By: Eleanor Conrad
European Studies was honored to host author Rebecca Donner in October of 2021 to discuss her most recent book, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler. The American woman at the center of her book is Milwaukeean and University of Wisconsin-Madison alumna, Mildred Fish-Harnack. During this virtual event, University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Emeritus Marc Silberman interviewed Rebecca Donner about her experience writing the book to an audience of faculty, students, Wisconsin k-14 educators, and members of the public from far and wide.
Donner was a child when she heard Mildred mentioned for the first time. Standing to have her height recorded in the family home, Donner noticed the mark for “M” and asked whose height it was. It was Mildred’s. The tone of the response suggested a long story behind the name. Decades later, after pain-staking research into archives and family records across several different countries, Donner has written the story of her great-great-aunt, Mildred Fish-Harnack, and her life as a leader in the German resistance.
While speaking at Mildred’s alma mater, Donner stressed the significance of Mildred’s Wisconsin upbringing on her career and political outlook. Donner noted that when Mildred was a student at UW-Madison, Progressive ideals were especially prominent in Wisconsin. For example, the celebrated Progressive namesake of the UW-Madison Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs represented the state in the US Senate for Mildred’s entire childhood up until she graduated from UW-Madison in 1925.
When enrolled at UW-Madison Mildred met some of her closest friends and her future husband, Arvid Harnack. Donner read from her book a romantic excerpt which described Mildred and Arvid first meeting when he accidentally “wandered into the wrong lecture hall” and saw Mildred as she was giving a lecture on American Literature. He was so different from other boys on campus, “who vied for Mildred’s attention with boisterous jokes.” Donner spoke of Mildred’s life as a student and of her participation in the Friday Niters, a group of UW-Madison students interested in political debate and action. In another less flattering excerpt, Donner illustrated how Mildred appeared to one of her fellow Friday Niters, Greta. However, Greta’s harsh opinion of Mildred would soften so dramatically that eventually they would become close friends. Years later in Germany, Greta became one of the earliest recruits to Mildred’s resistance circle.
Professor Silberman asked Donner to describe Mildred’s resistance recruitment tactics. Donner said that in the early days of the resistance, Mildred would lend a potential recruit a book and offer to meet to discuss the themes upon its return. During the book discussion, she would assess the political leanings of the borrower and, if they passed muster, invite them into the resistance circle.
In a book that is rich with first-hand accounts and illustrative detail making it feel, at times, like a novel, Donner asserts that everything in the book is fact and all dialog is taken from primary sources. When she describes the sky, she is able to do so accurately because she looked up the weather records for that day. When she describes a room and its furniture or articles of clothing with holes in them, it is based on letters that Mildred sent to her mother. Every detail in this book was taken directly from letters, documents, or interviews with primary sources.
Gathering primary sources was an especially difficult task, considering that upon hearing of Mildred’s death, Mildred’s grief-stricken sister (Donner’s great-grandmother) ordered the family to destroy all of Mildred’s letters and photos. Donner’s scrupulous research in multiple archives, including at the Wisconsin Historical Society, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives, and the Milwaukee County Historical Center. Family records, including letters clandestinely kept by Mildred’s mother, permitted her to bring this story into the light.
Despite Mildred’s substantial contributions to the resistance movement, her importance and involvement was overlooked or purposefully concealed for years after her death. It is only in the past few decades that Mildred has received recognition for her efforts leading up to and during the war. In 1986, Wisconsin passed a law to make September 16 “Mildred Fish-Harnack Day.” In 1994, the UW-Madison Office of International Studies and Programs created the annual Mildred Fish-Harnack Human Rights and Democracy Lecture to celebrate her bravery. In 2019, the City of Madison dedicated a sculpture by John Durbrow titled, “Mildred,” in her honor. The sculpture stands in Marshall Park overlooking lake Monona and Picnic Point. Most recently, in September 2021, a replica of this sculpture was installed at Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany.
All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days is Donner’s third book. She has also written two novels, Burnout and Sunset Terrace and her essays and articles have been published in numerous publications including the New York Times and Bookforum. The UW-Madison community will have the opportunity to hear Rebecca Donner speak in person when she visits campus in Spring 2022 as the guest speaker for the annual Mildred Fish-Harnack Human Rights and Democracy Lecture.