Marion Dönhoff: the very best of Germany

One of West Germany's foremost public intellectuals, Marion Dönhoff confronted the complex subject of how to sustain an economically dynamic liberal democracy while ensuring nobody is left behind.

Marion Donhoff
Marion Gräfin Dönhoff in April 1991. Credit: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

When I was a student at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, my father asked me to buy him a copy of a newly released book by Marion Gräfin Dönhoff called Um der Ehre willen. Erinnerungen an die Freunde vom 20. Juli (For Honour’s Sake: Remembering the Friends of 20 July). I bought it for him, read it – and was captivated by her personal recollections of some of the 20 July 1944 plotters who tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Almost three decades later, I still remember how it dawned on me what incredible courage and commitment to civic virtues they exhibited. I’m far from the only one to have been thus enlightened by Um der Ehre willen. Through this book and constant lectures and articles, Dönhoff reminded Germans and others that the plotters were not traitors but the very best of Germany: citizens willing to risk their lives to rid the country of its brutal dictator. In more than 20 books about the Nazi years, and especially about West Germany’s identity and its role in the world, she tackled the complex subject of how to be a liberal democracy and market economy while ensuring nobody is left behind. And with books, articles and lectures, she set the tone for her country. She was the quintessential public intellectual.

Dönhoff was born – on 2 December 1909 ­– at her family’s East Prussian manor, Friedrichstein, near the city then known as Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). Young Marion was the youngest of eight children. Her mother had been a lady-in-waiting to Kaiserin Auguste Victoria and her father was a member of the Prussian parliament and former military officer. That made Marion a member of Prussia’s Junker intelligentsia: land-owning families, of lower or higher nobility, who considered it their civic duty not just to look after the land but also to participate in societal institutions. (Gräfin means Countess; in the German tradition an aristocratic title is placed between the Christian name and the surname.) Like Dönhoff’s father, male Junkers often served in the armed forces, or in diplomacy, the civil service or elected politics.

Like many daughters of this aristocratic intelligentsia, Dönhoff received a fine education that included not just how to run a large agricultural estate, but also the Abitur, the German academic-track secondary school education. She then attended university in Königsberg and Frankfurt am Main, where she gained a degree in economics in 1934. She went on to PhD studies in Basel, completing a doctoral thesis about the running of a large agricultural estate, using Friedrichstein as an example. When Germany invaded Poland, and Dönhoff’s brother Dietrich was called up for military service, she assumed the leadership of the estate: a rare blend of academic and on-hands agricultural expertise.

But like many other members of Prussia’s aristocratic intelligentsia, Dönhoff was also deeply uneasy about the Nazis; that’s why she transferred to Basel for her doctoral studies. Already by the time Germany invaded Poland, a number of them had begun gathering in small groups to discuss what a law-abiding citizen could do to prevent the Nazis from living out their murderous dreams. But carrying out opposition against a totalitarian dictatorship is so fiendishly difficult and dangerous as to be virtually impossible. The Scholl siblings and their fellow White Rose members were executed simply for disseminating leaflets. That was the challenge faced by the officers, diplomats, jurists, pastors and others in what was to become known as the 20 July group – and yet they made several assassination attempts on Hitler before the one on 20 July 1944, for which they were caught and executed. Dönhoff’s beloved cousin Heinrich Graf von Lehndorff-Steinort, the father of four young girls, was one of those who lost their lives. Despite all this, most of their contemporary Germans considered the 20 July plotters traitors, while many people outside Germany denounced them as having done too little, too late. That’s what Dönhoff set out to change with In Memoriam 20. Juli 1944. Den Freunden zum Gedächtnis (In Memoriam 20 July 1944: To the Memory of the Friends), a book published in a small number of copies for the first anniversary of 20 July that she later turned into Um der Ehre willen (published in 1994, the failed plot’s fiftieth anniversary).

In the spring of 1945, with the Red Army advancing through East Prussia, Dönhoff fled westwards on horseback, a journey she shared with hundreds of thousands of others, most of whom travelled by foot or in carriages with a few hastily assembled belongings. Dönhoff describes this journey through lands that were falling under Soviet occupation, and the extreme hardship endured by the people fleeing ahead of the Soviets (and those unable to flee), in Namen, die keiner mehr kennt, (Names that No One Knows anymore), published in 1962.

Despite possessing little experience as a writer, Dönhoff was then invited to join Die Zeit, a new publication being set up in the British occupation sector: there weren’t that many Germans of an intellectual bent unsoiled by Nazi collaboration, especially since the Nazis had executed thousands of them. Thus began Dönhoff’s decades-long association with the paper that was to see her appointed editor-in-chief in 1968.

And from her perch at Die Zeit, Dönhoff delivered wise thoughts on issues facing West Germany, the country that arose from the three Western-occupied sectors. Like the occupying powers, she thought it would be wrong for West Germany to recognise the Oder-Neisse Line that made East Prussia part of communist Poland, but later changed her position as part of her efforts to advance German-Polish reconciliation. She criticised the pervasive materialism that had come to dominate West Germany (and other Western countries). She argued in favour of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and for a more compassionate capitalism. After Helmut Schmidt lost West Germany’s chancellorship to Helmut Kohl, he joined Dönhoff at Die Zeit, and together they influenced the West German (and later German) public debate like few others. Indeed, even the title of Dönhoff’s book, Zivilisiert den Kapitalismus (‘Civilise Capitalism’) from 1992, is a statement I wager everyone could agree with. In my copy, I have marked passages on almost every page, for example: ‘We must humanise society and tame citizens’ greed. Without change, the liberal state based on the rule of law won’t survive. Perhaps we need a minor catastrophe in order to reduce people’s ballooning demands to more traditional proportions.’ Three decades later, we’re experiencing such a catastrophe, and it’s not minor: climate change risks destroying large parts of the planet. But not even this massive catastrophe is convincing people to reduce their demands on a convenient lifestyle.

There are, of course, many other writers and commentators who influence public opinion, but they usually trade in demagoguery and outrage, especially now that social media rewards such outbursts. Dönhoff, by contrast, influenced West Germany’s public discourse through sage and moderate observations. Thanks to her and a few others, West Germany managed to establish a new identity out of the ruins of the war. But it’s rare that an obvious public intellectual like Dönhoff simply emerges. Who are the thinkers and commentators today who could wisely guide public discourse? Is it even possible when moderation and conciliatory tones are not rewarded by readers, viewers and algorithms? Let’s hope so, and let’s reward thinkers and commentators who behave responsibly rather than giving further attention to attention-seeking demagogues.

Dönhoff received ample recognition: a string of honorary doctorates, the prestigious Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels, appointments to official boards and commissions. After her death in 2002, at the age of 92, countless schools, streets, bridges and university buildings – including in Poland – were named after her. She left a gaping hole in German public discourse, one that has not yet been properly filled. And like Germany, other Western countries – indeed, every liberal democracy – need personalities like Dönhoff who can steer the public debate. One doesn’t always need to agree with them, but their intellectual input is indispensable, and it’s the kind of input serving politicians can’t provide. Where are they?



Elisabeth Braw