Not nobody

Gabriele Annan

  • Memories of My Youth in Old Prussia by Marion Countess Dönhoff
    Knopf, 204 pp, $22.95, November 1990, ISBN 0 394 58255 1

The Red Countess’ – die rote Gräfin – is well-known in Germany. More green than red now, and never any redder than the SPD, she is 81, still an active political journalist and still publishing Die Zeit, her country’s most prestigious political weekly, which she edited from 1968 to 1973. At one time she was asked to stand for Bundespräsident. She is definitely not nobody, and the writings collected here are imbued with a calm self-confidence that turns out to be her salient characteristic. It rests on the conviction that she can tell right from wrong. She has always acted accordingly, without any soul-searching or fuss.

This is what her Prussian upbringing taught her. Or so she seems implicitly to maintain. The first part of her book is about that upbringing – when it isn’t about her ancestors or the East Prussian system of land tenure, which will probably seem less interesting subjects to most people. German readers will recognise that the title of this section, ‘Before the Storm’, is recycled from a novel by the great Prussian novelist Fontane. His storm was the Napoleonic war, hers is the Second World War. All the male members of her family perished in it, some at the front, others because they took part in the July conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. She herself helped to plan some of the local East Prussian details of the plot. The plot failed, Germany lost the war, and her homeland became part of Russia. Her book is intended as an elegy for that land, that people, that way of life; and so it is; but as elegies go it is pretty dry. She is a political journalist, not a writer of evocative prose, and in any case tears are not her thing. She writes with a stiff Prussian upper lip. She speaks occasionally of her nostalgia, but it doesn’t soak into the text, except in the poignant description of landscapes she will never see again. Or rather: she never expected to see them again when she finished her book in 1988. Now things have changed, so perhaps she may revisit those lakes and forests after all. And if she does, she will find them less changed than the landscapes of Western Europe. The people, though, will be strangers speaking a strange language. There are not many Germans left in East Prussia (though recently there has been talk of resettling Russian ethnic Germans there), and the feudal way of life she knew has disappeared from the world altogether.

The Dönhoffs were not like the poor junkers of West Prussia, scraping a living from poor soil. They owned huge, well-farmed estates and the grandest house in East Prussia, Friedrichstein, where the Imperial family would stay when they visited the province. It was a beautiful early 18th-century schloss with elaborately-stuccoed rooms and views over landscaped gardens. Guests were lavishly entertained, but the family lived with Prussian frugality. There was only one bathroom, the food was simple, and the drinking water disgusting (wine and tubs of hot water in the bedroom were reserved for visitors). Marion Dönhoff was born there in 1909, the youngest of seven children. The sixth child had Down’s Syndrome, and until she was 11, Marion shared a room with her. This illustrates the Dönhoffs’ attitude to their children: they took them as they came, and the children had to take things as they came. They lived in Spartan cells above the grand reception rooms, no fuss was made of them, no treats arranged. Instead, they had horses and rabbits and dogs. The house servants and estate workers were their friends (especially the coachman), and so were the country children. Their cousins the Lehndorffs lived on a nearby estate: they were even horsier than the Dönhoffs, and the two families were very close: ‘We used to say jokingly – but in a way we also meant it – that when we got old we’d get rid of the outsiders we had married and move back together again.’ It was a blissful childhood. The frontier between the generations was clearly marked out and different rules applied on either side. On the children’s side the most important ones were never to cry if you were hurt; and for the culprit or ringleader to own up if any damage or misdeed or theft (like grapes from the conservatory) was discovered by the adults. The author seems to regard these rules as unusual and even characteristically Prussian, but in fact most groups of children live by them.

Count Dönhoff had been in the foreign service and travelled. He was a cultivated man with contacts outside his ultra-gratin circle, but he died when his youngest child was barely ten. Her mother believed strongly in convention: ‘she was guided by the principle of what one should do and, more important, what one should not do’ as a member of the class to which they belonged. Honour was more important than money, privilege brought responsibility and duties with it. Again, there is an implication that this is very Prussian, and so it is: but not unheard of among other aristocracies and élites. ‘Not only did the landed aristocrats lay no claim to being part of the world of the poets and intellectuals, but they took pride in rejecting it – partly out of snobbery and partly because they did not want to be thought pretentious.’ The italics are mine – the phrase struck me as an original, honourable, almost endearing excuse for philistinism. Still, the young Marion Dönhoff rebelled against philistinism and against conventionality too: but only inwardly, because she was a pragmatist and knew her time had not come. Later on, she managed to get herself to a university in spite of an unpromising education by the usual succession of governesses.

When the war came she had to return to East Prussia to run the estates because all her brothers were in the Army. She seems never to have believed that Germany would win the war or to have doubted that East Prussia would fall to the Russians. But she did her duty by the land and the people on it. In the autumn of 1941 she set out with Sissi Lehndorff for a short trip on horseback through the Masurian Lakes. She kept a journal to send to her brother Dietrich at the front. (Dietrich married Sissi and very soon left her a widow.) The journal is republished here with Memories of My Youth: it is quite different, much more lyrical, and the rapturous descriptions of autumn scenery have an undertow of doom. ‘I am reminded of the last confirmation in the little country church at Quittainen. Eight girls in white dresses and six boys in their first blue suits were standing there. I saw them as through a veil, because suddenly it became quite clear to me that none of those boys – unlike their fathers – would ever again stand at that altar and it would be the lot of most of those little girls to remain to fend for themselves.’

The last piece in the book,‘Leaving home’, is also republished from a previous collection. She wrote it shortly after the war and sent it to Die Zeit. It made her famous throughout Germany, and the magazine gave her a job on the strength of it. She describes how she left Friedrichstein as the Russians were arriving, and travelled on horseback to Westphalia with a stream off other refugees. ‘When I had ridden off in the depth of winter it was 20 degrees C below zero, and when I finally arrived ... it was spring. The birds were singing, the ploughs stood ready in the dusty fields.’ ‘Leaving home’ is all the more harrowing for Dönhoff’s grimly realistic attitude. On the bridge over the Nogat between Last and West Prussia she came across three wounded soldiers. Only three out of a thousand of them at the regional field hospital had had the strength to struggle that far. ‘The Russian tanks were only 18 miles from here, and these three could not possibly cover more than a fraction of a mile per hour ... The only question, it seemed to me, was whether they were going to die today or tomorrow.’ Her story is full of agonising scenes and encounters; the most macabre of these (though not at all the saddest) is her stopover at Bismarck’s estate in Pomerania.

Bismarck’s aged daughter-in-law, a famous wit and charmer, was still alive and expecting the Russians. She did not intend to flee. She had had a grave dug for herself in the garden, because she realised that once the Russians arrived there would be no one left to do it for her. The two ladies dined together, drinking ‘bottle after bottle of superb vintage wine’. Next day Countess Bismarck waved her visitor goodbye. ‘Leaving home’ is a classic of war literature, and a copy should be in every pacifist arsenal.