A footnote on “Troubles”

In my brief comments on Rebecca Donner’s All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, I skated over Donner’s treatment of the Harnacks’ communism and espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. The Harnacks’ communism is implicit and their espionage explicit in the narrative.

I found Donner’s treatment of Mildred’s communism far more forthcoming than Erik Larson’s treatment of the same issue with respect to Martha Dodd in his Garden of Beasts book. However, complicating the issue, Mildred also passed on intelligence to the United States. Donner leaves inferences, judgments, and conclusions to her readers.

When I finished reading the book last week I wrote Emory University Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus of Politics and History Harvey Klehr. Professor Klehr is our foremost historian of American Communism and Soviet espionage. I wondered if he had dipped into the book and, if so, what he thought. Having just finished the book, he promptly responded. Noting that she had “dug deep into the archives,” Professor Klehr wrote:

It’s an excellent read. She writes well and, as you note, turns what could be a dry story into a rather dramatic and compelling tale. The one evasion I sensed was Mildred’s communism. She almost certainly was one, probably as early as her days as a student at Wisconsin. Donner is no fan of the Soviet Union, but perhaps she thinks it would tarnish Mildred’s memory to state that she was an ardent Stalinist.

She and her husband found themselves in a dreadful bind. They clearly provided information to the United States embassy at least until 1941 and then their only apparent contact was the Red Orchestra, which had the additional attraction of being more ideologically simpatico. The irony was the KGB’s horrible tradecraft…

The ethical and political dilemmas faced by Germans living in Germany during the war who were opposed to the regime were excruciating. Helping Stalin was certainly not an ideal option, but was it any different than American Lend-Lease to the Soviet Union? Defeating Hitler was the first priority.

That’s my rambling reaction!

Professor Klehr is the author of books including In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage In America and Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (all with John Earl Haynes). He is the author, most recently, of The Millionaire Was a Soviet Mole: The Twisted Life of David Karr. I am grateful for Professor Klehr’s permission to publish his message.

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