“At the turn of the century, Milwaukee was unlike any other city because no other city was as German, as socialist, and as fond of beer.” So quips Milwaukee historian John Gurda in the opening seconds of Wisconsin’s Nazi Resistance: The Mildred Fish-Harnack Story. Produced for Wisconsin Public Television in 2011, the hour-long documentary tells the incredible-but-true tale of the first and only American woman executed on the orders of Adolf Hitler. So why the Gurda quote? Because Fish-Harnack was from Milwaukee.
Born Mildred Elizabeth Fish, she attended high school at West Division (now Milwaukee High School of the Arts) and studied German literature at the Milwaukee State Normal School (now UW-Milwaukee). In 1929, she and her husband Arvid Harnack moved to Germany and eventually started a communist discussion group—dubbed the “Red Orchestra” by the Gestapo—that actively resisted Hitler’s Nazi regime. The couple was arrested in 1942: Arvid was sentenced to death and executed three days later, while Mildred was given a six-year sentence. Hitler, however, ordered a new trial for Mildred, which ended in a death sentence. She was executed on February 16, 1943.
Want to dig deeper into Milwaukee and Wisconsin’s ties to the Nazi resistance during World War II? Now’s as good a time as any!