This plenary the European Parliament marked the 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the secret protocols of which divided Poland, with a debate in plenary on the importance of European remembrance.
This has a deep personal resonance for me - the original copy of the pact, supposedly ensuring non-aggression between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, was typed up by my grandmother.
My grandmother’s story is somewhat extraordinary. In 1939, Hildegarde worked as a secretary to the German Ambassador in Moscow, Count von der Schulenburg. She was tasked with typing up every embassy document.
In late August 1939, one of these documents was the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
She never spoke of her role until after the Soviets admitted the existence of the pact in 1989, for fear of KGB reprisals.
After the fall of the wall, and the release of the Soviet archives, she spoke openly about her role in typing up the original copies - now on display in Moscow.
Hildegard did not play a passive role in this story, as she and others bravely acted to make sure that the Allies were aware that the pact existed. She befriended Hans Heinrich (“Johnny”) Herwarth, a senior diplomat and, with his wife, “Pussie”, worked to get the details of the Nazi-Soviet plan to Johnny’s British and American contacts, warning them about Hitler’s intentions.
“Some now try to suggest that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was an act of peace, but that is an insult not just to its millions of victims but to those who, like my grandmother, saw it for the act of aggression it was”
Two years later, she worked closely with Johnny to warn the Soviets and the Americans of the impending invasion of the USSR. The Ambassador was determined to do all he could to avoid war. His warnings were not taken very seriously by Stalin.
When Hitler broke the pact and launched operation Barbarossa, all embassy staff were imprisoned by the Soviet authorities, who promised to return the Ambassador in exchange for all Soviet embassy staff in Berlin.
Graf Schulenburg refused to leave unless all of the German embassy staff in Moscow were similarly exchanged, saving my grandmother’s life.
She was exchanged in a neutral country (which I think was Sweden) and, after a short stint in Berlin, served the rest of the war in the German embassy in Rome.
Graf Schulenberg was executed in 1944 for his part in the Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler. Johnny Herwarth went on to become the West German Ambassador to the UK and President of the Goethe Institut (and godfather to my uncle).
As for my grandmother, she settled in England after falling in love with a British officer, my grandfather, whom she met while in a displaced persons camp in Italy.
Some now try to suggest that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was an act of peace, but that is an insult not just to its millions of victims but to those who, like my grandmother, saw it for the act of aggression it was.
“That small piece of paper produced on an embassy typewriter wrecked countless lives and is something to be commemorated, not celebrated”
That small piece of paper produced on an embassy typewriter wrecked countless lives and is something to be commemorated, not celebrated.
Sitting in that typists’ room on a sultry August evening, surrounded by Nazi officials, Hildegard could never have imagined that 80 years later her British-born grandson would be sitting in a 28-country European Parliament - including a democratic Germany and a democratic Poland.
Still less that he would be a determined advocate for European unity, and a voice of opposition to the disastrous policies of nationalism and fascism whose repercussions we are still living with today. I hope she would be proud.