Boveri, Margret (1900–1975)

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Boveri, Margret (1900–1975)

German author who was one of West Germany's best-known journalists. Born on August 14, 1900, in Würzburg, Germany; died in West Berlin on July 6, 1975; daughter of Theodor Boveri (1862–1915, a highly respected professor at the University of Würzburg) andMarcella (O'Grady) Boveri (1864–1950, an American-born biologist who also pursued a scientific and teaching career well into the seventh decade of her life).

Studied literature and history into her 30s, starting a career as a journalist (mid-1930s); regarding herself a "German patriot," decided to remain in Nazi Germany, working for non-Nazi newspapers andjournals; traveled in Asia, the Middle East and U.S. (1936–42); worked as a journalist in Portugal and Spain (1942–44); survived the bombing and battle of Berlin (1944–45); became one of the best-known journalists in West Germany (1950s); author of many highly regarded books and articles.

Born in the summer of 1900 in the pleasant university town of Würzburg, Margret Boveri spent her early years in the last part of the "golden epoch" of pre-1914 Europe, an age of incredible luxury and security for the upper class and aristocracy. She came from a family of wealthy, prominent scholars and entrepreneurs, the business side of which created a substantial fortune through their involvement with the Brown-Boveri Company, a major industrial corporation with branches in Germany and Switzerland. The family's intellectual achievements were equally formidable. Margret's father Theodor Boveri was an internationally recognized zoologist and pioneer geneticist who for many years carried out his path-breaking research at the Zoological Station in Naples, Italy. Her mother, born Marcella O'Grady in New England, was a descendant of an old American family; she kept alive her interests in biology while raising a family and in the late 1920s would return to the United States to start a college teaching career.

Without financial worries, the Boveri family employed servants and took long, leisurely trips. Margret's first trip abroad, to Naples, took place in 1901. The following year, she accompanied her family to the U.S.—a country she would visit two more times by 1909. This world would crumble with the advent of World War I and the death of her father. Theodor Boveri became seriously ill in November 1914; his death in October 1915 removed an element of stability from Margaret's life and initiated a long period of uncertainty. Profoundly shaken by Germany's defeat in 1918, she gravitated to the extreme right of the political spectrum, becoming a member of a strongly nationalist youth group, the Deutsch-Nationaler Jugendbund. Untroubled by the need to earn a living and determined to find a career that would provide intellectual stimulation, she became a student of history, German and English at the University of Würzburg. After graduation in 1924, she taught German and English for a year in a secondary school in Würzburg. During this period, Boveri asserted her independence, taking flying lessons, purchasing her own automobile, and having a love affair.

By the late 1920s, she was slipping into a deep depression. Uncertain as to what she should do with her life, she took advantage of family connections in 1927 to secure the position of secretary to Reinhard Dohrn, director of the Zoological Station of Naples where her father had carried on most of his important research projects. She remained emotionally distraught until she met and fell in love with a brilliant African-American scientist, Ernest Everett Just (1883–1941). From the viewpoint of her era's social conventions, Boveri's passionate affair with Just was doomed, but it helped her pull back from self-destruction and cured her of any lingering romantic illusions she might have had about marriage as a life's goal. When her relationship with Just finally terminated in 1931, Boveri had made up her mind to seriously carve out a career for herself.

Starting in October 1929, she lived in Berlin and studied politics at the Deutsche Hochschule für Politik, an institute of advanced studies in political science that attracted a distinguished faculty and eager students from both Germany and abroad. At the Deutsche Hochschule für Politik, unemployed workers took classes alongside representatives of the upper class like Boveri. Determined to end a life of drifting, she also enrolled in the doctoral program in history at the University of Berlin. Boveri's doctoral dissertation, on German foreign policy before 1914, was directed by the internationally noted historian Professor Hermann Oncken. During these years, she engaged in countless political debates with democrats, Socialists, Communists, and Nazis. Starting in September 1930, the Nazi Party became a major political force both in parliament and in the streets; in the minds of many observers, German democracy was now doomed. Boveri used her time during the next few years wisely, working on her dissertation on Sir Edward Grey and pre-1914 British diplomacy, reading a great variety of newspapers and magazines, and discussing the complexities of an international landscape made increasingly unstable by the onset of the world economic depression.

A few months after she was awarded her doctoral degree, Boveri witnessed the Nazi seizure of power in the first months of 1933. She watched the Nazis use a combination of propaganda and terror to destroy the German labor movement and other democratic forces, as well as convince gullible conservatives that National Socialism would be the salvation of the German nation. At the heart of the Nazi victory was middle-class fear of Marxism and disorder, which made it possible to persuade a significant sector of the German middle class to abandon democracy for the promise of a national renaissance based on patriotism and discipline. The price for this "national revolution" was a high one; it meant the creation of a dictatorship in which traditional standards of legality and human rights were scuttled.

Boveri was almost immediately affected by the new regime, as most of her Jewish and leftist friends reasonably believed their lives to be at risk in Adolf Hitler's Germany and thus fled the country as free but penniless refugees for uncertain futures in other countries. Though she had the possibility of fleeing Germany to live with her mother, who some years earlier had returned to her native United States to teach, Boveri did not feel sufficiently threatened by Nazism to leave her homeland for an unknown future abroad. She decided to remain in Berlin, where, despite her slow progress, she still aspired to become a full-time journalist. Although she condemned the Hitler regime bitterly in private and moved in circles that would in time plot against the Nazis at the expense of their lives, Boveri's conservative background trained her to think of the Third Reich as Germany's legitimate government, and to think of herself as a loyal, patriotic subject of the state. Since 1928, Boveri had contributed occasional articles to newspapers such as the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung on various subjects, including current issues of international relations. Impressed by her writings, the editor of the Berliner Tageblatt, Paul Scheffer, hired Boveri in July 1934 to write articles on foreign affairs for his newspaper. The Berliner Tageblatt had been known for its strongly liberal and anti-Nazi stance before 1933 and was now being kept alive by the Third Reich to give the outside world the impression that the Hitler regime was essentially responsible and peace-loving.

By 1935, Boveri's work had so impressed Scheffer that he delegated her to represent him on a tour of Greece by the leading newspaper editors of Germany. On her return, Margret Boveri was arrested by the Gestapo in late June 1935, and her apartment was thoroughly searched. Under suspicion of having contacts with an underground anti-Nazi organization, the Socialist Workers' Party, she was interrogated at Gestapo headquarters, but was quickly released due to lack of solid evidence. Boveri resumed her work with the Berliner Tageblatt, writing feature articles and commentary pieces. By the end of 1935, Adolf Hitler's inner circle had taken note of her thoughtful, moderate articles.

Hitler was as angered by the gender of the author of these non-Nazi commentaries as by their content, and the Berliner Tageblatt prudently responded to this instance of Nazi misogyny by labeling Boveri's articles from that point on as authored by "Dr. M. Boveri." Boveri was by this time virtually the only female reporter still working in Nazi Germany. As the Berliner Tageblatt struggled to retain at least a degree of independence from the Nazi Party, Paul Scheffer did his best to keep his newspaper from becoming a Nazi propaganda organ. On only one occasion was he unable to prevent the publication of an anti-Semitic article, when he found himself directly ordered by the Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment to print the piece. Perhaps Scheffer's most extraordinary feat was to retain a Jewish Communist, Rudolf Herrnstadt, as his newspaper's correspondent in Warsaw. Perceptive readers of the Berliner Tageblatt could derive knowledge from the carefully crafted articles of Margret Boveri, while taking heart from essays which implied criticism of Hitlerism through critical dissections of Stalin's harshly totalitarian regime.

Boveri's reputation as a clear-eyed observer led Scheffer to send her in 1936 to write a series of articles on the changing geopolitical landscape of the Mediterranean region. After visiting Malta, Egypt and the Sudan, her impressions appeared not only in the Berliner Tageblatt but also as a book, Das Weltgeschehen am Mittelmeer. Some of Boveri's illusions about maintaining at least a slight degree of professional independence in the Third Reich ended in April 1937, when an increasingly frustrated and pessimistic Paul Scheffer resigned his editorial post. She, too, resigned her position, taking a trip to the British isles to consider her options for the future. An attempt to get a job with the only other non-Nazi paper of distinction in Germany, the Frankfurter Zeitung, did not succeed. Discouraged, Boveri sought solace with a trip to a country she loved, Italy. In order to stay at the heart of political events, she then took an editorial job with the Atlantis-Verlag in Berlin. Further contacts with the Frankfurter Zeitung in the fall of 1937 resulted in a more positive assessment of her abilities by that newspaper's editors, and in 1938 she was hired by them. Boveri's first assignment, an extended trip to the Near East, resulted in the publication of two travel books, one of which was published in an English-language edition by Oxford University Press in 1939.

On the eve of World War II, in May 1939, she was transferred by the Frankfurter Zeitung to Stockholm. During the next months, Sweden and the other Scandinavian nations tried desperately to avoid being involved in war, and her reports from Stockholm provided German readers with perceptive insights into a rapidly evolving diplomatic picture. Because of her proven abilities and knowledge of the English language, Boveri arrived in New York City in October 1940 to serve as the U.S. correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung. She had traveled across the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and now reported on an increasingly anti-Nazi U.S. to a German reading public that had been exposed to Nazi propaganda for more than seven years. Boveri's reports were attempts to retain a spirit of objectivity in reportage without antagonizing Nazi officials who carefully scrutinized every aspect of the Frankfurter Zeitung's output. In her private life, Boveri met with her mother, who taught biology at a college in the Boston area. After agonizing over whether or not she should return to Germany, Boveri decided that despite her distaste for the Nazis at heart she remained a patriotic German, and she would return home when the time came.

In one of the greatest blunders of his career, Adolf Hitler declared war on the U.S. immediately after Pearl Harbor. On the same day, December 9, 1941, Margret Boveri and other high-ranking Germans in the United States were placed under arrest. She was repatriated to Europe in May 1942 and found work as the Lisbon correspondent of the Frankfurter Zeitung. Lisbon during World War II was a bustling center for journalists, spies, and adventurers of all stripes. Boveri took advantage of this rich mixture of rumor, fact and fiction, writing colorful articles on American and British politics and culture. The year 1943 was a turning point in the war; Nazi Germany lost the decisive battle of Stalingrad, and radical Nazis like Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels decided that "total war" was the only way to save the Third Reich. In keeping with the new course, the Frankfurter Zeitung was banned on August 31, 1943. Margret Boveri's expertise was still of use to the regime, however, and she briefly worked as an advisor on American affairs to the German Embassy in Madrid.

Increasingly homesick, Boveri went back to Berlin in March 1944 despite the dangers of returning to a Germany under almost constant air attack. Her home had been destroyed some months earlier in a bombing raid, but she was determined to remain in Berlin to the end. Despite the difficult conditions, Boveri wrote polished articles that appeared regularly in Das Reich and the Kölnische Zeitung. She also began working again for the Atlantis-Verlag. During the terrifying bombing raids, as Berlin crumbled around her, she consoled herself listening to her prized recordings of Johann Sebastian Bach. Her favorite authors were Goethe, Rilke, H.G. Wells and Virginia Woolf . She sought to learn more about the war by listening to BBC broadcasts, keeping her radio turned very low since listening to enemy broadcasts made one a Feindhörer (hostile listener), a grave offense punishable by imprisonment in a concentration camp, or death.

The liberation of Berlin in May 1945 brought out the best in Boveri. Displaying tenacious powers of survival, she went forth each day from her tumbledown dwelling, returning many hours later with scraps of food and drinkable water. Quite fearlessly, she was able to prevent Soviet soldiers from stealing her most precious possession, her bicycle. Protein-starved and quick-witted, she was overjoyed when she had the opportunity to hack chunks of meat from a dead but still warm horse she found in a street. Though she worked as a journalist throughout the Nazi period, Boveri never joined the Nazi Party nor produced outright propaganda. She was able to continue her career, writing for a number of journals including the American-licensed Kurier in Berlin; Boveri also was a regular contributor to the respected Badische Zeitung, a newspaper published in Freiburg in Breisgau. In 1946, she showed an increasing sense of independence by publishing Amerika-Fibel, an analysis of American ideals and attitudes that was not always complimentary. Angered, American occupation officials banned her book for its "lack of respect" for the conquerors. However, as Allied occupation policies liberalized, the book was eventually cleared by the censors, appearing in a new edition in 1948.

Showing the strength to build a career as a respected writer and journalist in the divided Germany of the Cold War decades, Boveri began publishing essays on the current political and cultural scene in the journal Der Merkur, starting in 1947. As West Germany rebuilt from the ruins of war, Boveri, increasingly enjoying the fruits of prosperity, rebuilt her life both psychologically and materially. In 1951, she purchased an abandoned Wehrmacht barracks in West Berlin, transforming it over the years into an attractive home where her friends and colleagues met to discuss politics and the arts. Starting in 1956, she began to publish her highly praised multivolume study of treason in the 20th century, which devoted much space to the plotters against the Hitler regime, men and women whom she had in some instances known personally. Boveri never ceased asking herself, "Why did I remain in Nazi Germany?" and her struggle to answer that difficult question influenced much of her work in the closing decades of her life. In her massive historical study of the Berliner Tageblatt, published in 1965 under the title Wir lügen alle (We All Lied), Boveri openly admitted to having been a collaborator with the Nazi regime to the extent that she, and her colleagues, had consciously decided to remain in Germany and had offered their talents to provide the regime with a more decent, humane image. She also raised many questions about the paradoxes of the East-West split that turned post-1945 Germany into two hostile and opposing republics. Up to the day of her death of cancer in West Berlin on July 6, 1975, Margret Boveri served as one of the few voices of conscience in a Germany grown prosperous but often morally complacent in the climate of the Cold War. While she never completely explained all the nuances of the choices she had made during the most evil and destructive epoch in German history, her pursuit of the truth after 1945 helped put her own behavior and that of many of her contemporaries into a more understandable context. Rather than run away from her own past, or that of her often profoundly troubled and perplexing nation, she confronted it head on.


Boveri, Margret. Amerika-Fibel für erwachsene Deutsche: Ein Versuch Unverstandenes zu erklären. Berlin: Minerva-Verlag, 1946. 2nd ed., Freiburg im Breisgau: Badischer Verlag, 1948.

——. Ein Auto, Wüsten, blau Perlen: Ein Bericht über eine Fahrt durch Vorderasien. Zurich, Leipzig and Berlin: Atlantis-Verlag, 1939.

——. Minaret and Pipe-Line: Yesterday and Today in the Near East. London and NY: Oxford University Press, 1939.

——. Tage des Überlebens: Berlin 1945. Munich: R. Piper, 1968.

——. Treason in the Twentieth Century. Translated by Jonathan Steinberg. NY: Putnam, 1963[?].

——. Verzweigungen: Eine Autobiographie. Edited and with an Afterword by Uwe Johnson. Munich and Zurich: R. Piper & Co. Verlag, 1977.

——. Das Weltgeschehen am Mittelmeer: Ein Buch über Inseln und Küsten, Politik und Strategie, Völker und Imperien. Zurich, Leipzig and Berlin: Atlantis-Verlag, 1936.

——. Wir lügen alle: Eine Hauptstadtzeitung unter Hitler. Olten: Walter-Verlag, 1965.

Frei, Norbert and Johannes Schmitz. Journalismus im Dritten Reich. Munich: Verlag C. H. Beck, 1989.

Heuss, Theodor. Anton Dohrn: A Life for Science. With a Contribution by Margret Boveri. Edited by Christianne Groeben, Translated by Liselotte Dieckmann. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1991.

Koonz, Claudia. Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1987.

Manning, Kenneth R. Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

"Register," in Der Spiegel. Vol. 29, no. 29. July 14, 1975, p. 108.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Boveri, Margret (1900–1975)

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