Book review: “Nina Schenk” by Konstanze von Schulthess

This is an interesting biography, written by a daughter about her mother and family. So what? Well: nearly everybody is familiar with the husband and father. Hardly anybody is interested in the mother, wife, family of the man who tried to blow up Hitler.

Nina book 1One of the reasons Konstanze von Schulthess wrote a biography, was the way her mother was regularly portrayed in books, documentaries, films. Nina Schenk, Gräfin von Stauffenberg, was so shocked by many portraits of herself by historians and others, she soon refused to give interviews.

As a daughter, Konstanze had access to personal documents. Her biography is partly based on the story her mother wrote down for her family in the sixties. Konstanze’s portrait contains citations, anecdotes, as well as family pictures.

However, Konstanze was born a few months after the failed attempt. She never knew her father. Her book consists of an introduction, eight chapters, personal remarks, footnotes and a list for futher reading. Konstanze not only delved into her family history; she researched her book.

The story and events are not told chronologically. The fist chapter, “Der Schicksalsschlag” starts with the 21st of July 1944. Nina and her four children are spending time with her in-laws at their castle at Lautlingen. Nina has just heard the attempt on Hitler has failed.

She calls her two eldest boys and prepares them for what will come. She is unable to face her youngest two, but she is totally aware her time will be limited. She tells the boys: “… Der Papi hat sich geirrt, deshalb hat man ihn erschossen, … Die Versehung schützte unseren geliebten Führer.“

The boys hardly believe her. Daddy has made a mistake? People have shot him? Thank Heavens Hitler has been saved? Not the ordinary way in which the grown-ups around them talk about Hitler.

But Nina must lie and ensure the boys repeat her last sentence unhesitatingly. She knows the Gestapo may arrive any minute. The family must totally distance itself from the dead father and husband and pretend to be staunch supporters of Hitler. She must play the dumb housewife to survive and it is this false image, which most historians perpetuate.

Chapter 2 describes the engagement and marriage of Claus von Stauffenberg and Nina von Lerchenfeld. It also gives some background information about the two families into which they were born.

The description of courtship and engagement is hilarious. Claus’ mother is totally unaware of what is happening. When she is told of the engagement, she hopes it can be broken off, but alas … Claus and Nina have already exchanged a kiss. Worse: their fathers do not object.

As Konstanze mentions in her introduction: Nina is an independent and strong person. She has no intention of immersing herself completely in breeding and rearing children. Her modern attitude helps her cope with life as a soldier’s wife.

Later, she becomes involved in the group around her husband. She and her husband discuss the risks involved. After the failed assasination, Hitler orders a total destruction of all families involved. Nina knows what to expect, but perhaps did not realise what the so-called “Sippenhaft” would cost their families.

Many of those involved and their family members are shot straight away. Those who survive arrest, are sent to various concentration camps. Nina is deported to Ravensbrück and kept in solitary confinement. She is unaware her mother has been deported there as well. The two women will never meet again.

Towards the end of her pregnancy, Nina is dragged from one place to the next. She gives birth to Konstanze, but mother and child continue to be moved from place to place. It is 1945 and Germany is invaded by Russians on the one side and the Americans and others on the other side. The Nazi Reich is collapsing. After months on the move, Nina finally manages to convince her remaining guard to let her go.

In the meantime, Nina’s children have been arrested and placed under false names in a children’s home. Only towards the end of their stay, do they accidentally discover that other children there are cousins, also living under false names. Fortunately, the four children are never adopted or separated,  which ensures they do not forget who they are.

Another arrested woman is Nina’s sister-in-law Melitta. She is a test pilot and released, as the Nazis need her. She manages to discover where several family members are held. Thanks to her efforts, the children and Nina meet again in Lautlingen. By that time, Melitta and many other relations are dead.

The last two chapters describe how the women and children in Lautlingen survive the last few weeks of the war and first few years after its end. Nina rebuilds her family home in Bamberg and creates a life for herself and her children. Like all the other surviving widows of the men involved in the July 1944 attempt, she never remarries.

Konstanze describes her mother’s final opinion of the assasination attempt. She acknowledges her husband simply had no other choice. Nevertheless, she keenly remarks that if the attempt had been successful, the different and sometimes conflicting interests of all members of the resistance group and various others, would have created a new set of problems.

That this biography became a best seller in German-speaking countries in 2008, is no surprise. Years later, it remains not only a highly interesting read. It is an obligatory one for those truly interested in Claus von Stauffenberg and his wife. It also describes the now only too familiar behaviour pattern of totalitarian regimes when facing any kind of resistance.  Unfortunately, this biography is not available in English.

“Nina Schenk Gräfin von Stauffenberg, ein Porträt” by Konstanze von Schulthess; hardback 223 pp; Pendo, München und Zürich; 7th edition, 2009

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