All the Frequent Troubles of our Days

Rebecca Donner

Canongate, £16.99

Review by Fiona Rintoul

About halfway through All the Frequent Troubles of our Days, Rebecca Donner’s pacy non-fiction account of the life of the anti-Nazi resistance fighter Mildred Harnack, the author observes that to be an American in Berlin in 1935 was “to turn a blind eye to atrocity”.

She’s referring to the writer Thomas Wolfe, whom Mildred, a PhD student in contemporary American literature at the University of Berlin, interviewed when he came to the city. Wolfe’s mind was on parties and girls. In the Hotel Adlon, he sipped cocktails with his mistress, Martha Dodd, the US ambassador’s daughter and an unthinking Soviet spy, while Adolf Hitler hollered lies about his desire for peace in the Reichstag. But Wolfe’s insouciance was far from singular.

The American ex-pats drinking beside him read foreign newspapers and listened to Duke Ellington and his jazz orchestra live from the London Palladium on the BBC, while Hitler tightened his fanatical grip on Germany and foreign politicians prevaricated. “The Germans sitting at a nearby table and the Polish waiter pouring water into their goblets have no such luxury; listening to Ellington – Negermusik – would bring the Gestapo to their door,” writes Donner.

Mildred Harnack, who was born Mildred Fish in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1902 and grew up in the USA, was different. Not for her, cocktails and frivolous affairs. She risked everything for the German anti-fascist resistance and paid the ultimate price – just like the dissident pastor Dieter Bonhoeffer, who was her German husband Arvid’s cousin.

HeraldScotland: Mildrid Harnack with husband Arvid. Photo: Getty ImagesMildrid Harnack with husband Arvid. Photo: Getty Images

With Arvid, Mildred was at the heart of the anti-fascist resistance, recruiting new members to “the Circle”, which started as a literature discussion group. Ultimately, it would become part of a series of interlocking “circles” that fought back against Hitler’s increasingly bloodthirsty ideology and regime.

Nazi prosecutors called them the Red Orchestra, because they passed secrets to Moscow Centre, but neither Mildred nor Arvid was a communist. Arvid accepted Moscow’s coin in 1941 “with great reluctance”, insisting that he was a German anti-fascist, not an agent. “He will engage in espionage only when it helps him achieve his aims in defeating Hitler.”

Donner’s book, which is written in short, snappy chapters broken down into small sections, doesn’t just tell Mildred’s story; it restores her remarkable life to its rightful place in history. For Mildred has been overlooked or suppressed by just about everyone.

She was treated more harshly than her German co-conspirators when the Gestapo finally caught up with her and her husband and imprisoned them. Her sister Harriette greeted the news of her execution more in anger than in sorrow, blaming her for returning to Berlin, and for encouraging Harriette’s daughter Jane to remain in Berlin and marry a German.

Harriette tried to erase Mildred, ordering the destruction of her letters and photographs. “It is imperative, she tells her brother, that ‘any documentation relative to that particular era be destroyed in its entirety since the sooner that sad episode be put behind us & forgotten once & for all, the better for all concerned’.”

The US authorities took a similar view when the Second World War was over. The War Crimes Group of the US Army dropped Mildred’s case, concluding that her execution was “justified”. Instead of indicting Manfred Roeder, the prosecutor of the Red Orchestra, at a show trial that saw most of the group’s members condemned to death, the US Army Counter Intelligence Corps – now focused on the new Soviet enemy – disguised his identity, having swallowed his story that the Red Orchestra was still active. As Donner peels back time to reveal the full horror of Mildred and her co-conspirators’ fate, we realise that the Americans again turned a blind eye to atrocity.

Donner is Mildred Harnack’s great great niece, Harriette’s daughter Jane having married Otto Donner, who was one of Mildred and Arvid’s sources. Donner was inspired to write All the Frequent Troubles of our Days when her grandmother gave her a bundle of Mildred’s letters. They had escaped Harriette’s purge because Mildred and Harriette’s mother had hidden them in the attic.

Original research and interviews with survivors, particularly Donald Heath, the son of a US consular official who was Mildred’s courier as a child, supplement insights from the letters to create a rounded and compelling account of Mildred’s life in Berlin and her resistance to Hitler. Written in a fizzing present tense, the book in places reads like a spy novel, with code names, dead drops and enciphered reports destined for Moscow Centre, in others like a dramatised history of the Third Reich.

Readers familiar with that history may find the chapters that chart the Third Reich’s rise and fall less gripping than those that convey Mildred’s story. But Donner writes in beautiful, crisp prose (like her great great aunt, as quotes from Mildred’s letters reveal), and it is her gift to infuse whichever part of the story she is telling with colour and immediacy.

We see German soldiers on the Eastern Front cutting frozen bread with hacksaws as vividly as we do flighty, party-loving Martha Dodd arriving in Moscow to visit the homeland of her lover, Boris Vinogradov, a twice married man who is playing her for Moscow Centre. “She arrived wearing a polka-dot blouse, a swingy skirt, and a hat that she tilted like Marlene Dietrich’s.”

For All the Frequent Troubles of our Days is not just a non-fiction account of an interesting historical episode; it is also an imaginative work. Describing a dinner party that Mildred threw for the resistance fighter Greta Lorke and her boyfriend, which is briefly mentioned in Lorke’s memoir, Donner writes: “By now we know Mildred well enough to fill in the blanks: candles flickering, a simple jar filled with flowers, a meal that’s most likely bland or burned or both.”

Throughout this book, Donner fills in the blanks, sometimes speculating, sometimes drawing on others’ accounts. The result is a work that transports us to a period now slipping from living memory but that contains vital lessons for our own time.