Before the Storm

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The childhood of Marion, Countess Donhoff, was a time of great change in East Prussia. After World War I, when the defeated German monarchy was replaced by a republic that gave rise to Adolf Hitler, the aristocracy that had provided Donhoff’s family with centuries of privilege was doomed.

Though recounting mainly pleasant childhood memories, organized in loose chronological order with many digressions, Donhoff makes it clear that most luxuries on the family estate were reserved for guests, not family. She grew up in spartan quarters with little contact with her parents or formal education till her early teens. A willful girl, she lived a carefree existence, mostly outdoors and around horses, at a time when the estate was still largely self-sufficient and attuned to the rhythms of the seasons. It was a less sensitive age, too, and she remembers the hog butchering and hare hunts no less fondly than the ice cutting and harvest festivals.

The important people in her life were her siblings and cousins as well as the servants, whose sense of hierarchy and propriety were as strong as their masters’. Never coddled, Donhoff grew up with a firm sense of community and early on developed a code of honor that condoned breaking adult rules but upheld an uncompromising standard of personal honesty and the obligations of her social position.

Overshadowing this idyllic account of her childhood is the impending horror of the Nazis, whom her family and friends resisted, only to be decimated in war and the aftermath of a plot to assassinate Hitler. This heroism makes the account of the hellish retreat from the Russian army especially poignant, and despite her renunciation of any claim to the estate, Donhoff’s book is permeated with a sense of loss for a glorious past.