A World War II Spy Didn’t Live to Tell Her Tale. Her Great-Great-Niece Will.
Every year when Rebecca Donner visited her great-grandmother’s home in Chevy Chase, Md., She and her brother stood against the kitchen wall to mark their pencil sharpeners. When she was 9 years old, she noticed a letter M near one of the faint lines.
“Who is it?” she asked her great-grandmother Harriette, who mumbled, “Oh, it’s Mildred.”
Donner’s curiosity was piqued, but it wasn’t until she was 16 that she learned the truth: Mildred Harnack was an American spy during World War II. Together with her husband, Arvid Harnack, she ran a resistance organization in Berlin, risking her life to leak information to the German Economy Ministry, where he worked, in the hope of defeating the Nazis. Although she almost escaped, she was executed by guillotine in 1943 by direct order of Hitler.
Although the tradition surrounding Harnack is riddled with inaccuracies, Donner sets the record straight in “All the Troubles Frequent Today,” which Little, Brown will publish on Tuesday.
“My grandmother Jane said to me, ‘You have to write Mildred’s story.’ I really took this to heart, ”Donner said in an interview at his Brooklyn home. “I thought, well, yeah, but this might not be my first book,” because she wanted to do justice to the story – and its lineage.
She felt her grandmother had more to say, but she died in a boating accident a few years later. “I was left with that shimmer of mystery,” Donner said. “It was endlessly fascinating.”
Over the years, Donner graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, earned an MFA at Columbia, directed a drama series at the KGB Bar in New York’s East Village, and wrote “Sunset Terrace “, a novel set in Los Angeles, followed by” Burnout “, a graphic novel on ecoterrorism. Just before “Burnout” was published in 2008, she visited Berlin and went to the German Resistance Memorial Center, as she knew her grandmother had been in contact with archivists there.
“I thought they might have a little plaque or something on Mildred,” Donner said, but when the elevator doors opened she was greeted with a portrait of her great-great-aunt at the entrance to an art exhibition on it. life. “There were actually two rooms dedicated to him. And it was a huge exhibition, ”she said. Still, she didn’t feel ready to tackle a biography.
Instead, she spent several years working on a novel based on the untimely death of her grandmother. But in 2016, when the Trump campaign started to gain momentum, “I had a feeling that resistance was a bit of the time,” she said. “I thought to myself that it’s actually very important for me to write right now.”
Donner also learned from his grandmother that Harnack employed the son of an 11-year-old diplomat to pass coded messages to his parents, which sent the information back to the United States. His name was Donald Heath Jr., he now lived in California and he was almost 90 years old.
She contacted him and in 2016 they met in person. Heath told him how he would take a different route to Harnack’s apartment each time they met for “tutoring sessions”, how he used the glass in the Berlin Zoo aquarium as a mirror to checking the tails and how whenever he accompanied Harnack and his parents on picnics in the countryside, he wore a stolen Hitler Youth uniform and whistled different songs to let them know if the coast was free.
After the interview was over, Donner recalls, Heath said, “I’ve told you more than I’ve told anyone, but we’re like family.” His eyes clouded over. “Now I can die. “
Donner replied, “Don’t do that, Don,” but a month or two later he was well and truly gone.
After that, she sought out a book contract to fund the remaining years of research. She received a six-figure bid from Lee Boudreaux at Little, Brown at auction, as well as a scholarship from the Leon Levy Center for Biography. “I had never heard a whisper of this story before, and I thought it was an amazing story,” Boudreaux said.
She was also charmed by Donner’s enthusiasm for the topic, she said. “She is a great charismatic personality herself and seemed to live life with an adventurous spirit.”
Donner has delved into archives, in person or remotely, in the United States, Germany, Britain and Russia. “It’s almost like the world is conspiring to show you aspects of the story that you didn’t even expect to find out,” she said.
In the weeks following Heath’s death, she received a call from her family, offering her access to 12 steam trunks full of documents from Berlin, where she discovered her mother’s diaries. It turns out that Louise Heath and Mildred Harnack were good friends, and Donner also uncovered top secret intelligence documents providing new insight into the Heaths and Harnacks espionage.
While flying to Europe for research might seem glamorous, most of Donner’s hours were spent poring over documents in his apartment near Prospect Park. The wall behind her desk is covered with paper where she has mapped intersecting anti-Nazi resistance networks, “to determine what the links are,” she said. “Are they significant or not? Are these coincidences or not? A shelf is filled with white filing cabinets containing correspondence scans; a bulletin board is nailed with photographs of Harnack, Heath and other figures in his research. Three posters decorate its hallway; they were created by high school students from Mildred Harnack School in Berlin.
Its literary agent, Jim Rutman at Sterling Lord Literistic, has been “persistently dazzled” by his ability to complicate existing accounts of resistance. “World War II is as gendered a category of books as we are. It’s the epitome of ‘daddy’s book’, basically, ”he said. “Putting a woman at the center of the story and complicating the conventions through which the story is usually told – all of this seemed very fair and very late.”
Donner emphasized the importance of historiography, or the examination of how history is written. In existing accounts, for example, Arvid Harnack is often referred to as a “scholar” while Mildred Harnack is referred to as a “teacher,” which Donner says is incorrect. “She got a job at the University of Berlin, he didn’t, strictly speaking, she was the scholar.”
While her family ties have provided her with unprecedented access (the Russian Embassy even sent “the smallest shred” of Harnack’s case), Donner doesn’t think it made her biased in her portrayal of Harnack. “I’m not interested in hagiography,” she said, “The greatest honor I can do her is not to put her on a pedestal but to show how human she is. “
Over the years, she has continued to ask herself: why do people engage in acts that seem either courageous or suicidal to others? Harnack knowingly risked death by beheading himself every day. “My life was nothing like his, but when you have a family member who has this larger-than-life story of courage and commitment, it’s very inspiring,” Donner said.
Asya Muchnick, the editor-in-chief of Little, Brown who inherited the book when Boudreaux left the company in 2017, believes there are more stories like Mildred Harnack’s to tell. “She’s probably not unique as a woman who was written out of history, and it will take one book at a time to bring these stories to life,” Muchnick said.
“It was never about whether I would write it, it was just about when I would write it,” Donner said. “I made this promise.”
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