Book review: All the Frequent Troubles of our Days, by Rebecca Donner

This biography of the American spy Mildred Harnack, who was guillotined by the Nazis, is both thoroughly researched and brilliantly written, writes Vin Arthey

Rebecca Donner PIC: Beowulf Sheehan

Rebecca Donner is a novelist, graphic novelist, essayist, editor, and a fellow at two prestigious US writing centres. All The Frequent Troubles… is her first foray into biography, and what a debut it is. It centres on the life of Mildred Harnack (née Fish) born, raised, university educated and married in the US Midwest before heading to Berlin to join her husband Arvid where they studied for higher degrees, Mildred teaching evening classes to help with the finances. As the Great Depression led to the rise of Nazism in Germany, the young couple’s lives began to be impacted by the worsening political situation.

Donner is incisive on how Nazism affected Mildred and women in general: women were led to understand that their world was “husband, family, children and home” and were awarded medals if they bore four or more children. Doctors faced the death penalty if they terminated unwanted pregnancies of “racially pure” women. Just pregnant, Mildred did not want her unborn child brought up under Nazism, so she travelled to London for a termination.

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From 1939, she and Arvid became increasingly active in their anti-Nazism, gradually moving their covert discussion group, “The Circle”, into espionage. There is much for the spy-buff here. By this point, Arvid now worked as an analyst in the Reich’s Ministry of Economics. Mildred had cultural links with the US Embassy in Berlin, and she was helping Arvid get intelligence to Washington via Don Heath, a “treasury attaché” whose 12-year-old son, Don Jr, she had taken on as a private pupil. The boy was well aware of his role, scouting ahead when his father had direct contact with Arvid or slipping Mildred’s messages into his textbooks.

All the Frequent Troubles of our Days, by Rebecca Donner

Things had to change when the Soviet Union and the USA were at war with Germany. The American diplomats returned home and Arvid was recruited as a spy for the Soviet Union, but errors by the Soviet intelligence services lead to The Circle’s exposure, and to Mildred and Arvid’s arrest, conviction and death. Mildred was guillotined, perverted Nazi gallantry contending that automatic beheading was a faster execution and therefore more humane than the axe or the noose.

Despite its ostensibly forbidding subject matter this is a thrilling and inspiring book. It is a treasure trove for lovers of biography, new writing and the history of the Third Reich. Donner’s style is startling with sometimes short, even single word sentences. There are 12 chapters broken into nearly a hundred sections, with photographs, excerpts from diaries and letters, and fragments from official documents woven in. Some of the sections are in “the historical present” and there is some invented dialogue, neither of which this reader is entirely comfortable with, but the effect is to create the atmospherics of the period, and to help show us how Mildred Harnack saw the world. The facts tell us that Mildred was not an easy person; Donner captures this and uses her sources masterfully.

Only when we get to her notes and acknowledgements do we discover that Mildred Harnack was Rebecca Donner’s great, great aunt and that Donner’s great grandmother visited Aunt Mildred in Berlin in the 1930s. We discover, too, that not only did the writer interview Don Heath Jr when he was well into his senior years, but was granted access to a trunk of Heath family documents, including diaries, letters and diplomatic memoranda.

The book gives fresh insight into the so-called “Red Orchestra” of Soviet spies in Nazi Germany, telling the story from the bottom up rather than from the top down, which has been the usual approach. It also implies that MI6 and US Military intelligence were tricked into spiriting away two of the Nazis who presided over Mildred’s torture and conviction on the grounds, probably false, that they could help Western intelligence during the nascent Cold War.

All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, by Rebecca Donner, Canongate, 550pp, £16.99

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