Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Crumbling Capital Of A Crumbling Nation

In tandem with the mindless Mildred Harnack panegryic, I read Marie Vassiltchikov’s “Berlin Diaries 1940-1945”, first published in the United Kingdom in 1985 and published in the United States two years later.

I had never previously read the Vassiltchikov diaries, although they are among the most widely-read and –respected of all eyewitness accounts of World War II in Germany. The book remains in print more than twenty years after its original publication, and has enjoyed remarkable sales, worldwide, in many languages, for over two decades.

The Vassiltchikov diaries were widely-reviewed when they first appeared, hailed everywhere—in Britain, in the U.S., in Germany, in France, in Italy, in Russia—as a masterpiece of journal writing. Indeed, “Berlin Diaries 1940-1945” enjoyed a reception that was the very opposite of Shareen Blair Brysac’s book about Harnack. The Harnack book, quite justifiably, went unreviewed. This was in keeping with the general practice that bad non-fiction books do not get reviewed, since book editors do not want to waste valuable column space on books unworthy of time or attention.

Vassiltchikov was only in her twenties when her diaries were composed, but her writing evidences two remarkable qualities not to be expected in one so young: dispassionate, meticulous powers of observation; and the clear-eyed insights of an outsider (which Vassiltchikov was in wartime Germany). Caught in the maelstrom of a city first at war and then fighting for its survival, Vassiltchikov records, simply and without emotion, what she observed and experienced, day after day, in the crumbling capital of a crumbling nation.

Vassiltchikov’s political sophistication was astonishing for one of her years. She was particularly good at recognizing the fractures that lay beneath German society during the war years, a phenomenon rarely understood by Anglo writers addressing the German home front.

Vassiltchikov recognized the permanent and deep gulf between Hitler’s National Socialist Party and Germany’s aristocratic and intellectual elite. She recognized the conflicting wartime motives of the Nazi Party and Germany’s armed forces. She recognized German citizens’ instinctive loyalty to German armed forces but she also recognized that acceptance of Nazi party directives was the result of fear and an innate instinct for self-preservation.

Amazingly, Vassiltchikov also understood—even though the participants themselves did not—that the Allies’ insistence upon “unconditional surrender” doomed to failure the 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. Whether Hitler was killed or not, the Allies would never negotiate an end to the war, even if a new and friendlier German leadership were in place. Vassiltchikov understood this, and wrote about it—months before the elimination of Hitler was even attempted—but the plot perpetrators themselves were unable to see things as clearly and as plainly as Vassiltchikov. The plot participants wrongly viewed the prospect of Hitler’s death as providing an immediate end to the war, at least in the West.

Vassiltchikov knew better. Indeed, Vassiltchikov feared that the plot to kill Hitler, the general principle of which she fully endorsed, actually might prolong, not shorten, the war.

Vassiltchikov was an extraordinary young woman. A member of the White Russian aristocracy and a distant relative of The Czar, she was born in 1917, The Year Of Revolution. At the age of two, she and her family managed to escape Russia via The Crimea, needing the assistance of Russia’s Dowager Empress and the ships of George V’s Royal Navy to do so.

The Vassiltchikov family owned property in Lithuania, and the following twenty years saw the Vassiltchikovs shuttling back and forth between France, Germany and Lithuania. Vassiltchikov was educated by British nannies and at prestigious schools in Paris. Her education gave her fluency in English, French and German, a fluency that was to prove invaluable during the war years.

When Lithuania was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939, White Russians had to evacuate or risk concentration camps (if they were lucky) and execution (if they were not). Vassiltchikov’s family fled Lithuania, and Marie and her older sister, Tatiana, set out for Berlin, where they hoped to find work. For the rest of the war, Marie and Tatiana were cut off from most family members, living on their own in the German Reich, first in Berlin and, for the last five months of the war, in Vienna.

Using connections with German aristocratic families, Marie and Tatiana obtained employment permits as foreign nationals and, on account of their language skills, soon found jobs in The Propaganda Ministry of Joseph Goebbels and in The Foreign Ministry of Joachim Von Ribbentrop. Marie was to remain in her government job until the end of 1944; Tatiana was to marry a German noble and leave government service after two years.

The sisters settled into Berlin life, and quickly became part of Berlin’s most exclusive social set, enjoying embassy functions, concerts, theater, and weekend visits to castles and stately homes of the aristocracy all over Germany.

Berlin did not resemble a wartime city during the first two years of the war, a period which the Germans, like the British, referred to as “The Phoney War”. Shops remained fully stocked with consumer and luxury goods. Theaters, concert halls and museums were bustling with patrons. Fine restaurants did an excellent business. It was not until the autumn of 1941, when British bombings of Berlin began in earnest, that Berlin began to feel the effects of war.

Vassiltchikov captures and records, as no one else, a Berlin under transformation from Imperial Capital to City Of Ruins. A society wedding of the utmost lavishness and refinement is followed, a few months later, by the sisters’ grim efforts to locate potatoes, their primary food staple. A Berlin Philharmonic concert under Wilhelm Furtwangler is followed, hours later, by the sight of lorries transporting wounded and maimed soldiers through the city. A glittering evening of merriment at The Chilean Embassy, attended by a multi-national and ultra-distinguished roster of guests, is followed a few days later by the first substantial air raid on Berlin, which leveled entire portions of the city and killed hundreds.

That first major air raid resulted in the destruction of Vassiltchikov’s own residential neighborhood. She writes, eloquently, of making her way to work the following morning through streets of smoldering ruins and charred corpses.

The years 1942, 1943 and 1944 were marked by air raids, the constant expectation of air raids, and ceaseless climbing into and climbing out of air raid shelters. The sheer boredom of waiting for the nightly warning sirens, picking up the pre-packed suitcases and walking to the shelters, and the silent exchanges of looks with other shelter inhabitants, were the most predictable features of life during the 1942-1944 period.

People did not talk in the shelters during raids. They sat, passive and immobile and seemingly indifferent to their fates, waiting quietly for the all-clear signals, when they could emerge into city streets and try to ascertain where the bombs had dropped. Of course, if persons in the shelters heard bombs explode and felt walls of the shelters rumble, they knew that bombs had fallen in their immediate vicinities and that their homes were likely to have disappeared during the bombings.

In Berlin, as in other cities, most bomb shelters could not survive direct hits. In areas targeted by Allied bombs, persons emerging from shelters would, first thing, try to find out whether any nearby shelters had suffered direct hits. This practice was the result of three basic human instincts: morbid curiosity; a need to ascertain the safety of friends and family members; and a desire to be of help in locating and assisting survivors in damaged or destroyed shelters. On her way home from one such air raid, Vassiltchikov witnessed a shelter that had suffered a direct hit—and watched, in horror, as air-raid wardens emerged from a search of the carnage, only to pronounce that none of the 300 persons in the shelter had survived.

At the end of 1944, Marie could no longer tolerate conditions in Berlin. With the help of influential German friends, she obtained a position as a nurse in a hospital in Vienna. Marie believed, incorrectly, that Vienna was not to offer the depth of privation of Berlin.

Marie’s timing could not have been worse. She arrived in Vienna just as the Allies began their most concentrated bombing campaign against the city, saved for the final months of the war. The Allies virtually flattened Vienna between January and the end of April 1945, at which point the Soviets marched into the city and began an occupation that was to last ten years.

Staying in a hotel in the center of Vienna during her first days in the city, Marie had to make repeated trips to the hotel shelter each night once the sirens signaled the approach of enemy bombers. It was in the hotel’s basement shelter that she observed a person with extremely disheveled pajamas and ruffled hair, and recognized a face from her days in Berlin. The face was that of Herbert Von Karajan.

Conditions at the hospital were trying. Patients were transported to a nearby railroad tunnel that served as a shelter during air raids. The job of moving the patients back and forth between the hospital and the railroad tunnel was a near-impossible task, both for the medical staff and for the patients. In the final days of the war, a bomb exploded right at the entrance of the tunnel, killing large numbers of hospital workers and patients, including many inside the tunnel and many who had not yet made it into the tunnel.

Less than twenty-four hours before the Soviets marched into the city, Marie left Vienna, escaping (illegally) on a milk train. Her hospital supervisor had refused her request to leave the city, even though Marie had explained to him that the Soviets would execute, on sight, any White Russian such as herself. Her leave request having been denied, Marie took matters into her own hands and managed to make it to an American zone in Western Austria, even though she risked being shot by the Reich for abandoning her hospital work and leaving Vienna without necessary papers.

Vassiltchikov’s diaries end as the war ends. There is no attempt to offer closure, or draw unnecessary conclusions, once hostilities are over.

Vassiltchikov was a very lucky young woman—and not simply because she made it through the war alive.

Vassiltchikov knew the details of the 20 July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, as well as many members of the plot (one of whom was her boss). On July 20 and 21, she looked on as many members of the Ministry were arrested and marched out of the Ministry building (including her boss, and her boss’s boss, and her boss’s boss’s boss). She was never to see any of these men again. All were executed.

Amazingly, the Gestapo never attempted to interview Marie to ascertain what she knew about the plot. Apparently the Gestapo was of the opinion that Ministry secretaries would not be privy to information about the plot, and Marie—and other secretaries who knew about the plot—were considered to be as harmless as pieces of furniture and were not even subjected to preliminary questioning.

Marie wrote and typed her wartime diaries at the Ministry, a very dangerous endeavor made even more dangerous by the fact that she stored her diaries in hiding places at the Ministry (the diaries would be more likely to survive the war at the Ministry rather than at her various places of residence, or so Marie judged—correctly, as things turned out).

After the war, Marie forgot about her diaries. She never even reread them until the last year of her life when, suffering from cancer, she showed the diaries to her brother. He immediately recognized the importance of the diaries and, with Marie’s assistance, annotated the diaries while Marie still had her health. Marie was to die before the year was out, passing away in 1978 in London at age 61. Her American husband had pre-deceased her seven years earlier, also a very young victim of cancer.

Marie’s brother arranged for publication of the diaries after her death. Portions of the diaries had been destroyed during the war, and he filled in necessary blanks based upon his interviews with Marie shortly before her death.

The diaries were a near-sensation when published. Many chroniclers of the war have asserted that Marie’s diaries are the most important diaries, from any country, to have survived the war.

I’m not sure I would offer praise quite so high. The diaries are a reflection of the experiences of a very unique individual—a person of high privilege and high connections, enjoying something akin to the quasi-easements of foreign diplomats in a country at war—and are far more interesting for what they reveal about Marie herself than for what they reveal about Berlin during wartime. Marie was a young woman of the highest intelligence and cultivation, with a great appreciation for beauty and grace. She was strong-willed, of strong character and even stronger opinions, able to look beneath the surface of a totalitarian state and see remnants of beauty, remnants of normalcy, remnants of insanity and remnants of depravity. The portrait of a charming young woman undergoing trying times is the most treasurable thing to emerge from the diaries; the portrait of a Berlin under siege is a secondary element of the story.

Marie was an engaging and acute diarist, but she was more interested in writing about the differences between Furtwangler and Karajan (she much preferred Furtwangler) than examining the effects of the Goebbels propaganda machine on Berlin’s populace. Politically sophisticated though she was, she was more interested in writing about restaurant fare than describing how Berliners reacted to mounting losses and growing despair on The Eastern Front.

I had one regret about the diaries: Marie wrote very little about her sister, Tatiana, a young woman of equal if not greater gifts than Marie. A great beauty, Tatiana went on to become one of the most famous women in post-war Europe, marrying into one of Germany’s oldest and noblest titled families, the Von Metternichs. Tatiana headed Europe’s most influential charitable organizations and remained a formidable society figure on the continent for almost six decades. Marie’s diaries, however, offer little inkling of the legendary charm and social assurance of her bewitching sister.

Tatiana outlived Marie by almost thirty years. Tatiana died in 2006 at Schloss Johannisburg in Germany, having lived through the collapse of one German empire and two Russian empires. Close friend of everyone from Felix Yusupov (assassin of Rasputin) to HRH Queen Elizabeth II, Tatiana was ninety-one years old at the time of her death. Her passing was front-page news throughout Europe.


  1. Thanks for the wonderful summary of a book I've owned (and loved) for years. I had heard that Nicole Kidman was to star in the movie version, but that was several years ago. Now that ex has made "Valkyrie", perhaps the movie won't be made.

    Have you read Tatiana's memoirs, published in US as "Purgatory of Fools"? I have a Cassell reprint titled "Tatiana: Five Passports in a Shifting Europe". It is a narrative instead of a diary, and fills in a lot of the holes. Perhaps Missie didn't write much about her sister b/c it would have been too personal - she wold remember her and wouldn't have to write anything down. Back to Tatiana - she had a rather sad ending in that, after Paul died in 1992, she found out he had a long-time mistress to whom he had left most of his money. She had to sell Schloss Johannesburg (sp?) to the Oetker family, though she lived there until she died.

    Have you also read the memoir "A Woman in Berlin" by "Anonymous"? It describes her life in Berlin mid-April to mid-July 1945. Truly horrifying, yet she wrote it almost with a sense of detachment, as if to distance herself from the events she was describing was the only way to get through them.

  2. I was so astounded by the on-going tale of this young woman's sophisticated powers of observation that I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop - that she was, in fact, a 45 year old college professor. At any rate, the book sounds like one I would enjoy. I imagine one can dip into it over an extended period.

    Although I've kept up with your saga, I've not commented. I especially enjoyed reading about your NYCB adventures. I recollect writing you that I saw "Jewels" in 1968 - an unforgettable experience.

    Would you be so kind as to recommend a recording (s) of the Brahms symphonies and the Lizst B-minor Sonata? I heard Arrau play it about 35 years ago, when I was your age. It was one of the most memorable events of my concert-going life.

    Can Boston really be that awful? I visited Boston and Cambridge for the first time a couple of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed myself. A highlight was hearing an anonymous pianist play the Brahms "Variations on an Original Theme" in the Spanish Chapel at the Gardner. I'd never heard the piece before and was mesmerized.

  3. BTW, I used to post as "David in KC" but gave up that handle to another David in KC.

  4. Thank you. I am going to seek out Tatiana's memoirs. "Berlin Diaries" has made me curious about Tatiana.

    My mother has read "A Woman In Berlin", I believe, and one day I shall read that, too.

    Thanks again.

  5. Brahms Symphony No. 1
    Boston Symphony Orchestra
    Charles Munch
    1957 (or thereabouts)

    Brahms Symphony No. 2
    Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
    Herbert Von Karajan
    Deutsche Grammophon
    1964 (or thereabouts)

    Brahms Symphony No. 3
    Chicago Symphony Orchestra
    Fritz Reiner
    1961 (or thereabouts)

    Brahms Symphony No. 4
    Columbia Symphony Orchestra
    Bruno Walter
    1959 (or thereabouts)

    Complete Cycle
    London Philharmonic Orchestra
    Eugen Jochum
    1976 (or thereabouts)

  6. I've ordered the four Brahms symphonies. Thanks for your recommendations.