Today, continuing our week of World War Two diaries, we come to one of the most exciting and original offerings in the Persephone catalogue: On the Other Side: Letters to My Children From Germany, 1940-1946 by Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg.
Born into a prosperous Hamburg family in 1879, Tilly (as Mathilde was known) had an upbringing suitable for the daughter of a prominent lawyer: she mastered “the gentle arts of music and painting, deportment and elocution, dancing and general social graces.” She was sent to finishing school and in due time made her debut in Hamburg society as an accomplished and marriageable young lady. So far, this sounds pretty standard for the daughter of the professional class and in fact identical to the upbringings of my great-grandmother and all my great-great-aunts. But rather than settle down, Tilly convinced her parents to let her go to Italy to study singing and Italian. There, she met and fell in love with a Dutch art historian and linguist, whom she married and had six children with (though one died in infancy). It was an unhappy marriage (he sounds like the least-attractive Dutch person I’ve ever heard of) and the two separated during the First World War. This history has little bearing on the book itself (aside from explaining the origins of the children to whom Tilly is writing) but I had to share it anyway. Already her life would have made a good novel and she was just getting started.
By 1940 when these letters begin, Tilly was living in Hamburg with her second (and decidedly more stable) husband, Emil Wolff, a professor of English Language and Literature at Hamburg University. Of her five children, only one was living in Germany. Tightened censorship meant that she knew she could not write honestly to her children about her day-to-day life so she began these letters with the hope of sharing the truth with them once the war was over:
My beloved far-away children, everything I was not able to tell you in my letters during the first year of the war; was not allowed to say, because the censor waited only for an incautious word in order to stop a message from getting through to you, all this I will now put down on paper under the title “Letters that never reached them”; so that much later perhaps you will know what really happened, what we really felt like and why I had to reassure you repeatedly that the “organisation” was marvellous, that we were in the best of health and full of confidence. (10 October 1940)
There are hundreds of English diaries and memoirs about life during the war, countless entries and excerpts about normal life being disturbed by the Blitz and inconvenienced by rationing. But, generally, life went on. In fact, if you were really self-absorbed, you could pretty much act like there wasn’t even a war on. When you start reading about life in Germany and its occupied neighbours, things get a lot more bleak. Germans had been suffering under Hitler since 1933 but now, in addition to the fear and paranoia that had become commonplace for most citizens under the Nazis, there was the added horror of Allied bombings. As sympathetic as I found Tilly, as much as I enjoyed her personality, it was her descriptions of these bombings and the resulting chaos that made this book so unique and memorable.
There is an excellent afterword by Christopher Beauman than summarizes the ongoing debate about the morality of the devastating Allied bombing strikes on German cities but it is Tilly’s powerful descriptions of living through the bombing raids that made the most impact on me:
I doubt whether there is a single undamaged city in the whole of Germany and most of them are sad ruins. If one had a bird’s-eye view, one would see nothing but devastation, destroyed railway-lines, fields torn open by craters, burning factories and hordes of fleeing human beings. A never-ending stream of fugitives is rolling from the east towards Berlin and Hamburg. When they arrive, after days of toil in open farm carts through ice and snow, babies frozen to death at their mothers’ breasts, more bombs are showered on top of them. It is unbelievably wretched and frightful. (4 February 1945)
The July 1943 bombing of Hamburg was one of the largest raids of the entire war. Over the course of several days, somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people were killed. (To put that in perspective, about 30,000 Londoners were killed during the Blitz – but those casualties were spread out over the ten months.) With tens of thousands more injured and buildings and infrastructure destroyed, imagine the chaos of trying to live among that:
For days on end we have had a harmlessly blue and translucent sky above us, bringing out the colour of my gloxinias, red and white, growing in superb stillness on the balcony and hiding the ruins opposite, to the right and to the left. But in all directions death and destruction are knotted together, ready to explode. Can anyone fathom this? I cannot. There is hardly a town still left intact and yet one becomes indifferent even to these atrocious ravages, which must be beyond your powers of imagination. For days we have had no water; everything is chipped and broken and frayed; travelling is out of the question; nothing can be bought; one simply vegetates. Life would have no purpose at all if there weren’t books and human beings one loves, whose fate one worries about day and night. (7 August 1944)
Tilly and her husband were never members of the Nazi party (though Tilly’s ex-husband, the shifty Dutch fellow, was). Hamburg, for centuries a free city, had a history of free-thinkers and opposition to the Nazi party, something that we’ll return to later this week when I talk about Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past is Myself. But hating the Nazis, loathing all they stand for and all they do, is a far different thing from hating Germany. Tilly struggled with the knowledge that the defeat of Hitler would also mean a crushing blow to her homeland:
…however much we strain with every nerve of our beings towards the downfall of our government, we still mourn most deeply the fate of our poor Germany. It is as if the final bomb hit our very soul, killing the last vestige of joy and, hope. Our beautiful and proud Germany has been crushed, ground into the earth and smashed into ruins, while millions sacrificed their lives and all our lovely towns and art treasures were destroyed. And all this because of one man who had a lunatic vision of being “chosen by God”. (1 May 1945)
What was almost harder for Tilly than seeing Germany’s collapse – at least with that there was some hope of a better future – was seeing how completely her Anglophile husband’s affection for the English was erased. She too cannot hold back her anger at times:
I do understand that W [Wolff, her husband] is deeply depressed, has little hope for his own particular world. He was so passionately devoted to Great Britain and all it stood for. Now he is disillusioned by the limitless arrogance and the dishonesty with which they treat us, proclaiming to the whole world that only Germany could have sunk so low in such abysmal cruelty and bestiality, that they themselves are pure and beyond reproach. And who destroyed our beautiful cities, regardless of human life, of women, children or old people? Who poured down poisonous phosphorous during the terror raids on unfortunate fugitives, driving them like living torches into the rivers? Who dive-bombed harmless peasants, women and children, in low-level attacks, and machine-gunned the defenceless population? Who was it, I ask you? We are all the same, all equally guilty, and if my entire being was not straining towards a re-union with you, life would be nothing but torture and abhorrence. (17 May 1945)
Other reviewers (like Simon and Jane) have mentioned how this book gave them a new perspective on the war. I find that intriguing since I certainly remember reading about life in the Reich and German-occupied lands during my school days. I wonder if this is a cultural difference; it doesn’t seem likely to be a generational one since Simon and I are the same age. Growing up in Canada, you are just as likely to have had relatives fighting for the Germans as for the Canadians or British. At university, I used all of my electives (a pathetically small number spread between four years of finance, accounting, and marketing courses) to studying German and history – ideally, when possible, German history. I started this way because I wanted to understand more what my grandparents’ lives must have been like under German occupation; I continued reading because I was fascinated. I read dozens of diaries by women like Tilly, women who hated Hitler but loved Germany, who loved the English until they saw their families and cities destroyed by bombs, who, finally, exhaustedly, just dreamed of an end and a chance to start anew. But so many of those diaries are not in print or translated so to have one like this – written with such poise by such a sympathetic and articulate woman – so readily available is truly a gift.