In 1928, a modest young lecturer from Wilwaukee, Mildred Harnack, née Fish, arrived in Berlin to begin her PhD in American Literature. In the febrile, polyglot atmosphere in the city at the ‘crossroads of Europe’, the media was still mocking Adolf Hitler and few took him seriously. Mildred saw, close up, the brokenness of American and German capitalism and, distantly, the apparently level playing fields of communist Russia. As the Nazis gained increasing control over the body politic, she taught an overtly socialist syllabus — Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiseret al. When, halfway through her dissertation, the university fired her, she promptly started teaching at a night school for working-class students. ‘Should Hitler be chancellor?’ she asked her pupils.
Within six months the country had become a dictatorship. Newspapers were closed, political opponents were taken into ‘protective custody’ and camps were built. ‘The situation grows steadily worse,’ Mildred wrote to her uncomprehending mother back in Wisconsin: ‘We must change it as soon as possible.’ She and her friends began convening a regular ‘discussion circle’ (or Kreis) in her apartment, composed of students, aristocrats, bohemians and even a former member of the Hitler Youth.
Two years earlier, in America, she had married the equally earnest Arvid Harnack (they’d honeymooned on a picket line in Colorado). He was a German economist with a fondness for the Soviet model and a cousin of the Bonhoeffers, one of whom, on the couple’s arrival in Germany, got him a job first at Lufthansa, then at the ministry of economics, where he reported directly to Hjalmar Schacht. He began urgently leaking evidence of Germany’s war preparations. Mildred, meanwhile, took advantage of her friendship with the US ambassador’s giddy daughter, Martha Dodd, to gain access to sympathetic American officials and high-ranking guests at embassy parties.
The Kreis stole documents, printed and distributed leaflets, helped Jews escape through consular contacts, translated and smuggled foreign speeches into German factories and government departments (including Goebbels’s propaganda ministry), exposed war-profiteering and German atrocities in uniform, and attempted to give crucial economic and military intelligence to the soon-to-be Allies.