The University of Wisconsin community honored an alumna Friday who lost her life fighting against Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany.
Shareen Blair Brysac, a historian and the author of “Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra,” gave a lecture on Mildred Fish-Harnack’s life and her role as both an alumni and a member of the resistance in Germany in the 1930s.
Brysac researched Fish-Harnack for many years and got information from a variety of sources, including the CIA and the former Russian intelligence agency known as the KGB.
Born in 1902 in Milwaukee, Fish-Harnack graduated from UW in 1926 with a masters degree in English. It was on campus she met her husband Arvid Harnack, a student from Germany.
“It was in Madison that they agreed they had spent the two happiest years of their lives,” Brysac said. “Canoeing and hiking around Lake Mendota, sipping bootleg wine, and enjoying readings of Shakespeare with friends.”
The couple married and eventually settled in Berlin in 1930. There, Fish-Harnack taught at the University of Berlin and presided over a salon for intellectual opponents of the Nazi regime. When they visited Soviet Russia they became supporters of communism.
“They saw it as an important experiment… the only country that tried to give all of its citizens work and food,” Brysac said.
Both Fish-Harnack and her husband supplied Russia and America with information about the Germans’ war plans, hoping to prepare the Soviets for when the Germans attacked.
They were part of a group the Nazis dubbed the ‘Red Orchestra.’ Eventually discovered in 1942, Fish-Harnack was beheaded in 1943.
Several UW students participated in the event, reading letters from Fish-Harnack and her husband to family members back home.
“What’s really cool is that it’s all places we know and are familiar with. It’s places we’ve all been to, places we can relate to,” UW senior Benjamin Morris said.
The letters included mentions of Bascom Hill and Picnic Point. Also, in the final letter Arvid wrote his wife before she died, he mentioned he was reminiscing about a lunch they had in a restaurant on State Street.
UW sophomore Laura Bechard said she took part mainly because the love story of Mildred and Arvid inspired her.
Students who attended the event said they found the details of Fish-Harnack’s life interesting, and the fact she participated in such an electric historical era inspiring.
“It’s just really amazing that someone from here, like us, could go and do something like that,” UW freshman Elizabeth Lampp said. “Even if she didn’t make or break the war, she was still from here and she still did something important with her life.”
Brysac ended her presentation with the last words of both the UW alumna and her husband: “It is to the prison pastor that we owe our final portrait of Mildred. He recorded Arvid’s last words to her – ‘I pray to the power of love.’ And he recorded her last words – ‘And I have loved Germany so much.'”