The Past is Myself is such an astonishing, thought-provoking, light-shedding, vitally important memoir that I feel I ought to have read it years ago. Why aren’t we given it at school? The Second World War is taught to death, and here is a book which gives a unique, fascinating and nuanced viewpoint. It ought to be a classic that we have all read, can all talk about, and yet it has only just found its way into my life.
Well, better late than never.
Christabel Bielenberg was a bright young Anglo-Irish aristocrat, niece of press barons Lord Northcliffe and Lord Rothermere, who won a scholarship to Oxford, but went to Hamburg to train as a soprano. There, she fell in love with Peter Bielenberg, a handsome young German lawyer, who cut a fine figure on the dancefloor. They married in 1934 and settled in Germany, where they remained during the Second World War. What a time to be British, living in Germany! The Past is Myself is her account of these years.
Although, of course, Christabel Bielenberg was no longer British. On marrying Peter, she had swapped her British passport, ‘with its jovial lion and unicorn’, for a German one, ‘a nondescript brown booklet with a disdainful-looking eagle’. She can’t possibly write as a gung-ho patriotic Brit, because she has married a German, has become one and raises her sons in Germany. She has as many German friends, as she does British. She can hardly cheer on the Allies, when sheltering from an air raid on Berlin, which wreaks destruction on the city and destroys the homes of her friends.
Yet there are aspects of Bielenberg that are unmistakably British. She reflects, on the way to visiting her husband, who has been arrested and is in a concentration camp, that she doesn’t have a plan:
Although I had lived so long in Germany, where everything from a picnic to a coup d’etat had to be planned down to the smallest detail, I knew that I had remained an incurable compromiser, inclined to plunge into a situation, flap around, see what was cooking, hope for the best and, as often as not, with God’s help, come up smiling.
Bielenberg is caught between two warring nationalities; it gives her a rare perspective and yields a brilliant memoir.
On her excellent Desert Island Discs (which you can listen to here), Bielenberg says she wrote the book out of a feeling of duty, because she felt that very few people in England knew there was another Germany, that not everyone went mad for Hitler. It is fascinating – and of course very important – to learn about this other Germany, which opposed the regime.
She shows the many shades of resistance, and of Naziism. There are outright revolutionaries like Adam Von Trott, a great friend of the Bielenbergs’, who was hanged after trying to assassinate Hitler. Then there are also the quiet inhabitants of the Black Forest village, where she spends the later war years with her children. Kerner Sepp is the village clerk and cobbler, who types dilligently away under a portrait of Hitler, but when the secret police order him to put Bielenberg under house arrest, he informs her exactly what they said:
Anyway he told us that if we told you anything except that bit about house arrest we would be shot. The poor Lower Baker got a bad fright when he said that, but we talked it over after he left and decided it was none of his business who we told. Stupid lowlander! Anyway, that’s the way it is, and just don’t tell anyone we have told you, and if you want to go to Furtwangen or any place to do some shopping, just let us know.
Bielenberg is sympathetic towards the Germans; she understands how difficult it is to live under such an oppressive regime while maintaining any feeling of integrity. She also has an outsider’s curiosity about them. An old friend of her husband’s is a Nazi, but when her husband is arrested, this Nazi does what he can to protect him. Bielenberg wonders:
How was it though that Hitler had succeeded with some of the more intelligent ones, with those who still possessed personal integrity, unless he had provided something more, something which had made them long for his leadership to succeed, in spite of the ever more obvious viciousness of his regime? Would it have been that sense of national identity which he could conjure up with such mastery? That awareness of belonging somewhere, which in England just came naturally, but I believed among Germans to be a rare, almost unique phenomenon?
Bielenberg is often on the verge of discovering a penetrating truth, but then declines to pursue it. She suffixes these thoughts above with:
Never mind, I gave up. I was suddenly very tired.
There is a perennial feeling of exhaustion, which prevents her from probing too far. One particularly harrowing moment is in a train carriage, empty other than for an SS officer. She finds herself unable to avoid having a conversation with him, in which he confesses the horrors of his work:
Do you know what it means – to kill Jews, men, women and children as they stand in a semi-circle around the machine-guns? I belonged to what is called an Einsatzkommando, an extermination squad – so I know. What do you say when I tell you that a little boy, no older than my younger brother, before such a killing, stood there to attention and asked me “Do I stand straight enough, Uncle?”
The SS officer continues, but Bielenberg confesses:
During his story I had found it increasingly difficult to listen. I had eaten practically nothing all day and the cold in the carriage was intense. As I fought wave after wave of exhaustion, my head kept falling forward and only the most startling points of his story penetrated the fog of sleep.
While Bielenberg edges close to the full dark horror of what was going on in Germany at the time, the full extent of it is too much. She is too exhausted to investigate, discover or really understand. This is certainly frustrating, especially given our subsequent knowledge of the horrors. It shows the limitations of such a personal account, written without hindsight, but also points to some answers. How could the Germans claim not have known what was going on? Perhaps the answer is here: The horror was too much to bear.
Bielenberg shows how much strength and guile it took to survive under the Nazis, so what could she possibly do when told about how awful it was to exterminate Jews? It isn’t so much a case of turning a blind eye, as being physically incapable of seeing it without going mad.
There are moments that break through the exhaustion. She gives shelter to two Jews for a short while, even though a good friend warns her not to, given that she is already under suspicion. She feels acute hatred for a Nazi officer who slaps a prisoner:
I was shaking again, but this was different, this was cold deadly hatred such as I never hope to have for any human being in my life again. I hated her, every living bit of her, and the fact that she was a woman made this hatred if possible more intense, for I think it was mixed with impotent rage and deepest humiliation that I belonged to her sex.
But these small gestures of defiance are useless, and worse still is the knowledge that they are useless.
The Past is Myself is a memoir of survival, and suggests that it would have been impossible to survive without seeking refuge in the oblivion of exhaustion. It would have been too much to see that those Jews who left her house after sheltering there for a few days were then not only caught, but exterminated. Bielenberg shows why it was not just tempting, but essential to turn away from such awful truths.
Instead, she relishes the tiny moments which make life more bearable: a rare cup of real coffee, a feast of eggs and bacon, the relief and solidarity of discovering her neighbours aren’t Nazis, the lifeline of listening to the BBC – an offence punishable by death. Tiny pleasures which are blown out of all proportion, for they are all there is to weigh against the horrors of informers, and of friends being hanged. The knowledge of the Holocaust would have tipped the scales too far.
I urge everyone to read this book. It is available either as a rather ugly giant paperback, in which it is paired with her second volume of memoir, second-hand as an out-of-print paperback, or as this very beautiful purple, pocket-sized Slightly Foxed hardback. The latter is little dear, but this is one of those books you will want to re-read and pass on to others, so worth investing in a smart edition.