Archive for the ‘Christabel Bielenberg’ Category

Another odd reading year for me, as my reading – and certainly reviewing – continues to take a backseat to the other goings on in my life.  But it was a wonderful year by any measure: I embraced a new and challenging job, travelled to some beautiful countries, explored my own city and its wild surroundings, and, amidst all this, managed to read some very good books.  Here are my ten favourites from 2014:

Top Books 2014 - 3

10. The Virago Book of Women Gardeners (1995)
An inspiring and eclectic collection of garden writing from the 17th Century to the 20th.

9. On the Other Side (1979) – Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg
I have had a number of underwhelming encounters with Persephone books this year – but this was not one of them. On the Other Side, a collection of letters Wolff-Mönckeberg wrote for her adult children to explain what it was like to live in Germany during the Second World War, is one of the most thoughtful and important books I have read in a long time.

8. Lucy Carmichael (1951) – Margaret Kennedy
I swore up and down from February to November that I was going to review this but it never quite happened. I have made my peace with that now but still feel it is a shame that I wasn’t able to do justice to this delightful novel about a young woman who, when jilted at the altar, sets about making a new life for herself. I think it is too long and wanders about a bit during the middle but, nevertheless, I could easily see it becoming one of my favourite comfort reads in years to come.  It is full of nice people and everyday intrigues, written in an effortlessly entertaining style, and all neatly tied up with the perfect happy ending.  And it contains the most winning piece of advice for a trouble soul I have ever come across:  “Read a nice book.  Read Emma.”

Top Books 2014 - 2

7. Drawn from Memory (1957) – E.H. Shepard
A very charming, very poignant childhood memoir from the beloved illustrator. The sequel, Drawn from Life, was also very good.  

6. To War with Whitaker (1994) – Hermione Ranfurly
A wartime memoir unlike any other I’ve read – and goodness knows I’ve read too many. Ranfurly’s wanderings during the Second World War as she was posted through the Middle East, North Africa, and Southern Europe made for absolutely fascinating reading. They exposed me to a theatre of war I’ve read far too little about and focused on the sort of details I love best: fascinating people, major world events, and behind-the-scenes insights.

5. Mike and Psmith (1953) – P.G Wodehouse
I chose to start 2014 off in style, with the story in which P.G. Wodehouse introduced his finest creation, Psmith, to world. My great dilemma in life is whether I wish to be taken under the wing of a Psmith-like creature or to be Psmith-like myself. I struggle with this daily.

Top Books 2014 - 1

4. Cheerfulness Breaks In (1940) – Angela Thirkell
Not Thirkell’s best Barsetshire novel but, nevertheless, one of my personal favourites as it follows my favourite Thirkell characters (read: Lydia) through the first months of the Second World War. Structurally it has some obvious flaws and its un-Thirkell-like jingoism is jarring but it has more than enough emotional heft to make up for these shortcomings. I am willing to forgive a lot – including Thirkell’s patriotic sentimentality – for the sheer joy expressed by Mrs. and Mr. Birkett in the opening pages as they prepare to offload their featherbrained daughter Rose.  A book that never disappoints no matter how many times I reread it.

3. A Long Way from Verona (1971) – Jane Gardam
Reading this back in January started off an obsession with Gardam. Though some of her other novels are equally excellent (God on the Rocks and Old Filth in particular), this was my first and remains my favourite. The story of a precocious school girl during the Second World War, it is inventive, terribly funny, and more than a little bit bizarre.  I adored it.

2. The Past is Myself (1968) – Christabel Bielenberg
Bielenberg’s chilling, thriller-like memoir of life in Germany during the Second World War.


1. The Small House at Allington (1864) – Anthony Trollope
The penultimate Barsetshire book, I fell in love with The Small House at Allington as soon as I started reading it. This is Trollope at his most masterful, deftly juggling multiple storylines and a handful of equally-compelling central characters. I am fascinated by Lily Dale, anxious for Johnny Eames, and wildly conflicted over the fate of Aldolphus Crosbie, who I liked far more than any reader is supposed to like the man who jilts the heroine.  Brilliant and perfectly executed, this was the uncontested highlight of my reading year.

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The Past Is MyselfEver since Slightly Foxed released The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg, a memoir of Anglo-Irish Christabel’s wartime experiences in Germany with her German husband and children, I have been longing to reread it.  I’d read it twice before – one at the end of high school and once again at university – but it is a book I never get tired of.  My carry through this time was not particularly prompt and it took me until a few months ago to finally pick it up but the book was just as wonderful as I’d remembered.

Christabel moved to Hamburg in the early 1930s to study singing.  There she met a law student, Peter Bielenberg, several years younger than herself whom she married in 1934.  They were a happy couple and quickly started a family but the backdrop to these early years of their marriage was the rise and increasing violence of Hitler and his Nazi party.  Even in liberal Hamburg, the awful changes taking place in Germany could not be escaped.

In 1939, the Bielenbergs moved from Hamburg to Berlin.  Already deeply opposed to Nazi ideology and tactics, this move brought them into contact with other dangerously like-minded people – like the conservative dissident Adam von Trott, whose involvement in the July 20 plot in 1944 led to his execution and to Peter Bielenberg’s arrest and imprisonment.  Christabel’s heroic efforts to free Peter provide a tense, thriller-like climax to the book.

Christabel had renounced her British citizenship when she married but a change of passport cannot change your allegiances entirely, especially when you know your adopted homeland is in the wrong.  She eagerly followed whatever news she could get of Britain, devouring issues of The Times that Peter smuggled to her from the Foreign Office and listening to radio broadcasts from England.  Yet as comforting as it was to hear about home, she didn’t necessarily have faith that Britain would triumph.  Her feelings were conflicted.  Having seen how normal people changed under the Nazis, she was not naive enough to believe that the English had any particular moral superiority that would make them immune to the “collaborators, informers, crackpots” who helped the spread of fear so effectively in Germany:

It was on my birthday, June 18th, with my ear right up against it, as Nicky would have said, that I heard Churchill speak of England’s finest hour.  I listened, I knew what he meant, and I burst into tears; not so much because our governess had taught me that if ever a hostile power should occupy the Channel ports England sooner or later would be at their mercy, but simply because I wanted to be there.  Blessed, cockeyed, ignorant England, quite pleased, I would have said, to be rid of those bothersome continentals and to be on her own.

…I would like to think that Churchill’s words, steeped as I felt them to be in the very substance of my country’s history, and inevitably striking a chord somewhere deep down inside me, immediately quietened all my fears and banished forever the hideous vista of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich stretching away beyond the horizon of my lifetime.  But it was not so, because I knew too much.  Fighting in the streets, in the fields, on the hills there would surely be, and heroes, many heroes – but there might be others as well.  Collaborators, informers, crackpots who believe that Jews were Yids, and Negros ‘nigs’, and Italians ‘wogs’, and that only one race could rightfully consider itself to be the salt of the earth.  If such as these were international commodities, I knew there would be no drama about the aftermath.  There would be the tramp of marching boots and the loud knock at the door in the night, the creak and rumble of departing lorries fading into the distance of deserted streets; silence then, no drama, just silence, impenetrable silence.

When the Allies begin bombing Berlin, Christabel takes her three sons and decamps to a small village in the Black Forest where she quickly settles into a way of life almost untouched by the war.  It sounds like a wonderful place to have been a small child but unsettling for Christabel, knowing how much suspicion surrounded her husband and his friends and how closely they were being watched.  Still, the villagers provide a level of warmth and community spirit desperately missing from the other places Christabel lives over the course of the book.  They may have pictures of Hitler in their homes and offices but none of them seem to be particularly wedded to his beliefs.  They are warm and hospitable, to both Christabel’s family and, at one point, an American airman who appears out of the blue towards the end of the war.  I loved this episode.  No one is quite sure what to do or who to notify but they come together to offer the best of wartime hospitality – even to the enemy:

The mayor’s reserved table in the parlour had been spread with a spotless white cloth, and Nick was waiting behind the chair at the end of the table with a table napkin over his arm and a voluminous blue and white service apron covering his leather pants.  Frau Muckle had excelled herself – a splendid joint of roast pork with mashed potatoes and rich red cranberries, with dumplings to follow, feather light and topped with caramelized sugar.  Murmuring ‘zum Wohl’ Nicky kept the glasses filled with wine which was indistinguishable from vinegar, but which had not been served in the parlour for many a long year.

The American was obviously ravenously hungry and we watched a week’s rations disappear at a sitting.  Under the influence of the unaccustomed wine, the atmosphere became more relaxed.  The airman’s morose expression changed to one of slightly bovine puzzlement, and Sepp launched into some rather earthy tales which he insisted I should translate for our guest.

But, even while welcoming him, Christabel finds herself angry with the young man from Colorado, now accepting the hospitality of those he has been sent to kill:

I was suddenly resentful of this tall ignorant boy who had never heard of the Rhine and who flew nose to tail, nose to tail, and did not even know in which town he had left behind a trail of dead and dying.

When Peter is arrested and sent to Ravensbrück on suspicion of being a collaborator in the plot to assassinate Hitler, Christabel girds herself for battle and, using all her skill, charm, cunning, and connections, manages to get her husband released.  It is a fabulously dramatic sequence, written with all the skill of a modern thriller.

That said, I almost preferred the quieter moments, the ones that illuminate the wider reality of wartime Germany.  Peter and Christabel and their friends we know.  We know they oppose the Nazis and believe in all the “right” things.  But what of everyone else?  What of the millions of other Germans who weren’t risking their lives in acts of rebellion?  While on her way to Berlin, Christabel finds herself encountering exhausted Germans and retreating soldiers.  I think (I know, judging from some of the comments on recent posts) that some people still believe all Germans were Nazis or at least all soldiers were but that is never the way.  Christabel finds men who are tired and completely lacking in political beliefs.  All they want is to stop fighting and get back to their real lives:

They could have been a cross section of any army, anywhere, that little group of soldiers.  Blown about by the whims of higher authority, to the East, to the West, and now back again to the East.  They had no particular hates, no resentments, no particular ambition, except to stay alive and get back to their families – although some of them had no idea where their families were.  Heini, the little Berliner, could easily have been a London cockney, with his Galgenhumour, as the Germans call it; a tough, cynical, chirpy, unabashed sense of humour which seems to thrive only in big cities.

As he left, he squared his small shoulders, clicked his heels, raised his right arm and said: ‘Well, whoever still wants to listen, Heil Hitler, etc., etc.’  In one absurd gesture he somehow managed to caricature the whole rotten business.

More chillingly, she meets another soldier, one whom the war has drained of all cheerfulness, all ambition, and certainly all will to live.  A Latvian by birth, he was a member of the Einsatzkommando, mobile killing squads that were particularly active during the early years of the war, killing unimaginably large numbers of Poles and Jews.  The men who were members of these squads had an outrageously high suicide rate – not shocking given the face-to-face nature of the atrocities they committed daily.  The man Christabel encounters on the train is certainly suicidal but still hoping that he might be killed in war rather than having to do the job himself.  He recounts the sickening details of his role and, even having read this passage several times before, even having read widely on the actions of these groups in other books, his words are as unsettling to read as they must have been for Christabel to hear.

Christabel and Peter had a happy ending.  Once released from the concentration camp, Peter spent the short remainder of the war hiding out in the Black Forest.  Shortly after the war, the family immigrated to Ireland, where they ran a farm and where, in 1968, Christabel wrote down her account of these extraordinary and unsettling years.  After all they had been through, it was a well-deserved peace.

I think it is difficult to read any book about resistance without wondering a) what compelled these people to take such risks and b) what you would do yourself in similar circumstances.  Christabel and Peter, though not actively engaged in any plots themselves, knew what they were risking by being friends with more active conspirators.  Peter almost paid a heavy price for one of those friendships and the number of their acquaintances who were killed or imprisoned for their beliefs during the war is high.  But how do you cut old friends out of your life, especially ones who are acting in accordance with your beliefs when you are too scared to act yourself?  I suppose you hope that by providing them with a little support and friendship they might keep going, might win the battles that need to be won.  I couldn’t have done it though.  And knowing that about myself makes it so much easier to understand and identify with the millions of Germans who were swept along after 1933, as Hitler muscled his way to power and created a country ruled by fear and suspicion.  How much easier – and safer – it is to sit back and disagree silently than to risk confrontation and death.  And how much more convenient for the dictators.

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