• Germany edition
 
Berlin honours executed US freedom-fighter
Photo: Eric Carlson

Berlin honours executed US freedom-fighter

Published: 20 Sep 2013 13:05 GMT+02:00
Updated: 20 Sep 2013 13:05 GMT+02:00

Berlin 1930 and Wisconsin-born Fish-Harnack had just moved to Germany from the States with her husband, Arvid Harnack. She had met him at the University of Wisconsin and decided to move back to his homeland.

Just a few years before the Third Reich tightened its grip on the country and World War II erupted, she took up a post lecturing in literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

As unrest grew and war descended, fighting back against Nazi rule became paramount for both Harnacks. The academics joined the Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra), a pro-Soviet, anti-Nazi group, to work on helping to bring down the Third Reich government. The group helped to feed Moscow information about planned invasions.

One of Fish-Harnack’s roles was to translate and distribute speeches by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill under the noses of the Nazis in their capital. She also acted as a go-between delivering messages from her husband to Soviet agents.

In 1940 her husband tried to get her to leave Germany and bought her a boat ticket out of the country. But she decided to stay.

Goethe poems and death

Resisting was not a decision taken lightly. But for Fish-Harnack and her husband “their moral compasses were so strong that nothing could shift them away”, great-niece to Mildred, Jilly Allenby-Ryan told The Local. “It was impossible not to go against the regime without paying for your life,” she said.

And like many resistance fighters, their beliefs led them both to their deaths. On February 16th, 1943, Fish-Harnack became the only American civilian to be executed on the order of Adolf Hitler. She was 40 years old, and died alongside 18 other women that day. Her husband had been executed months prior, on December 19th 1942.

The court report stated she was guilty of preparation of high treason and espionage, and that she would be sentenced to six years in a Berlin prison. This ruling was overturned by Hitler, and she was sent to the guillotine – in the run up to which she would sit in her prison cell translating Goethe poems.

Trauma was not a topic of conversation

In her family past traumas remained long after their deaths. Jilly Allenby-Ryan’s father was living in Berlin as a teen during the war and she said he was close to his aunt and uncle, risking his own life for them. “He would run letters between different resistance fighters,” she said.

It was in her father, that the true tragedy of the Harnacks' death resonated. He left Germany soon after and started a new life in Britain – where Allenby-Ryan still lives in Hampshire, south England. He never mentioned his aunt and uncle, choosing to ignore his past completely in what now, she said, would be considered a Post Traumatic Stress-type reaction.

Click to see family photos of Mildred's life

Allenby-Ryan and her sister were drip-fed snippets of the story by their other great aunt, with whom they would spend summers. “The story was hashed up,” she said. “Not only was Communism not acceptable at the time, but it was a family trauma and it wasn't a topic for conversation.”

A mother of two children aged nine and 13, Allenby-Ryan wants to keep the story alive. One reason being that, she explained, “a lot of children in the UK still think Germans are bad.” The swathes of them that stood up to the Nazi regime barely feature on British curriculums when youngsters learn about World War II.

“Our father's uncle and aunt were brutally murdered, and we were protected from that,” she said. Never having met the pair, the journalist explained that she was more grieving for the people they left behind, her father included. “I would have wept long ago,” she said. “It's a cathartic experience.”

Bringing the story to life

Allenby-Ryan explained that because the Harnacks were communist sympathizers, their story was tucked away as the Cold War broke out. Hailing the couple as resistance heroes would not have settled well in the West and it was not until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that the story began to emerge.

Fish-Harnack only really caught the public eye a few years ago after Wisconsin journalist Joel Waldinger began researching her life. A detailed documentary followed which won a Berlin International Media Award for contributions to German-American understanding.

Waldinger played a vital role in Fish-Harnack's overdue commemoration. “His passion for the story has brought it to life,” said Allenby-Ryan.

When they began organizing the event in Berlin on Friday, which is being hosted by the US embassy 70 years after Fish-Harnack's death, Allenby-Ryan envisioned an intimate affair in which the family could begin to have closure. But interest grew and high profile German historians and politicians began to show interest.

As a family event, the ceremony “ranks up there with births, deaths and marriages,” she said, but added that the presence of dignitaries, including US ambassador John Emerson, did give credence to ancestors' importance.

For Allenby-Ryan, one of the only surviving relatives of the Harnack family, the ceremony in is long overdue. She, along with her sister, have organized that her great-great aunt and uncle will be commemorated with a brass Stolperstein - cobblestone – outside their last address, Genthiner Straße in west Berlin.

The tiny brass memorials can be seen across Germany in front of houses in which victims of persecution during the Nazi regime lived. And although small, each plaque holds an individual name, honouring a single person from the millions of faceless dead claimed by the war.

“I will feel that finally justice has been done, that people will have recognized them properly,” she said.

Jessica Ware

jessica.ware@thelocal.com

twitter.com/jesscware

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Germany plan air lifts to help fight Ebola
A Liberian man holds his daughter as they wait for treatment for suspected Ebola symptoms in Monrovia. Photo: DPA

Germany plan air lifts to help fight Ebola

Germany and France will send military transport planes to West Africa to help efforts to contain the Ebola epidemic, Chancellor Angela Merkel and military officials said on Friday. READ  

Germany beefs up asylum rules for Balkans

Germany beefs up asylum rules for Balkans

Germany made it harder Friday for people from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia to apply for asylum after lawmakers classified the three Balkan countries as safe, with respect for basic rights. READ  

German Muslims rally against extremism
Muslims pray in Kreuzberg, Berlin, on Friday outside a mosque which was damaged in an arson attack. Photo: DPA

German Muslims rally against extremism

Muslims across Germany held a day of prayers and rallies on Friday to condemn both Islamic extremism and a backlash against their faith that has seen arson attacks on mosques. READ  

German military flight to Iraq starts with a hiccup
The trainers on the air strip in Hohn, Schleswig-Holstein. Photo: Bundeswehr.

German military flight to Iraq starts with a hiccup

Military trainers flew to northern Iraq from Germany on Friday, ahead of a huge delivery of weapons from the German military, but things didn’t initially go as planned. READ  

Munich gets four Euro 2020 matches
Photo: DPA

Munich gets four Euro 2020 matches

UPDATE: Munich will play host to four Euro 2020 games, European football’s governing body Uefa announced in Geneva on Friday, but London was the real winner. READ  

Driver, 18, ploughs into school pupils
The scene by the bus stop outside the school in Diepholz. Photo: DPA

Driver, 18, ploughs into school pupils

An 18-year-old drove into a group of students outside a school in western Germany on Friday morning, injuring several. READ  

View from Germany
'In a globalized world we don't need more loners'
'No' campaign supporters celebrate in Edinburgh after the results were announced. Photo: DPA

'In a globalized world we don't need more loners'

UPDATE: The German government welcomed the result of the Scottish independence referendum on Friday, with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier calling it the "right decision". READ  

Oktoberfest 2014
Your guide to Munich Oktoberfest's beer
Photo: DPA

Your guide to Munich Oktoberfest's beer

The Local's Oktoberfest guide chugs some of the Bavarian tipple fueling this whole shindig. READ  

Berlin squat ripped apart by fire
Kreuzberg's Cuvrybrache. Photo: DPA

Berlin squat ripped apart by fire

UPDATE: One of Berlin’s biggest squats was torn apart by a fire on Thursday night following an argument. READ  

Sterilized woman gets pregnant, sues doctors
Photo: DPA

Sterilized woman gets pregnant, sues doctors

A woman who gave birth after becoming sterilized has tried and failed to sue the hospital which carried out the operation. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Photo: DPA
Culture
Your guide to Munich Oktoberfest's tents
Photo: DPA
Hamburg
Drunk teachers ruin school trip to Hamburg
Marks & Spencer
Sponsored Article
Fashion Ladies of the Local: Win a New Autumn Look
Photo: DPA
Gallery
Oktoberfest 2014: The best and worst in dirndl fashion
Photo: Shutterstock
Gallery
Ten German words you'll never want to hear again
Photo: DPA
Education
German universities tumble in global rankings
Photo: Shutterstock
Business & Money
The three types of firms hiring foreigners
Photo: DPA
Berlin
Frisky couple shock Berlin commuters
Sponsored Article
Bilingual education from nursery to graduation at Phorms
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
JobTalk: All you need to know about working in Germany
National
Share news tips with The Local Germany
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

3,373
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd