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Culture

A Leading Voice Goes Silent

One of Germany’s leading journalists and social thinkers, Countess Marion von Dönhoff, died this week. A refugee from the world of German aristocracy lost to WWII, she worked for tolerance and the common good.

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"There will never come an end to the good that she has done."

Young Countess Marion von Dönhoff was not a very good servant of the Hitler regime.

As a student in Frankfurt in the 1930s, she had campaigned actively against the national socialists’ rise to power, earning the title the "the red countess" for her ties with the communists and leftist movement.

She distributed anti-Nazi literature and tried tearing down the National Socialist flag from her university’s roof. When the situation got a bit too heated, Dönhoff fled to Basel, Switzerland for a short time.

She returned to Germany in 1935 and played the loyal servant to Adolf Hitler from her estate in East Prussia – today an area made up of northeast Germany, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Behind the scenes, she helped organize the anti-Nazi resistance movement and was a key player in the July 20, 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler.

A fate worse than death

She escaped detection however and the death sentence handed her co-conspirators and longtime friends. The guilt burdened her spirit for a long time, and the deaths marked the end of the life she had known up until that point.

"For a long time I wished that my name had been on some odd list," she later said. "Nothing could be worse than losing all my friends and being the sole survivor."

After the Nazis fell from power, Dönhoff saddled her horse and joined the lines of refugees streaming into the west to begin what she later described as "her second life".

Journalism, it turned out, chose her. After the allied forces liberated Germany, she wrote two memorandum to a British officer explaining how to re-build Germany politically. The British ignored her, but the editors of a just-started weekly in Hamburg didn’t.

Rising through the ranks with insight, criticism

Die Zeit hired her on as a freelancer. She moved up quickly thanks to her enlightening, sometimes critical, but always balanced columns. She wrote of the origins of national socialism and for the need to reconcile with eastern Europe in the aftermath of WWII. More than 22 years and two books later, she became editor of the award-winning and respected weekly. Five years later, in 1973, she became publisher.

Her columns on American foreign policy and relationships with Eastern Europe and the DDR were bound together in books, which totaled more than 20. She received a slew of awards and honorary doctorates for her work and the adulation of activists and statesmen alike.

"Through her spoke the experiences of an active century and the wisdom of a lifetime burdened by many twists of fate," wrote German President Johannes Rau.

Germany’s Katherine Graham

In her fierce independence, fearlessness and adventuresome spirit she reminded of another "grand old lady of journalism;" the late former Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham. Like Graham, Dönhoff was her gender’s pioneer in the newspaper boardrooms and political circles in which she circulated. She was a close friend to Henry Kissinger and former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

"Her grasp of the world was untypical for a woman," wrote the feminist Alice Schwarzer, who was also her biographer. "But she remained, at the same time, a woman, in the eyes of others as well as her own."

The curious countess

If so, Dönhoff was quick to emphasize it was not as a woman journalist, or editor or publisher but as a one socially responsible for the res publica, the public state of affairs. In this sense, Dönhoff was still very much the countess, imbued with the aristocratic aim of laboring for the common good.

She bemoaned the economic fixation our society had taken up in the last decades and even her fragile, recent years eagerly sought out the opinion of those younger than her for enlightenment. She wrote a manifesto with seven other prominents in 1992 titled: "Because the country needs to change."

After violent exchanges between police and the left-wing punk scene in the late 1990s, she invited the punks to Die Zeit’s offices for a discussion.

This week, Die Zeit mourned the passing of "the spine" of their publication.

"In her subtle effectiveness as stimulator, mediator and patroness, she earned the saying etched into the gravestone an American preservationist in Yosemite Park: ‘There will never come an end to the good that she has done.’ "

Countess Marion von Dönhoff died early Monday morning after a long struggle with cancer. She was 92.