Center for Jewish Student Life, 611 Langdon Street, Madison. Rudy Koshar, UW-Madison professor of history and religious studies, will introduce the showing, and a question-and-answer session with WPT producer Joel Waldinger will follow.

The Mildred Fish-Harnack Story will incorporate historical video from Milwaukee, Madison, Berlin and WWII Germany,” Waldinger says. “Newly uncovered information, official German documents and papers from U.S. archives will provide a glimpse into the world of the resistance.”

The documentary, narrated by actress and UW–Madison alumna Jane Kaczmarek, marks the latest effort to bring attention to Fish-Harnack’s story, which has been the subject of two books. In 1986, the Wisconsin Legislature designated September 16 as “Mildred Harnack Day” across in Wisconsin.

At UW–Madison, the Division of International Studies and the Global Legal Studies Center have honored her courage, idealism, and self-sacrifice through the annual Mildred Fish-Harnack Human Rights and Democracy Lecture. The series is designed to promote greater understanding of human rights and democracy.

Distinguished individuals who have contributed to the cause of human rights through scholarship and leadership have been invited to campus to give a major public lecture and meet with students and faculty in classrooms or informal settings. Speakers have included Shareen Blair Brysac, author of Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra, and Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights.

Fish-Harnack earned her bachelor’s degree in 1925 and master’s degree in 1926 from the University of Wisconsin, taught in the English Department, and wrote for the Wisconsin State Journal and the Wisconsin Literary Magazine. She married Arvid Harnack, a young German graduate student, and returned with him to Germany. She taught American literature at the University of Berlin while he worked on the American desk at the Ministry of Economics.

Alarmed by the rise of Hitler and the Nazis during the 1930s, the Harnacks organized a resistance group of more than 130 men and women. This group arranged the escape of dissidents and Jews, published an underground newsletter, and fed economic information to the U.S. and Soviet embassies in Berlin. After Germany invaded Russia, the group transmitted military intelligence to Moscow via radio “concerts,” prompting the Gestapo to call them the “Red Orchestra.”

Arvid Harnack was arrested in 1942 and executed. Mildred Fish-Harnack initially was sentenced to six years hard labor, but Hitler ordered a retrial, which produced a death sentence. She was guillotined on February 16, 1943, the only American civilian to be executed by Hitler as an underground conspirator.

by Kerry G. Hill