Sisters Brave and True

Crossing the Queensboro. 10:25 AM. Photo: JH.

The European press, in my opinion, has the most interesting obituaries. My favorites are often found in the Telegraph of London. Often I’m drawn to them because they involve a name that is familiar to me historically, but I tend to read even those whose names are unfamiliar because with few exceptions they tell a story of an interesting, sometimes fabulous, occasionally bizarre and occasionally affecting life.

This one posted after this introduction is the obituary of Princess Tatiana von Metternich who died three weeks ago and is one of the latter. I recognized the last name, of course, because of its historical provenance. But as I soon discovered that I was familiar with the princess’ maiden name “Wassiltchikoff (or Vasilltchikov”) because of a powerful book I read back in the mid-1980s called “Berlin Diaries 1940-1945.” If you’ve never read it, you can still find it in paperback. It is, to this sheltered American, an astounding account of what it is like to be in the midst of relentless, totally destructive, murderous aerial bombing in Berlin as Hitler’s Third Reich was finally coming apart and heading for complete obliteration

Marie "Missie" Vassiltchikov

Its author Marie Vassiltchikov, always known to friends and family as “Missie,” was the younger sister of this same Princess Metternich, and it turns out they were very close. Her “Berlin Diaries” is a riveting account of living, hiding, running, dashing between the bombing. Among the many remarkable insights was how people were able to cope not only with the utter violence and destruction but with those idiotic and vicious morons who followed Hitler around like mindless robots.

Missie and her aristocratic friends were very close to the German military including some of the men who plotted (and failed) to assassinate Hitler in the famous “briefcase” bombing in 1944. The shaken dictator whose number was not quite up, went after those people with a vengeance, ordering the execution of just about anyone who had a relationship with his failed-assassins, including one of Marie Vasilltchikov’s closest and fondest friends, Adam von Trott zu Solz.

The Vassiltchikov sisters were born in St. Peterburg into an aristocratic family in the waning years of Nicholas and Alexandra. Their lives were marked by the Bolshlevik Revolution as they immigrated (escaped really) in 1919 with their families through eastern Europe (and frequently destitute circumstances) and eventually to Germany where there were a few short but threatening years of peace before the world erupted into the insanity that continues to visit the human race like a plague spread by malevolence.

In 1940, the sisters, now in their twenties, traveled from Lithuania, running from the Russian Army, to Berlin where, as stateless persons, they obtained work permits and got jobs with the Broadcasting Service. Missie was transferred to the Auswärtiges Amt (AA), or German Foreign Ministry's Information Office, where she worked as the assistant to Dr. Adam von Trott zu Solz.

Adam von Trott zu Solz was the son of a leading Prussian civil servant (August von Trott zu Solz). He went to England at age 22 on a Rhodes Scolarship to study at Balliol, Oxford where he befriended David Astor. After studying at Oxford, he came to America for six months to visit friends and relatives (he was a great-great grandson of John Jay, one of the Founding Fathers of our country as well as the first Supreme Court Justice. The Mortimer family in New York are also descendants of John Jay).

After leaving the States Trott traveled the world, taking advantage of his connections to try to raise support outside Germany for the internal resistance against the Nazis. This was in the mid-1930s. In 1939, he visited both London and Washington. He lobbied Lord Lothian and Lord Halifax to pressure the British not to continue its policy of appeasement toward Hitler. His message fell on deaf ears. He had no success in this country in obtaining American support.

Adam von Trott

He then returned to Germany ignoring the warnings of friends that he would be in danger. But he felt he had to do something to stop the madness of Hitler and his socio- and psychopathic toadies. In 1940 he joined the Nazi Party to access party information and monitor its planning. At the same time, he served as a foreign policy advisor to the clandestine group of intellectuals planning the overthrow of the Nazi regime known as the Kreisau Circle.

On July 1944, just days after the assassination attempt, Von Trott, as part of Claus von Stauffenberg's unsuccessful plot to assassinate Hitler, was arrested, placed on trial and found guilty. Sentenced to death on 15 August 1944 by the Volksgerichtshof, he was hanged in Berlin's Plötzensee prison on August 26th, fifteen days after his thirty-fifth birthday.

Missie Vassiltchikov kept diaries of her life in the plotters' circle, writing in shorthand and concealing the pages hidden in her office. The diaries also detail the bombing of Berlin, the daily life of what remained of Berlin's cosmopolitan pre-war nobility and intelligentsia, and her own journey from privilege to near-death at the end of the war. These accounts are amazing reading to anyone but most of all to the many of us Americans who’ve never been touched by or within proximity of real warfare. What comes through is the natural sense of courage possessed by these people.

Following the failed attempted to kill Hitler, many of her friends and colleagues were imprisoned. Many were killed. Hitler’s rage knew no bounds and scores, maybe hundreds were murdered in revenge. Missie and a friend, Princess Elenore (Loremarie) von Schönburg, despite both having been active in the plot, went to Gestapo headquarters several times to plead for the life of Adam Trott zu Solz and others, and to bring food and packages. Finally, a Nazi guard slipped them the warning that their days were numbered too, and so they stopped. After Trott was executed Missie left Berlin for Vienna where she worked as a nurse until the war was over.

Vassiltchikov was found by the United States Third Army under General George S. Patton outside Gmunden on May 4, 1945. She worked as an interpreter for the army, but contracted scarlet fever and was hospitalized.

After regaining health, Missie married a captain of the United States Military Intelligence, Peter G. Harnden. They lived in Paris, where Harden opened an architectural firm. After Harnden died in 1971, Missie moved to London where she died, of leukemia, on August 12, 1978.

Marie Vassiltchikov’s Diaries were published after her death in 1985. Her diaries are the only known first-hand account of the July 20th Plot to kill  Hitler. Her description of the repeated bombings of Berlin is considered one of the best testimonies of that human experience on the ground.

Her Diaries also chronicle a less acknowledged aspect of Hitler's war crimes, namely the destruction of the aristocracy of Europe. As a descendant of peasants, Hitler had a love/hate relationship with the aristocracy, many of whom saw through him instantly and clearly, and were by nature only sometimes subtle with their vibes. When he realized that many of the July 20 Plot participants were members of the aristocracy, he found the perfect excuse to get back by decimating many members of the prominent members of the ruling families of Europe.

The Diary reads like a movie although god knows it would be difficult for today’s writers to capture the contrasts realistically, whatwith our now famous paucity of comprehension of history outside of our own era. In one entry, Vassiltchikov recounts a night spent dancing at a ball at the Chilean embassy that ends with her flight from Vienna, which found her stumbling, filthy and half-starved, across a bombed railroad depot at the end of the war. Her account of wartime Berlin is at times surreal, writing about days with lunches at the luxurious Hotel Adlon followed by nights putting up in half-ruined flats amidst conversations ranging from gossip about her noble and royal friends to the intended killing of Hitler.

Missie lived to see her sister Tatiana’s memoirs, Tatiana: Full Circle in a Shifting Europe, published in 1976. Tatiana wrote of the experience of the War:

... 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 .... (underlining, ed.’s note)

Princess Tatiana von Metternich outlived her dear younger sister by twenty-seven years. She lived life “firmly aware that privilege also means responsibility to bear witness” – a message lost on so many of us imbued with that privilege.  The following engrossing obituary is full of emotional surprises characterizing the pluck and courage of this unusual woman.

From the Telegraph of London:

Princess Tatiana von Metternich, who died at Schloss Johannisberg, her home in Germany, on July 26 aged 91, was the widow of Prince Paul Alfons, last Prince von Metternich-Winneburg; she was one of the most beautiful women of her day, highly cultivated and well known in international society.

Living in Berlin, Bohemia and later on the Rhine during the Second World War, she witnessed the effect of Nazism on Germany, was close to those involved in the unsuccessful plot to kill Hitler in 1944, and was forced to make a 600-kilometre trek across Germany to escape the Russian advance. This she described in her memoirs, Tatiana - Five Passports in a Shifting Europe, and the story of those times was later re-told in the memorable Berlin Diaries 1940-1945 by her sister, Princess Marie Wassiltchikov.

She was born Princess Tatiana Wassiltchikov in St Petersburg on January 1 1915, the second daughter of Prince Illarion Wassiltchikov, a member of the Russian Imperial Parliament, and his wife, Princess Lydia Wiazemsky.

Princess Tatiana Metternich 1998 by Barbara Hamilton Kaczmarowska

Her childhood was overshadowed by the deaths of many of her parents' friends and relations, victims of the Revolution. She owed her departure from Russia to King George V, who sent a British warship to rescue his aunt, the Dowager Empress of Russia, from the Crimea. The Empress refused to leave unless those who wished to escape accompanied her, and the British fleet obliged by sending as many ships as possible.

Before sailing, the young Tatiana waited with other Russian children and their English nannies at Alubka, the grand folly of the Vorontzovs near Yalta, and sat patiently on a stone lion on the terrace. (The lion was still there when she returned with a group from Serenissima in 1982.)

Thus, in April 1919, the Wassiltchikov family sailed in Princess Ena. All the children took with them were one toy and a few books, some of them lesson books. In due course they arrived in France, and Tatiana's early years were spent as a peripatetic refugee in France, Germany and Lithuania.

When she was 10 she went with her sister Missie (from whom she was inseparable) to the French Lycée of St Germain-en-Laye, on the outskirts of Paris, but money was short and they were quite often kept out of school due to unpaid school fees. Amongst their friends was Prince Felix Youssoupoff, murderer of Rasputin, of whom their mother rather disapproved.

The outbreak of the Second World War found Tatiana in Germany with Missie. In January 1940 the two sisters moved to Berlin in search of work, finding the city surprisingly normal, despite the nightly blackouts and food rationing. Within days Tatiana had been employed by the Auswärtiges Amt (German Foreign Ministry) because she spoke good French.

One evening she and a friend were outside the Hotel Adlon and saw groups of SS officers, clearly waiting for important people. They took up places in the hotel. "A few minutes later," she recalled, "the doors were flung open and in marched Hitler, Goering, Goebbels and a few others: they strutted past our table in a tight group. How small they were! They looked like stuffed dolls, unreal, a caricature of the likenesses published for the edification of the people, almost as grotesque as targets at a fair, but they exuded importance and frightening power. The fascination they seemed to exercise over the hushed and reverent assembly, frozen into a servile smile, was due to the irresistible attraction of Might!"

In August 1940 Tatiana met Prince Paul Alfons vonMetternich-Winneburg, head of the Metternich family and a great-grandson of Prince Metternich, the Austrian Chancellor at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. A socialite and something of a playboy, the Prince was then on leave from France, where he was serving with the cavalry. He at once fell for Tatiana, and soon took to telephoning her late at night. Missie, with whom she shared a bedroom, chased her into the sitting-room for these late night calls.

By June the pair were engaged, and they were married at the Roman Catholic church of Grünewald on September 6 1941, the food for the reception having been saved for months at the family home of the groom, Schloss Königswart, in the north-west corner of the Bohemian triangle, on the Czechoslovakian northern frontier to Germany. The couple then left Berlin for Vienna, and settled in Spain until the next spring, after which the Prince set off to serve on the Russian front. While serving there in 1944, he suffered from an abscess of the lung, and nearly died.

Tatiana settled at Königswart, and found that directing it was like overseeing a combination of palace, museum and hotel. King Alfonso of Spain visited it every summer after his exile from Spain. While there in August 1942, Tatiana heard that 300 bombs had fallen on and around their Rheingau home, Schloss Johannisberg, completely destroying it. Since she had lately sent most of her possessions there in advance of an anticipated move, she now had few things left.

Princess Tatiana von Metternich-Winneburg in 2003

Tatiana was close to some of those German aristocrats and princes who plotted to kill Hitler in July 1944. As a result of the plot, all German princes were forbidden to serve in the army, which saved Prince Paul Metternich from falling into Soviet hands.

In May 1945 she and her husband were forced to leave Königswart and undertake the 600-kilometre trek that eventually led to the ruined Schloss Johannisberg. Before leaving Königswart, they wrote out recommendations for all their staff, vouching for them and urging that they be allowed to follow to Johannisberg. To these documents they pressed an imprint of the great seal of Chancellor Metternich, so often used at the Congress of Vienna.

Reflecting on this long journey, she wrote later: "I remembered that our flight from the Crimea had also meant the choice between living in a free world or under communist oppression. At times like these possessions lose all value. The pain of leaving and the finality of defeat at having to do so would return later."

Left behind at Königswart were walking sticks with jewelled knobs that had belonged to Napoleon, coins, cameos, and the entire library, except for Ariosto'sOrlando Furioso, illustrated with hand-painted miniatures and bearing the story of earlier vicissitudes and travels during the Napoleonic wars, written in the great Metternich's own hand. The Princess took with her a ring that had belonged to Marie Antoinette and the Chancellor's watch. The Americans took over Königswart and it was ransacked; many family treasures disappeared.

On the way to Johannisberg the Metternichs travelled in a long, flat farm cart, piled high with hay for the horses and escorted by seven French former PoWs. Thus they crossed various check-points, and turned south at the news of the Soviet advance. They finally stayed with Prince Friedel and Princess Margarita of Hohenlohe at Schloss Langenburg, and were given refuge at Wolfsgarten by Prince and Princess Ludwig of Hesse, who took so many refugees of different kinds under their wing at the end of the war, including the widowed Princess Sophie of Hesse-Cassel (like Margarita of Hohenlohe, a sister of Prince Philip).

At length they reached Schloss Johannisberg, which was an empty shell. They took up residence in the housekeeper's flat, and after the war rebuilt the greater part of the castle and made it their permanent home.

Prince Paul was involved with motor sports, serving as chairman of the German Automobile Club, while Tatiana was active working for the Red Cross, and undertook much charity work for the poor, especially in eastern Europe.

She joined the Order of St Lazarus in 1978 and succeeded her husband as Grand Bailiff after his death in 1992. Having accompanied an official delegation of the Lazarus-Hilfswerk to St Petersburg, Moscow and Novogorad in 1991, she became actively involved in their humanitarian food aid programme, becoming patron of the organisation and achieving important results in the various international, charitable and ecumenical activities of the Order. President Putin held her in high esteem.

Tatiana was a passionate follower of the arts. With Michael Hermann, she founded the internationally renowned Rheingau Music Festival, which turned the region between Weisbaden and Lorch into a giant concert stage annually between June and August, attracting world-famous soloists and artists, some of the concerts being held at Johannisberg.

She was also a keen watercolourist and wrote a number of books. Her memoirs, first published in 1976, were updated and republished in 1988. She wrote about the aristocratic people caught up in events in Europe during the years leading up to the Second World War. Reviewers thought it expressed a subtle mixture of hope and despair, which was the great feature of the better-known memoir of her sister, Berlin Diaries (published in 1985, after Missie's death). In 1992 Tatiana published a book about Russia.

After Paul Metternich's death in September 1992, Princess Tatiana discovered that he had left much of his fortune to a mistress. She was obliged to sell Schloss Johannisberg to a member of the well-known German industrial family, Oetker, but was allowed to remain there until her death. Though confined to Schloss Johannisberg in recent years due to ill health, Princess Tatiana Metternich had been a frequent visitor to Britain, where she had many friends, not least in the Royal Family. She had no children, but adopted a relative, Don Alvaro de Salinas, as her heir.


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August 21, 2006, Volume VI, Number 131


© 2006 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/