What It Was Like in Berlin, 1932

New book, started just today. It’s by a woman named Rebecca Donner, and the subject is her great-grandaunt, Mildred Harnack, who was married to a German, Arvid, whose fate is a family secret, because it was very bad: it seems she was imprisoned by Hitler and executed, and what family would want to talk about something like that?

Self only heard about Mildred Harnack from a book review in The Economist (August 2021). Self saved the review and now, finally, she holds in her hands All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler.

Mildred was from Wisconsin. She met Arvid when they were both students at the University of Wisconsin. In 1932, she was a part-time instructor at the University of Berlin, where she taught American Literary History.

It’s a good thing her great grandniece knows how to tell a story. She uses present tense, which hints that at least one of her goals is to make this story immersive: it’s not going to be a “Mildred did this, then Mildred did that” kind of thing. No, Rebecca’s actually going to put us in Berlin, which so happens to be a place self has visited, long ago, when she was invited to read from her book Mayor of the Roses by the House of World Culture. Just a few weeks ago, she was in Berlin again, this time April 1945 Berlin, through the eyes of Anonymous in A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City.

1932 Berlin is very different from 1945 Berlin (of course). Mildred would be two years dead by the time Anonymous began writing her diary (Self wonders if Anonymous would have heard of Mildred Harnack? Anonymous was a journalist, so in all probability she would have heard of Mildred’s arrest and execution). Here is Mildred walking through Berlin in 1932:

She reaches a wide boulevard: Unter den Linden. She turns right.

The boulevard takes its name from the profusion of linden trees flanking it, trees that are in full bloom now, cascades of tiny white blossoms perfuming the air she breathes. But all this beauty can’t mask the ugliness here. Swastikas are cropping up like daisies everywhere: on posters pasted to the walls of U-Bahn stations, on flags and banners and pamphlets. A white-haired, walrus-mustached man is leading the country right now, but just barely. President Paul von Hindenburg is eighty-four, tottering into senility. A politician half his age is growing in popularity, a high-school dropout named Adolf Hitler who, Mildred predicts, will bring “a great increase of misery and oppression.”

All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, p. 16

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