Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Berlin Diaries of Marie 'Missie' Vasiltchikov (2)

There's a new book out about the Nazis' relationship with Germany's blue-blood elite: High Society in the Third Reich by Fabrice d'Almeida. 

This review of it by Christopher Clark would seem to indicate that d'Almeida's argument potentially debunks one of my biggest take-outs so far from Missie's diary - that upper class Germans generally regarded the Nazis as creepy and rather preposterous parvenus.

For it appears that by 1938 nearly a fifth of all senior SS officers were titled noblemen and after physicians (43% were party members in '37), aristocrats were in fact the most Nazified sector of German society. Berlin's nightclubs reportedly  'heaved' with members of the minor rural nobility in black SS uniforms. 

d'Almeida explains how the regime co-opted the elites, buying off senior army officers with lavish gifts and associating themselves heavily with toff pastimes such as horse racing (the use of selective breeding here appealed strongly) and bash throwing. 

Missie on the other hand gives the impression that the refined circles she moved in were practically an opposition in waiting. There has to be some truth in this because many in her immediate circle were key participants in the failed July 20 plot. (see Tom Cruise in Valkyrie...or rather don't.) and in reading her diaries I was genuinely surprised at how much of pre-1918 European high society continued to function within what was clearly a far completely totalitarian regime than that of Stalin's Soviet Union...at least prior to 1942 when Goebbels was to declare that "the bourgeois era with its false and misleading notion of humaneness is over." (One is perhaps led to re-consider the controversial — and clearly distorted — view recently expressed by Nicholson Baker in Human Smoke, that the course of the early years of the war contributed to making Nazi Germany a more single-mindedly murderous place. ) 

A week or so ago I listened to Jason Isaacs being interviewed by Simon Mayo on R5 prior to the release of Good. Mayo expressed the opinion that he found it hard to believe that Viggo Mortensen's character John Halder wasn't on some level aware that SS membership would make him an accessory to the crime of the century. Isaacs response was fairly credible I thought: that in the early 30s at least, German citizens could have had only a limited notion of what the regime was capable of in the context of 'total war', and that many people tend to compartmentalise their political likes and dislikes. 

Missie's diary makes it pretty clear that 30s Germany was a very different kind of political society. Resistance to the fascist programme was far less likely to come in this instance from a mass of informed citzens whose views were tempered by an uncensored media. (Isaacs made the point too that when the film was shown in Eastern Europe people there had much less trouble understanding the absence of conserted protest.)  

Two groups might have put up more of a fight, but were inherently more likely to take to the salon than to the street. The bourgeoisie (rather like the Chinese middle classes today) had anyway largely sold their souls to authoritarianism in return for economic prosperity, and the upper classes meanwhile were rather too committed to the dream of a German military resurgence. 

The diaries do give a tantalising glimpse of what a lone, high-born individual might have achieved. On Tuesday January 25th 1944 Missie learned of the death in aerial combat of her friend Major Prince Heinrich von Sayn-Wittgenstein (pictured), Germany's leading night-fighter ace at the time with 83 victories to his name. 

"Only a few days ago Heinrich had rung me up at the office. He had been to Hitler's HQ to receive from the hands of  'the Almighty' the Oak Leaves to his Knight's Cross. He said on the phone "Ich war bei unseren Liebling" ['I have been to see our Darling'] and added that, to his surprise, his hand gun had not been removed before he entered 'the Presence' (as is customary nowadays) so that it might have been possible to 'bump him off' right then and there. He went on to elaborate on the subject until I remarked that it might be preferable to continue the conversation elsewhere. When we met a little later, he started to speculate about the possibility of blowing himself up with Hitler when they shook hands. Poor boy, little did he suspect that he had only a few more days to live! And yet he seemed so fragile that I always worried about him. He had become Germany's most successful night fighter, was constantly in action and was clearly worn out. He often spoke of the agony he felt about having to kill people and how, whenever possible, he tried to hit the enemy plane in such a way that the crew could bail out."

And on Sunday February 6: 

"Melanie [Bismark] brought back some earth and odd bits of his plane, such as the windshield and parts of the motor. She thought his parents in Switzerland might wants some relics. I hardly think so. It only makes things worse. If only they had not sent the three boys back to Germany when the war started! What with their Russian and French ancestors they were barely German in the first place. It is thought that Heinrich was unconscious when he hit the ground, as his parachute never opened and he was found, shoeless, quite some distance from the plane. He usually wore light pumps, with just a coat thrown over his civilian clothes. I remember him going up once in a raincoat thrown over a dinner jacket. He had become such an ace that he did whatever he pleased. The rest of his crew survived, as he made them jump when the plane was hit. Either he injured his head jumping out last or else he was wounded and could not pull open his parachute. Melanie gave me some scraps of metal as a keepsake. Maybe this will make me realise at last that we have lost him."

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