Interesting Women: Mechthilde Peto

She is born (1879) Mechthilde Christiane Marie Gräfin von und zu ARCO-ZINNEBERG (Ger., Eng., DNB),  was correctly addressed as Mechthilde Christiane Marie Fürstin LICHNOWSKY between 1904 and 1937, and finally lived and died (1958) as Mechthilde Christiane Marie PETO.
Mechthilde, a Urururenkelin of Empress Maria Theresia, has a nice childhood, spent on a castle in Niederbayern and in the family palais in Munich. Her catholic education is strict, what is not the worst, and “open” at the same time, among other things she learns French and English fluently (she will later write a novel in French).
In Munich she meets the young British military attaché Ralph HARDING PETO in 1901, they become engaged, but the family does not accept this mésalliance. In 1904 she marries Fürst Karl Max LICHNOWSKY (Ger., Eng.) (1860-1928), a man in his early forties then, 19 years her senior, who has just retired from his career in the ministry of foreign affairs. They have three children, the marriage is seemingly not an unhappy one. In those years until 1912, they live in houses belonging to Fürst LICHNOWSKY, mostly in Schloss Grätz (Ger.) and Kuchelna (Ger., Eng.) in Mährisch Schlesien (Ger., Eng.). Under her influence these places become gathering points for literates, musicians: People like KEYSERLING (Ger., Eng.), HOFMANNSTHAL (Ger., Eng.), C. STERNHEIM  (Ger., Eng.) and others show up; she works together with a certain Karl KRAUS (Ger., Eng.) on texts of NESTROY (Ger., Eng.), and the Viennese thunderer and the Tyrolian countess are linked in a lifelong friendship since these days, until his death 1936. Must have been carefree and happy times.

Her husband is always counted among those who would get an important job in the ministry of foreign affairs, and this becomes true – seemingly after the Kaiser has misunderstood an article the Fürst had written about British-German relations. LICHNOWSKY himself writes in his memoires that the first proposed candidate was found to be too old, two others turned the job down, so he became the  ambassador of the Deutsche Reich at St.James’s (Ger., Eng.). The last before the Great War.
Mechthilde was not a Mauerblümchen, but an ideal model for this role. As Alfred KERR (Ger., Eng.) put it: “The house of the German ambassador is the only place where not the buffet is the main attraction, but the hostess”. She collects art and has some paintings of this strange Spaniard PICASSO on the walls (blue phase), she writes books and establishes a salon: When she comes to London in 1912 she already has a lot of contacts in the cultural European scene of the day, and she uses them.
In August 1914 her husband – as one of the very very few of the elite in the Reich – stands the test of time: Fürst LICHNOWSKY – a man deeply rooted in the 19th century! – is the only one in the ministry of foreign affairs who seriously opposes war as means of politics, who actively works for peace: One of his last telegrams simply says: “There is nothing to win!”
They do not listen to him in Berlin. When he has to leave London the British give him an Ehrenkompagnie, a very fine gesture to a brave man, who had tried all his best to avoid the abyss. LICHNOWSKY is later (1917) expelled from the Prussian house of Lords, but this itself ceases to exist after just one more year – then there is no more Reich. The usual dickheads screamed “traitor”, but it is a sad fact: He stood the test, those in charge to make decisions, not. He dies 1928.

Mechthilde’s first book is published before WWI, a travelbook about Egypt. Later she writes novels and plays, and  in the 1920 establishes herself as a well-known writer with essays, newspaper work and so on. After the death of her husband she spends most of her time outside of Germany, notably in France, especially after 1933. 1936 Mechthilde should join the Reichsschrifttumskammer, what she plainly refuses to do. So her books are not published in Germany anymore and she is de facto verboten. She leaves and we find her among the expatriates who come together in Southern France in 1937 – an illustrious crowd, definitely good compagnie. In the late 1930s her first love, the young attaché from Munich, steps back into her life, and she marries Ralph HARDING PETO (scroll down) in 1937, they settle in London. Mechthilde goes back to Germany on family business in 1939, I have no idea what was so important to her. Despite the fact that she has a British passport she is not allowed to leave Germany – she will not meet her husband again: Major Ralph H. PETO dies in September 1946.
During the war she lives in Munich and in the house in Graetz, and as a foreigner has to show up at the local police station every week. She writes, but of course does not publish. When I piece it together correctly the end of the war finds her in Silesia, in the small part that comes to the new   Tschechoslowakei (Ger., Eng.). So she may have found herself in the midst of the expellation of  Germans (Ger., Eng.). She comes back to London at the end of 1946, some months after her husband’s death, the house in Graetz and other possessions of the family were confiscated by the new state.

She publishes her first book after the war in 1949, Worte über Wörter, a Sprachkritik about style. Some say that it could be compared to KLEMPERERs Lingua Tertii Imperii – I have ordered her book via Fernleihe and am eager for reading it.
Since the beginning of the fifties new editions of her titles start to be published, she receives some honours: In 1950 she becomes a member of the Bayerische Akademie der Schönen Künste, the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung and the Mainzer Akademie der Wissenschaften und Literatur. The brand new oh so democratic state and the old society want to adorne itself with those, who did not what they did in the twelve years. Mechthilde lives quietly and humbly in London: She did not visit again the house the German ambassador once had. A journey to Germany or to Munich is impossible, not for monetary reasons, but not after those times of Ungeist. There is a break, a fracture between the individual education and the general cultural decay she had to witness first hand, and the language mirrors it. Her prose is characterised as strict and rigid, dismissive even; she understands language as the tool for the Geist to express itself – the “expert” sees language as tool for domination, what is nothing else but oppression.
I think her writings earn to be rediscovered, an interesting woman.

Sources besides those in the text: Literaturportal Bayern (German only), Lesekost (German only), fembio (German only, with a bibliography and further sources), der SPIEGEL 1949 (German only).


Wolfgang Koeppen (the english article is a stub) was an outsider of the writer’s “guild” in Germany after the war. He wrote a trilogy (Trilogie des Scheiterns: Tauben im Gras; Das Treibhaus; Tod in Rom, 1951-1954) about the newly installed gouvernment, the “new” society, about the old elites, the democratic-painted fascism – and he was shunned. He recieved prizes, yes, but he found it all the more difficult to write, so he went on travels and made travel-books. As I see it he wrote no autobiography. Dagmar von Biel edited autobiographical texts by Koeppen (“Ich ging Eulenspiegels Wege. Ein Lesebuch”, 1. Aufl. Frankfurt/Main 1996) and there is a short piece titled “Mein Freund August Scholtis” (My friend August Scholtis). Now I reached the subject of this post.
Koeppen describes very short how he met the man in the pre-fascist Berlin, a little about Scholtis origin and a scene from the war-time that stuck in his memory:
“I once met Scholtis on the Kurfürstendamm. He wore an incredibly shabby uniform. I did not recognize him until he stood in front of me, raised the right arm and with a croaky, irate, put down (“unterdrückten”) voice in his native silesian dialect pressed out “Heil Hietler”. It was the scream of a tormented cat that was on the verge of running amok. After the war, alone and nearly forgotten, he wrote his memoirs “Ein Herr aus Bolatitz” [A Sir from Bolatitz, it’s bitter irony]. A very German book from a very German time.”
Of course I have to read. It is sometimes nearly unbearable. Scholtis was born 1901 in Bolatitz in the “Hultschiner Ländchen” – can you find that on a map without help? It is in Oberschlesien, today it belongs to Tschechien. In the 50s and 60s Scholtis engaged himself in the first tries of reconciliation – what isolated him even more in Germany, because nobody wanted to talk to “the goddam communists that stole our “Heimat”” and a writer and journalist telling people that the eviction of the Germans after 1945 is a result of the elections of 1933 had to fear for his health in the new democratic Germany, especially when he expressed sympathy for the communist ideas – Scholtis grew up in feudal structures, behind the Schnaps-factory of his lordship and that is no joke.
Blessed or cursed with a cast-iron memory he describes his childhood and youth – I am reading still about the years before WWI – and some sentences just hit me, when he describes the innocent happiness of the child, the joys on the fields, gardens – und dann schwankte mein betrunkener Vater zwischen den Kühen, and my drunk father staggered between the cows. Violence, alcoholism, nationalism, the authorities (Fürst, Richter, Amtmann, Pfarrer), teachers mostly uncapable … this man will later in Berlin play Chopin for friends – as Koeppen remembers, where did he learn that? -, will write novels and for newspapers for money, will somehow survive all the nonsense called German history (his descriptions of the “comrades” in his American captivity, oh Herr), will recognize the lie of the “Stunde Null” (Start from Zero) the democratic catholic Bonn democracy is based upon, and will finally put an end to his life 1969.
I do not have a very German family-name. My father was born in Breslau, the silesian capital, only recently I found by chance my grandfather in an old address-book: “Wilhelm G., Maßschneider, Breslau I, Marthastr. 4”. My father knew about the Hultschiner Land, he was there before the war. I would very much like to visit this area and see the village August Scholtis describes, where he was born 107 years ago, right into the middle ages.