Book Review : Privilege and Peril in Nazi Germany

Times Book Critic

Berlin Diaries, 1940-1945 by Marie Vassiltchikov (Knopf: $18.95)

The displacement of Europe's aristocracy by the First World War with its redrawing of national boundaries, by the Russian Revolution and by the Great Depression turned an international brotherhood of wealth and influence into something resembling a tribe of Gypsies. One of these was Marie Vassiltchikov, a Russian-born emigre who lived and worked in Berlin. Her World War II diaries make a decidedly rare and precious coin, even if the denomination is small.

Vassiltchikov was a young aristocrat whose fiercely anti-Soviet family, after wandering about Europe in the '30s, chose to settle in Hitler's Germany at the outbreak of World War II, largely because jobs were available and they knew a lot of people there.

The people they knew belonged to the German or the old Austro-Hungarian aristocracy. Many worked with the Nazis and had been sympathetic to Hitler as the paladin of German pride and the enemy of Bolshevism.

But among the Germans in particular, along with a certain social distaste for the Nazis, the feeling was growing that it was one thing to rearrange Germany and the neighboring territories, but it was quite another to take on Britain, France and the Soviet Union.

Class snobbery and, in some cases, moral outrage would not have done it. But the fear that Hitler was preparing a national catastrophe led to clandestine opposition among a group of people who occupied powerful positions in the traditionally aristocratic military and diplomatic classes. And it was largely among these people that Marie, beautiful, spirited and redoubtable, found her friends.

The diaries tell of everyday life in a Berlin that, by 1943, was undergoing air raids of an intensity, duration and mortality that quite eclipsed anything London went through. It makes clear both the Berliners' suffering--there is a glimpse of a 16-year-old girl sitting upon the rubble that had buried her family and, her mind gone, picking up bricks one by one and carefully dusting them off--and their pluck. One is reminded, in fact, of the spirit of the London Blitz.

The diaries tell of the struggle to get food or a hot bath. But they also tell of nights out at luxury restaurants and lavish diplomatic dinners where "nobody dared to approach the buffet table too eagerly."

Under Bombardment

It was privilege under nightly bombardment, and undermined by the frequent deaths of Marie's army friends. It was also privilege constructed around another kind of danger, great courage and ultimate tragedy.

Marie's closest friends, her host, Gottfried von Bismarck, and her boss and hero in the Foreign Office, Adam von Trott, were at the heart of the assassination attempt that would just fail to kill Hitler in 1944. It would be followed by the torture and execution of thousands, among them 21 generals and dozens of high government officials and police chiefs.

Marie's diary contains only hints about the plot before it took place. Afterward, it is a tragic record of the reprisals. How much she knew was her secret.

The life and death recorded in the diaries are fascinating. But their value is immeasurably increased by the spirit and the abundant talent of the writer.

There are no broad or profound political views here. Marie, apart from endemic irreverence, inherited her family's conservative politics. Her growing distaste for the Nazis--which her family, in fact, shared--seems to have stemmed partly from morality, partly from sensibility and largely from her loyalty to her friends. What she has is an eye that is overwhelmingly present, a reflective humor and a gaiety that, far from trivializing the horrors she writes about, ennoble them.

The day after Berlin's first colossal bombardment, she makes her way through the rubble to see if a hat she had ordered was ready. She delights in inventing a bulletin announcing that the King of England has been hanged, and in seeing her Nazi superiors send it off on the news broadcast to South Africa. In the death-choked streets of Vienna, where corpses lay unburied, she passes a man trundling along a body and ruefully records her initial impulse to ask him where he got the coffin.

Diaries Became Her Life

For a while after Hitler hanged her plotter friends the verve departs. There is a numbness, an unwillingness to notice the details that she is so good at. But her diaries have become her life, and life returns to them, more somber but with the same silvery spirit.

"My hands are still covered with cuts from trying to open the oysters that Tony brought us before his arrest," she writes, referring to an army friend taken by the Gestapo for discharging his pistol at a picture of Hitler. And in Vienna's last days--without water, power or medical supplies in the hospital where she is working--she writes: "In the evenings I sit in my room in the dark and practice my accordion."

Allowing for the man's romanticism, it is understandable why von Trott, one of the authentic heroes of the anti-Nazi underground, wrote to his wife about Marie: "She has something of a noble animal of legend . . . something free that enables her to soar far above everything and everyone. This, of course, is a little tragic, indeed almost uncanny. . . . "

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