Mildred Fish Harnack

Mildred Fish-Harnack: Secrets & Sacrifice

Mildred Fish Harnack BA1925, MA1926’s final words were: “And I have loved Germany so much.“

Young Mildred Fish, known as Mili to friends, appreciated the German culture in her hometown of Milwaukee. Later, as a scholar devoted to the rights of women and workers, Mildred secretly fought in the 1940s for Germany’s freedom — she was the only American woman executed on the orders of Adolf Hitler.

At the University of Wisconsin, Mildred was a Wisconsin Literary Magazine editor, and met her future husband, German citizen Arvid Harnack, on Bascom Hill.

“It was in Madison that they agreed they had spent the two happiest years of their lives,” finds historian Shareen Blair Brysac. “Canoeing and hiking around Lake Mendota, sipping bootleg wine, and enjoying readings of Shakespeare with friends.”

In 1930, the Harnacks landed in Berlin. Arvid was a government economist; Mildred taught and completed her PhD. They supported the ideals of communism, and despite the dangers of discussing anti-Nazi sentiments, they quietly hosted salons with German friends about literature, culture, and politics.

As the Nazi party grew more powerful, the conversation among friends changed to active resistance. Forming a collective known as the Red Orchestra, the group was one of several that covertly used radios to share Nazi plans and military movements with opposing nations. In 1942, Nazis located about 120 people in the network, and the Harnacks were convicted of crimes against Germany. Arvid was executed that same year.

From The Park

Laziness says, ‘Do not.’ Ambition says, ‘Do.’​

Mildred was sentenced to six years of hard labor, but Adolf Hitler wanted the American used as an example. He ordered her retried, and her sentence was converted to death by guillotine in 1943.

The UW alumni magazine noted the Harnacks’ time as scholars abroad in the 1940s, but as documentarian Brian Waldinger notes, “(D)uring the Joseph McCarthy era any talk of the UW honoring her was shot down because ’communist sympathies could not be ruled out.’”

Today, with Mildred’s sacrifice more fully known, the UW celebrates her with the annual Mildred Fish Harnack Human Rights and Democracy Lecture, and September 16 has been declared an official State of Wisconsin day in her honor.