BEFORE THE STORM
Memories of My Youth
In Old Prussia
By Marion Donhoff
Translated from the German
By Jean Steinberg
Knopf. 204 pp. $22.95
LIKE Talleyrand recollecting the sweetness of life under the ancien re'gime, Marion, Countess Donhoff -- if you will, the Grafin Donhoff -- has written an affectionate memoir of what it meant to be a member of the old Prussian landowning aristocracy, the so-called Junkers (from Middle High German junc herre, young lord).
Born in 1909, Donhoff grew up at Schloss Friedrichstein, already the family seat for 250 years, a great country house in the Italian rococo style and one of the largest in East Prussia. The surrounding park and tenant farms lay in a landscape of sparkling lakes and dark pine forests. In autumn the "dry potato tops were piled up and burned and gray clouds of smoke wafted over the land as from sacrificial offerings."
It was very much a paradise for the young countess and her brothers and sisters. On Sundays there were carriage rides to church, where the family sat in the seignorial pew. On other days there were visits to the sick and needy in the estate villages. There was the excitement of visits by relatives, who varied from the the merely distinguished (von Weizackers and Metternichs) to the spectacularly eccentric. There was a kind butler, an autocratic head gardener and a bevy of neurotic tutors and governesses. There were horses, dogs and rabbits. There was an orangerie and a harvest festival. In the attic the children found gear for trapping wolves.
Here is how she describes autumn in East Prussia: "Bright red rowanberries glow against the pale blue autumnal sky. With each passing day, the golden leaves of the birches grow more luminous, the pastures take on the look of old velvet, the elks in the brush become more reclusive, and huge flocks of migratory birds set out for the south. The storks and starlings and all the smaller birds leave long before the majestic swans and cranes and wild geese depart, strung out like pearls across the reddish evening sky."
World War II smashed this pastoral forever. Marion Donhoff managed the estate while the men in the family went off to war. Almost all of her close male relatives were killed in combat or executed by the Gestapo for participating in the generals' plot against Hitler in July 1944. There came a day in 1945 when the countess mounted a horse and, alone, rode 600 miles to the west in the dead of winter to escape the advancing Russian army. She survived to begin a second career as a journalist on the staff of the prestigious Hamburg newspaper, Die Zeit, eventually becoming its editor and publisher.
So the Junkers' way of life passed from history. You might say it came to a symbolic bitter end when the Red Army neared the gates of Bismarck's estates, across the Vistula, and the Iron Chancellor's daughter-in-law and niece shot themselves. Under the Potsdam agreements, East Prussia disappeared into Poland and the Soviet Union, and Konigsburg, the ancient coronation city of the Prussian kings, became Kaliningrad in the Russian Federative Socialist Republic.
REMINISCENCES AND REFLECTIONS
A Youth in Germany
By Golo Mann
Translated from the German
By Krishna Winston
Norton. 338 pp. $25
THE 1920s in Germany was a dizzying time of economic chaos, political turmoil and artistic experimentation. It would end in a terrible war, and 50 million European dead. No one at the time could have foreseen the approaching catastrophe, least of all the author of these graceful memoirs. In 1929, Golo Mann was an earnest young fellow, barely turned 20, trying to decide on a future career. He possessed certain advantages: His aloof father, Thomas Mann, had recently published his masterpiece, The Magic Mountain, and won the 1927 Nobel Prize for Literature. Protected from the runaway currency inflation in Germany by the father's foreign royalties, young Golo was beautifully educated, first at Salem, the school founded by Kurt Hahn (who later founded Gordonstoun, the famous British school attended by the Prince of Wales), and then at the University of Heidelberg as a student of the Existentialist philosopher, Karl Jaspers.
Everyone at the time talked -- screamed -- politics, but to Golo the tumult was merely background buzz. "Just as children and adults, so long as they did not have to be soldiers, went about their lives during the war, attending to their professions, their interests, their pleasures, without a guilty conscience," he writes, "I went about mine . . . I went to rallies, I overheard conversations here and there, but in spite of the uncertainty of the future for all of us, I prepared for my own as though nothing were wrong."
This is very much a professor's book, and a German professor's at that. The effect is rather like a great piece of overbuilt Biedermeier furniture, an impressive structure of rare woods and secret drawers. It will most please the passionate lover of German culture, especially one familiar with the galaxy of Weimar Republic scholars and writers. That said, the book is full of tiny treasures. Where else could you learn that Kaiser Wilhelm's automobile used to push through the Berlin traffic, siren blaring? If the famous father was standoffish, how wonderful to receive tickets to the Munich opera from family friend Bruno Walter. How grand to hike the Bavarian Alps, "the old towns, the castles gleaming in the distance." How poignantly 19th-century to write, "Childhood is a person's true truth, and everything that comes afterward a decline, a falling away from that truth."
The Mann family fled Germany in 1933 as the Nazis assumed power. Golo went to France, emigrating to the United States after the German invasion in 1940. After a distinguished career teaching and writing history at Claremont College, he returned to his spiritual home, Europe. Now in his eighties, he lives in Switzerland near Zurich in his father's last home.
BEFORE THE WALL
Berlin Days, 1946-1948
By George Clare
288 pp. $19.95
IN 1933 there were 173,000 Jews in Berlin. In May 1945 there were maybe 7,000. George Clare, when he arrived in Berlin in January 1946 as a soldier in the British army of occupation, was astonished at how many Berliners claimed to have hid these survivors. He soon discovered that his Jewish cousins were not among the fortunate few. What he found at their apartment house was a pathetic memento of the Holocaust, utterly devoid of mercy: "Four visiting cards were pinned over the bell on the doorjamb. I read 'Hinrichsen,' 'Dahlke,' 'Rebhuhn,' 'Kunzel.' Should I ring and ask whether any of them knew something about Manya or Rosl? Still thinking about it I noticed a small oblong space on the door panel where the nameplate M. UND R. BARTMANN had kept it free of Berlin's grime. Why ask? That little rectangle, a shade lighter than the rest of the door, was their epitaph. The only one they would ever have."
This somber experience aside, Clare has written a generous and engaging book. He was young, he was a victor and, unlike his Austrian-Jewish parents, he was alive. It was a good time to be all those things, especially if you had unlimited access to cigarettes, the currency of choice in the black market, and an eye for the frauleins.
Moreover, his military work was interesting. He served as an interpreter in the office that granted work permits to Germans anxious to work in the arts and journalism. These documents could only be granted if it were determined that the Germans had not been members of the Nazi Party or otherwise contaminated. Applicants ranged from the Berlin Philharmonic's principal conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler, to a troupe of dwarfs, which gives some idea of the zany atmosphere in the denazification office. The job gave Clare an unrivaled familiarity with postwar German journalism that he used to advantage when he left the army and went to work for publisher Axel Springer. In 1982 he wrote the international bestseller, Last Waltz in Vienna, an account of his childhood, emigration to England and the murder of his parents in the extermination camps.
By Ruth Andreas-Friedrich
Translated from the German
By Anna Boerresen
Paragon House. 261 pp. $18.95
TALK about symbolism. Here is diarist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich picking her way through the Tiergarten, the park in the center of Berlin, in the aftermath of the German surrender in 1945. Torn-up trees, debris and carrion, equine and human, are everywhere: "I've stumbled over a hard object. From the tangle of branches covering the ground something black is sticking out. I bend down to move the branches aside. In front of me lies the head of an iron horseman. Buried halfway in the ground wearing the tricorn and queue of Frederick the Great. A grenade has torn it from the torso and flung it here. Ten meters farther on we find the dilapidated remains of the statue. A horse without a tail, a man without a head. Eerily his right hand stretches out holding an iron bugle." The Gotterdammerung, indeed.
While there is no doubt that Battleground Berlin powerfully and even eloquently conveys the atmosphere of Berlin in the immediate postwar period -- the rapes, the privations, the complete breakdown of public utilities, the shallow graves, the stink of decaying flesh, the hunger and the miles of rubble -- it has to be said that the book often seems too perfect, smacking in this way of Mary Chesnut's A Diary From Dixie, which was endlessly embroidered by its author in the years after the American Civil War, though purporting to be a contemporary document of the years 1861-65. Andreas-Friedrich died in 1977, her diary wasn't published in West Germany until 1984 and this is its first American edition.
Reid Beddow is an assistant editor of Book World.