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Before the Storm: Memories of My Youth in Old Prussia

by Marion Countess Dönhoff, translated by Jean Steinberg, foreword by George F. Kennan
Knopf, 181 pp., $22.95

Weit ist der Weg nach Osten: Berichte und Betrachtungen aus funf Jahrzehnten

by Marion Gräfin Dönhoff
Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 350 pp., DM38

Foe into Friend: The Makers of the New Germany from Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Schmidt

by Marion Dönhoff, translated by Gabriele Annan
St. Martin’s, 214 pp., $20.00

Preussen—Mass und Masslosigkeit

by Marion Gräfin Dönhoff
Corso bei Siedler, 77 pp., DM20

I first met Countess Dönhoff in the Hotel Gehrhus in Berlin in July 1958 at a gathering of surviving members of the July 20, 1944, conspiracy against Hitler and the wives and children of those who did not survive. I cannot now recall how the name Martin Luther found its way into our conversation, but I remember her saying that she had always admired the great reformer because he had once said, “If I knew that the world were to end tomorrow, I should plant an apple tree today.” She added that I might hand that on to my students, whenever they became discouraged by the dangers of the cold war.

In Marion Dönhoff’s own life, Luther’s remark had a striking relevance. During the late 1930s, she and her brother managed the family estates of Friedrichstein and Quittainen in East Prussia. There was never any doubt in their minds, she told Gerd Bucerius and Theo Sommer in an interview in 1984, that Hitler was bent upon waging war and that this would end in the defeat of Germany and the loss of their entire province.1 Nevertheless, they went on making improvements to the estates, repairing equipment and buildings, and in other ways planting apple trees, even while saying to each other, “The Russians will enjoy these.” From a strictly rational point of view, these labors made little sense, but as she says in her memoirs:

When I think about it today, my relationship to Friedrichstein seems to have been composed of a hard-to-define mixture of boundless love and a strangely abstract pleasure in ownership, somewhat the way people today love the endangered environment: There is the desire to protect it, even to feel responsible for it, not as a private owner, but on a higher plane.

For Marion Dönhoff, history has long since vitiated the pleasures and duties of ownership, but the love remains. Even after nearly forty-five years as political writer, chief editor, and, finally, publisher of the Hamburg weekly newspaper Die Zeit, she thinks of East Prussia, the world that no longer exists, as her home and writes:

The reason: I miss the countryside, the landscape, the animals of my lost world. And also the sounds, those myriad sounds, that are indelibly etched in my memory—all the sounds we heard at dusk as we sat on the terraced steps in front of the house and watched the swallows dart around and the bats perform their zigzag dance.

Before the Storm is a book about growing up in East Prussia, but it also has a good deal to say about history, and perhaps its primary interest lies in its evocation of the old society of Prussian landed estates that was extinguished forever by the devastation of the terrible winter of 1944–1945 and the subsequent annexation of the lands east of the Vistula by the Poles and the Soviet Union. In his foreword to these recollections, George F. Kennan points out that “almost the only bonds that may now link the earlier life of the East Prussian region with the consciousness of people of later generations are the memories of those who participated in that life and are capable of recording for posterity what they remembered of it.” Marion Dönhoff’s great service is to have been able to recall the life of her childhood without sentimentality or excessive idealization while, at the same time, throwing considerable light on the peculiarities and contradictions of the life style (to use the currently fashionable term) of the Prussian landed aristocracy.

With respect to this, she makes it clear that it would be a mistake to think of the majority of owners of great estates as people who lived in wealth and ease. In the case of her own family, life was a curious “mixture of lavish hospitality and personal austerity, perhaps best exemplified by the contrast between the opulence of the castle’s public rooms and the Spartan simplicity of the family quarters.” There was a lot of entertaining, and, when royal personages were involved, which was not often, it was on a reasonably grand scale; but extravagance was not encouraged, and excess money, if it existed, was ploughed back into the estate, which was meant to pay its way, if not to be profitable. The owner of the estate took an active part in its administration, and all members of the family, even the youngest, had tasks to perform, generally working under the supervision of household servants or coachmen or gardeners or other members of the staff. Countess Dönhoff insists that she learned more, and more that was useful, from these people than she did from her governess and teachers. In general, she admits, relations between the proprietor and his tenants and servants tended—perhaps because of the nature and peculiarities of Prussian history—to be more paternalistic, or even feudal, than in other parts of the country, but she adds that, at the same time, they were

closer and more personal, and there was greater interdependence; the parallel age groups of the upper and lower levels knew each other fairly well; this made for a peculiar amalgam of formality and familiarity.

Between the proprietor and his tenants there was also a spirit of mutual dependence and solidarity when the pressures of the outside world obtruded into their existence; and Marion Dönhoff gives an interesting example of this when she describes a harvest festival in which the workers asked the count to protect them from the disruption of their normal life and work by the social programs of the National Socialist Party. The particular case at issue was party insistence that workers at Friedrichstein demonstrate the solidarity of the Volk by sending a representative on one of the party’s Kraft durch Freude cruises to Majorca.

The changeless rhythm of the seasons dictated the rhythm of our lives,” Countess Dönhoff writes, and her pages are filled with descriptions of the colors in the fields and streams when the hard winter released its hold on the land, of long summer days when the grain ripened in the fields, of bright red rowanberries glowing against the September sky, and of “the lyricism of our autumnal predawn hunts, when the rising sun turned the dew in the meadows into glittering diamonds, with the lake in the distance shimmering through the trees.” The seasons also set the rhythm for an economy that was selfsufficient, determining the proper time to plant vegetables and grains, for the annual duck hunt in Steinort, for the gathering of berries and mushrooms to be preserved for the winter, for the cutting of ice on the lake, and for the semi-annual hog-butchering, when villagers were called in to help and there was “brandy and much merrymaking.” Marion Dönhoff writes,

I remember my unhappiness when my brother, upon taking over the estate, changed from self-supply to a market economy. He said it made no sense to produce things ourselves that could be bought more cheaply from others…. I found these changes dismaying, even though I knew that my brother was right, but it meant saying goodbye to a unique aspect of our world.

Originally a Westphalian family, the Dönhoffs migrated to the region between the Vistula River and Lake Peipus in 1330, settling first in Livonia, present-day Latvia, but with the passage of time, acquiring new estates in the Polish and Prussian lands further west. A natural proliferation of the family was doubtless counteracted by the constant wars that swept over these eastern lands. The Polish line died out in 1791; the Livonian branch had already moved to East Prussia in 1620, after which Friedrichstein, near Königsberg, remained the family center for the next eight generations. In their early history, the Dönhoffs had greater loyalty to their holdings than to the political authorities that contended for the mastery of the area, and Frederick the Great bitterly reproached the East Prussian estates for paying allegiance to the Russian tsarina during the Seven Years War. But from then on, the Dönhoffs were unimpeachably Prussian, serving the state with distinction in various capacities.

There was no trace of subservience in this; the Dönhoffs always had minds of their own. Marion Dönhoff’s grandfather was a Prussian delegate to the Frankfurt Assembly in 1848, where he was a strong advocate of a united Germany, of the abrogation of press censorship, and of a German effort to restore the kingdom of Poland in order to compensate for the wrongs done by the partitions—positions that were hardly popular with his sovereign or his class.

Her father fought in the Austrian War of 1866 as a sergeant in the Royal Hussars and was a reserve officer in the Franco-Prussian War. In the 1870s he was in the foreign service, with postings to Paris, St. Petersburg, Vienna, London, and finally Washington, where he was legation secretary in 1878. But he never seems to have liked diplomacy and during his active service spent almost as much time on unpaid leave, during which he traveled widely, as he did on his duties in the posts to which he had been assigned. In 1882, he resigned from the foreign service, restricting his political activity thereafter to his hereditary membership in the Prussian Upper House.

Marion Dönhoff seems always to have been richly endowed with the independent spirit of her forebears. At school in Berlin, where, she tells us, a chance lecture by a visitor on the work of the philosopher Hermann Kayserling planted the seed for “a lasting passion for intellectual pursuits,” she was a ringleader among those students who rebelled against the school’s strict discipline. At the University of Frankfurt, in the last days of the Weimar Republic, when the vast majority of the students were strong supporters of National Socialism, she made her friends among the socialists and communists and, when they were all driven from the university after Hitler’s accession to power in January 1933, she left too and went on to Basel to study under the economist Edgar Salin. She wanted to write a dissertation on some aspect of Marxist philosophy, but Salin insisted that she write on the origins of large holdings in East Prussia, which she did, making extensive use of the family archives. After she had taken her degree, her hope of continuing a scholarly career was balked by her brother’s insistence that she come home and learn how to administer the family estates, since the male members of the family would be called up in the war that was certainly coming.

Toward Hitler, the attitude of the Dönhoffs was a mixture of contempt and uncompromising opposition. At the 1933 harvest festival at Steinort, the estate of Marion Dönhoff’s uncle Carol Lehndorff, the workers presented the harvest crown to the lord of the manor, who responded with a speech of thanks that was supposed to end with the salutation appropriate to that time, the socalled Hitlergruss. When he got to that point in the proceedings, Lehndorff

  1. 1

    Widersprüche aushalten, Spannungen erleben: Marion Dönhoff wird 75 Jahre alt.” Die Zeit, November 30 1984,p.9.

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