‘If you get out now, Gnädige Frau, you can take the underground and you will be in the city in no time,’ said a fellow traveller to Christabel Bielenberg on a stationary train just outside Berlin in 1944. So she did and the train steamed off. A few miles on, American bombers attacked, killing almost everyone on board. Her life had been saved by luck – and the kindness of a stranger. It’s the stories of such small human decencies in the midst of war that make her memoir The Past Is Myself (1968) such an extraordinary book.
In 1934 Christabel Burton married a young German lawyer, Peter Bielenberg. She was English (three of her uncles were the press barons Harmsworth, Rothermere and Northcliffe). The Bielenbergs were from Hamburg’s liberal intelligentsia, and they thought Hitler and his Nazi party a bad joke. ‘I can assure you’, said Peter, ‘the Germans won’t be so stupid as to fall for that clown.’ Three months later Hitler became Chancellor. In 1939, Peter and Christabel were separated by his work. When Allied bombing made Berlin too dangerous, she fled with her three small sons to a village in the Black Forest. In 1944, Peter was arrested after close friends tried to assassinate Hitler. Christabel persuaded the Gestapo to release him and he lived in hiding until the war ended.
That is the basic story, but it in no way describes the book, which is both a personal memoir and a fascinating account of life in the Third Reich. Christabel said she wrote it out of a sense of duty – to let the world know there had been another Germany and other Germans and that being a German and a Nazi were not synonymous. Her story of that other Germany still comes as a surprise and a shock.
My generation grew up believing the Germans to be ferociously efficient, cold-blooded enforcers of Nazi views and values; spies, persecution and death were everywhere. Christabel shows this wasn’t true, at least not everywhere. In Berlin life was very hard. Resources dried up for ordinary people, and as the Party spread its tentacles friends betrayed friends and were betrayed in their turn; speaking out became dangerous folly. In the small mountain farming village where Christabel went with her children, life was entirely different. There was only one Nazi and no one took much notice of him. Food was in short supply but nobody starved. People looked out for each other.
Christabel’s family were accepted into village life. Astonishingly, she could even listen to the BBC. No one seemed proud of what was happening when Germany appeared to be winning the war, or bitter when it became clear they were losing. What mattered was whether husbands and sons came home safely – and so often they didn’t.
Another surprise is to discover that life for her was easier in some ways than it was for Germans living in Britain. She wasn’t harassed by the police or threatened with internment. She never seemed to encounter any anti-British prejudice, even when Allied bombing raids were a daily occurrence. She was the one shouting at ‘her’ side for the destruction they were causing while the elderly woman sharing the air-raid shelter tried to comfort her. Perhaps she spoke such good German that people forgot she was a foreigner. Still, when a young American airman was shot down near the village he ended up in the only cell in the police station with all the comforts the villagers could provide – including a week’s meat ration. It was the retreating German generals, casually executing the local electrician for refusing to work on a Sunday, who aroused real hatred among the villagers. These are insights into life under Hitler that I’ve never read anywhere else.
Halfway through, Christabel’s story changes pace. In 1933 she could describe herself as politically naïve: ten years later she had grown up. Life in the Black Forest might have been easier than in Berlin but she was lonely, depressed and – although she hardly dares admit it – bored. Until July 1944.
Adam von Trott was a German aristocrat involved in the July plot to assassinate Hitler. He was also Peter Bielenberg’s best friend. It was Peter’s good fortune that he couldn’t get to Berlin in time for the attempt. The chief conspirators were caught and hanged. Peter, suspected of involvement, was arrested and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp.
When I first read The Past Is Myself years ago I was gripped by this part of the story. Christabel was like a heroine from a fairy story, riding out booted and spurred, full of resource and high courage, to rescue her lover from the wicked witch. Or in this case, the Gestapo. She was extraordinarily brave. All her friends thought she too would be imprisoned but, wearing her best black coat and gayest smile, she managed to persuade the authorities that Peter was a harmless, simple chap, totally uninterested in politics. She had no qualms about using every weapon at her disposal – her beauty, her charm and her powerful relatives. At this stage it was widely accepted that the war was lost, and sensible Germans were planning for an uncertain future. Who knew what benefits those grateful noble uncles in England might offer an ex-Gestapo officer who had helped their lovely niece?
Peter was released. The night he came home he talked for hours about what he had seen and heard in Ravensbrück – and he never spoke of it again. After the war he and Christabel fulfilled their dream of going to Ireland, bought a farm and never left it. He died in 2001, she in 2003, aged 94.
The Past Is Myself is an inspiring record of one woman’s war but it does pose a problem – how to separate the particular from the general. Christabel maintained that Hitler had never ‘succeeded in making the Germans hate’, had never ‘aroused the seething soul of the people one way or the other’. Few would now support that assertion. But because she hadn’t experienced hostility herself, she found it hard to acknowledge that something profoundly dark had happened in Germany. As a writer, she decided to ignore hindsight and include only events she herself had witnessed. She makes no mention of any atrocities, the extermination camps or the Holocaust.
She knew Jews were being persecuted – her Jewish paediatrician was among the first to leave. She sheltered a Jewish couple on the run for a few nights. These were events within her own experience, so she could write about them, but she ignored the wider story almost completely. She explained later that she’d done her research by reading all the German newspapers of the time to see if they contained a hint of the death camps but, unsurprisingly, found nothing.
However, rumours filtered through even to her Black Forest rural fastness – about ‘typhoid in the ghettoes and long trains of cattle trucks seen shunted into sidings here and there – better not speak too loudly . . .’ She was fooled by the sanitized film footage from the show camp Theresienstadt, but then so was the International Red Cross, and its officials actually went there. Yet when her landlady’s son, on leave from the Eastern front, said to her, ‘If we are paid back one quarter of what we are doing in Russia and Poland, we will suffer, and we will deserve to suffer,’ she asked no questions.
She has been severely criticized for this gaping hole in her story. On Desert Island Discs in 1992 she said the first she knew was when reports of atrocities started to emerge in Britain in 1946 (the year she got back to the UK). ‘I simply didn’t believe it,’ she explained. ‘I said, “The war has altered England too, it’s like Goebbels all over again.” Mass extermination never entered our heads, it was too terrible to think about.’ Does such honesty from an insider help us understand why ordinary Germans averted their eyes from the events beyond their own front doors? Perhaps to her generation it would have seemed a natural response, but to us, who have the benefit of hindsight, it seems scarcely credible.
There is a multitude of books about Germany and the Second World War but The Past Is Myself gives a unique perspective. Christabel was a woman of her class and time: some of her judgements grate now but that doesn’t invalidate the extraordinary stories she tells. She disliked the Jewish businessmen who survived by supporting Hitler, despising them as verhinderte Nazis, would-be Nazis. She writes of the ‘innocent zeal’ on the face of a friend who’d joined the SS ‘because he liked the uniform’. But she was also brave and generous, a loyal friend and a sympathetic observer. What makes the book so special for me are the warm portraits of ordinary Germans coping with the institutional cruelty of the regime and trying to maintain their personal integrity.
Is it still an important book? I think so. Drawing direct parallels with previous times is usually a mistake – history doesn’t really repeat itself – but the world we now live in bears some uncomfortable similarities to the Thirties. Christabel had a unique insider’s view of one of the most hideous and repressive regimes in recent history and she is very clear on two things – no one country has the monopoly on brutality, and courage and human decency can and will survive. I think that’s got to be a message worth hearing.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 39 © Amanda Theunissen 2013
This article also appeared as a preface to Plain Foxed Edition: The Past Is Myself