• Germany's news in English
 
Berlin honours executed US freedom-fighter
Photo: Eric Carlson

Berlin honours executed US freedom-fighter

Published: 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

Related links:

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Ethics Council rejects assisted suicide law
Photo: DPA

Ethics Council rejects assisted suicide law

The German Ethics Council said the law should not be changed to permit assisted suicide in a paper published on Friday. READ  

Abandoned themepark needs 14m says Berlin
Swan Lake. An abandoned ride in the Spreewald pleasure park. Photo: DPA

Abandoned themepark needs 14m says Berlin

The iconic ruined themepark in the centre of Berlin - a long-time favourite of hipster adventurers - needs a clean-up costing at least 14 million euros, the Berlin government has revealed. READ  

Police nab Nuremberg station bomb hoaxer
File photo of Nuremberg main station: Shutterstock

Police nab Nuremberg station bomb hoaxer

Officers in Nuremberg arrested a man on Thursday evening after he called in a false bomb threat against the main train station READ  

Opinion
Angela, David...and Nigel
So near...and yet so far Photo: DPA

Angela, David...and Nigel

The rise of UKIP broke up what had been a good 2014 for Cameron and Merkel. READ  

'Dr Death' corpse museum gets go-ahead
Dr Gunther von Hagens. Photo: DPA

'Dr Death' corpse museum gets go-ahead

A Berlin court has said that infamous human taxidermist Gunther von Hagens can open a museum in the capital - over objections from local officials. READ  

Presented by Phorms Education
Phorms bilingual schools boast top-notch tech
Photo: Phorms Education

Phorms bilingual schools boast top-notch tech

As parents fret over children’s internet habits, a network of bilingual schools in Germany shows that putting computers in the classroom from an early age yields positive results. READ  

Networks scramble to patch mobile security
Chancellor Angela Merkel has herself been the victim of phone hacking. Photo: DPA

Networks scramble to patch mobile security

IT experts led by Berlin-based Karsten Nohl said on Thursday they had discovered security flaws in the mobile phone networks that would allow attackers to read users' messages. READ  

Turkish 'spies' arrested at Frankfurt airport
Photo: DPA

Turkish 'spies' arrested at Frankfurt airport

Three men suspected of being Turkish agents have been arrested by police, federal prosecutors said on Thursday. READ  

Tax take jumps 7.3 percent in November
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble is having an excellent month. Photo: DPA

Tax take jumps 7.3 percent in November

Germany collected 7.3 percent more in tax in November 2014 than the same month last year thanks to the strengthening economy, the Finance Ministry said in its monthly report on Thursday, while pollsters found rising consumer confidence. READ  

Ramelow bunks off his first Bundesrat sitting
Bodo Ramelow looking low on energy at a sitting of the Thuringia state parliament. Photo: DPA

Ramelow bunks off his first Bundesrat sitting

Controversial new Thuringia minister-president Bodo Ramelow of the Left (Linke) party missed his first session of Germany's second house of parliament, the Bundesrat, to go on holiday with his family. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Willy Brandt at his inauguration in 1972. Photo: DPA
National
Willy Brandt: the man, the chancellor... the airport?
Dresden skyline and river by night. Photo: DPA
Politics
What does Dresden have against Muslims?
Sponsored Article
Why are these International Baccalaureate students cheering?
Germany's national football team lifts the World Cup trophy
Gallery
Germany's most-Googled words of 2014
National
Why has The Local got a new logo?
Photo: DPA
National
This German was abducted and tortured by the CIA
Culture
10 top tips for partying in Germany
Sponsored Article
Top ten gifts for an expat Christmas
Photo: DPA
Technology
What does the Chancellor see as the future of the internet?
Photo: DPA
Culture
Stuff your face with these festive German cookies
Photo: DPA
Culture
What do beer, breakfast cereal and dildos have in common?
Culture
The Local's guide to German Christmas markets
Sponsored Article
Top five quirky Christmas jumpers
Photo: DPA
Culture
Get ready for Christmas like a German. We tell you how.
Photo: DPA
Munich
She did what with her dead mother?
Photo: DPA
National
Germany still paying for crisis fall out
Photo: DPA
Culture
Saxon wurst is the worst, Christmas market declares.
Photo: DPA
Politics
Can 'sorry' ever be enough for the Linke?
Sponsored Article
Shop Christmas gifts at Debenhams international store
Photo: DPA
Berlin
The Local's series on 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall
Shutterstock
Sponsored Article
Offer: Unlimited airmiles through December 19th
Photo: DPA
Gallery
See how Berlin has changed in 22 photos
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

3,201
jobs available
The Local Spain is hiring!
The Local is seeking a new editor for our site in Spain to join our growing team of internationally-minded, driven, ambitious and clued-up journalists.
Details and how to apply
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd