Friday, January 3, 2020

A Russian princess in Nazi Berlin

Seventy years ago today, a young dispossessed Russian princess, Marie Vassiltchikov, arrived in Berlin looking for work, and a new start to her life. But Germany was at war, and the job she found would see her on the periphery of a plot to murder Hitler, and then escape to Vienna. Through all the turmoil of those days, she would keep a diary. Much later, this would be published to great acclaim as ‘one of the most extraordinary war diaries ever written’.

Vassiltchikov was born in 1917 in Saint Petersburg, the fourth of five children. Her father was the Fourth Duma, Prince Hilarion Vassiltchikov and her mother the former Princess Lidiya Vyazemskaya. Following the Bolshevik October Revolution in 1919, the family fled Russia by joining members of the Romanov family evacuated by the British fleet. Vassiltchikov lived as a refugee, initially in the French Third Republic, then Weimar Republic Germany, and then Lithuania where her father’s family had owned property before the revolution. She worked for a while at the British legation, and remained in Lithuania until just before the start of World War II.

In early 1940, Vassiltchikov and her sister travelled to Berlin where, as stateless persons and qualified linguists, they were able to obtain work permits. After brief employment with the Broadcasting Service, Vassiltchikov transferred to the Auswärtiges Amt (AA), the German Foreign Ministry’s Information Office, where she worked as an assistant to Dr. Adam von Trott zu Solz, a key member of the anti-Nazi faction. Indeed, von Trott was one of the group who plotted to kill Hitler on 20 July 1944. Following the attempt, Vassiltchikov and others went to Gestapo headquarters to plead for his life, bringing bring food and other packages until they were warned by a guard not to return.

After von Trott’s execution, Vassiltchikov fled to Vienna, where she worked as a nurse. At the end of the war, it is said she was found by the US army digging for food outside a concentration camp. After the war, she worked as an interpreter for US Army. She married Captain Peter Harnden in 1946, and they settled in Paris, where they had four children, and where Harnden opened an architectural firm. After Harnden’s death, Vassiltchikov moved to London where she died in 1978. Further information can be found at Wikipedia.

A great deal is known about Vassiltchikov’s life in Berlin as, from just before her arrival in the city until the end of the war, she kept a diary. Later in life she started editing these diaries, but it was her brother George H. Vassiltchikov who completed the process, leading to pubilcation in 1985 by Chatto & Windus of The Berlin Diaries 1940-1945 (reprinted by Pimlico in 1999). The book received excellent reviews, not least from John Le Carré: ‘Quite simply, one of the most extraordinary war diaries ever written. Innocent and knowing at once, it portrays the death of Old Europe through the eyes of a beautiful young aristocrat whose world itself is dying with the events that she describes.’ Some pages can be previewed at Googlebooks and Amazon, and a review can be read at The New York Times. (It is worth noting also that the Imperial War Museum website has an oral history audio recording by George Vassiltchikov.)

Here are the first half dozen entries to be found in The Berlin Diaries 1940-1945.

1 January 1940
‘Olga Puckler, Tatiana and I spent the New Year quietly at Schloss Friedland. We lit the Christmas tree and tried to read the future by dropping melted wax and lead into a bowl of water. We expect Mamma and Georgie to appear any minute from Lithuania. They have announced their arrival repeatedly. At midnight all the village bells began to ring. We hung out of the windows listening - the first New Year of this new World War.’

3 January 1940
‘We departed for Berlin with eleven pieces of luggage, including a gramophone. We left at 5 a.m. It was still pitch dark. The estate manager drove us to Oppeln. Olga Pückler has lent us enough money to live for three weeks; by that time we must have found jobs. Tatiana has written to Jake Beam, one of the boys at the American Embassy she met last spring; our work at the British Legation in Kaunas may be of some help to us there.

The train was packed and we stood in the corridor. Luckily, two soldiers had helped with the luggage, as otherwise we would never have been able to squeeze in. We arrived in Berlin three hours late. As soon as we reached the flat the Pucklers have kindly allowed us to stay in temporarily, Tatiana started telephoning friends; it made us feel less lost. The flat, in the Lietzenburgerstrasse, a street running parallel to the Kurfurstendamm, is very large, but Olga has asked us to do without outside help on account of the many valuable contents, so we are only using one bedroom, a bathroom and the kitchen. The rest is shrouded in sheets.’

4 January 1940
‘We spent most of the day blacking out the windows, as no one has been here since the war started last September.’

6 January 1940
‘After dressing, we ventured out into the darkness and luckily found a taxi on the Kurfurstendamm which took us to a ball at the Chilean Embassy off the Tiergarten. Our host, Morla, was Chilean Ambassador in Madrid when the Civil War broke out. Although their own government favoured the Republicans, they gave shelter to more than 3,000 persons, who would otherwise have been shot and who hid out in the Chilean Embassy for three years, sleeping on the floors, the stairs, wherever there was space; and notwithstanding great pressure from the Republican Government, the Morlas refused to hand over a single person. This is all the more admirable considering that the Duke of Alba’s brother, a descendant of the Stuarts, who had sought refuge at the British Embassy, was politely turned away and subsequently arrested and shot.

The ball was lovely, quite like in pre-war days At first I feared I would not know many people, but soon I realised that I knew quite a few from last winter. [Missie had visited Tatiana in Berlin in the winter of 1938-1939.] Among those we met for the first time were the Welczeck girls, both very beautiful and terribly well dressed. Their father was the last German Ambassador in Paris. Their brother Hansi and his lovely bride Sigi von Laffert were also there, and many other friends, including Ronnie Clary, a very handsome boy, just out of Louvain University, who speaks perfect English - which was rather a relief, as my German is not quite up to the mark yet. Most of the young men present are at Krampnitz, an officers’ tank training school just outside of Berlin. Later, Rosita Serrano [a popular Chilean chanteuse] sang, addressing little Eddie Wrede, aged nineteen, as ‘Bel Ami’, which flattered him enormously. We had not danced for ages and returned home at 5 a.m., all piled in the car of Cartier, a Belgian diplomat, who is a friend of the Welczecks.’

7 January 1940
‘We are still searching painfully for jobs. We have decided not to ask any friends to help, but to turn directly to business acquaintances.’

8 January 1940
‘This afternoon, at the American Embassy, we had an appointment with the Consul. He was quite friendly and at once gave us a test, which rather unnerved us, as we were not mentally prepared for it. Two typewriters were trotted out, also shorthand pads, and he dictated something at such speed and with such an accent that we could not understand all he said; worse, our two versions of the letter he dictated turned out not to be identical. He told us he would ring us up soon as there were vacancies. We cannot wait long, however, and if something else turns up meanwhile, we will have to accept. Unfortunately, as most international business is at a standstill, there are no firms here in need of French- or English-speaking secretaries.’

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