What makes “ordinary people” do extra-ordinary things?
On May 14, “Resistance Women” was issued, a historical novel its publisher describes as the “unforgettable story of ordinary people determined to resist the rise of evil, sacrificing their own lives and liberty to fight injustice and defend the oppressed.” It focuses on Mildred Fish Harnack, Milwaukee born and raised, who became the only American to be executed for participating in the German Resistance to the Third Reich.
But were Mildred and her comrades so “ordinary”? And what is an “ordinary person” anyway?
The preceding day I was honored to attend a ceremony in Berlin that was both solemn and rather macabre. (See the New York Times story on this ceremony, They Resisted Hitler. They Were Executed. At Last, They Lay at Rest.)
74 years late, her comrades finally had their remains buried. For Mildred, it was her second burial. They had participated in what esteemed historian and head of the German Resistance Memorial, Dr. Johannes Tuchel, identifies as one of the greatest wartime resistance organizations in Nazi-Germany, called the Harnack/Schulze-Boysen Organization by historians after the fact, and the “Red Orchestra” by the Gestapo which pursued them. Tuchel documented that this group, noted for its significant female participation, included a great number of ministerial officials, intellectuals, artists, and also workers, of different ideological motivations.
A few of them survived the war, but most did not. At least two were from the U.S. Two more were Germans who had studied at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, including Arvid Harnack (which is where he and Mildred met).
They were a mix of people certainly. But how “ordinary”?
It has been suggested that the Jane’s Walks that the Turners had initiated in Milwaukee, among 200 cities worldwide; and the Women’s Marches after the 2016 election, are two movements involving ordinary people who have stepped up into leadership. Janes’ Walks have also celebrated some less than famous neighborhoods, but I don’t think that made them “ordinary.” Rather, they are more special to some than others, but should be celebrated and protected just the same. That is what urban protector Jane Jacobs was all about.
So, I doubt that anyone is really ordinary. But I do think that almost anyone can do extra-ordinary things -- depending on the circumstances they face. One of our jobs is to inspire and activate more people to step up, whether its an effort to save a life, a neighborhood, or even a civilization. That’s certainly a “noble” goal, that we can all seek to fulfill.
Art Heitzer, President