Mildred Fish-Harnack was a young woman ahead of her time. In the early 1930s she was teaching literature at the University of Berlin, in fact the first American ever to do so. Berlin was a vibrant city, alive with fine restaurants, museums, clattering trams, and cultured, well-educated Germans. It was natural that she would become friends with Martha Dodd, who arrived with her ambassador father from the U.S. in 1933, and their relationship assured Mildred of contacts at the highest levels of government. Life was full and exciting with the glittering parties, the balls, the leisurely outings, but things were changing dramatically in Germany and soon these carefree days would belong to a lost past.
Mildred and her husband, Arvid Harnack, would be caught up in the looming Nazi specter. Mildred would be forced to join the Nazi party in order to continue teaching, and Arvid, an expert in economics, would become a senior executive officer in the Reich Ministry of Economics. Even so, they privately disapproved of National Socialism as did many of their well-heeled friends in Berlin. They met often to talk of the dangerous direction the country was headed and formed a loose network, 150 strong, into “resistance circles.”
When they became known to the Gestapo two years later, they would be dubbed the Red Orchestra, a romantic-sounding name for what was in truth a simple group of friends doing what they could to undermine the Hitler regime. They published secret propaganda, rescued Jews, forged illegal documents, and passed economic and military information to the Allies. In the end, of course, these “resistance circles,” no matter how well intentioned, were pushing back against a juggernaut. On September 7, 1942, Arvid and Mildred were arrested and tried. Arvid was hanged in Berlin three months later on December 22. Mildred was initially sentenced to six years hard labor, but on the personal orders of Adolf Hitler was sent to the guillotine on February 16, 1943. It seemed he simply couldn’t believe that well-educated Berliners would actually oppose him. In all, 50 members of the Red Orchestra were executed.
The question has been asked if the Red Orchestra did any good? Did they accomplish anything besides getting themselves killed? It seems that the information they passed was not particularly valuable, and none of the rescued spoke up after the war to illuminate their heroic deeds. We all love a story of daring-do, of victory against all odds, but what of the stories that end, not in triumph, but in tragedy? We might ask ourselves, “Is the right thing to do the right thing, even if it is futile?” You decide.