First Person: The Artist as Witness – Falk Harnack

Stephani Richards-Wilson, PhD, EdD

Learning Outcomes 

After reading this chapter, you will be able to:

  1. Recognize the significance of resistance efforts in Nazi Germany, namely The Red Orchestra, The White Rose, and the individuals involved in the July 20 plot of 1944 to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
  2. Understand how a postwar German filmmaker, Falk Harnack, was connected to these groups and how he bore witness to their resistance during and after the defeat of the Third Reich (1933-1945).
  3. Appreciate the value of critical thinking and the courage to think/act independently when it comes to individual responsibility and confronting the moral challenges of your own time.

Who was the artist and what did he witness? Dr. Falk Harnack (1913-1991) was born in Stuttgart, Germany and was a screenwriter, accomplished actor, and director. His extended family included prominent intellectuals, academics, and theologians, most notably his cousin Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a young Lutheran pastor who defied the National Socialists (Nazis) and was at the center of a resistance circle within the Bekennende Kirche (Protestant Confessing Church) in Nazi Germany (Brysac, 2000, p. 129). Falk’s uncle, Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), mentored Bonhoeffer and was a renowned church historian and prominent scholar who was socially well connected and respected. He had been Bonhoeffer’s theology professor in Berlin, Germany and upon his retirement in 1929, Bonhoeffer acknowledged that much of what he had learned came from Adolf von Harnack (Metaxas, 2010, p. 59; 90-91).


Falk Harnack also had a mentor who guided his life and inspired him. He was particularly close to his older brother Dr. Arvid Harnack (1901-1942). After their father’s death, their uncle Adolf von Harnack mentored them as well and his influence extended to others who would eventually oppose the National Socialists (Thomas & Lewis, 2019, p. 13). Arvid Harnack and his American born wife Mildred Fish-Harnack (1902-1943) were leaders in an underground resistance network in Berlin code-named by the Gestapo as Die Rote Kapelle (“The Red Orchestra”). The group was eventually discovered and Arvid and Mildred were arrested in September 1942. Arvid received a death sentence and was executed by the Nazis in Berlin in December 1942. Mildred was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she met Arvid who was studying there on a Rockefeller fellowship. She was an author, journalist, translator and rising academic scholar. She was originally sentenced to six years of hard labor in a penitentiary however, Hitler was so incensed about the Nazi military defeat at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942/43, that he ordered a new trial that ended with a death sentence. Dr. Fish-Harnack is the only American woman executed on Hitler’s direct orders for her resistance efforts. She was murdered February 16, 1943, two days before the first of the White Rose students were arrested in Munich. (The Red Orchestra had provided secret information to Allied forces about the planned Nazi invasion of the former Soviet Union. They had also relayed secret intelligence to the Soviets.)


In the 1930s, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, Falk Harnack studied in Munich and Berlin. In May 1934, Harnack and some friends first organized “illegal” flyers protesting the Nazi Students’ Association at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (also known as LMU) (Weiße Rose Stiftung, 2006, p. 48). In 1936, he earned his doctorate and then worked in the performing arts as an actor, director, and advisor in the Deutsches Nationaltheater (German National Theater) in Weimar, Germany. His academic advisor and mentor, Professor Arthur Kutscher, had influenced the rest of this life when he exclaimed that the artist should not withdraw from the social conflicts of his time. Harnack heeded his advice, even when the war interrupted his plans. In 1941 and during the Second World War, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht (German Armed forces during the Nazi years). In late 1942 and early 1943, he met with the student-soldiers Hans Scholl (1918-1943) and Alexander Schmorell (1917-1943) of the resistance circle called Die Weiße Rose (The White Rose).


The White Rose university students used the power of words to denounce Hitler and to enlist their fellow Germans in resisting the Nazis. The circle, approximately 50 to 60 individuals, consisted of friends and students enrolled at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. In 1942 and near the university, they originally met to discuss books and literature in the evening and were mentored and supported by older professionals, writers, and artists. As the discussions evolved, a core group of five students and their professor, Kurt Huber (1893-1943), secretly met to discuss resistance activities. They crafted, copied, and distributed thousands of copies of six typed flyers. As Lloyd (2019) points out, the Flugblatt (flyer) was the first means of mass communication in German-speaking regions (p. 207). Paper, envelopes, and stamps were rationed during the war years and the students took considerable risk purchasing them in large quantities so as not to draw attention to their resistance activities. Imagine what they could have done with access to social media networks. Imagine what you can do today as a force for good.


In February 1943, and at a great risk to their personal safety, three of the students painted graffiti on the Munich city walls during three nights calling Hitler a mass murderer and writing “Freedom” and “Down with Hitler” in large letters. Harnack met with Hans Scholl, Alexander Schmorell, Kurt Huber and Willi Graf (1918-1943) for the last time that same month. They discussed expanding their resistance efforts and Harnack was going to connect them with his ties to other resisters in Berlin, namely his cousins the Bonhoeffers. However, before he could make the secret introductions, the first of the White Rose students were arrested on February 18, 1943 and Hans Scholl, his sister Sophie Scholl, and another member of the group, Christoph Probst were tried and executed by the Nazis on February 22, 1943. Harnack was arrested March 6, 1943. There were five White Rose trials in total. Falk Harnack was tried in the second trial held in the People’s Court in Munich on April 19, 1943. Some of the other defendants included Professor Kurt Huber, Willi Graf, and Alexander Schmorell. They received the death penalty and were executed for high treason by the Nazis within months.


Harnack was the only defendant to be acquitted in his trial. After the war and in 1947, Harnack recalled that this was a Gestapo tactic to learn about his connections with the intent of capturing him again in time (Scholl, 2016, p. 163). Once allowed to leave, Harnack had to return to the military. In August of that year, he was assigned to a new Wehrmacht unit that deployed to Athens, Greece. In December 1943, a year after his brother Arvid’s execution, he was notified of his own personal judgement (death sentence). As he was boarding the military plane to return to Nazi Germany, he managed to flee the Tatoi airfield in Athens. He fought with Greek partisans against the Nazis, established the Antifascist Committee “Free Germany,” and survived the end of the war in Greece (Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand, 2021).


As for his cousins, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his brother Klaus (1901-1945), an attorney for Lufthansa Airlines, they were executed by the Nazis for their clandestine resistance efforts and connections to the military officers and conspirators involved in the “July 20 plot” of 1944 to assassinate Hitler. This plan was a modification of Hitler’s “Operation Valkyrie.” The military coup and assassination attempt failed. Hitler survived the bomb explosion, and the key conspirators were executed the same day in what is now known as the Bendler Block historic complex in Berlin. Many other conspirators (real and imagined) were also executed thereafter by the Nazis at the Plötzensee Prison.


After Nazi Germany was defeated in 1945, Harnack returned to his theatrical career and directed films. In 1949, he was appointed Artistic Director of DEFA film studios. He initially made a film released by DEFA (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft or East German Film Studio). The former East Germany (1949-1990) was officially known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR) prior to unification of the two occupied Germanies (East and West). It was a socialist state (Communist) and part of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War years (after the Second World War until approximately 1990).


Harnack’s films produced for the post-war German cinema in the 1950s are considered classics and deal with the Nazi past. The first was Das Beil von Wandsbek (The Axe of Wandsbek). It premiered in 1951 and was based on the novel by German-Jewish author Arnold Zweig (1887-1968). The story takes place in Nazi Germany in 1934. A German butcher is on the verge of bankruptcy and agrees to become a Nazi executioner. Erwin Geschonneck (1906-2008), a former concentration camp survivor, starred in this film which was soon banned by the East German authorities. They thought that the portrayal of the Nazi perpetrator was too sympathetic. (The Nazi fascists and Communists were arch enemies.)


Harnack left the state-run DEFA in 1952 on account of the politics and moved to the former West Germany where he directed his subsequent films, such as Der 20. Juli (July 20 -The Plot to Assassinate Hitler.) The Plot to Assassinate Hitler (1955) dealt with the central figure and German military officer who led the assassination attempt of July 20, 1944, Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (1907-1944). As Niven notes, Harnack directed this film in the 1950s, not that long after the death (suicide) of Adolf Hitler in 1945. He had to be strategic in how he depicted Hitler in his film, so as not to reawaken admiration for him at the expense of Colonel Stauffenberg’s courageous act (2009, p. 191). If you ever wondered how so many Germans could have been misguided by Hitler and become perpetrators during the Holocaust, Hayes (2017) offers an explanation at the end of his book Why? Explaining the Holocaust:


The Holocaust was not mysterious and inscrutable; it was the work of humans acting on familiar human weaknesses and motives: wounded pride, fear, self-righteousness, prejudice, and personal ambition being among the most obvious. Once persecution gathered momentum, however, it was unstoppable without the death of millions of people, the expenditure of vast sums of money, and the near destruction of the European continent. Perhaps no event in history, therefore, better confirms that very difficult warning embedded in a German proverb that captures the meaning I hope readers will take away from this book: Wehret den Anfängen, “Beware the beginnings.” (p. 342)


Falk Harnack witnessed the beginning and end of the Nazi terror state. However, he also witnessed the resistance and their efforts to stop them. As Brysac (2000) observes, few German citizens challenged the Nazi dictatorship but the minority that did resist ranged from “the poor and powerless to the well-born and affluent” (p. 392). Harnack knew many of these “upstanders,” ordinary people who risked their lives to stand up to the Nazis. They were students, academics, and professional people such as lawyers, among others. In addition to losing his brother Arvid and sister-in-law Mildred, his cousin Ernst was also executed by the Nazis. He was an attorney and the son of Adolf von Harnack. Ernst was hanged in March 1945 for having knowledge about the July 20 plot to kill Hitler. Falk Harnack died in 1991 and is buried in Berlin, Germany.


Harnack was one of the last individuals to speak with the German student-soldier Willi Graf of the White Rose after their trial in April 1943. Willi Graf was twenty-five when he was murdered by the Nazis. He had been drafted by the Nazis soon after the Second World War started in 1939 and was assigned twice to the Russian front as a battlefield combat paramedic in the Wehrmacht. He witnessed the senselessness of war and horrific atrocities committed by fellow Germans against innocent civilians. In June 1942, Graf wrote to his younger sister Anneliese, “Jeder Einzelne trägt die ganze Verantwortung” (Graf, 2004, p. 161). (Every individual bears full responsibility.) She later recalled that he didn’t ask what can be done, but rather what can I do? On October 12, 1943, the day of his prison execution, Graf secretly dictated a short farewell note to Anneliese. He asked her to say good-bye to his friends and told them to carry on what the White Rose began. We all bear witness to the times in which we live. What will you do in your time?

Sources of more information:

The White Rose Foundation, Munich, Germany. The White Rose Foundation Memorial Exhibit is located near the atrium in Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (also known as LMU). The Foundation was established in 1987 by friends and family members of the White Rose.
General Information about the White Rose


The White Rose Leaflets in German (Flyers)


White Rose Wall Slogans (Graffiti) from February 1943


Short video that shows how the White Rose members produced the flyers


Resistance Against National Socialism in General and The Red Orchestra

Resistance Inside Nazi Germany

Films made in the former German Democratic Republic or East Germany are archived in the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. DEFA was the state-owned motion picture agency in the former East Germany. Falk Harnack’s Movies To rent or stream Harnack’s film The Axe of Wandsbek (1951), visit the website of the DEFA film library. English subtitles are included.


Associated Press. (15 March 2008). Erwin Geschonneck, star of many East German films dies at 101. The New York Times. New York Times article

Brysac, S. B. (2000). Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra. Oxford University Press.

Denk mal am Ort München. (2021, May 1). Die Weiße Rose [The White Rose in Munich] Youtube video

Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand [German Resistance Memorial Center] (accessed 2021). Biographies -Falk Harnack.

Graf, W. (2004). Willi Graf: Briefe und Aufzeichnungen [Willi Graf: Correspondence and notes] (A. Knoop-Graf and Inge Jens, Eds.; 2nd ed.). S. Fischer Verlag.

Hayes, P. (2017). Why? Explaining the Holocaust. W.W. Norton & Company.

Lloyd, A. (2019). Exhibition Catalogue. In A. Llyod (Ed.), The White Rose: Reading, writing, resistance (pp. 195-212). Taylor Institution Library.

Metaxas, E. (2010). Bonhoeffer: Pastor, martyr, prophet, spy. Thomas Nelson.

Niven, B. (2009). The figure of the soldier as resister: German film and the difficult legacy of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. Journal of War and Culture Studies, 2(2), 181-193. Taylor and Francis Online

Richards-Wilson, S. (2013). Willi Graf of the White Rose: The role of Bildung in his decision to resist national socialism (Publication No. 3590813) [Doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison]. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global.

Scholl, I. (2016).  Die Weiße Roose [The White Rose] (16th ed.). S. Fischer Verlag. (Original work published in 1952)

Thomas, G. & Lewis, G. (2019). Defying Hitler: The Germans who resisted Nazi rule. Dutton Caliber.

Weiße Rose Stiftung [White Rose Foundation]. (2006). The White Rose: The student resistance against Hitler, Munich 1942/43. Weiße Rose Stiftung.

Weiße Rose Stiftung [White Rose Foundation]. (accessed 2021). The White Rose resistance group.

White Rose Project: A research and public engagement initiative at the University of Oxford. (accessed 2021). About the Project.

Wisconsin Women Making History. (accessed 2021). Mildred Fish-Harnack.


About the author

Stephani Richards-Wilson, PhD, EdD, is an Associate Professor of Business and Management at Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She holds a Doctorate in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego and a PhD in German from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s highly ranked program. Her first dissertation dealt with the benefits of an MBA degree and her second focused on Willi Graf of the Nazi resistance group called the White Rose. She explored the role of Bildung in Graf’s decision to resist the National Socialists. The German word Bildung does not have a direct translation. It means self-cultivation, self-development, or self-improvement through cultural activities such a reading literature, attending classical music concerts, and appreciating the fine arts such as poetry and theater. For more information about her work and research related to Willi Graf (1918-1943), please see her academic profile on the Academia website.



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The Holocaust:  Remembrance, Respect, and Resilience Copyright © 2023 by Stephani Richards-Wilson, PhD, EdD is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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