I found this draft post unposted earlier today. I wrote it just before I left home and didn’t put it on line.
A few posts ago, I discussed David Gillham’s City of Women. Reading that novel made me want to revisit Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past is Myself, a memoir of her life in Germany during the Second World War, and reading The Past is Myself made me want to revisit her later book about the Bielenbergs’ life after the war.
In her introduction to The Past is Myself, Bielenberg tells us she thinks her effort “will have been worthwhile if it helps to throw new light on what … [she believes] to be for the Germans [in 1968] a still undigested past, and for the English an incomprehensible one” (Forward). Since Bielenberg wrote those words, much has changed in Europe and even more information is available about Hitler’s Germany and the background that made it possible. However, what makes Bielenberg’s work still relevant is the fact that it is a personal record of life lived under the Nazis both before and during the war. It also underscores the fact that there was an opposition to Hitler. Many of the people who enjoyed themselves at the Bielenbergs’ parties in their house in Dahlem, Berlin, did not survive the Gestapo.
Bielenberg’s memories also throw a light on how one learns to survive and raises that moral question faced by all those who live under a tyranny: at what point does surviving evil necessitate collaboration with it?
On one level, I actually found the first part of The Road Ahead more interesting than The Past is Myself because it allows a glimpse into what daily life was like for Germans immediately after the war ended. Then, too, I, in common with some four thousand letter writers (Road 9), wanted to know what happened to the family after the war ended. Bielenberg dedicates The Road Ahead to the villagers of Rohbach in the Black Forest where she and her three sons lived for the latter part of the war and where Peter joined them on his release from Ravensbruck.
Her descriptions of Rohbach and its people and later of Ireland reveal her as an empathetic, warm hearted, humorous person. Some have criticised her (check out both her and Peter’s obituaries in the Guardian) for being wealthy and privileged. Perhaps her connections with both Lord Northcliffe and Lord Rothermere were helpful. It’s true that not everyone would have the connections with David Astor that she did to enable her to return to Germany for The Observer as a journalist, but perhaps it’s best to judge people on how they use whatever their privilege is rather than condemning them merely for an accident of birth. Enough. As I said, her writing suggests a warm-hearted, keenly observant, and morally thoughtful person, whose insights into some of the most troubling times of the twentieth century may not be those of a trained historian but are records of lived experience, and it is sometimes those personal records that bring the reality of the past more immediately into focus than any amount of academic discussion.
I am glad I reread these two works.