Book Review: Marie Vassiltchikov and Ursula von Kardorff

In this post we return to wartime Berlin, shown by the diaries of two young, intellectual ladies. Since my goal is to give my fictional characters realistic wartime experiences, my reading list includes a large number of memoirs, diaries and personal accounts.

Diary of a Nightmare, Berlin 1942-1945 by Ursula von Kardorff

Berlin Diaries, 1940-1945 by Marie Vassiltchikov

Ursula von Kardorff and Princess Marie Vassiltchikov were both born into nobility, worked in the press and propaganda under the Nazis and had a number of mutual friends, some of whom participated in the 20 July plot to kill Hitler. They might have been involved in the conspiracy, but, of course, neither put the dangerous evidence in her diary.

Although neither mentioned the other in her diaries, they most likely ran into each other because of their overlapping social circles. Highly educated and anti-Nazi, they chronicled their lives in wartime Germany. Each gave her perspective on events, with many similarities but also with differences, Ursula being a German, and Marie being a Russian émigré.

Marie left Russia in 1919 with her parents, Prince Illarion and Princess Lydia Vassiltchikov. She grew up as a refugee and lived in Germany, France and Lithuania.

In 1940 Marie and her sister Tatiana moved to Berlin in search of jobs. After the Great Depression it was impossible for a foreigner to get a work permit in any of the Western democracies. Only in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy could a stateless person obtain a job. With the help of their network of aristocratic friends, Marie landed a job with the Broadcasting Service and then with the Foreign Ministry’s Information Department, which put her in the heart of the Nazi propaganda machine. Ironically, Marie met there a group of staunch anti-Nazi resisters, many of whom were later executed for their participation in the 20 July plot.

Marie painted a fascinating picture of a life of an aristocratic young lady in Berlin: weekends at princely castles and work doldrums, embassy parties and bombing raids, dining at fine restaurants and stretching skimpy rations. She viewed the life around her from a foreigner’s distance, which showed in her position toward the 20 July plot. Her support was dictated by her anti-Nazi and anti-war convictions, while for the others the big part of their motivation was also their German patriotism.

At the end of the war Marie volunteered to work as a nurse in the Luftwaffe Lazarett in Vienna. Her diary shows a captivating picture of the last war months in Vienna together with her flight to the American zone.

Unlike Marie, Ursula moved mostly in the circles of German intelligentsia. Her father, a painter, had to resign from his position at the faculty of the School of the Academy of Art for his refusal to support anti-Semitism. Ursula worked as a journalist for the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a respectable German newspaper. Her diaries describe the demands placed by the regime on the German press, like the obligation to run anti-Semitic materials in every issue and the avoidance of anything that could be classified as defeatism.

Like Marie, Ursula portrayed the wartime deprivations but her view of the life and people in Berlin was much more intimate because she was part of the fabric of middle-class Germany. Ursula recounted rumors that circulated in the society, including the misperception that forced foreign laborers somehow aided the Allies in their bombings.

Her diary is honest about her doubts, ignorance and inner conflicts in regard to her patriotic loyalties. We can read her reflections on the news from the Eastern front when her brother and boyfriend fought in the Soviet Union. The information she received was fragmented, confused and unsettling. Her brother’s death made her question the purpose of the war, and her boyfriend, who survived, was apparently reticent about his experiences.

Ursula spent the last months of the war traveling outside Berlin, first to be with her dying father at a hospital in Rostock, then to get away from the Russians. After the capitulation of Germany she traveled back to Berlin to meet her mother there and recounted the excitement, horror and chaos of the first postwar months in her diary.

It was interesting to read the books together and compare the viewpoints. Ursula and Marie both had a sharp eye and easy writing style, devoid of self-pity. They did not wallow in their sufferings, but ploughed on, taking care of their loved ones and helping others.

My ROW80 progress:

  • Since I missed three check-ins, I made up by reviewing two books in this post;
  • Halfway through The Turbulent World of Franz Göll: An Ordinary Berliner Writes the Twentieth Century;
  • Re-wrote most of the part I had planned to revise. Still in Berlin, though.

This week’s ROW80 goals:

  • Move on to the part covering the trip from Berlin to Leipzig;
  • Order books on wartime Leipzig and the state of German railways in 1945 through an inter-library loan;
  • Finish reading The Turbulent World of Franz Göll: An Ordinary Berliner Writes the Twentieth Century by Peter Fritzsche;
  • Make a book review post.