Berlin Diaries, 1940-1945

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Marie ldquo;Missie” Vassiltchikov was, to use one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite epithets, a rootless cosmopolitan. She was born into an aristocratic Russian family just months before the Russian Revolution in 1917. Her family fled the Bolsheviks in 1919 and wandered from Germany to France, where she went to school, and then to Lithuania, where they owned property. In the summer of 1939, Vassiltchikov and her sister Tatiana, visited family friends in Silesia and were still there when the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 23, 1939, suddenly threatened the independence of Lithuania and opened the door to the joint Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland. Under these circumstances, it was not advisable for White Russians to return to Lithuania, and Missie and Tatiana decided to move to Berlin in search of work. It was at this time that Missie began writing her diary. Her ability to speak Russian, French, English, and German landed her a job, first at the German broadcasting service, and then with the foreign ministry’s information service. There she became intimate with some foreign office members of the conspiracy against Hitler which culminated in the attempt to kill him on July 20, 1944. Loyalty to the conspirators held her in Berlin, where she endured some of the worst bombing of the war, until September, 1944. She then moved to Vienna and endured more bombing raids, barely escaping the advancing Soviets at the war’s end.

The diary is not complete. Wartime conditions resulted in the loss or destruction of parts, but most of the diary, including the critical year of 1944, survived. As the July 20 plot neared its execution, Vassiltchikov began to keep the diary in a shorthand intelligible only to her. She wrote up this section immediately after the war in 1945 and also retyped the entire diary. Although an occasional hint of a 1945 perspective sneaks into the diary, Missie’s brother, George Vassiltchikov, reports that she made a conscious effort both then and in the 1970’s, when she was finally persuaded to prepare her diary for publication, to maintain the integrity of the diary as a contemporary account. No one who reads the diary will doubt that she remained faithful to its truth. After her death in 1978, George ably edited the diary and saw it through to publication.

As a refugee in wartime Germany, Missie was doubly an outsider. She was a foreigner in a Germany gone mad on nationalism and an aristocrat in a totalitarian regime bent on leveling German society into a common Volk. Vassiltchikov wrote her diary in English, a language she learned as a child in the nursery, thus preserving the vantage point of an outsider even in the language of her personal diary. Although she was an outsider in Germany, her aristocratic birth gave her an entrée into German aristocratic society, and it was this connection which drew this outsider into the inner circle of the conspiracy against Hitler.

The aristocratic world in which Missie Vassiltchikov moved, however, was crumbling. Famous names people her diary. Prince Paul von Metternich-Winneburg married Tatiana Vassiltchikov in 1941. Missie attended a dazzling wedding of a Hohenzollern (the Catholic, Swabian branch of the family) at Sigmaringen Castle in 1942. She became friends with Gottfried von Bismarck. None of these scions of famous families was a powerful person. Indeed, their aristocratic status automatically made them suspect in Nazi Germany. They tried to maintain the urbane life of high society as the bombs rained down, as food was rationed, as water and electricity were cut off. By 1945, there were such severe food shortages that Vassiltchikov literally went hungry, but even then her life was punctuated by an occasional sumptuous meal. Thanks to the conquest of France, champagne supplies remained abundant, and oysters were one of the few unrationed food items. Thus Vassiltchikov was able to attend pleasant soirees at such salons as that maintained by Friedrich “Freddie” Horstmann, an art collector and diplomat who had been forced out of the foreign service because his wife was Jewish. At the Horstmanns’, one could escape from that strange Nazi mixture of barbarism and philistinism into a world of high art and good manners. Freddie Horstmann’s country house was later bombed, but he managed to preserve some of his art collection until the war ended. Trying to protect what remained, he refused to flee as the Soviets advanced into Germany. He was soon arrested; he starved to death in an East German concentration camp. Many of Vassiltchikov’s friends met similar fates.

Although the aristocratic class to which Missie Vassiltchikov belonged may offend some American sensibilities, one can only admire the calm stoicism with which she endured the destruction of her way of life. There is no complaining in her diary, no handwringing lamentation of a passing age. Perhaps she was too young for that. She simply relates with mounting effect the events as they occur, so that by the time the reader has reached the end of the diary, any thought that she might be something of a lightweight has dissipated, and one is instead filled with admiration of her courage and dignity under the most trying circumstances.

The diary reveals a remarkably clearheaded and objective mind. Vassiltchikov had friends and relatives on all sides of the war. Although she could not abide the Nazis and apparently had no close friends who were sympathetic to them, many friends did fight in the German army, including her brother-in-law Paul von Metternich, and several of them died. She especially liked German air ace Prince Heinrich zu Sayn Wittgenstein and took his death very hard. Her cousin, Prince Ivan “Jim” Viazemsky fought in the French army, was captured in the Battle of France in 1940, and spent the rest of the war in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Her older sister, Irena, lived in Rome and spent the war there. Her brother, George, spent most of the war in Paris, where he became involved with the French Resistance. Some close friends were killed when the French...

(The entire section is 2470 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Booklist. LXXXIII, April 15, 1987, p. 1247.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, January 15, 1987, p. 121.

Library Journal. CXI, February 15, 1987, p. 143.

National Review. XXXIX, February 27, 1987, p. 48.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIV, April 9, 1987, p. 7.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, April 5, 1987, p. 6.

The New Yorker. LXIII, May 25, 1987, p. 113.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXI, January 16, 1987, p. 66.

Time. CXXIX, April 13, 1987, p. 75.

The Times Literary Supplement. July 18, 1986, p. 777.

The Washington Post Book World. XVII, March 29, 1987, p. 1.