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Bringing the Past to the Present

Portrait of Rebecca Donner
Photo by Lou Jones

Rebecca Donner chronicles the lives of those who were part of the German resistance.

Rebecca Donner speaks with a rushed intensity, almost as if she doesn’t tell her story quickly enough, it might disappear. In the author’s urgency are echoes of the short lives of her current and recent protagonists, two young women executed 80 years ago for resisting Nazi rule.

On a cool November afternoon, Donner reflected on the lives of those heroic activists, the central players in her best-selling biography All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler (Little, Brown and Company, 2021) and its next chapter, the focus of her Radcliffe fellowship.

For Donner, the stories are personal.

Her 2021 book chronicles the life of her great-great-aunt Mildred Harnack, for years more a family secret than a household hero, someone “spoken about in whispers.” Then, when Donner was 16, her grandmother gifted her a pile of Harnack’s letters and made a simple request. “I promised my grandmother I would write about Mildred,” she says. “Her legacy was passing the story to me.”

Other books came first for Donner, who studied philosophy and English literature at the University of California at Berkeley and writing at Columbia University, but Harnack’s story never left her. She carried copies of the letters, stuffed in a white binder and covered with sticky notes, to college, graduate school, and beyond. Then, in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, she put aside another manuscript and dove in. “I felt that resistance was in the Zeitgeist,” said Donner, “and that the world needed to hear about Mildred and her coconspirators.”

A biography was new creative terrain for Donner, who’d authored a novel set in 1980s Los Angeles and a graphic novel about ecoterrorism, but her commitment to nonfiction for her great-great-aunt’s story never wavered. When editors encouraged her to pen a historical novel instead, she refused, telling them, “The power of this story is that it is true, why fictionalize it?”

In Donner’s hands, that true story reads like a spy thriller, chronicling Harnack’s life as an idealistic student at the University of Wisconsin who crossed the Atlantic to pursue her doctorate in American literature, only to become an architect of an underground resistance network in Berlin.

While Donner’s narrative is rooted in facts pulled from 25 archives in the United States, Germany, England, and Russia; countless transcripts; journals; and her own exhaustive interviews with survivors and a host of other sources, it’s also a creative tour de force. Applying “pressure to the genre,” she upended the traditional, linear biography, writing in the present tense and flashing forward and backward in time to heighten the immediacy and suspense.

“I allowed myself to be as audacious as I wanted to be,” said Donner, “and came up with this form that suited the material. I really found my voice with this book.”

Critics and the public agreed. Awards and praise quickly followed its release, along with an avalanche of e-mails and letters from readers wanting more. Encouraged by the response, and realizing she “still had more to say about the resistance,” Donner turned her focus to Sophie Scholl, a German student at the University of Munich. Like Harnack, the 21-year-old Scholl was arrested by the Gestapo and beheaded by guillotine, along with others in the White Rose resistance group, including her brother, Hans. (In another family tie, Falk Harnack, Donner’s great-great-uncle, was a member of the White Rose.)

Mug shots of the siblings Sophie and Hans Scholl after their arrest by the Gestapo on February 18, 1943. Public domain photo

With her latest work, Donner plans to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions about Scholl and to resist the urge to succumb to hagiography and place her on a holier-than-thou pedestal. Such reverence “does a disservice to her,” she said, adding that Scholl and Harnack are inspiring precisely because they were people—not saints—capable of “immeasurable courage.”

“I believe we are all capable of that kind of courage,” said Donner.

As she did in her 2021 book, Donner will also shine a light on clandestine resistance networks that emerged during the Nazi regime, including those who smuggled the White Rose’s sixth leaflet out of Germany and into Allied hands. The leaflet attacked Hitler and urged German students to join the resistance. The Royal Air Force (RAF) dropped it over occupied Europe by the millions.

Donner, who recently traveled to London hunting for the names of the RAF pilots who dropped the leaflet, traces her dedication to such deep, historic inquiry back to her youth. Books were a key part of her upbringing, and a critical window on the wider world, thanks to her father, an academic–turned–violin teacher with a vast library.

In Donner’s office, that legacy endures. Neat piles of documents from European archives cover her desk and familiar white binders jammed with the same line her windowsill. Her computer screen displays an image of Scholl’s official indictment. On it, the young activist had defiantly written the word “Freiheit,” the German word for freedom, across the top. Donner has the word scrawled on a whiteboard above a list of notes and ideas. On a facing wall, Scholl’s photos are attached to corkboard with clear pushpins; tape holds in place a small image of Scholl in place just beneath the room’s light switch. It’s an important reminder, said Donner, “the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see at night.”

Sophie Scholl wrote “Freiheit,” the German word for freedom, across the top of her official indictment. Her defiance keeps motivates Donner's work. Alamy Stock Photo

The author admits the work can take emotional toll. Long runs around the Charles River help her recharge, as does playing her cello.

“I am tremendously inspired by those who possess moral courage,” she said. Other contacts offer up sources of inspiration, such as Donald Read Heath Jr., another key figure in her 2021 book. Heath, a young American boy living in Berlin with his parents, carried secret messages from Harnack to his father, a US intelligence agent stationed in the German capitol. Although well into his 80s when they met, Heath’s memories, said Donner, “propelled me forward.”

She’s experiencing something similar at Radcliffe. One of Donner’s undergraduate research assistants attended Scholl’s high school in Ulm, Germany, and is roughly the same age Scholl was when she started her resistance work.

“I’ve traveled to Ulm twice to conduct research and interview a pastor there,” said Donner. “But it’s an entirely different experience to work with a research partner who is from Ulm, who has walked the streets that Sophie walked.”

It’s those kinds of experiences, she added, “that help bring the past into the present for me.”

Colleen Walsh is a freelance writer.

Return to the fall 2023 Radcliffe Magazine page.

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