Thursday, 20 December 2012

Books I read lately

Lately I have read 4 books on people who lived at the same time during one specific period of history in different countries, Canada, the UK, Germany and Poland, the period 1930 to 1948.
The books are; King: William Lyon Mackenzie King, A life, by Allan Levine, A daughter's tale: the Memoir of Winston Churchill's daughter, by Mary Soames, Letters from Berlin: A story of war and survival by Kerstin Lieff and Fifteen Journeys Warsaw to London by Jasia Reichardt.

As a complement to those books, years ago I read 2 memoirs of the Princesses Marie and Tatiana Vassiltchikoff who were born in St-Petersburg before the revolution and whose father was attached to the Household of Czar Nicholas II.
The family escaped Russia in 1918 on a warship sent by King George V to rescue his Russian relatives and they settled in Germany.

Both Marie and Tatiana will work as secretaries at the German Foreign Ministry for many years and will become involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, barely escaping arrest out of shear luck. Their books, The Berlin Diaries 1940-1945 by Marie and A purgatory of fools by Tatiana gives their account of Berlin and Germany under the Nazi dictatorship and their comments on some of the Nazi high officials they met in the course of their work.
At the end of the war Marie will marry an Englishman and move to the UK while Tatiana will marry Prince Paul Metternich-Winneburg and live out her life at Joannisberg Palace, her Wine Estate in Southern Germany.

I love this passage from Princess Tatiana's book; When all was over, we learnt that horror was not the sum of human experience. Those who survived would only remember the flashes of light in the darkness: the warm comradeship, the selfless gesture of love or courage which seemed the last reality in a world gone mad, where finally simplicity and gentleness remained the only valid sounds in a man's heart.

While living in Warsaw, I read around 1999 a book by a famous German media personality, Countess Marion Dönhoff, entitled Une enfance en Prusse Orientale. Her family is famous since the Middle-Ages, an old Aristocratic Prussian family, linked to Frederic II the Great of Prussia. She was for many decades the Editor and Publisher of the liberal weekly DIE ZEIT, her nickname was la Contesse démocrate. She was closely associated with the war time history of Germany, involved in the plot in 1944 to assassinate Hitler. Her book is wonderful to read, it gives an impression of life in old Prussia on her family estate in Koenigsberg today Kaliningrad. I remember writing to her after reading her book and getting a very nice reply from her. At the end of the war she rode her horse from Eastern Prussia all the way to Hamburg, an incredible distance, fleeing the advancing Soviet army. Near Berlin she stopped at the estate of the Bismarck family in Varzin, Pomerania and spent just a few hours. She tried to convince the aged great grand daughter of the Chancellor to flee with her. The old lady pointed to the garden of the Chateau and said, I am very old, I would not get far and I asked my gardener to dig my grave, so that if the Soviets shoot me, they can bury me quickly.

Here is one quote from Countess Dönhoff's book on the futility of revenge; I also do not believe that hating those who have taken 
over one's homeland...necessarily demonstrates love
for the homeland. When I remember the woods and
lakes of East Prussia, its wide meadows and old shaded
avenues, I am convinced that they are still as
incomparably lovely as they were when they were my
home. Perhaps the highest form of love is losing without

These books got me interested in what it was like to live under the Nazi regime, they tell their individual story which is quite different from the usual story about that period. As life goes it was a messy time and nothing was simple, some Germans were fooled into believing that since they were a law abiding society, governed by processes, nothing bad could happen, until it did.

What I find also very interesting is that all the writers are all more of less the same age but all from different milieu. All oppose the Nazis and Hitler and by their tales allow the reader to grasp what it must have been like to live in a society dominated by ideology, cruelty and the rule of the arbitrary.  There is also explanations of the beliefs and attitudes of the time which stand in sharp contrast if not total opposition to what we believe today. It is at times difficult to believe that the world in Europe and North America was so very different from today.

I started with the biography of our longest serving Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, 22 years in office. Based on his own diaries, which total more than 2 million pages, we have the picture of a very insecure man, who could be petty, mean and very self-centered, who never seemed to appreciate those who worked for him and did not suffer the slightest criticism real or imagined. It is well known now, but not so during his life, that he was deeply involved into the occult and spiritualism, his dead mother and his dead dog Pat 1 figure prominently into his diaries. In June 1939 King George VI and the Queen had lunch with Mackenzie King at Laurier House is home in Ottawa and then the Official Residence of our Prime Minister, he apparently gave a tour of the large house to the King and showed him where he held his séance. I can just imagine what the King must have thought.

Mackenzie King was a bigot and an anti-semite by today's standards but then many in his Cabinet and in the general population in Canada had the same attitudes, Fascism was popular to counter the Communist threat and unemployment. Mackenzie King met several times with Churchill and his daughter Mary Soames, who in her book describes him as a bit of an old Aunt. Rex as he was known to his friends really believed that he was a big player in the conferences that were held during the Second World War in Quebec City at the Chateau Frontenac. In 1938 he met with Hitler in Berlin and with Mussolini in Rome. He thought Hitler a nice chap and told him not to abandon his good work for Germany and advised him not to launch a war. Strangely enough at the end of the war when he is told that Hitler has committed suicide, Rex writes in his diary, I told him not to start a war, such a mistake.

The book of Mary Soames is about her life, that of great privilege, of her family and her father Winston and her mother Clementine. Her cousin the Duke of Marlborough and life at Chartwell or at the Admiralty or 10 Downing street. Christmas parties at Blenheim Palace and life for a young girl leading up to the war. Then she joins in the war effort and gets involved manning anti-aircraft guns in the defence of London. It is somewhat surreal to read this book, she describes how while stationed with her company, her father, the Prime Minister, would appear for an inspection tour. She would know he was coming before her Commanding Officer. She will often accompany her father and she is privy to State secrets. She meets FDR whom she likes a lot and many other important people like DeGaulle. Her memoirs are a special more personal access the world of the Churchill family, her father and mother.

She describes her fellow soldiers as nice middle-class people, good mannered. Her weekends are at parties given by friends in high society, much dancing and frivolities. The reader wonders what did her mates thought of all this, they lived in very different world. In Mary Soames world there was no great rationing, her mother always has some specialty food treat. Tragedy did strike during the war years, she writes in her diaries of the sadness and sacrifice of British people, but there is a stiff upper lip tone to it all.

Then the story of one German girl about the same age as Mary Soames and the story of another girl, a Pole living in Warsaw under difficult circumstances due to her family being Jewish.

In the book Letters from Berlin, we have the life of  Margarete Dos, born in Pomerania (Prussia) now part of Poland. Her family was well to do and her life story is told through a series of letters and recollections she gave to her daughter before she died in 2005. She grew up during the Nazi dictatorship and the family moved during that time to Berlin. Her father had in 1933 told the family that Hitler and the Nazi party would ruin Germany, that these people were no good, but Margarete being a child did not pay much attention. Her mother remarried when her father died after falling off his horse. Her step-father was an Officer in the German Navy and worked at the Navy HQ in Berlin.

Like all children she had other interests and pre-occupations centered on teenager concerns, though in September 1939 at the start of the war she becomes aware that the adults are worried and that her mother is frightened of what is coming.  Her younger brother and she will witness from their home the events of Kristallnacht in 1938 and how they as children are uncomprehending and see that the adults around them keep quiet out of fear. At the same time, she describes the life of her school friend Hilde, who is half-Jewish and who remains in Berlin with her family until the end of the war, with the help of friends and neighbours.

She has vivid recollections of being told by her mother to be afraid of the SS and the Gestapo and to avoid them at all cost. As the war progresses she is a University student in Jena and then works as a Red Cross nurse and sees friends die in the bombing of cities. She like so many Germans trapped in this turmoil wish to be rid of the Nazi and their lies but feel powerless. At the end of the war, she and her mother are deported to Siberia by the Soviets and will spend two years in a work camp. Only to return to Germany in 1947 to a new world, at this point she decides to immigrate to Sweden where she has family. This book is interesting because of he detailed eyewitness account of her life and of events, of the terrible sadness and of all the lives destroyed.

The other book is the story of a Jewish girl in Warsaw, who is protected by her parents from the harsh realities of life in Warsaw and then in the Ghetto itself during the war years. This book for me brought back memories of Warsaw, the streets mentioned in her book, I knew well. The family lived around the area where the Canadian Embassy is located. With my knowledge of Warsaw I could see her travels in the city. She also describes life in the Ghetto but appears unaware of the harshness, her parents shielding her from the daily horrors. Like all children she is aware of changes and understands that it is best not to ask questions, it might be dangerous or troubling. Her 15 journeys will take her around Warsaw during the war and the last one to London after the war. She will be hidden by Catholic Nuns and will learn a new identity as a Christian child so that she can hide from the Nazis. In a city like Warsaw which will be totally razed in the course of the war these journeys have an unbelievable quality. Courage, discretion, fortitude, faith in the future, will help her survive. Towards the end of 1943 she says in the book that she knew, she does not know how, that her parents were dead. They had stayed behind in the Ghetto unable to escape. Many friends and family members will also die, some choosing to commit suicide like her grandmother, knowing what the future will bring. She only killed herself after ensuring that her grand daughter would survive.

All these books speak of a different experience of a deeply troubled time, all are interesting for the personal details and descriptions they bring to the reader. They also show that our perception of that period is often wrong or we have jumped to conclusions with the propaganda offered by Hollywood or by people not really interested in understanding history.



  1. you read a better class of books than I do, ha

    1. One reads what one likes to read. I like history a lot.

    2. What about ancient history? Julius Ceasar, Hanibal and the like? I am fascinated by such individuals.

    3. I have read quite a bit about ancient Rome and all the classics like Sutonius etc...
      To the point where I can give tours in Rome. Per example the route Julius Ceasar took from his house to the Senate Meeting on that faithful day of the Ides of March. What he wore and who saw what.