Marion Dönhoff

No one moved me more than Marion Dönhoff or had a deeper impact on me as a human being. We were not contemporaries; she was brought up in the tranquil time before the First World War, I in the turbulence of the Germany of the 1920s and 1930s. She was serene, I more shaped by the pressures of the times. But we were close friends; and this will be my badge of honor for as long as I live.

Unpretentious, dedicated, she never forgot her birth on the largest estate of East Prussia as a member of one of the noblest families – it was the nostalgia of her life. But she used it as an inspiration to overcome the hatreds that had ruined her world and nearly destroyed her country. She was born an aristocrat, but her nobility derived from her conduct, not her birth.

If Marion’s life could be summed up in one phrase, it would be tolerance and respect for others.

In 1995, she spoke to the Abiturrenten of a Polish Gymnasium located in East Prussia near her ancestral home, on the occasion of its being named after her, as follows:

Vielleicht werden Sie fragen, was mir als geistige Einstellung für die Zukunft am wichtigsten erscheint. Ich denke, Ihr müsst vor allem versuchen, tolerant zu sein. Gewiss, man könnte eine lange Liste aufstellen, aber wie lang sie auch sein mag, Toleranz muß jedenfalls ganz oben stehen, denn wer wirklich tolerant ist, der wird nicht in Haß verfallen und darum auch nicht versucht sein, Gewalt zu üben.

Er wird die Meinung des anderen respektieren, auch wenn sie seiner eigenen widerspricht, er wird den Ausländer und den ethnisch Anderen nicht diskriminieren und er wird – und das ist sehr wichtig – keine neuen Feindbilder erfinden, mit denen er Gegner verunglimpft wird.

Those who like to classify people by formal political positions will find incomprehensible this deep affection between Marion, whose political friends were generally on the center left, and myself, whose views were more frequently on the center right.

But whatever our differences on the issues of the day, we had a comparable understanding of the deeper challenges to our civilization. We had both seen the disintegration of the world in which we had grown up; we had been obliged to start new lives, faced the consequent necessity of redefining who we were, and set for ourselves goals which we had not imagined when we were children.

In 1988, Marion sent me her book, Kindheit in Ostpreußen, with the inscription in English: “Henry, we have met in my second life. Here you will get to learn more about the first.” She often talked or wrote about the Prussian virtues, which she identified as tolerance based on reason, a concept of national service to which even the king was subject, loyalty without submissiveness. We were at one in our concern about the threats to freedom in the modern societies: self-absorption approaching narcissism, a definition of economics elevating personal greed into an organizing principle, an identification of freedom with license, and a view of politics as entertainment.

Compared to these agreements, occasional differences were trivial. I would tease her that another meeting was necessary lest she fall too much under the influence of George Kennan. She wrote me in 1993:

Henry, ich bin froh, dass ich mit Deinen letzten Artikeln in den NYHT ganz einig bin; obgleich wie ich gesehen habe: einig oder nicht, für unsere Freundschaft keine Rolle spielt und das ist, was mich angeht eine einzigartige Erscheinung – jeder andere Freund wäre mir auf die Dauer verleidet.

I met Marion in 1955, when I was 32. Since the mid-1960s, we had an agreement to meet at least twice a year, to which we held for nearly forty years – in Hamburg, Berlin, New York, or Connecticut; in the intervals, Marion would frequently send me notes, suggesting books or articles I should read or views I should consider. In this manner, ours became one of the most important relationships of my life. On the occasion of her 75th birthday in 1984, I said in a toast that she understood sin but not evil. But that if everything else in the world were to disintegrate, she, I was certain, would never change. On that occasion – by then we had known each other for nearly thirty years – she suggested we use the familiar “Du” in addressing each other – an offer she rarely made to anyone. I felt as if I had been awarded the Dönhoff pour le mérite.

On a weekend visit to my house in Connecticut, Marion and I visited the studio of Alex Liberman, the sculptor. There she saw a sculpture which fulfilled what she had sought for decades – a suitable memorial for her cousin, who had been hanged by the Nazis for being part of the plot on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944. Liberman gave it to her out of respect for what her family had done in resistance to the Nazis. The sculpture was placed on the estate of her nephew, Hermann von Hatzfeld, * in a ceremony that was classically Marion. Present were only five people: Marion, her nephew, Helmut Schmidt, Richard von Weizsäcker, and I. On the socle were engraved the names of the chief plotters who were hanged – all family friends of the Dönhoffs – but it said nothing of what they had done nor how they had died. Marion explained: “Those who know require no text, those who do not should find out about it elsewhere.”

A few months ago, I visited Marion for the last time. She could no longer use her right hand and was in great pain – though she did not say it and would not talk about it. We had dinner with Helmut Schmidt and his wife. And then I spent the next day alone with Marion in Blankenese. We covered all our usual subjects as if we did not know we would probably never see each other again. When I left, she gave me a little memento of Friedrichstein which she had kept all these years.

A few days later, she sent me a book she had discovered, she wrote, in leafing through old articles. It was her first book: Namen die keiner mehr nennt.

I called Marion almost every week afterward. During our New Year’s Day call, we planned a visit to Hamburg for March 1. It was not to be.

As one reaches a certain age, one inevitably reflects about what it all may have meant. Because of the blessing of Marion’s friendship for nearly fifty years, I will always know. She will never leave my life and, based on her faith, not after it either. In a letter on my 75th birthday, she wrote in English: “Much love as ever, for ever and thereafter.”