Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Berlin Diaries of Marie 'Missie' Vassilchikov

I continue my world tour in Germany - specifically books set in Berlin during the second world war. The first of these is The Berlin Diaries of by Marie 'Missie' Vassiltchikov 1940-1945.

Marie Vassiltchikov was a white Russian princess and she wrote her diaries in her own version of shorthand that was unintelligible to anyone else. This turned out to be useful because Missie came to be privy to (although not actively involved with) the 1944 conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler. Anyone connected with this were subsequently persecuted. Many were executed and many more were imprisoned - together with their families.

Missie, however, escaped although she and another aristocrat seemed to court the attentions of the German authorities by conniving to bring food to their imprisoned colleagues and communicate with them. In fact Missie and the other 'Bright Young Things' seem to have had strangely charmed lives. They seemed to have a rather louche attitude to the idea of working for a living, although by Missie's own account they were impoverished. In the first few years of war, while their embassy friends were still at large, they attended parties and balls and the fact that they were in a country at war served mainly to add a little spice to their daily lives. When basic foodstuffs were rationed they ate lobsters; when beer was in short supply they drank champagne; when clothing became rationed they turned to the milliner for style, and even when they were fleeing bombs and the Soviet advance finding a hairdresser was still of paramount importance. Slumming it, for Missie, was trying to do without lipstick every day.

There was no question of Missie and her friends ever becoming homeless refugees; she seems to have been adept at finding houses (usually the odd schloss, palace or chalet belonging to a distant relative or friend) wherever she went. Even when the Americans come (and have the audacity to 'behave badly' by inviting the village girls to come in and party and walk off with all their abandoned clothing) they have their connections and can count of distant American cousins to pull strings there too.

However, even when all these connections run out Missie survives. She survives because she is not only young, beautiful and multi-lingual but, more importantly, feels entitled. It is this that enables her to sail on through a world that is fracturing at her heels. She is starving and ill but always she finds a bed and people willing to help her. She never gives up because she knows that somehow she will come through - and she does.

It is a fascinating book, enhanced by the editorial notes of Missie's younger brother, Georgie, who encouraged her to publish the book shortly before her death. I am very glad he did because Missie has given the world a valuable record of how it was to live in one of the first cities of the world to suffer sustained aerial bombardment. The intention of the British (specifically Air Marshall Arthur 'Bomber' Harris) was to bring Germany to its knees but it failed - and by reading The Berlin Diaries it is possible to understand exactly why. Her description of what happened after the first siren sounded is vivid and terrifying. She admits to becoming increasingly nervous as time goes on - in the end even an aristocrat must yield to the indiscriminating and horrifying Bombenteppich (bomb carpet).


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