Ever 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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