As the Soviet tanks drew closer, the East Prussian aristocracy took charge of ‘their people’ for the last time. In the bitter winter of 1945, ignoring Nazi orders to stand firm, they mustered their tenantry, farmhands and servants, and in long columns of horse-drawn wagons set off for the west. Many didn’t get there. The country roads were jammed with retreating soldiers, wounded stragglers and thousands of civilian families, as eastern Germany melted, crumbled and took flight. Marion Dönhoff, mistress of the great country house of Friedrichstein and the estate of Quittainen, mounted her white horse at the head of the procession of carts and led them towards the Vistula river. But long before they reached the crossing, the column slowed to a halt, the wagons slithering on ice, the road ahead blocked by hordes of other refugees and by German tanks thrusting vehicles into the ditches. In two hours, they did not move an inch forward. The estate people begged her to go on alone. The Russians would certainly kill her, as a landowner. But they would need farm labourers to milk the cows and muck out the byres. They would be safer if they returned home.
LRB 24 May 2012 | PDF Download