Criticism & Features

Year 2021: 30 Books

All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days by Rebecca Donner: 2021 Biography Finalist

By Rod Davis

All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler by Rebecca Donner (Little, Brown)

Rebecca Donner’s riveting account of Milwaukee, Wisconsin-born Mildred Harnack’s epic struggle against the rise of the Nazi regime in the 1930s and ending with Hitler’s order in 1943 to have her beheaded is not only a crucial addition to the historical record, but also a full-bore page-turner, certainly one of the best and most important offerings of the year. Donner’s fresh, mixed-media approach to the personal and the public, her intricate research, and her masterful understatement of endless horror unfold like a fresh kind of espionage thriller, except devastatingly true. It deserves a place in literary achievement alongside Uwe Johnson’s fact-based fictional masterpiece of the same era, “Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl.” 

The fateful move by Harnack (then Fish) to Berlin at age twenty-six to continue her studies in English literature and to marry Arvid Harnack, a German citizen she met at the University of Wisconsin, landed her just a few years before Hitler’s re-activated push to power. She and Arvid were steadily drawn into the early resistance. Through access to archival records and family documents, Donner, who is Harnack’s great-great-niece, pieces together what the young American mostly tried to keep secret—her ascent from a resister and agitator to a brilliant spy working with the Americans and later with the Russians. Letters home never revealed the serious dangers she increasingly faced. 

As a spy, Harnack led more than two lives. She not only found and transmitted critical intelligence, she developed numerous relationships with other anti-fascists. They formed the largest and most hunted espionage ring in Berlin. The frustrated Nazis named it the Red Orchestra. Ultimately a lapse in security from one of the Russian handlers allowed the group to be exposed and everyone in it arrested. Most, including Arvid, were tortured and executed. Harnack, though, drew a six-year, hard labor prison sentence. When Gestapo founder Hermann Göring learned of the exception he told his boss. The Fuhrer, who also knew of and loathed Harnack, intervened and ordered her immediate execution by beheading, the Reich’s murder weapon of choice for women. 

By Feb. 16, 1943, Harnack’s last day, the once-vivacious Wisconsin student, now forty, was reduced to skin and bones by starvation and torture. But she had never given up. All through her harrowing espionage, she had also kept up her teaching and studies. As she awaited the guillotine, she used the nub of a pencil to make translations and annotations in a  book of poetry by Goethe that had been smuggled in to her. Inscribed in the margins of one of the poems was the phrase Donner chose to title her book, “All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days.” 

For years, Harnack’s role as a spy was squelched by a sister who destroyed many documents Harnack had sent home. Just as outrageous, after the war, Harnack’s heroic actions were further covered up by U.S. military and intelligence officials for reasons of so-called national interest that are in fact indefensible if not criminal. 

Donner’s connection of  Harnack’s translation of Goethe’s words to the title of her book, not revealed until near the final act, hits with almost unbearable dramatic force. And, although never addressed directly, with a haunting sense of the expanding troubles of our own days.

Rod Davis is an NBCC Board Member. His works include “American Voudou,” “Corina’s Way,” and  the forthcoming “Life in the Time of Hurricanes.”

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