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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.