A Rebel Named Mildred: How a Milwaukee woman became one of Hitler’s most-wanted

By Kay Nolan,  January 2015

The beheading of journalist James Foley in August hit close to home for many Milwaukeeans because the war correspondent was a graduate of Marquette University. But how many know the story of Mildred Fish Harnack. She was a native daughter and Nazi resister believed to be the only American woman ever
executed on orders from Adolf Hitler. Joel Waldinger, producer of a 2011 Wisconsin Public Television documentary on Harnack, says he first learned of the professional translator’s heroism in 2006 during a fellowship in Berlin. “I thought, I’ve lived in Wisconsin for 11 years or so,” he says. “Why have I never heard of this woman?” And despite Sept. 16 being “Mildred Fish Harnack Day” in the state’s public schools, his two children hadn’t heard of her, either.

Mildred was born in Milwaukee on that date, in 1902, attended the Milwaukee State Normal School (now the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and graduate school at the University of Wisconsin Madison. There, fatefully, she met a German student named Arvid Harnack who was in the U.S. on a Rockefeller Fellowship. She followed him back to Germany, where he had obtained a job as a government economist, and Mildred worked as a translator of literature while finishing a doctorate. As the Nazi movement rose in the 1930s, the Harnacks became early critics and, later, key players in the German Resistance. Dubbed the “Red Orchestra,” the Harnack-led group of intellectuals spread anti-Nazi news reports, helped Jews flee Germany and sent radio broadcasts containing military intelligence to officials in the Soviet Union and United States.