It was a big move for a Milwaukee, Wisconsin girl, but in the end, it would be her undoing. Mildred Fish was born in Milwaukee in 1902, and upon her high school graduation, she studied and then taught English at UW-Madison. It was there that she met Arvid Harnack, a Rockefeller Fellow from Germany. They soon fell in love, and were married in 1926. Because she was a progressive woman and proud of her name, Mildred chose to hyphenate her name, and became known as Mildred Fish-Harnack.
A few years later, she and Arvid both moved to Germany, where she taught and also worked on her doctorate while he worked for the German government. It was during those years that Fish-Harnack became interested in the Soviet Union, where women could choose where to work and also had other rights that women in the United States did not have…a situation which would very soon sound absurd. Nevertheless, at that time, it was so. Throughout the 1930s, Mildred and Arvid, who became increasingly alarmed by Hitler’s rise to power, began to communicate with a close circle of associates who believed communism and the Soviet Union might be the only possible stumbling block to complete Nazi tyranny in Europe. As the Hitler and the Nazi regime began to come into power, Fish-Harnack and her husband joined a small resistance group, which the Nazi secret police…the Gestapo…would later call the Red Orchestra. This resistance group smuggled important secrets about the Nazis to the United States and Soviet governments and helped Jews escape from Germany. When war was declared in 1941, she did not leave with other American expatriates.
Of course, their activities were espionage and would eventually cost them their lives. For his part, her husband, Arvid was hanged in December 1942. Mildred was given a six year sentence, but Hitler refused to endorse her punishment and she was retried and condemned on February 16, 1943. She was beheaded by guillotine. Because of her connection to possible communist sympathies and post-war McCarthyism, her story is virtually unknown in the United States. She was the only American woman who was ever put to death on the direct order of Adolf Hitler for her involvement in the resistance movement. Her last words were, “And I have loved Germany so much.” In the Cold War years after World War II, Fish-Harnack’s name and legacy were not honored in the United States, because she and her husband were believed to have been connected with Communism. For a time they were hated by both of their home countries. Once the truth came out in 1986, that changed and Mildred Fish-Harnack Day was established in Wisconsin. It takes place every year on her birthday, September 16th.
The ending of a war, does not always mean the beginning of peace, or even the end of fighting. Those who lost, don’t usually like the fact that they lost. As World War I drew to a close, angry rebels in both Germany and Austria-Hungary carried out a revolt on November 3, 1918, raising the red banner of the revolutionary socialist Communist Party and threatening to follow the Russian example in bringing down their imperialist governments.
By the last week of October 1918, three of the Central Powers…Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire…were in talks with the Allies about reaching an armistice, while the fourth, Bulgaria, had concluded talks in September. On October 28, approximately 1,000 sailors in the German navy were arrested because they refused to follow orders from their commanders to launch a last-ditch attack against the British in the North Sea.
The rebels soon immobilized the German fleet. Then, the resistance spread to the German city of Kiel, where some 3,000 sailors and workers raised the red flag of communism on November 3. Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, the governor of Kiel, quickly called on naval officers who were loyal to the government to suppress the revolt. During the ensuing battle, eight rebels were killed, but the general resistance continued.
Meanwhile, the revolution was spreading in Vienna, as well as in Budapest, where the former Hungarian prime minister, Count Istvan Tisza, was assassinated by members of the communist-led Red Guard on October 31. By now, the empire was in shambles, so the Austro-Hungarian government secured an armistice with the Allied powers on November 3rd, ending its participation in World War I. That same day in Moscow, at a mass rally in support of the Austrian rebels, the communist leader Vladimir Lenin declared triumphantly: “The time is near when the first day of the world revolution will be celebrated everywhere.” It seems that evil will try to reincarnate, wherever it can find a group sympathetic to its cause.
On August 13, 1961, in the hours just after midnight, the East German soldiers began laying down barbed wire and bricks as a barrier between Soviet-controlled East Berlin and the democratic western section of the city. It was a day that would change life in Berlin for the next twenty eight years. In the days that followed, a wall was built to permanently close off access to the west. The citizens of East Berlin became prisoners in their own homes and city, in a prison that was built around them. The road between East and West Berlin had become a one way street. If you wanted in, you couldn’t come back out. Families were separated from each other, and those in the West had to make the choice to go be with family in East Berlin…and captivity, or not. The wall became the symbol of the Cold War. It was a literal Iron Curtain, dividing Europe.
When World War II ended in 1945, Germany was divided into four Allied occupation zones. Berlin, the German capital, was likewise divided into occupation sectors, even though it was located deep within the Soviet occupation zone. The future of Germany was a source of contention. Disagreements brought tensions which grew when the United States, Britain, and France moved in 1948 to unite their occupation zones into a single autonomous entity known as the Federal Republic of Germany or West Germany. In response, the Soviet Union launched a land blockage of West Berlin in an effort to force the West to abandon the city. The United States and Britain responded with a massive airlift of food and supplies to West Berlin, and in May of 1949, the Soviet Union ended the blockade in defeat.
That didn’t remove the tensions that plagued the area, however. By 1961 the Cold War tensions were running high again. The East German people became very dissatisfied with life under the communist system. West Berlin was a gateway to the West and Democracy. Between 1949 and 1961, about 2.5 million East Germans fled East Berlin to West Germany. By August of 1961, East Germans were crossing into West Germany at a rate of 2,000 people per day. Many of the refugees were skilled laborers, professionals, and intellectuals, and their loss was having a devastating effect on the East German economy. The Soviets had to figure out a way to stop the exodus, and its devastating effect on the economy. Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev made the decision to close off access from East Berlin to West Berlin.
Then came the night of August 13, 1961. The citizens of East Berlin could no longer freely pass into West Berlin. The West was taken by surprise, and threatened a trade embargo against East Germany as a retaliatory measure. The Soviets responded that such a measure would bring new blockades. The West did nothing, and the East German authorities grew more and more bold. They began closing of more and more checkpoints between East and West Berlin. On August 15, they began replacing barbed wire with concrete. The wall was supposedly designed protect their citizens from the influence of decadent capitalist culture. In realty, it protected the East German authorities from scrutiny as they did what they wanted with out retaliation.
Once it was up, the only way for East Berliners to escape the oppression of their government was to take their chances to get across in whatever way they could dream up. People attempted escape by train, tight rope, zip lines, hot air balloons, through old tunnels, impersonating soldiers, a stolen tank, and swimming. Many of these attempts ended in death for the person attempting escape. It didn’t stop them. They were so determined to live freely. About 5,000 East Germans managed to escape across the Berlin Wall to the West, but the frequency of successful escapes dwindled as the wall was increasingly fortified. Thousands of East Germans were captured during attempted crossings and 191 were killed.
On June 12, 1987 President Reagan made his great “tear down this wall” speech, but the wall remained until 1989, when the democratization movement began sweeping across Eastern Europe. On November 9, 1989 travel restrictions were eased. Jubilant Berliners climbed on top of the Berlin Wall, painted graffiti on it, and removed fragments as souvenirs. The next day, East German troops began dismantling the wall. In 1990, East and West Germany were formally reunited. For those in the free world, it would be almost impossible to completely understand just what Communism was like, but those who lived it, would never forget it, if they even lived through it, which many didn’t.