Before the Storm: Memories of My Youth in Old Prussia
Weit ist der Weg nach Osten: Berichte und Betrachtungen aus funf Jahrzehnten
Foe into Friend: The Makers of the New Germany from Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Schmidt
Mass und Masslosigkeit
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
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.