Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Encounters with Characters: Marion Countess Yorck

An Obsolete Honor: A Story of the German Resistance to HitlerWhen doing research for my novel, An Obsolete Honor: A Story of the German Resistance to Hitler, I had the priviledge to meet several of the surviving members of the German Resistance to Hitler, one of whom was Marion Graefin (Countess) Yorck von Wartenburg. At the time I was researching and writing from my apartment in Berlin and Marion lived in Berlin-Dahlem, so I had the opportunity to visit her many times. The stories Marion shared with me had a major impact on  An Obsolete Honor (soon to be released in Kindle format under the title: "Hitler's Demons.")  I would like to "introduce" the real Marion here:

She was not born a countess. On the contrary she came from solid bourgeois stock. One of six children, Marion was never spoiled, but the family believed in a good education for girls no less than boys. So she was sent to the most progressive and only co-educational school in Berlin, where she was in the same class as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and – what was exceptional in her age – she went on to university to study law.

Not that Marion was a book worm. She told me that she never worried about politics as a girl or young woman and remembers only the “good times” of the “Roaring Twenties” – the period when Berlin was one of the most dynamic centers of art, literature, music and theater in the world, easily on a par with New York, London and Paris.

One day she was invited to an extravagant wedding on a large estate in Silesia. The place next to her was left vacant for a guest who came late. The young man swept in and, Marion felt, treated her far too familiarly. She thought the young count was arrogant and cynical. But Peter Count Yorck von Wartenburg fell in love at first sight.

Peter too was a lawyer, and he had soon won Marion over – maybe in part because he never suggested she give up her studies. On the contrary, he helped her get her PhD in jurisprudence. They married shortly after he completed the equivalent of the bar exam in 1930. Although Marion had not yet completed the three-year practical training that was then a required part of German legal training before she could sit for the final exam, Marion was already 26 and wanted to have children. She stopped her studies, and devoted herself to making a home of the little apartment Peter and she shared.

Marion could not tell me exactly when she and Peter slid from opposition and disapproval of the Nazis to resistance and treason. One key factor was their friendship with Helmuth Count Moltke, whom the Yorcks met in 1940. Soon Peter and Helmuth, both sons of families that had produced two of Germany’s most famous generals in by-gone eras, were discussing with increasing energy all that was wrong with Nazi Germany – and what had to be done to set things right.

Neither Moltke nor Yorck were in a position to change anything. Both were civil servants. Nor did the two men initially know about the military conspiracy to depose Hitler. But it was obvious to them from 1941 onwards that Germany would lose the war and that the Nazi regime would one-day fall, and they wanted – in part just to keep themselves from despair, Marion said – to think about what a post-Hitler Germany ought to look like.

Gradually, they drew other people into their circle, selecting men, who had expertise in one area or another, so that all aspects of a future, German state could be properly thought through. Eventually, the connection was made to members of the military resistance, and a loose alliance was formed. While the military conspirators were responsible for getting rid of Hitler and his regime, the Kreisauer Circle, as the group of thinkers around Counts Yorck and Moltke came to be called, was responsible for developing the outlines of a future, post-Nazi German government and constitution.

Molke, it should be noted, opposed an assassination of Hitler. He felt that killing Hitler would enable a martyr-legend to evolve. He feared that Germans would convince themselves that Germany would have won the war “if only the Führer had lived,” and he felt the Germans needed to suffer complete and humiliating defeat in order to fully understand their complicity in the crimes committed in their name by the Nazi regime. Yorck, perhaps more strongly influenced by his distant cousin Claus Count Stauffenberg, supported the assassination attempt. Moltke was arrested for treason on January 11, 1944, before the coup attempt. Yorck took part in the coup and was arrested that same evening.

Marion never saw her husband again after saying good-bye to him on the morning of July 20, 1944. By evening, she knew the coup had failed and Peter was under arrest. All requests to see her husband were denied, but she learned that Peter was to go on trial before the feared “People’s Court” on August 8, along with several of other conspirators. The “People’s Court” was a Nazi institution which had been created in 1934 with the explicit mandate to eliminate all domestic opponents of the National Socialist Movement. By 1944, the Court, headed by the infamous judge Roland Freisler, was notorious for sentencing people to death for nothing more than circulating a joke against the regime or for a diary entry expressing doubt about “Final Victory.” Marion was under no illusion that her husband would get a fair trial, but she made her way to the imposing building that housed the court in the hope of being able to see Peter – and let him see her.

When Marion reached the gatehouse, the guards stopped her. She needed a special pass to attend the trial. But the guards, on learning who she was, invited her to sit in their little booth with them. Here she could hear through a window high in the wall over head the proceedings of the court.

All day, Marion sat with the guards listening to Judge Freisler’s high-pitched, scratchy voice heap abuse and insults on the defendants. He rarely let the defendants answer his questions, but rather cut them off in mid-sentence and mocked whatever they said. Marion could hear neither the court-appointed lawyers nor the men on trial. Because the judge never addressed the defendant by name, only as “Defendant,” she only learned when Peter was before the judge because the guards told her. She could not hear his answers any more than that of the others, but the trial ended with the death sentence.

Marion went home and wrote a last letter to her husband which she personally carried to Gestapo Headquarters. Here she begged the man on duty to give her letter to her husband. She told the Gestapo that her husband had just been sentenced to death, but the duty officer saw no urgency in her request. He sent Marion away. As she was later to learn, by the time she got home again that night, Peter was already dead.

Her own arrest followed the next day. She was arrested, as were the wives of all known conspirators, merely for being who she was - not because anyone suspected she had actually taken part in the planning of the coup. Fortunately for Marion, Nazi ideology cast women in the role of mothers and housewives, not intellectual partners.

Still, Marion’s fate was not easy. She was kept in isolation for weeks on end, locked in a cell with no direct sunlight – a time she came to treasure in retrospect because, as she put it, it was a chance for her to absorb Peter into her inner self. She was interrogated repeatedly, but never tortured. Eventually, she was granted the right to exercise, and then released – just in time to experience the Russian occupation.

Because she had returned to Peter’s parents home in Silesia, Marion found herself hiding in barns and graveyards in order to avoid the orgies of rape and murder that accompanied the Soviet occupation of Germany. Eventually, Marion made it back to Berlin without a serious mishap and there she was able to move into her old house. The Russians, once they had settled down into organized occupation, recognized Peter Count Yorck von Wartenburg – despite his aristocratic class - as an “Anti-Fascist Resistance Fighter” and gave Marion a document stating this and ordering everyone to help her!

But Marion kept slipping back across the new Polish border without proper papers to Peter’s home in Silesia. One day the Poles caught her. She was put in prison and her paper from the Russians did her no good. Weeks went by and she had no idea why she was being held. There were lice in the cell and the food, as Marion put it, was worse than what they fed the pigs on Peter’s estate. Eventually, however, she was sent to Warsaw and here, at last, a Russian colonel recognized the significance of her “Anti-Fascist” I.D. He agreed to help her - but first she had to spend another three weeks in a freezing cell, from which water dripped off the walls.

Then just as suddenly as the arrest, Marion was set free. She was in Breslau, a city that had once been German but was now Polish. She had no money. No clothes but what she was wearing and she was, as she put it, “as dirty as a hunting dog.” She had lice too. She went to Caritas, a Catholic aid organization, where she was taken in, given shelter, food, a delousing, a bath and clean clothes. Here she learned to her amazement that Freya von Moltke, the widow of Helmuth Count Moltke, had reported her missing to the Americans, and they had informed the French Consul in Breslau. Although it was not easy, eventually the Caritas managed to get Marion back to Berlin – loaded with secret messages from the Caritas in Poland to their sister organization in Germany.

Back in Berlin, Marion first took work with the social welfare office of the city council. This was dominated by Communists, but Marion’s work was to find and reunite the families of the resistance members. When the coup failed on July 20, 1944, not only were most of the wives, parents and adult children of the condemned also arrested, but the young children and infants of the conspirators were assigned new names and divided up among “good” Nazi families. Thus, quite apart from all difficulties of trying to find loved-ones in a world where the infrastructure was largely obliterated, neither post nor telephones worked, and new borders with new rulers had been created, the survivors of the resistance had to find out under what name and to which Nazi family their small children had been given. It was important work, and Marion enjoyed it. But around her she witnessed the increasing terror of the German Communists and their Soviet masters. Marion had experienced the consequences of one dictatorship far too acutely to be indifferent. She turned her back on the East and looked for new opportunities in the Western Sectors of Berlin.

The Americans at the time (1946) were desperately looking for trained lawyers and judges who were not tainted by a Nazi past. Marion was short just one exam and one last practical internship before being a qualified lawyer. She was advised to complete both qualifications as soon as possible, and no sooner was she finished than she was appointed judge.

One might think that her lack of experience as a lawyer made her ill-suited for the position of judge, but Marion pointed out to me that she had other experiences that were at least, if not more, valuable. Marion knew the smell of prisons from the inside, that “constant mixture of food and urine.” She knew the agonies of isolation, the indignities of lice and filth, and never could she forget the sound of Freisler screaming at her husband without using his name.

Marion vowed that she would never address a defendant by anything other than their proper name. And she vowed she would never condemn anyone to any sentence without first making sure that she understood his or her motives. She rose rapidly in the ranks of the West German judiciary and retired in 1969. And she kept her vows.

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