In this “stunning literary achievement,” Donner chronicles the extraordinary life and brutal death of her great-great-aunt Mildred Harnack, the American leader of one of the largest underground resistance groups in Germany during WWII—“a page-turner story of espionage, love and betrayal” (Kai Bird, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography)
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Mildred Harnack was twenty-six when she enrolled in a PhD program in Germany and witnessed the meteoric rise of the Nazi party. In 1932, she began holding secret meetings in her apartment—a small band of political activists that by 1940 had grown into the largest underground resistance group in Berlin. She recruited working-class Germans into the resistance, helped Jews escape, plotted acts of sabotage, and collaborated in writing leaflets that denounced Hitler and called for revolution. Her coconspirators circulated through Berlin under the cover of night, slipping the leaflets into mailboxes, public restrooms, phone booths. When the first shots of the Second World War were fired, she became a spy, couriering top-secret intelligence to the Allies. On the eve of her escape to Sweden, she was ambushed by the Gestapo. At a Nazi military court, a panel of five judges sentenced her to six years at a prison camp, but Hitler overruled the decision and ordered her execution. On February 16, 1943, she was strapped to a guillotine and beheaded.
Historians identify Mildred Harnack as the only American in the leadership of the German resistance, yet her remarkable story has remained almost unknown until now.
Harnack’s great-great-niece Rebecca Donner draws on her extensive archival research in Germany, Russia, England, and the U.S. as well as newly uncovered documents in her family archive to produce this astonishing work of narrative nonfiction. Fusing elements of biography, real-life political thriller, and scholarly detective story, Donner brilliantly interweaves letters, diary entries, notes smuggled out of a Berlin prison, survivors’ testimony, and a trove of declassified intelligence documents into a powerful, epic story, reconstructing the moral courage of an enigmatic woman nearly erased by history.
The INSTANT New York Times Bestseller
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography
Winner of the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award
Winner of the Chautauqua Prize
Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award
Finalist for the Plutarch Award
A New York Times Notable Book of 2021
A New York Times BookReview Editors’ Choice
A New York Times Critics’ Top Pick of 2021
Wall Street Journal 10 Best Books of 2021
Time Magazine 100 Must-Read Books of 2021
Publishers Weekly Top Ten Books of 2021
An Economist Best Book of the Year
A New York Post Best Book of the Year
A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Best Book of the Year
Oprah Daily Best New Books of August
A New York Public Library Book of the Week