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Living Through the War

Schloss Friedland, Monday, 1 January [1940]. Olga Pückler, Tatiana and I spent the New Year quietly at Schloss Friedland. We lit the Christmas tree and tried to read the future by dropping melted wax and lead into a bowl of water. We expect Mamma and Georgie to appear any minute from Lithuania. They have announced their arrival repeatedly. At midnight all the village bells began to ring. We hung out of the windows listening—the first New Year of this new World War.”

Princess Marie Vassiltchikov was twenty-two when she wrote this entry. The Vassiltchikovs had fled from Russia in 1919 and settled on their Lithuanian estates; now they were on the move again. The Soviet-German treaty had placed Lithuania in the Russian sphere of influence, and the Red Army was garrisoning the country: it was no longer a healthy place for landowning Russian aristocrats.

Schloss Friedland in Silesia belonged to the Pücklers, who were family friends. (All the same, in 1942 Count Pückler was to denounce old Princess Vassiltchikov to the Gestapo.) Marie and her elder sister Tatiana had spent the summer there. George—“Georgie”—was her younger brother. After her death in 1978 he edited the diaries; he always refers to her as “Missie.”

In the autumn of 1940 the family were reunited in Berlin. They had no money at all, and Tatiana and Missie looked for secretarial jobs. Being bilingual in English and Russian1 they hoped to work for the American embassy. But the Americans were slow to find employment for the sisters, who could not afford to wait. So they went to work for the German Foreign Office.

The Foreign Office was not wholly uncongenial. It was staffed by clever, well-educated, and mostly well-born men. The lunch hours were long and enjoyable: there was time for a swim in someone’s pool or cocktails before eating at the Eden Hotel where the head waiter enjoyed showing off his English. Besides, contempt for the Nazis expressed itself in a certain ironic style employed in the office when the coast seemed clear. Missie was sometimes irritated by what she called this “je m’en fichisme“: that was before she knew what lay concealed beneath. Several of her colleagues were to be executed in 1944 for their part in the July 20 plot to overthrow Hitler. The most glamorous and passionate of the plotters was Adam von Trott, consumed with hatred of the Nazis and shame for his country. Missie became his assistant. It is obvious that she learned about the conspiracy: how soon and how much are not clear, even to her brother. She had an instinctive rapport with Trott, and there is a note of Schwärmerei in her references to him; he, for his part, saw the point of her: “She has something of a noble animal of legend,” he wrote to his wife in the country, “something free that enables her to soar far above everything and everyone.”

In the photographs she looks a beauty, and a beautiful nature shines through her unself-conscious writing. If Hofmannsthal and Strauss’s Marschallin had not been married off at the age of fifteen but grown up into an independent young woman, she might have been something like Missie: a society belle, a honeypot surrounded by young men, fond of them, of dancing, of pretty hats, and as regular at the hairdresser’s as she was at mass (Greek Orthodox in Missie’s case). Missie’s faith was uncomplicated and matter-of-fact; perhaps it contributed to her rare and alluring serenity. Besides, she could tell right from wrong without any effort at all. Not that she was in any way a prig. She had a droll sense of humor and forgave easily—except the Nazis, for what they were and did.

People liked doing things for her. In the chaos after the armistice when the roads were crowded with soldiers and refugees of all nations and there was no regular transport, she managed to hitch a ride on the engine of a train bound for Hanau. She was on the way from Austria to the Rhineland to join her sister, now Princess Metternich. Halfway there the engine driver received orders to divert the train to another destination. He drove it to Hanau first so as not to let Missie down.

But people also sought her out for help and advice. The head of the army hospital where she worked as a nurse soon spotted her talent and appointed her to deal with the relatives of the dead and dying. That was toward the end of the war. Earlier on, her counsel had been sought on a more improbable matter. In August 1941 she stayed with the Hohenzollern family at Schloss Sigmaringen for the wedding of their daughter to Prince Constantine of Bavaria—a stately three-day royal event which makes astonishing reading. On the wedding eve two young boys turned up in Missie’s bedroom. One was the sixteen-year-old Hereditary Prince of Saxony: “He…begged me to help him find a bride, as he feels that his dynastic obligations (the family was dethroned in 1918!) made it incumbent on him to start a family early. I suggested that most of his potential brides were probably still making mud patties; he sadly agreed and presently they departed.”

Missie’s set was the high aristocracy. Her index reads like the Almanach de Gotha: Arenberg, Bismarck, Cantacuzene, Clary, Croy, Hatzfeldt, Hohenlohe, a column of Hohenzollerns, and so on, with operetta Christian names to match: Ghigi, Sisi, Siggi, Goffy, Tütü, Dicky, Tommy, Bübchen. The prize goes to Count Ronnie (Hieronymus) Clary. Its owner was killed on the Russian front together with Bübchen, Goffy, and many others. On leave from the front or recovering from wounds, the young officers flocked to Berlin. There were impromptu parties with clandestine dancing: dancing was forbidden by the Führer as the casualties mounted. Always hungry, the jeunesse dorée scoured the chic restaurants for unrationed food. After the bombers had flown back to England the waiters would sweep up the shattered glass and do their best to serve elegantly whatever there was to eat. Once when one of Missie’s young men got hold of a hundred oysters they threw a party, “with many gashed thumbs, as nobody seems very expert at opening oysters.” Diplomats occasionally brought back goodies from abroad and sometimes even copies of American Vogue or the London Tatler; then Tatiana would pore over photographs of her prewar girlfriends.

As the bombing continued, most of the Foreign Office, including Missie’s archive section, was evacuated to Krummhübel, a resort on the Czech border. Missie learned to ski, and in the boring evenings she practiced her accordion. She still spent weekends away with friends, thinking nothing of standing through the night in an overcrowded train. She also traveled weekly to Berlin, ostensibly on Foreign Office business, but really to see her friends, and especially Trott.

She would put up in the house of one acquaintance or another, according to whose was still standing. “It looks as if these ghastly raids are intended to help [the Allies’] progress by breaking the Germans’ morale,” she wrote in December 1943, “but I do not think that much can be achieved that way. Indeed they are having the contrary effect. For amidst such suffering and hardship, political considerations become secondary and everyone seems intent only on patching roofs, propping up walls, cooking fried potatoes on an upturned electric iron (I myself fried an egg that way!), or melting snow for water to wash with. Furthermore, at such times the heroic side of human nature takes over and people are being extraordinarily friendly and helpful to one another—’compagnons de malheur.’ ”

Whenever she could, Missie would go out to the Bismarcks in Potsdam for the night. It was only a short drive from Berlin, but usually outside the target area. Gottfried von Bismarck, the local civil governor, was among the conspirators. On July 2, 1944, his brother Otto had a boar shoot. No boars were killed, but “after dinner we had a long discussion with a famous zoologist about the best way to get rid of Adolf [also known as “unser Liebling“—our darling]. He said that in India natives use tigers’ whiskers chopped very fine and mixed with food. The victim dies a few days later and nobody can detect the cause. But where do we find a tiger’s whiskers?” Where indeed? All the wild animals in the zoo had been shot in case they escaped during an air raid. Meanwhile the entry gives an idea of the mood in Missie’s circle.

A week later Trott took her for a drive and told her “the coming events” were “imminent”:

We don’t see eye to eye on this because I continue to find that too much time is being lost perfecting the details, whereas to me only one thing is really important now—the physical elimination of the man. What happens to Germany once he is dead can be seen to later. Perhaps because I am not German myself, it may all seem simpler to me, whereas for Adam it is essential that some kind of Germany be given a chance to survive. This evening we had a bitter quarrel about this and both of us got very emotional. So sad, at this, of all moments….

Missie displayed more political insight than Adam. She had realized all along that the Allies would never treat with the conspirators or distinguish between good Germans and bad, and that nothing would stop them from pursuing the annihilation of Germany.

Missie’s friend Loremarie von Schönburg worked in the Foreign Office too. She was in the plot and nicknamed “Lottchen” after Charlotte Corday because of her excessive fervor. On July 20 the two girls were chatting on the office stairs when Bismarck appeared and urged them to go out to Potsdam as soon as possible. “That’s it. It’s done,” said Loremarie. They were rejoicing at Potsdam when the radio announced that Hitler had survived. Incredulity was followed by despair when it was clear, hours later, that he really had. They heard the tanks roll by from the Krampnitz officers’ training school near Potsdam: part of the army’s planned takeover of the government. As dawn broke on July 21, they heard the tanks roll back: the Putsch had failed. By now they knew that Stauffenberg, Haeften, and Beck had been executed that very night, and many others arrested. Missie watched with Trott through the night of July 22, then she kept in touch by telephone. On July 25 she dropped in at his office. He was not there and the secretary shooed her away.

On the previous day she had had a service said for the plotters who had been executed, and prayers for the safety of the rest. It took place in the flat of the priest to the Russian Orthodox community. A German church would have been too dangerous. “I was the only person present and I cried throughout it horribly.”

Day by day more people disappeared. Some were arrested, others committed suicide because they were afraid of giving way under torture. Loremarie recklessly charmed her way past the guards of the Gestapo prison with parcels of food and clothes. One day she ran into Trott in a corridor:

His hands were manacled, he was evidently being led to interrogation; he recognised her but looked straight through her. The expression on his face, she said, was that of somebody already in another world. They are surely being tortured…. Loremarie also saw Ambassador von Hassell. He was in a strait-jacket, and his arm was in a sling. She had lunched with him a few days before and nothing was wrong with his arm then.

Missie joined Loremarie, who “told me exactly how to behave, but I admit that my knees wobbled.” What they were doing in carrying parcels to the prison was incredibly dangerous: all the conspirators’ friends and relatives were being arrested. The parcels never reached their recipients. The guards were glad of the stuff, and anyway, most of the prisoners had already been hanged. Among the most harrowing entries are those in which Missie expresses hope for one or another of them without realizing that he is already beyond it.

There are shelves full of books about the July plot. This must be the most moving. It can stand comparison with Anne Frank’s Diary. In both cases an exceptionally tragic episode in history is observed by an exceptionally appealing and intelligent girl. The obvious comparison, though, is with Christabel Bielenberg’s memoir Ride out the Dark. 2 The author is a few years older than Missie was, an Englishwoman married to a German lawyer. Missie first met Trott at the Bielenbergs; he was Peter Bielenberg’s best friend; when he was arrested, Bielenberg formed a plan to spring him from the car taking him from prison to be interrogated at the Gestapo headquarters. Missie went to see him about it on August 25—the very day Trott was hanged—but found that Bielenberg had himself been arrested.

So there is a lot of overlap in the books. Christabel Bielenberg knew about plans to overthrow Hitler as early as 1938 and had experienced prewar Germany. She was a middle-class housewife, frightened for her children in the blitz, and struggling with food rationing, blackout regulations, and domestic spies. Her life was more terre-à-terre than Missie’s gallant whirl among the beau monde and the falling bombs. In 1943 she reluctantly took her three small sons to the comparative safety of a Black Forest village, and remained there for the rest of the war—except for a grueling expedition to visit her husband in Ravensbrück concentration camp; afterward she volunteered to give evidence on his behalf to the Gestapo, and managed it so well that he was released.

Missie gives a vivid idea of what it was like working in the Foreign Office. Bielenberg puts it—together with the civil service as a whole—into perspective. Germany, she writes,

had become like a prison turned inside out, with the criminals in command, noisy and ruthless, yet also naive and incompetent…. Confronting them were the old established administrators of law and order, who, true to the Prussian tradition of loyalty and obedience to the State, had remained at their posts after 1933…. They were surely not by nature revolutionaries, but many had been driven by their principles as professionals, and also by repugnance at what had happened to their country, into contemplating just that role—for which neither God nor the exacting Prussian state code had prepared them. Considering their limitations they had not done too badly. The old Ministries had always been exclusive, and they had remained so, looking after their own with much ingenuity, in spite of the Gestapo.

Still, none of these intelligent, highly trained men seemed able to realize what was obvious to the Englishwoman and the Russian girl: that the Allies were not interested in good Germans. The attempt to overthrow Hitler was delayed until it was too late, partly because Trott and others repeatedly and fruitlessly tried to contact Churchill, Roosevelt, and Halifax through neutral intermediaries in order to persuade them to agree to negotiate peace with the new German government which the plotters planned to set up. Not that either Christabel or Missie agreed with the Allied stand: ” ‘Unconditional surrender’ is all they will stand for,” wrote Missie after Churchill’s speech in early 1944. “Lunacy!” Bielenberg agrees:

The demand for “unconditional surrender,” which was perhaps the greatest blow ever delivered to the opposition in Germany, was so superbly ill-timed, coming as it did just after Stalingrad, handed to the wily Dr. Goebbels the very weapon he needed to rant and flail, cajole and spur on flagging spirits to fight to the end.

Even worse were the British broadcasts to Germany after July 20. They named people suspected of connections with the plot—thereby saving a lot of trouble for the Gestapo. At this point George Vassiltchikov launches into one of his longest notes. He was unable, he says, to get any “exact information” about these broadcasts. Everyone responsible whom he approached denied all knowledge of them. “The closest anyone has come to admitting their existence is Michael Balfour,”3 who wrote that they “contributed to the distrust between Party and Army.” Vassiltchikov’s next passage is open to various exegeses:

Apart from the more sinister motivations that come to mind in the light of the self-confessed role played at the time in British intelligence by Kim Philby in successfully neutralising some of the peace feelers put out by the resisters,4 the resisters themselves may have been partly responsible for these destructive broadcasts by exaggerating the numbers and prominence of their alleged sympathisers in order to impress the Allies.

Does Vassiltchikov mean that the Allies deliberately informed on the plotters? If so, it could have been because of their chronic fear that a German Putsch would give rise to another “stab in the back” explanation for Germany’s defeat—a replay of what happened after World War I. When one remembers that the resisters were hanged very slowly with piano wire, this interpretation, and one can’t be sure it’s the right one, is too horrible to think about—like the British decision to repatriate the Cossacks. Whatever the motivation of the broadcasts, both Missie and Christabel Bielenberg heard them and were appalled.

Bielenberg’s book is the more knowledgeable and reflective. It is based on diaries, but carefully worked up with telling anecdotes and passages about birdsong and moonlight in artful, ironic contrast to the brutality of life in wartime Germany. Missie goes in for nothing of that kind, and her diaries are the better for it. Besides, Christabel’s breezy, sensible English decency cannot compare with the poetry and pathos generated by Missie’s personality.

The diaries don’t finish in Berlin. Missie was working as a nurse in Vienna when the city was bombed as the Russians and Americans closed in. Her descriptions of what she saw are actually more gruesome than her accounts of the Berlin bombings. There is also a new note of black humor: “Poldi is still here to bury his mother. So far he has been unable to do so because of the shortage of coffins,” she wrote in March 1945. A fortnight later she describes another Almanach de Gotha procession, this time through the ruins of the Schönborn palace:

A most colourful crowd keeps trooping past the porter’s lodge—Annie Thun with pails of water; Erwein Schönborn with a ladder (he is still digging hopefully for his [stuffed] orangoutans!); Fritzi Hohenlohe with a black, hirsute beard, his chest covered with medals…. Lunched with Franzl Taxis; we ate huge schnitzels bought with the last meat ration cards Tatiana had sent me, cooked on a spirit lamp—very greasy but delicious—and washed down with some of the Taxis’ far too good wines, which Franzl has rescued from the cellar of the bombed-out Thurn-und-Taxis palace; but it seems a pity to leave them to the invaders.

Missie and her friend Sisi Wilczek caught the last train from Vienna on April 2, 1945. They spent a chaotic summer in Western Austria, still attached as nurses to their evacuated army hospital. When they finally separated on August 31, they promised each other not to get married for a long time. Both broke their promise almost at once. Missie married an American architect whom she met that same year.

Her brother has done an admirable editorial job, providing, among other things, notes on what happened afterward to the chief characters in Missie’s narrative. One certainly wants to know.

  1. 1

    The diaries were written in English, partly in code.

  2. 2

    G.K. Hall and Company, 1984.

  3. 3

    Propaganda in War: 1939–1945 (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970).

  4. 4

    My Secret War (Granada, 1969).

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