The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg

 

When we did the 1947 Club and the 1951 Club, I noticed in my own reading – and I think in the reading across the blogosphere – that the war was surprisingly absent. I say ‘surprisingly’. Perhaps there is nothing unsurprising about people wanting to put hell behind them for a few years, either unwilling or unable to face what had passed. It’s interesting, in my 1968 reading, that two strands have emerged – the bright, bold, intoxicating world of the ’60s emerging, and a more concentrated look back over the shoulder at the past. Few books could be more eye-opening than Christabel Bielenberg’s 1968 memoir The Past is Myself, reprinted a few years ago in a beautiful Slightly Foxed Edition.

Bielenberg’s surname sounds German – and, indeed, is – but she was raised English. (Or Irish… it seems to be conflated. After Greensleeves, is this becoming a 1968 pattern?) She married Peter Bielenberg during the interwar period, and adopted German citizenship in 1934 – Germany was her home and she seems to have been broadly accepted. Oddly, her Englishness doesn’t seem to have been much of an issue throughout the Second World War – at least it isn’t mentioned as being so in The Past is Myself – but her staunch resistance to Nazism was a constant threat to her life. It starts in 1932, sort of, but much of the book (unsurprisingly) focuses on the bulk of the war. But I did think this was great:

The history of the years between 1935 and 1938 in Germany could be summarised by a conversation overheard between two Hamburg dock-workers, sitting over their beer in a riverside pub (Hamburg dock-workers are not renowned for their garrulity). “Ja, ja, ja,” sighed the one, and again after a long pause, “ja, ja, ja”.” “Listen,” said his friend, gazing mournfully into his beer-mug, “can’t you, for one moment, stop discussing politics?”

This memoir tells of life in Germany for somebody who despised Hitler and his policies – for somebody who was ‘Aryan’, but violently opposed every step of the Nazis’ campaign. Like Mathilde Wolff-Monckeberg’s excellent On the Other Side, this gives an important perspective that helps us remember that an individual is not their country.

Bielenberg takes the reader painstakingly through the events of each month, each week, and for the first half the memoir it is a case of slowly escalating horror. We probably all know what happened – the Nuremberg laws and the gradual removal of the rights of Jewish people; the increase in political prisoners and Hitler-worship; the erosion of every public voice of dissent. Bielenberg expertly puts us into the world of somebody who hated Nazism but, after initial protest, realises that dissent means death – and then anybody could be an informant.

Just the same we knew that when meeting new people, they would probably play the game as we did. The conversation at first would be guarded and noncommittal. We knew that we were none of us Nazis, but were we all of us, drunk or sober, also discreet? Had we other mutual friends? Were they real friends or just names dropped to impress? I would find it hard to describe the wary approach, the half-finished sentence, the guarded reference which led at the time to mutual confidence, and to the realisation that the air had at last been cleared and all present could sit back and indulge in plain high treason. The procedure was a delicate one, one that had to be carefully learned if we valued our lives, and would trust our fellows sufficiently to put our lives in their hands.

Though published in 1968, Bielenberg delivers the narrative as she experienced it, day by day and moment by moment. She seldom, if ever, gives hints of what was to come for her own family and friends, nor does she include particularly detailed accounts of what later became widely known, in terms of concentration camps. So we don’t see the full scale of the horror that the Nazis implemented – though there are glimpses: a man she meets on a train who has been part of the SS extermination team, for instance, or the rumours of cattle trucks which come back to those in Berlin. Hers was not the worst experience of the war, of course. She was never sent to a concentration camp – though her husband spent time in dire conditions in a prison (through connections to those who organised the foiled plot to assassinate Hitler) and there is a significant section dealing with Christabel’s interrogation when trying to have him released.

It is revealing to read about somebody anti-Nazi, pro-Britain who also suffered at the hands of British and Allied bombers – caught between two enemies, in a way. She writes about the indiscriminate cruelty of bombing campaigns brilliantly:

There was no moon, and there were three air raids in the three nights that I was in Berlin. The bombs fell indiscriminately on Nazis and anti-Nazis, on women and children and works of art, on dogs and pet canaries. New and more ravaging bombs – blockbusters and incendiaries, and phosphorus bombs that burst and glowed green and emptied themselves down the walls and along the streets in flaming rivers of unquenchable flame, seeping down cellar stairs, and sealing the exits to the air-raid shelters.

Indeed, even without seeing the full evil of the concentration camps, I was still left afresh with the shock at how evil people can be. For how many thousands of Germans must have been coopted into targeting Jewish people, running death camps, being part of the cruel regime? The millions who felt helpless to prevent or oppose it – well, that I can understand. Particularly in the nationalistic, often xenophobic world we are seeing more and more of. People often talk about Trump and Hitler together, and say that Trump is no Hitler. I absolutely agree that he is not Hitler as Hitler was in, say, 1942. But the similarities between Hitler in 1933 and Trump in 2017 are many – targeting a faith group, playing on brash nationalism to do so, trying to quieten dissent from others and calling the unpatriotic if they do it. Reading this book brought home those similarities and dangers.

The Past is Myself (stupidly vague title aside) is in many ways a brilliant book, with an unstinting portrayal of what her life was like and, to the extent that she was able, what Germany was like. I’ve been very enthusiastic in this review. I can’t quite put my finger on why I don’t think it’s a brilliant book. Something in the writing style, or the structure? I don’t know. Usually I find it quite easy to pinpoint why I haven’t found a book worked perfectly, but there’s something elusive here. It’s still exceptionally valuable as a resource, and very good in doing what it does, but I probably wouldn’t rush to read anything Bielenberg wrote on any other topic.

Still, a sombre and poignant end to the 1968 Club for me.

 

4 thoughts on “The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg

  • November 5, 2017 at 11:05 am
    Permalink

    Bielenberg was Anglo-Irish – the upper and upper-middle classes who travelled and lived equally easily in Britain and Ireland (and often Europe) and provided a lot of army officers and colonial administrators. W.B. Yeats, Louis MacNeice, Hubert Butler, Elizabeth Bowen are examples. They were often educated in Britain and had “English” accents.
    Brendan Behan said “Anglo-Irish” meant “a protestant on a horse”, which sums up one aspect of the culture.

    Reply
  • November 5, 2017 at 12:19 pm
    Permalink

    The title is a quote from R.L. Stevenson:

    “The future is nothing; but the past is myself, my own history, the seed of my present thoughts, the mould of my present disposition. It is not in vain that I return to the nothings of my childhood; for every one of them has left some stamp upon me or put some fetter on my boasted free-will. In the past is my present fate; and in the past also is my real life.”

    A very apt quote, especially in the context of her second book, The Road Ahead. I would certainly have wished them a happy end in Ireland.

    Reply
  • November 5, 2017 at 1:15 pm
    Permalink

    Excellent review Simon. As you saw I had this on the pile but ran out of time, though I really must get to it sooner rather than later. The parallels between the world of then and the world now are scary and we simply are not learning from the past. The quote from RLS which Rhona posts is marvellous and I think this will inform my eventual reading of “The Past Is Myself”. What a year for books 1968 was…

    Reply
  • November 7, 2017 at 8:29 pm
    Permalink

    What a beautiful shade for a book jacket and one which seems slightly out of keeping with the story within. You’ve had such an interesting combination of works for your year. Now I wish I’d aimed for more than one!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: