The Family Donhoff, or the futility of revenge

Norman Davies

Marion, Countess Donhoff, was born in 1909 in the family palace in Friedrichstein, twenty miles from Koenigsberg in East Prussia. The seventh child of a numerous brood, she followed the timeless routine of the old feudal East European aristocracy, unaware that their time was running out.

Friedrichstein in the 1900s still offered its residents all the beauties of Nature and the benefits of Privilege. Set amidst the lakes and the forests and sharp seasons of the east, it drew its children into a blissful round of horses, picnics, and libraries, of tutors, loving nannies and distinguished guests. Marion's mother, once a lady-in-waiting to the Empress at Potsdam, ran the house with a taste for the rigid etiquette and social hierarchy of the Kaiser Court. She trained the servants to address her with "Most Humble Good Morning, Your Excellency." Marion's father, Karl August, an easygoing globetrotter and sometime diplomat at the German embassies at Petersburg and Washington, was a member of both the hereditary Prussian senate and the elected German Reichstag. The style was one of public opulence, private austerity and Lutheran piety.

The Donhoffs, like many German noble families, had moved to the East in the Middle Ages. Their original home was at Dunehof on the Ruhr in Westphalia. Their second, also Dunehof, was set up in 1330 near Riga in Livonia, where they remained for 18 generations. That senior Livonia branch of the family was known as Denhoff. They became prominent Polish magnates, palatines, hetmans, starostas and cardinals.

The Prussian, Protestant, Donhoffs were descended from the Livonian, Magnus Ernst von Denhoff, sometime Polish ambassador to Saxony and Brandenburg, who settled near Koenigsberg in 1620. His son Friedrich bought the main estates by the Pregd in 1666. His grandson, Otto Magnus, governor of Memel and Prussian ambassador at the Treaty of Utrecht built the pile of Friedrichstein in 1709-14.

War and disasters were taken in their stride on the Prussian Frontier. In the Great Northern War, 40% of East Prussia's population died of plague. The revolutionary wars saw first the entailing of the estate in 1791, the arrival of the French in 1807, the emancipation of the Serfs in 1810, and the arrival of Kutuzov in 1813. In World War I, having escaped from the Russian advance of August 1914, it greeted its saviour, Field Marshall von Hindenburg, in person.

At first, the war of 1939 looked just like another in the line of Friedrichstein's earlier disasters. Yet by the winter of 1944-45, it was clear that some final and total nemesis was at hand. Unlike any of its predecessors, the advancing Soviet Army was intent on eradicating the Germanness of East Prussia once and for all. With all the adult males of her family dead, either killed on the Eastern Front or executed after the bomb-plot against Hitler, Marion Donhoff had been left administering the estates of Friedrichstein and Quittainen alone. One night in January 1945, she mounted her horse, joined the flood of westbound refugees, and rode a thousand miles in two months all the way to Westphalia. (She paused only once to stay with Bismarck's daughter-in-law at Varzin in Pomerania.) The six hundred-year eastern adventure of the Donhoffs had come full circle. Friedrichstein, deserted, was annexed to the Soviet Union.

The fate of Friedrichstein and of the Donhoffs was repeated hundreds of times over right across Europe. The destruction which the Bolsheviks had meted out to Russia's own aristocracy awaited the landed proprietors of every country which the Red Army entered, whether in 1918-21, in 1939-40, or in 1944-45. The old German families of Prussia's eastern provinces, Bohemia, the Baltic States and the Balkans were cast into the same abyss which awaited the Polish families of Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine, and the Magyars of Slovakia and Croatia. Indeed, not just the aristocrats but entire populations of all classes were removed. The Soviet scourge destroyed not just Privilege, but centuries of culture.

At least Marion Donhoff survived. After the war she worked as a journalist in Hamburg, becoming editor of Die Zeit in 1968 and its publisher in 1973. When she wrote her memoirs, she concluded 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

1 Marion Donhoff, Kindheit in Ostpreussen, Berlin 1988; trans. as Before the Storm: Memoirs of my Youth in Old Prussia, New York: Knopf l990, p. 204.

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