Dönhoff, Marion, Countess (b. 1909)

views updated

Dönhoff, Marion, Countess (b. 1909)

German journalist, publisher, and editor-in-chief of Die Zeit, Germany's most influential liberal weekly newspaper. Name variations; Doenhoff or Donhoff. Born Marion Hedda Ilse, Gräfin Dönhoff, at Schloss Friedrichstein near Loewenhagen, East Prussia, on December 2, 1909; daughter of August Count Dönhoff and Maria Countess von Lepel Dönhoff; had six brothers and sisters; never married.

Served for many years in leading positions; became the first woman in post-1945 Germany to address a national—indeed international—audience, playing a major role in the reorientation of the foreign policy of the German Federal Republic in the post-Adenauer era toward greater flexibility and conciliation; was a major factor in the emergence of West Germany's Ostpolitik which transformed the political landscape of Europe in the 1970s; is universally acknowledged to be the Grand Old Lady of German journalism.

Marion Dönhoff was born in 1909, less than five years before the start of World War I, into one of the oldest and most prestigious families of the East Prussian Junker nobility, a clan whose genealogical tree branched back to the Middle Ages. As a young countess, she had the run of Friedrichstein, a splendid ancestral castle and grounds visitors often described as being "more beautiful than Versailles." Owned by the Dönhoffs since 1666, the Italian rococo architecture of the residence dominated the lakes and extensive gardens surrounding it. Tracing their blood line back to the medieval Knights of the Teutonic Order, the Dönhoff family had for centuries been soldiers, provincial governors, and substantial landowners in Lithuania, Poland, and Prussia. The high status of the family continued into the modern age, so that Marion's mother Maria, Countess von Lepel Dönhoff , known to all as "Ria," held the position of lady-in-waiting to German empress Augusta of Schleswig-Holstein . Marion's stern-appearing father was a soldier and diplomat who had served in German diplomatic missions in Paris, St. Petersburg, London, Vienna, and Washington. After retiring from the diplomatic service, Count Dönhoff was elected to the German Reichstag and was often in Berlin. Born when her mother was 40 and her father 64, Marion had six brothers and sisters to play with and learn from.

Despite the splendors of the semi-feudal world in which Marion lived, which was best displayed in the magnificent reception rooms of Friedrichstein, daily life for the large Dönhoff family was in many ways simple and even Spartan. Only the parents had a bathroom and the children lived in sparsely-furnished rooms. Food was basic and by no means excessive in quantity, which meant that Marion and her siblings looked forward to those times when there were guests at Friedrichstein and only then would the table groan with luxuries. Told by their parents not to be fussy, the children held their noses when drinking the foul-smelling water that was drawn from the estate pump.

Breathtaking scenery surrounded Friedrichstein castle, and Marion developed a deep love of nature that would last a lifetime. She became an expert horsewoman, spending countless hours exploring the local countryside with her brothers and sisters and her cousins Heini and Sissi von Lehndorff. A stern Prussian sense of duty prevailed even on these occasions, so that when she once fell off her horse, her brother insisted she remount; only after arriving home did she learn that her arm had been badly broken. Rural pleasures could at times be as dangerous as they were thrilling. When a gun accidentally discharged like a clap of thunder during a duck hunt and Marion hit the ground, a servant was convinced that she had been shot dead. Fortunately, only her jacket was singed.

Sent to school in Berlin, Countess Marion was definitely a rebel and did her utmost to defy its strict conventions. A chance visit to a lecture on the ideas of the then-popular philosopher Count Hermann Keyserling changed the course of her life. Despite her narrow preparation by the usual succession of governesses, Dönhoff enrolled at the University of Frankfurt am Main. With Germany in social and economic crisis, many of her fellow students had been enticed by the siren songs of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement. Marion Dönhoff, on the other hand, displayed her lifelong spirit of intellectual independence and moved in distinctly anti-Nazi and leftist circles. Most of her friends during this period were Social Democrats, Communists, and Jews. After the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, she departed from Frankfurt to complete her studies in an intellectually free environment. Enrolling at Switzerland's University of Basel, she studied with noted economist Edgar Salin. Wishing to write a dissertation on a topic relating to Marxist philosophy, Salin persuaded her to write instead on a subject close to the traditions of the Dönhoff family, the origins of large-scale landownership in East Prussia. Making extensive use of her family's archives, her dissertation, completed in 1935, was recognized by experts as an important study in the economic history of Eastern Europe.

War clouds began to gather on the horizon soon after Marion Dönhoff was awarded her doctorate, and although she had a strong desire to pursue a scholarly career, strong family ties eventually prevailed. Her brother insisted that she come back to Friedrichstein to learn how to administer the family lands in the event of war, which now seemed highly likely. The entire Dönhoff family looked upon Hitler and the Nazi movement with contempt and disdain. Although many Junkers first believed the Nazis could be somehow "tamed," Marion Dönhoff had few illusions about the National Socialist ideology or the aims of the Hitler dictatorship. By the late 1930s, she was convinced that the Third Reich was set on war and that Germany would lose, which meant that East Prussia was doomed. By 1943, she had gotten acquainted with all of the major conspirators against Hitler, including Count Claus von Stauffenberg. Privy to the plans of the conspiracy through her favorite cousin Heini von Lehndorff, her part in the anti-Hitler plot was to evaluate which members of the East Prussian Nazi government would be most dangerous and which might be of use to the plotters.

By the evening of July 20, 1944, it became clear to Dönhoff that the plot to kill Hitler and replace his regime had failed. During the next few weeks many of her closest friends were arrested, tortured, and executed, including Heini von Lehndorff and Heinrich Dohna von Tolksdorf, whom she had personally recruited into the conspiracy and who had been chosen to be head of the first post-Nazi East Prussian administration. Dönhoff herself was arrested and interrogated about her knowledge of the plot. Fortunately none of the other conspirators betrayed her, even under torture, and her name had not appeared on any lists of a post-Hitler government. Within a few months of the dramatic events of summer 1944, Soviet forces were penetrating deeply into East Prussian territory. At first, Dönhoff had hoped to organize an orderly evacuation of the people on her estates, but the miserable conditions of the icy roads made her decide that it would be best to remain and hope for decent treatment at the hands of the Soviet forces.

Almost at the last possible moment, in January 1945, Dönhoff decided that her only chance for survival was to attempt to escape. Mounted on her favorite bay, Alarich, she set off alone toward the west. Reaching the railroad bridge at Marienburg, she came across three gravely wounded soldiers who no longer had the strength to continue. She would describe the scene many years later in her memoirs:

For me the end of East Prussia came down to this: three dying soldiers trying to drag themselves across Nogat Bridge to West Prussia, and a woman on horseback whose forefathers, 700 years ago, had marched from the west into the great wilderness on the other side of the stream and who now rode back again to the west—700 years of history extinguished.

Miraculously, Dönhoff arrived safely in the western sector of occupied Germany, impoverished but alive. All the male members of her family had either died in the war or been killed by the Nazis because of their involvement in the plot to kill Hitler, and her beloved Schloss Friedrichstein was now under Soviet occupation. East Prussia was no longer German, divided up between Poland and the Soviet Union. Possessing excellent educational credentials and with an unblemished record as an anti-Nazi, Dönhoff joined the staff of Hamburg's liberal newspaper Die Zeit in 1946. She quickly learned all aspects of newspaper work, including writing clear and convincing articles. She displayed not only journalistic skill but moral integrity as well during her first years with Die Zeit. In the early 1950s, the then publisher and editor-in-chief began to consult on a regular basis with the political scientist Carl Schmitt. Schmitt, an influential ideologist of dictatorial government during the final years of the Weimar Republic, had developed a body of doctrine that effectively provided Nazism with a cloak of intellectual respectability. The very thought that her employers were on close terms with a man who had greased the ways for Adolf Hitler and his brownshirts infuriated Dönhoff. When an article written by Schmitt actually was printed in Die Zeit, she resigned in protest. Only after the liberal-minded Gerd Bucerius became publisher in 1955 did she decide to return to Die Zeit. Now enjoying considerably enhanced prestige as a senior staff member, Dönhoff was vigilant in seeing to it that the paper would no longer flirt with ideas such as those of Carl Schmitt and other foes of democracy and pluralism.

Starting in the mid-1950s, Marion Dönhoff played a key role in transforming Die Zeit into the leading liberal newspaper of West Germany. Appointed associate editor in charge of the political section of Die Zeit in 1955, she became general

editor-in-chief of the paper in 1968, consolidating her position even further in 1972 by becoming a co-owner of the paper, which by that time had achieved a universally accepted position as one of the most respected newspapers in the world. By the late 1950s, if one wanted to know what was happening in the Federal Republic of Germany, it was essential that one was a regular reader of Die Zeit. Starting in the early 1960s, Marion Dönhoff increasingly spoke out in favor of a more active and flexible role for West Germany in resolving the tensions that remained between the Bonn republic and the nations of Eastern Europe including the Soviet Union. In 1970, Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt was finally able to implement the more flexible policy of Ostpolitik that had been persuasively argued for so long in Dönhoff's articles in Die Zeit. When the time came, however, she decided to turn down the chancellor's invitation to accompany him on his trip to Warsaw to sign a German-Polish reconciliation agreement: it was simply too painful for her to witness the signing of a pact that confirmed once and for all the permanent loss of her beloved East Prussian homeland.

Unafraid of advancing controversial ideas, Marion Dönhoff was vilified in the 1960s by some of West Germany's more unreconstructed Cold Warriors as "the Red Countess." Although her political sympathies were generally favorable to the Social Democrats, Dönhoff remained independent of party and by the 1980s, when she took on the title of senior editor of Die Zeit, her political perspective had become a truly global one, more "green" than "red" in its deep concern for a rapidly deteriorating global environment. Writing in the mid-1980s, she voiced her growing concern about the prospects of a world in which "we are frittering away reserves of energy below the ground which nature has taken thousands of millions of years to accumulate." She joined the growing band of environmental activists when she presented a grim picture of a world in which, under the pressure "of either justified or artificial imperatives designed to maintain economic growth, increase consumption or satisfy it without heeding the consequences, today's generations are plundering and polluting nature."

In 1988, Countess Dönhoff published what was probably the most moving of her many books, Kindheit in Ostpreussen, a memoir of her magical early years growing up at Friedrichstein Castle. Published in English in 1990 as Before the Storm: Memories of My Youth in Old Prussia, this memoir of a vanished way of life made clear the immense losses suffered, not only by Germany, but by Western civilization, when first Nazism and then war and raging ethnic hatreds forever changed the face of Eastern Europe. A survivor of a world of aristocratic ideals of honor and privilege, Marion Dönhoff was able in her own lifetime to adjust to a radically new era, keeping alive in her career the belief that tolerance and peace were infinitely preferable to hatred and war. In 1989, she and a nephew took a journey to the former East Prussian territory, at that time still part of the Soviet Union, where Friedrichstein had once been situated. Upon her return to Hamburg, the countess could only report of her former home: "There was nothing more there, nothing at all, not even rubble."


Ardagh, John. Germany and the Germans: An Anatomy of Society Today. NY: Harper & Row, 1987.

Baranowski, Shelley. The Sanctity of Rural Life: Nobility, Protestantism, and Nazism in Weimar Prussia. NY: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Dönhoff, Marion. Before the Storm: Memories of My Youth in Old Prussia. Translated by Jean Steinberg. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

——. Foe into Friend: The Makers of the New Germany from Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Schmidt. Translated by Gabriel Annan. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1982.

——. "The roots of a growing world crisis," in The Courier [UNESCO]. Vol. 39. May–June, 1986, pp. 4–7.

——. Um der Ehre willen: Erinnerungen an die Freunde vom 20. Juli. Berlin: Siedler Verlag, 1994.

Schwarzer, Alice. Marion Dönhoff: ein widerständiges Leben. Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1996.

Tagliabue, John. "A Plucky Countess Braves the Ghosts of Prussia," in The New York Times. December 12, 1990, p. A4.

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