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Wisconsin Historical Society

Classroom Material

Mildred Fish-Harnack

Historian, Activist and Author

Mildred Fish-Harnack | Wisconsin Historical Society

Note: This is a grade-level appropriate biographical essay about a significant figure from Wisconsin's past.

"I look up from my book of rondels At the gray silhouette of a painter Against the many-paned windows. How like are we, I thought, To painters standing on a ledge, Painting the mullions of life's windows; Never pressing close enough to the dark glass To peer within." — Mildred Fish, "In The Library"

EnlargePortrait Photograph of Mildred Fish-Harnack.

Mildred Fish-Harnack

Portrait Photograph of Mildred Fish-Harnack

Mildred Fish-Harnack was a poet, a storyteller, and a teacher. Why did she become a spy for the Allies during World War II (WWII)? Simple: It was the right thing to do.

Mildred Fish was born in Milwaukee, WI in 1902. As a young girl, Mildred learned how to read, write, and speak both German and English.

In 1921 Mildred started college in Madison, WI. She studied English literature and loved writing poems and stories. In 1925 Mildred graduated from college. The next year she returned to get her master’s degree. In 1926 she met her future husband, Arvid Harnack. He was a German professor teaching economics in the United States. They were married in 1928, and moved back to Germany a year later.

EnlargePortrait Photograph of Arvid Harnack.

Arvid Harnack

Portrait Photograph of Arvid Harnack

The Great Depression began in 1929. It was a crisis that affected nearly everyone in the world. People lost their life savings. Jobs were hard to find. Banks were closing. Many wandered the country as hobos looking for work and food.

In Germany things were very hard. The country was bankrupt even before the Great Depression. It had been forced to pay huge sums of money to other countries it had invaded during World War I. People were unhappy and wanted someone to blame. Germans turned to the National Socialist (Nazi) leader Adolf Hitler. He blamed Jewish people for all of Germany’s problems. When he became leader of Germany, he started imprisoning and then murdering Jewish men, women, and children. This was called the Holocaust, and millions died. In 1933 Germany invaded Poland, and WWII began.

Mildred and Arvid were not Nazis. They joined the resistance in Germany. These were men and women who worked to end Nazi rule. Mildred and Arvid had many friends. Together they formed a spy group called the Red Orchestra. Because Mildred and Arvid were Communists, they decided to help the Soviet Union, an ally of the United States, during the war.

EnlargeNazi Swastika.

Nazi Swastika

Nazi Swastika

Between 1940 and 1942, they secretly sent messages to the Soviets. They reported on the strength of Germany's air force. They even knew how many fighter planes Germany could make each month! They warned of Nazi attacks and reported how much fuel German armies had. They found out how many chemical weapons Germany had and where they were stored. This information helped the Russians survive long enough to defeat the Nazis. In August 1942, the Nazis captured a Soviet spy. The spy told the Germans all about the Red Orchestra. Mildred, Arvid, and 116 other people were arrested.

Arvid and Mildred were put on trial in December 1942. They were found guilty of espionage. Arvid was sentenced to death and hanged on Christmas Eve. At first, Mildred was sentenced to four years in a prison camp. But Adolf Hitler wanted to make an example out of her. He ordered the court to change Mildred's sentence to death! The judges did what he wanted.

Mildred spent her last month in prison doing what she loved, reading and translating works of poetry. She was killed on February 16, 1943. Her last words were "And I have loved Germany so much."

Mildred Fish-Harnack is celebrated in Wisconsin on September 16. She was an amazing woman who died a hero to the many people whose lives she saved.

Learn more about Mildred Fish-Harnack from PBS Wisconsin!

Content for this article has been sourced from "Mildred Harnack: An Unknown Hero" by Michelle Munro, December 13, 2001.