Book Review: All The Troubles Frequent Today, by Rebecca Donner
Rebecca Donner is a novelist, graphic novelist, essayist, editor and member of two prestigious American writing centers. All The Frequent Troubles… is her first foray into biography, and what a start it is. It focuses on the life of Mildred Harnack (née Fish) born, raised, educated and married in the American Midwest before traveling to Berlin to join her husband Arvid where they studied for graduate degrees, Mildred evening class teacher to help with finances. As the Great Depression led to the rise of Nazism in Germany, the life of the young couple began to be affected by the worsening political situation.
Donner is incisive on how Nazism affected Mildred and women in general: Women were brought to understand that their world was “husband, family, children and home” and were awarded medals if they had four or more children. . Doctors risked the death penalty if they ended unintended pregnancies of “racially pure” women. Just pregnant, Mildred didn’t want her unborn child to be raised under Nazism, so she went to London for an abortion.
From 1939, she and Arvid became increasingly active in their anti-Nazism, gradually shifting their secret chat group, “The Circle”, to espionage. There’s plenty for the spy-buff here. At this point, Arvid was now working as an analyst at the Reich Economics Ministry. Mildred had cultural ties to the United States Embassy in Berlin, and she was helping Arvid send intelligence to Washington via Don Heath, a “treasure attaché” whose 12-year-old son Don Jr she had hired as private student. The boy was well aware of his role, scouting when his father was in direct contact with Arvid or slipping Mildred’s messages into his textbooks.
Things must have changed when the Soviet Union and the United States were at war with Germany. American diplomats returned home and Arvid was recruited as a spy for the Soviet Union, but the mistakes of Soviet intelligence led to the exposure of the Circle and the arrest, conviction and death of Mildred and Arvid. Mildred was guillotined, perverted by Nazi gallantry, claiming that automatic beheading was a faster execution and therefore more humane than an ax or noose.
Despite its ostensibly forbidden subject matter, it is a fascinating and inspiring book. It is a treasure for lovers of biography, new writings and history of the Third Reich. Donner’s style is surprising with sometimes short sentences, even one word. There are 12 chapters divided into nearly a hundred sections, with photographs, excerpts from diaries and letters, and fragments of official documents woven together. the reader is quite comfortable with it, but the effect is to create the atmospheres of the period and to help us show us how Mildred Harnack saw the world. The facts tell us that Mildred was not an easy person; Donner grasps this and uses his sources masterfully.
It wasn’t until we get to her notes and acknowledgments that we find out that Mildred Harnack was Rebecca Donner’s great-great-grandmother and Donner’s great-grandmother visited Aunt Mildred in Berlin in the 1930s. We also find out that not only did the writer interview Don Heath Jr in his old age, but he also had access to a trunk of Heath family documents, including diaries, diplomatic letters and memoranda.
The book gives a new insight into the so-called “Red Orchestra” of Soviet spies in Nazi Germany, telling the story from the bottom up rather than the top down, which was the usual approach. It also implies that MI6 and US military intelligence were tricked into hunting down two of the Nazis who presided over the torture and sentencing of Mildred on the, possibly false, grounds that they could help Western intelligence during the nascent Cold War. .
All The Troubles Frequent Nowadays, by Rebecca Donner, Canongate, 550pp, £ 16.99
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