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Women You Should Know: Mildred Fish-Harnack

Categories: Mission, News

Mildred Fish-Harnack.

Mildred Fish-Harnack in prison, 1943.

After 42 years of living in Wisconsin, I only heard about this amazing woman and her story a few weeks ago.  Her story is so amazing that in 1986, Mildred Fish-Harnack Day was established in Wisconsin. It takes place every year on her birthday, September 16th.

Mildred Fish was born in 1902.  She grew up in a German neighborhood in Milwaukee.  Before her senior year in high school, Mildred and her family moved to Chevy Chase, Maryland.  Here, she graduated high school and enrolled in George Washington University.  After two years, she returned to her home state of Wisconsin to addend UW Madison.  After graduating with a degree in English, she stayed at Madison to pursue her Master’s Degree and teach English.

It was at Madison where she met her German-born husband, Arvid Harnack.  They married in 1926 and moved to Germany so her husband could pursue a Doctorate degree.  Mildred Fish-Harnack settled in Germany and taught modern American Literature at Berlin University for a short time.  She was shortly terminated for “not being Nazi enough.”

In Germany

As the Nazi regime gained ground, Fish-Harnack and her husband joined a small resistance movement.  They published an underground newsletter and gave economic information on the Nazis to the United States and the Soviet embassies.  Once Germany invaded Russia, the group began to send military intelligence through radio “concerts.”  This is how the group was named the “Red Orchestra” by the German Gestapo.

The couple, along with the rest of their resistance movement, was arrested in 1942.  Arvid was hanged, and shortly after, Mildred faced the guillotine.  It is said that her execution was directly ordered by Adolf Hitler.  She is the only native-born American known to have been executed in Nazi Germany.

“Ich habe Deutschland auch so geliebt” 

“And I have loved Germany so much.”

The sculpture “Mildred”, dedicated to Mildred Fish-Harnack in Marshall Park, with Picnic Point in the background. Picnic Point is where she was engaged to her husband, Arvid.

After her death, her incredible story began to make the rounds at her alma mater.  However, due to the rise of the anti-communist movement in the United States, talk of her heroic deeds were squashed and she and her husband were dismissed as Communists.

Through stories from those who knew her, including letters she wrote to her family, Mildred’s story was eventually told.  In July 2019, a sculpture, “Mildred”, by John Durbrow was dedicated by the city of Madison in her honor.  Durbrow said, “The Madison sculpture honors the strength, courage, and resolve to address early on the forces of oppression which eventually inflamed the entire world.”

For more information on the extraordinary life and death of Mildred Fish-Harnack, click on the following links: