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This Day in History: Gestapo Arrest the Harnacks

The only American woman sentenced to death by direct order of Adolf Hitler was arrested on this day in 1942.

Mildred Fish was from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She met Arvid Harnack, a German Rockefeller Fellow, while he was at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin. They were married in 1928 and moved to Germany in 1929.

During the 1930s Mildred and Arvid traveled outside Germany but they continued residing there past the point when they knew their freedom would be severely restricted by the Nazis. This 1939 postcard from Mildred ends with the sentence “Better not write but don’t forget me…”

Mildred Harnack Postcard

Eventually the couple helped establish an underground resistance group with hundreds of members. They alerted other countries of the Nazi Army’s brutal mistreatment of occupied civilans/POWs and of Hitler’s aggressive and expansive intentions. Mildred gave advance warning to the Soviet Union, for example, of Germany’s intention to break the 1940 trade / 1939 Molotov–Ribbentrop pacts and invade in 1941 (Operation Barbarossa).

Precautions were taken by the Harnaks and underground members to protect communication but they were up against more than 20 years (since 1918) of decryption and surveillance expertise in the German government. In July 1942 the Nazi Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) Abteilung Fremde Heere West (FHW) or “High Command of the Army, Foreign Armies West” intelligence department intercepted and cracked the groups’ radio messages. In August the Gestapo began capturing members of the group, torturing them and putting them in jail. The Harnaks were arrested on September 7th, 1942.

Arvid Harnack was sentenced to death and executed just a couple months later. Mildred initially received a six year jail sentence but Hitler reversed the decision and ordered her put to death. She was beheaded by guillotine in 1943 in Ploetzensee Prison.

Wisconsin Public Television (WPT) has produced a video called “Wisconsin’s Nazi Resistance: The Mildred Fish Harnack Story”

WPT also has produced an interview with Andreas Sander, a Gestapo Prison expert on the Harnacks’ incarceration and interrogation.

Watch Andreas Sander on PBS. See more from WPT Documentaries.

To and From the Guillotine” is a memorial poem by Mildred’s friend, Clara Leiser

Posted in History, Poetry, Security.


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