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A martyr to the Nazis and a lesson for all of us


Rebecca Donner: All The Frequent Troubles Of Our Days: The true story of the woman at the heart of the German resistance to Hitler; Canongate 2021, 560pp

THIS started out as a cautionary word for British patriots as we face the current and growing political authoritarianism of our time led by a British government, but I felt that a book review of this compelling account was more worthwhile for potential readers.

The woman of the title is an American, Mildred Harnack, whose history I suspect will be little known in America, Britain or Germany today. This book should change that perception.

So fired was she in the cause of freedom which was rapidly being extinguished in 1930s Germany under the National Socialists, that at the age of only 26 ‘she jumped aboard a steamer and crossed the Atlantic leaving behind everyone she loved’ to begin her personal opposition to the emerging Nazism.

As early as 1932 Mildred held her first clandestine meeting in her Berlin apartment with new-found friends and political activists. This developed into the largest underground resistance group in Berlin by the end of the decade.

With many German resistance nationals, she became a martyr for the cause of freedom in which she so passionately believed. Betrayed, captured and tortured by the Gestapo, Harnack was beheaded in 1943, bizarrely by a French Revolution guillotine.

Some may ask: Why this story now? Is there any point in publishing yet another WW2 chronicle so long after these grim events?

After the war the US Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps initially showed interest in opening an inquiry into the events surrounding Harnack’s treatment as a ‘war crime’ but subsequently buried it. As the introduction explains: ‘A central problem for anyone who wanted to write about her resistance group was a lack of documentary evidence’. It was only when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 that a stash of documents in an East German archive came to light, including notes, date-books, diaries and photos of Mildred Harnack.

The account of her life in Berlin in the 1930s, the political background of the rise of the Third Reich, and Mildred’s fierce determination to oppose Nazism represents a triumph of research by the author, her great-great-niece.

For this reviewer, from the pages of this book there emerges an unexpected contemporary ring, namely an extraordinary number of striking similarities between the several sinister stages and recorded events in the developing totalitarian regime of the embryo Nazi party in Germany, and those which are beginning to shape up in Britain today.

These ought to serve as an urgent warning for readers, perhaps best illustrated without comment by some quotes by the author and other observers taken from the early chapters of the book. Obvious inferences can be drawn, and the repeated common denominators of censorship, repression, overt violence and ‘hate crimes’ become clear:

‘Germany is going through such very dark hours . . . all feel the menace, but many hide their heads in the sand.’

‘Mildred sees a bloody confrontation, a ragged procession of unemployed factory workers march in the public square . . . police officers bludgeon them with batons.’

‘The journalists at the Münchener Post, known to readers as a mouthpiece of the Social Democratic Party . . .’

‘Abruptly, his microphone is cut off. Across Germany, all people hear from their radios is a thick band of static.’

‘Germany’s free press is no more . . . all media is put in the service of spreading Hitler’s ideology.’

‘The people’s radio was designed with a limited range to ensure that only German stations could be heard.’

‘Decree of the Reich President [Hitler] the State protection of the People and State’ (Enabling Act) which grants the Nazi government the right to silence all opposition including freedom of the press, right of assembly, and violations of postal, telegraphic, and telephonic communications . . .’

‘The Malicious Practices Act prohibits Germans from expressing their disapproval about anything that Hitler says or does – even a joke could bring the Gestapo to your door.’

‘Arrested and imprisoned are no longer used . . . If you are a German under protective custody, the term the Nazi government prefers, you have no legal remedies at your disposal.’

‘There is a “holding facility” which is called a camp, located near a picturesque town called Dachau.’

Thus the ‘Frequent Troubles’ experienced by Mildred Harnack as recounted here are beginning to find their counterparts in Britain today.

I agree with one reviewer that Donner’s book does indeed ‘read with the speed of a thriller’. I found it hard to put down.

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Graham Wood
Graham Wood
Graham Wood is an activist and campaigner living in York.

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