Courage and treachery during World War II

August 30, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

World War II continues as a touchstone of our thinking about such concepts as courage and treachery, even though the war ended 76 years ago. Two recently published books that I have encountered (but have not had a chance to read) demonstrate that. One is a tale of courage of heroic proportions. The second is treachery that has long been covered up by people who should have known better.

As the Nazis came to power and prepared for war in the late 1930s, a group of individuals eventually known as the Red Orchestra formed, bound by their common intellectual interests as well as their opposition to Nazism. They were far more interested in the German language, poetry, and literature than they were in politics. But for a short time, they provided vital military and economic information to Germany’s foreign enemies and aided in the rescue of Jews from the clutches of Hitler and his gang.

Their leader was Mildred Fish-Harnack, an American born in Milwaukie, Wisconsin, and her German husband Arvid Harnack. A new biography of Fish-Harnack has been published and reviewed by the New York Times. It’s title is All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, and it was written by Rebecca Donner, her great-great-niece. According to the review:

Between 1932 and 1942, Mildred and her collaborators built a network of objectors in Berlin who hoped to stop Nazi power. Idealistic and passionate, she lived her life according to her principles. Her marriage to Arvid, a German she met while a student at the University of Wisconsin, also led her to act. Arvid was born into a family of well-known scholars and theologians, many of whom were involved in the resistance.

The group believed that the Soviet Union offered the best resistance to Fascism, although some of its members had their doubts about Communism as an economic system. The group shared its information with the western Allies as well as the Soviets.

Inevitably, however, the group was betrayed, and Mildred and Arvid were arrested  in 1941 and tried for treason. Arvid was sentenced to death and executed on Christmas Eve. Mildred received a six-year sentence to hard labor, but Hitler refused to approve the sentence. Instead, he ordered her re-tried. She was executed and beheaded in February 1942.

After the war, the heroism of Mildred, Arvid, and their compatriots was muted in the West because of their Soviet connections. As the Cold War has dissipated, we have gradually come to recognize their valor.

The second book relates a far different story — one that you might think you already know. In 1935, Edward IV, king of England, gave up his throne to marry “the woman I love,” American Wallis Simpson. Their story morphed into one of the great romantic tales of the 20th century. Author Andrew Lownie is here to tell us that nothing about this story and its aftermath is as it seems, and the truth about Edward and Wallis’ so-called “romance” and their post-reign life is a sorted narrative indeed.

Lownie’s book Traitor King has been published in Great Britain but is not yet available in the United States. Lownie has given an interview with the BBC’s History Extra podcast, which you can listen to at this link. The story he tells is a fascinating one.

First, there is strong evidence to believe that Wallis Simpson was never truly in love the Edward Windsor. He was obsessed with her, and despite her urgings to him to keep his crown, he determined on his own to give it up. In fact, Lownie says, he threatened to kill himself if she did not marry him. Not exactly what we have always heard.

Lownie contends that during the decade after giving up the throne, Edward and Wallis actively collaborated with Nazi Germany. The collaboration continued even after war between Great Britain and Germany had been declared with Edward, at one point, encouraging the Germans to bomb London in order to bring the British to the negotiating table.

The Windsors’ treachery was well-known to the British and later to the Americans, and it probably would have been covered up completely had not a cache of Nazi documents been found soon after the war was over. These documents were proof positive of the Windsors’ activity, and Winston Churchill fought desperately to have them destroyed or suppressed.

Lownie lays out the whole mess in his interview, which shed a harsh light on what many still believe to be one of the great love stories of all time.

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