Blair Brysac: Mildred Harnack

Shareen Blair Brysac. Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

If Shareen Blair Brysac had tackled the topic of the White Rose in 2000, we would not have had to write our White Rose histories. Her account of Mildred Fish Harnack’s involvement in the so-called Red Orchestra resistance is detailed, leaving few stones unturned.

She paints a portrait of Mildred as she was, the person behind the philosophy. In stark contrast to most White Rose “scholarship”, we see Mildred’s foibles, her feet of clay. And not surprisingly, we’re still drawn to the individual who gave her life fighting the Nazis, despite of – because of! – her humanness.

Of special significance, Blair Brysac does not seek to minimize the role of Mildred’s affinity for the ‘virtues of Communism’ and her enthusiasm for all things Russian. She doesn’t leave it at that. We also learn who the Harnacks’ American contacts were and the attempts they made to pass along crucial, confidential information to pre-CIA sources.

But it’s that unflinching willingness to depict Mildred’s complex political beliefs that sets Blair Brysac’s work apart from so much “resistance” narrative that seeks to satisfy a specific political agenda instead of simply telling it like it is. I dare say we’re all full of contradictions, if only we’d admit it. Sad that most official biographies tend to overlook the paradoxes and inconsistencies that befuddle the human race.

Although the White Rose rates only a footnote in Blair Brysac’s book, she covers topics that increase our understanding of who these students in Munich were, and with whom they were associated.

Falk Harnack’s correspondence with his young nephew Wolfgang Havemann turns out not to have been as superficial as originally suspected. Blair Brysac confirmed what our research had already yielded, namely that the Bonhoeffer and Harnack families had intermarried for generations. As we reported in White Rose History Volume II, Falk’s invitation to the White Rose friends to meet his cousin Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Berlin was legitimate and demonstrated the potential for effective resistance.

Only when we grasp the horror of the December 1942 and February 16, 1943 executions of “Red Orchestra conspirators” can we get a feel for what drove Falk Harnack and the White Rose friends to seek out one another’s company. Lilo Fürst-Ramdohr gave us a glimpse into the workings of this tenuous cooperative effort. Blair Brysac merely provides a different vantage point for the same experience.

If Blair Brysac’s book has a weakness, it is solely that she did not interview Lilo Fürst-Ramdohr or use her memoirs as a resource. Lilo did not know Mildred and Arvid primarily as freedom fighters, although she was aware of their work. To her, they were Falk’s beloved brother and sister-in-law, a couple engaged in a noble fight.

But in skipping Lilo’s account, Blair Brysac missed out on what I think is one of the sweetest Mildred anecdotes around.

December 31, 1941: [Mildred] cautiously turned the conversation to Arvid. “You know, Lilo, a person must truly love the Harnacks if he is to understand them. Sometimes Arvid can be hard and injurious to me. But I have a good weapon for that. I put flowers on the night stand like nothing has happened. Then everything is all right again. Arvid is completely penitent and full of twice as much love towards me.”

That small misstep can be forgiven, however. That’s why you need our White Rose histories!

Disclaimer: In 2001, at one of the lowest points in our White Rose work, I maintained a brief but intense correspondence with Shareen Blair Brysac. I told her about our struggles to get people to listen, how everyone seemed content with Inge Scholl’s “legend”-ary fiction.

She encouraged me to keep going, saying that when she researched her book, she began to suspect that what she knew of the White Rose was not the truth, that their story needed the same scrutiny she had given Mildred Harnack’s life. That gave me the lift I needed. – RHS.

(c) 2005 Ruth Hanna Sachs. All rights reserved. Please contact Exclamation! Publishers for permission to quote.