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
paused and, looking around perplexedly, said, “Confound it all, what’s the name of that fellow?” Remembering that the salutation had something with “Heil!” he finally ended with, “Well, then, Waldmannsheil [good hunting]!”
As the years passed, it became clear that the Führer could not be taken so lightly, and when the worst forebodings were confirmed and Hitler took Germany into war, the resistance among the Prussian nobility increased in numbers and determination. Marion Dönhoff was involved at an early stage; she knew all of the principal conspirators, including Stauffenberg, who made the attentat on July 20, 1944, and was particularly close to the Yorck von Wartenburgs and Schulenburg. In an interview in 1984, she was asked whether she had ever had any compunction about the plan to kill Hitler and answered, “I shouldn’t have liked to have shot him myself. But I always said, ‘The fellow has got to be killed, of course!’ I don’t know whether I could have done it myself, if there had been no other alternative.”2
In general, the task assigned to Marion Dönhoff and her favorite cousin Heini Lehndorff was to sort out the people in East Prussia who would be most useful when the planned rising was launched. In her memoirs, she says she was specifically asked to recruit Count Heinrich Dohna of Tolksdorf, whom Stauffenberg and the inner core of those planning the coup thought the ideal choice to head up a future East Prussian government. It was her job also to figure out which members of the regional Nazi administration, which was headed by Gauleiter Erich Koch, would be potentially useful or dangerous and, if everything went according to plan, to try to recruit the commander of one of the armored regiments stationed in the area.
Things did not, of course, go according to plan, and on July 20 she listened with horror as the seven o’clock news announced that “a clique of ambitious, unscrupulous, criminal and stupid officers” had attempted to assassinate the Führer and had been foiled. In the weeks that followed, the news trickled in of the arrest and execution of all of her friends, including Dohna, who had unhesitatingly agreed when she urged him to join the conspiracy, and her cousin Heini, who had been slated to take command in Königsberg if the plot had succeeded. She herself was interrogated and released, because, she later concluded, her duties on the estate had made her rule out any future political role for herself, and therefore her name was on none of the lists of people earmarked for positions in the post-Hitler government.
The story of the last months at Friedrichstein, her attempts to cope with the flood of refugees from the east as the Red Army approached, and her subsequent flight to the West was first told by Marion Dönhoff in her book Names No Longer Spoken Of,3 two chapters of which she has appended to her memoirs. It was her hope to organize an orderly evacuation of the people on her estates, but after spending six hours on icy roads crowded with refugees, they decided, mistakenly as it turned out, that it would be better to throw themselves on the mercy of the Russians. Thus, in January 1945, mounted on her favorite bay, Alarich, Marion Dönhoff set off alone. When she reached the railroad bridge at Marienburg, she encountered three wounded and exhausted soldiers. She wrote later:
For me the end of East Prussia came down to this: three dying soldiers trying to drag themselves across Nogat Bridge to West Prussia, and a woman on horseback whose forefathers, seven hundred years ago, had marched from the west into the great wilderness on the other side of the stream and who now rode back again to the west—seven hundred years of history extinguished.4
Marion Dönhoff joined the staff of Die Zeit in 1946, shortly after its foundation and, apart from a short period in the early 1950s, has been associated with the paper ever since. The reason for the break in continuity is instructive. The then publisher and chief editor began consulting the political scientist Carl Schmitt, who during the late Weimar period had attracted attention by his theory that the heart of the political process was the relationship between friend and foe, and by his argument that actual situations create their own legality, that emergencies obviate normative law, and that sovereignty lies with the person who makes the decision regulating the emergency situation. With this cheerful and bloody-minded casuistry, Schmitt had justified not only chancellor Franz von Papen’s deposition of the Prussian government in July 1932 but Hitler’s bloody action against the SA on June 30, 1934. The thought that her employers were trafficking with a man who had found nothing objectionable in the notion that Hitler should not only make but be his own law outraged the Gräfin and, when they actually printed an article of Schmitt’s, she resigned from the paper, returning only when Gerd Bucerius became publisher in 1955. After that there was no more flirting with the extreme right. As Ralf Dahrendorf pointed out in an article on the occasion of Marion Dönhoff’s eightieth birthday, it was she more than anyone else who was responsible for making Die Zeit Germany’s leading liberal newspaper, for from 1955 to 1968 she was the head of the political section in which the paper’s views on domestic and foreign affairs were hammered out, and chief editor from then until she became publisher five years later.5
One need only leaf through the collected essays and travel reports in Weitist der Weg nach Osten to be impressed by her engagement, her honesty, her ability to see both sides of the question, her critical capacity, and her vision. After the workers’ rising in East Berlin on June 17, 1963, she wrote an article that must have seemed unpersuasive or even feckless at a time when most West Germans were less interested in politics than in the heady excitement of the Wirtschaftswunder but can now be seen as prophetic.
To many a person in the Federal Republic, it may have become clear only in these last days that what is happening over there concerns all of us…. The Seventeenth of June has proven incontestably that the unity of Germany is a historical necessity. We now know that the day will come on which Berlin will once more be the German capital. The East German workers have given us back that faith and faith is the highest degree of certainty.
She was a believer in both German unity and the growth of a European community, but she believed that Chancellor Konrad Adenauer jeopardized the attainment of the latter by his obsessive pursuit of a special relationship with Charles de Gaulle—“How different the world would look,” she sighed in September 1968, “if only De Gaulle had not slowed the progress of European integration!”—and that he missed opportunities to advance toward the former by clinging to the Hallstein Doctrine and being elaborately uninterested in anything that happened in eastern Europe. She never for a moment had any faith in the so-called policy of strength, and she was a believer in Ostpolitik before it was formally inaugurated by the Brandt-Scheel government. A constant traveler to Warsaw and Prague and Budapest, she was complaining as early as 1964 that the federal government had found no alternative to the cold war and that it was actually discouraging contacts with the East by making it difficult for eastern scholars and trade commissions to travel in the Bundesrepublik. “One can only hope,” she wrote, “that we don’t let ourselves be talked into the idea that South America is much closer to us than Eastern Europe.”
The implications of Ostpolitik she saw and faced up to long before Helmut Kohl did. In November 1970, when Willy Brandt invited her to go with him to Warsaw for the conclusion of the German-Polish Treaty, she decided, after much soul-searching, not to accept his invitation because it would be painful for her to watch the signing of an instrument that confirmed the loss of her homeland. But at the same time she wrote a leading article in Die Zeit that not only supported the treaty but argued that the suffering of the Poles under the Third Reich was more than enough to justify their possession of the lands east of the Oder-Neisse line. She wrote:
No one can hope any longer that the lost territories will ever be German again. Anyone who thinks differently must already be dreaming of taking them back by force. That would mean driving out millions of people again, which nobody really wants. One must hope that even the polemics of the territorial associations [Landmannschaften], for whom anyone who refuses to take their illusions for realities is a traitor, will come to a halt.
The hope was premature. Fourteen years later, the Gräfin was writing that Bavarian school books still included maps in which the Oder-Neisse line was delineated in such a way as to indicate that it was provisional, that a government minister had told a meeting of Heimatvertriebene that the problem of the lost lands would be set right once Germany was unified, and that Chancellor Helmut Kohl had attended a “Tag der Heimat” meeting and made an ambiguous speech about the border question.
Marion Dönhoff never wavered in her gratitude toward the United States for its generosity and support during the Federal Republic’s formative years, but she was increasingly worried by the ideological cast of American foreign policy, which intermittently seemed to her to defeat the best interests of both Europe and the United States. In this respect, she was, if anything, more critical of President Carter’s ill-timed campaign for human rights than she was of the perfervid rhetoric of John Foster Dulles and Ronald Reagan. In an icy leader in April 1977, she wrote that Carter’s diplomatic debut—in which, ignoring the fact that Henry Kissinger and Anatol Dobrynin had all but completed a draft of a SALT-II treaty, he sent his secretary of state to Moscow with a set of brand new proposals and a demand for the correction of human rights abuses in the Soviet Union—had virtually stopped détente dead in its tracks. After foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, in an unprecedented press conference, had warned of the dangers of poisoning the atmosphere between the superpowers, the President had retorted, Gräfin Dönhoff wrote, that, if the Soviet Union didn’t intend to negotiate “honorably,” then the United States would feel compelled to develop new weapons, adding that, in any case,
he wouldn’t change his position because it was in harmony with the conscience of the country. And indeed, Speaker Thomas O’Neill has declared that the whole House of Representatives—regardless of party affiliation—is filled with admiration for Carter. That is what we used to call in our country “Many enemies, much honor.”
What made this diplomatic maladroitness particularly distressing to her was that it played into the hands of the enemies of détente and destroyed the possibility of bringing the runaway nuclear arms buildup under control. In August 1982, the Gräfin reminded her readers of Winston Churchill’s warning that the coming of nuclear weapons might really be a sign that the stone age was returning “on the shining wings of science,” and she pointed to the fact that in Washington the House and the Senate, acting on the same day, had just raised the military budget for the next year by 30 percent, to the stupendous figure of $355 billion. Underlining the dangers that this and similar expenditures by the Soviet Union represented to the peace of the world, she pointed out that it was an even greater threat to the social fabric of Germany’s ally and protector. In words that still make for uncomfortable reading, because of her closeness to the mark, she wrote:
When one considers further that America spends 35 percent of its research and development outlays on armaments, Japan and the Federal Republic only four and seven percent, then one must fear that in ten years the United States will indeed be militarily invulnerable, but that in the civil realm, economically and socially, she will have become, to a catastrophic degree, a backward nation. It may be that, before that happens, the people will rebel, for to curtail expenditures for the social needs of the population, for education and research, in order to increase spending on armaments to a point that is nothing short of gigantic, and to do that for years without there being any necessity that is perceptible to the average citizen—that is is something that even a nation with the greatest willingness to sacrifice must not tolerate.
Asked in 1984 which of the many statesmen whom she had met in the course of her travels had impressed her most, Marion Dönhoff chose Nehru, who, in her view, had brought to the tremendous tasks confronting him a political style that was “a mixture of British rules of the game and the morality of his mother country.” “Aside from him,” she added, “since the Second World War I have really seen only two genuine statesmen: Helmut Schmidt and Henry Kissinger.”6 She did not elaborate on the virtues of this pair, but the reasons for her admiration are not hard to guess. In office, both were men of high intelligence and great energy, with clearly defined strategies that they followed with consistency and determination, aggressive rather than reactive in their tactics, skilled in the expedients of diplomacy, and guided by consideration of national interest rather than by ideological zeal. She would, one suspects, have been particularly impressed by Kissinger’s willingness to work out measures of détente with the USSR in the face of ideological pressures against such agreements.
Of the four German leaders discussed in Marion Dönhoff’s book Foe into Friend, Schmidt clearly comes off with the highest marks. In a sympathetic portrait of Ludwig Erhard, she praises him as a liberal Greater European, who fought for British membership in the community against the German Gaullists, but criticizes him for his lack of political instinct and for alienating his own supporters by indecisiveness. Willy Brandt, whose idealism she admired and whose Ostpolitik she strongly supported, was, she believes, too ambitious in his domestic program and too unrealistic in relating expectations to resources, and his style of leadership invited charges that he was “flabby” and “remote.” He was better, she believes, as party chairman than as chancellor, partly because his presence somewhat relieved “the feeling of ideological undernourishment which befalls many, above all the young, faced with Schmidt’s pragmatism.” But, excessively pragmatic or not, Schmidt had all the qualities needed for party leadership and statesmanship; “he is sharp and precise in his analyses, he knows how to judge what is possible in any given circumstance, he is decisive, and finally he possessess the persuasiveness and power of exposition to convince people that his decisions are the right ones.”
What then of Konrad Adenauer, who was by no means bereft of these same qualities? Marion Dönhoff does her best to give a balanced assessment of his chancellorship and admits that, given the state of Germany in 1949, he was the man the country needed, his stern patriarchal style giving a shattered and demoralized people the kind of authority they yearned for, and his long term in office giving them a sense of continuity and time to lay down the infrastructure of the new republic. Nevertheless, she denies that he possessed the qualities of a great statesman, and her very long chapter on the Federal Republic’s first chancellor boils down to the capsule assessment made on a later occasion:
Adenauer was terribly difficult for me, because he was so colossally anti-Prussian, anti-Eastern, and exclusively Western. I couldn’t conceive that a country that lay in the middle of Europe should orient its policy merely toward the West: military integration, economic integration. Then the others build a wall, and we make it thicker, even in our minds, and say that we’ll have nothing to do with those people. That was my complaint against Adenauer, that he was so happy to be rid of the East. Perhaps I was prejudiced in this.7
If so, it was because she believed that Adenauer’s anti-Prussian feeling was mistaken, or perhaps directed against the wrong Prussia. For in Marion Dönhoff’s view, there were two Prussias, and in her minihistory of her homeland, Preussen—Mass und Masslosigkeit, she seeks to distinguish between them. The Prussia of Frederick, and Stein and Hardenberg, and Gneisenau and Scharnhorst, and the Humboldts and Schinkel and Rauch was characterized, politically and socially, by a sense of proportion and moderation (Mass) that took the form of tolerance guided by reason, a regard for the best interests of the state in all ranks of the hierarchically organized society, and loyalty without submissiveness—qualities, it should be noted, that Marion Dönhoff also associated with life in Friedrichstein and its neighboring estates when she was young. The Greater Prussia—the Reich that was created by the Prussian army and Bismarck’s diplomacy in 1871—had from the very beginning a tendency to immoderateness (Masslosigkeit), which was evidenced in intolerance, social divisiveness, byzantinism, and, particularly in the days of Emperor William II, grandiosity. It was Prussians of the latter variety who contributed powerfully to the coming of the First World War and everything that flowed from it. But Marion Dönhoff has not ceased to believe in the spiritual values that made the older Prussia the most progressive state in Europe in the eighteenth century, and there is no indication that she has changed the opinion that she expressed twenty years ago, in an editorial written at the time of the Polish-German Treaty: that the spirit of the older Prussia must continue to work in these times of great German expectations if the united Germany is to have perspective and durability.8
December 6, 1990
“Widersprüche aushalten, Spannungen erleben: Marion Dönhoff wird 75 Jahre alt.” Die Zeit, November 30 1984,p.9. ↩
“Widersprüche aushalten,”p.10. ↩
Marion Dönhoff, Namen die keiner mehr nennt (Düsseldorf, 1962). ↩
Dönhoff, Namen die keiner mehr nennt, p.9. ↩
Ralf Dahrendorf, “Preussisch im besten Sinne,” Die Zeit, December 1, 1989,p.7. ↩
“Widersprüche aushalten,” Die Zeit, November 1984,p.10. ↩
“Widersprüche aushalten,”p.10. ↩
“Ein Kreuz auf Preussens Grab,” Die Zeit, November 1970. See Weit ist der Weg nach Osten,p.234. ↩