Every year when Rebecca Donner went to her great-grandmother’s house in Chevy Chase, MD, she and her brother would stand against the kitchen wall to mark their height in pencil. When she turned 9, she saw a letter M near a faint line.
“who is he?” He asked his great-grandmother Harriet, who grumbled, “Oh, that’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. With her husband, Arvid Harnack, she led a resistance organization in Berlin that risked her life to leak information from Germany’s Ministry of Economics, where she worked in the hope of defeating the Nazis. Despite nearly escaping, he was executed by guillotine in 1943 on the direct orders of Hitler.
Although the lore surrounding Harnack is riddled with inaccuracies, Donner set the record straight in “all the frequent troubles of our days,” which Little, Brown will publish on Tuesday.
“My grandmother Jane told me, ‘You must write Mildred’s story.’ I took it to heart,” Donner said in an interview at her home in Brooklyn. “I thought, OK, yeah, but maybe this won’t be my first book,” because she wanted to do the story — and her lineage — Justice.
She thought her grandmother had more to say, but a few years later she died in a ferry accident. “I was left with this flicker of mystery,” Donner said. “It was endlessly fascinating.”
Over the years, Donner graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, completed a master’s degree in fine arts at Columbia, directed a fiction series at the KGB bar in New York’s East Village, and a novel in Los Angeles. Sunset Terrace”. This is followed by “Burnout”, a graphic novel about ecological terrorism. Just Before “Burnout” Published in 2008, she visited Berlin and went to the German Resistance Memorial Center because she knew her grandmother was in contact with the archivists there.
“I thought, maybe they’ll have a little plaque or something about Mildred,” Donner said, but when the elevator doors opened, he was greeted by a portrait of his great-great-aunt at the entrance. An art exhibition about his 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 many years working on a novel based on her grandmother’s untimely death. But in 2016, when the Trump campaign began to gain momentum, “I got the sense that there was a little bit of resistance,” she said. “I thought, This is really, really important for me to write right now.”
Donner had also learned from his grandmother that Harnack had hired the 11-year-old son of a diplomat to deliver the code message to his parents, who sent the information back to the United States. His name was Donald Heath Jr., he lived in what is now California, and he was about 90 years old.
He contacted her, and in 2016 they met in person. Heath tells him that each time they meet for a “tutoring session”, he will take a different route to Harnack’s apartment, how he uses the aquarium glass at the Berlin Zoo as a mirror to examine the tail. and how every time he would be with Harnack and him. Parents to picnics in the countryside, he wore a stolen Hitler Youth uniform and whistled various songs to let him know if the coast was clean.
After the interview ended, Donner recalls, Heath said, “I’ve told you a lot more than I ever did, but we’re like family.” His eyes filled with tears. “Now I can die.”
Donner replied, “Don’t do that, Don,” but after a month or two, he was really gone.
After that, he sought a book deal to finance the remaining years of research. She received a six-figure offer at auction from Le Boudreaux in Little, Brown, as well as a fellowship from the Leon Levy Center for Biography. “I hadn’t heard a whisper about this story before, and I thought it was an extraordinary story,” Boudreaux said.
She said she was also impressed by Donner’s enthusiasm for the subject. “She’s just a big, charismatic personality and she seems to be going through life with an adventurous spirit.”
Donners fell into the archives, either personally or remotely, in the United States, Germany, Britain and Russia. “It’s almost as if the world is plotting to show you aspects of the story that you didn’t even expect you to discover,” she said.
In the weeks following Heath’s death, she received a call from her family, offering her access to 12 steamer trunks filled with documents from Berlin, where she discovered her mother’s diary. Lewis Heath and Mildred Harnack were good friends, it turns out, and Donner also discovered top-secret intelligence documents, which provide new insight into Heath and Harnack’s espionage.
Although going to Europe for research may sound glamorous, most of Donner’s hours were spent poring over documents at her apartment near Prospect Park. The wall behind his desk is covered in paper, where he traced the anti-Nazi resistance network, “to find out what the connections are,” she said. “Are they meaningful, or not? Are they mere coincidences or not?” A shelving unit is filled with white binders containing scans of correspondence; a bulletin board is disposed of with photographs of Harnack, Heath, and other figures in her research. Three posters decorate her hallway; Made by school students Mildred Harnack School in Berlin.
His literary agent at Stirling Lord Literistic, Jim Rutman, was “constantly dazzled” by his ability to complicate existing narratives about the Resistance. “World War II makes us feel like we have a category of books. Broadly speaking it is the quintessence of the ‘dad book,’” he said. “To put a woman at the center of the story and complicate those traditions. For the way through which the story is usually told – it all felt too right and too overdue.”
Donner stresses the importance of historiography, or the investigation of how history is written. In extant accounts, for example, Arvid Harnack is often referred to as a “scholar”, while Mildred Harnack is referred to as a “teacher”, which Donner has mistakenly referred to. “She got a job at the University of Berlin, she didn’t, so properly speaking, she was a scholar.”
While her family ties provided unparalleled access (the Russian embassy even sent the “smallest piece” of Harnack’s file), Donner does not believe it made her biased in Harnack’s rendering. “I am not interested in biography,” she said, “the greatest respect I can give her is not to put her on a pedestal, but to show how human she was.”
Over the years, she continued to ask herself: Why do people commit themselves to actions that other people find courageous or suicidal? Harnack deliberately risked death by beheading him every day. “My life was nothing like that, but when you have a family member who has a larger-than-life story of courage and commitment, it’s quite inspiring,” Donner said.
Asia Muchnik, editor of Little, Brown, who inherited the book when Boudreaux left the company in 2017, believes there are more stories to be told like Mildred Harnack. “She’s probably not unique in being a woman who was written out of history, and it’s going to take one book at a time to bring those stories back to life,” Muchnik said.
“It was never a question of whether I would write it, it was just a question of when would I write it,” Donner said. “I made that promise.”