Charlotte Bielenberg

German émigrée to Ireland with a complex historical inheritance
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The Independent Online

Charlotte von der Schulenburg, writer: born Breslau, Germany 22 February 1940; married first Nicholas Bielenberg (three sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), second Thomas O'Connell; died Prosperous, Co Kildare 14 July 2004.

The daughter of a participant in the July Plot of 1944 to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Charlotte Bielenberg spent most of her adult life in Ireland.

During the mid-1960s she was probably the most beautiful woman in Dublin. A regular in the bookshops and art galleries of Dawson Street, she caught the strange transitional optimism of that lull in Irish history. Her openness to new surroundings and new currents of feeling allowed her to combine interests that few Irish individuals could reconcile.

The author in 1970 of A Guided Tour of Dublin, an enthusiast's useful guide to the Georgian city and its architecture, she also associated with an emergent radical leadership in the republican movement. Like Cathal Goulding, IRA chief of staff at the time, she possessed charm, intelligence and a realistic understanding of the futility inherent in traditional militarism.

Though Goulding's Official position was overthrown by the Provisional IRA (with backing from some Irish government ministers), the legacy has borne fruit, most recently in the merger of Democratic Left with the Irish Labour Party. When the Baader-Meinhof gangs dominated foreign perceptions of German radicalism, Charlotte Bielenberg in Ireland valuably presented an alternative vision of change.

These ponderous political reflections are not foreign to her German inheritance. Born Charlotte von der Schulenburg in 1940, the daughter of an aristocratic member of the Nazi Party, she was hardly old enough to remember the execution of her father, Fritz-Dietlof Graf von der Schulenburg, for his part in the plot of 1944. A Londoner by birth and a jurist by training, the Graf had joined the party in 1932, the year before the Nazis came to power, and became an unlikely associate of the socialist Gregor Strasser (murdered in prison during the "night of the long knives", 30 June 1934).

Despite this flirtation with the anti-capitalist element in Nazism, von der Schulenburg, like others of his class, chose the black boot over the red vote. After Strasser's death, he participated in the administration of the Reich in a number of significant capacities, both in Berlin (where he was deputy chief of police from 1937 until the outbreak of war) and later in occupied Paris. At the time of his daughter's birth, von der Schulenburg was Deputy President of Silesia. After the plot against Hitler was discovered, he was executed on 10 August 1944 in Berlin.

The family was obliged virtually to go underground, travelling at one point by farmer's cart. Among surviving lesser conspirators were Peter Bielenberg, whose Anglo-Irish wife, Christabel, was a staunch supporter during the crisis. In accordance with a pattern which can beset tightly knit groups of once endangered individuals who have shared terror and loss, the Bielenbergs' son Nicky married von der Schulenburg's daughter, Charlotte.

By the 1960s, both generations of the Bielenberg family were living in Ireland, the older couple farming in Leinster. Recollections of the war, and reassessments of the Reich, were beginning to be written with greater frankness and realism. Christabel Bielenberg's The Past is Myself was first published in 1968 (and reissued in 1982). With its affecting dialogue and well-organised chronology, the book was an immediate success, at first in Britain and then in Ireland also.

It presented a very different view of Anglo-Irish-German relations to that circulated through the older IRA, which had sympathised with the Reich and actively encouraged Nazi intervention in Ireland. But it also unwittingly obscured much that was important to her daughter-in-law.

Doubtless for other, more personal reasons, the young Bielenbergs' marriage failed. Although she had been brought up in post-war Germany, Charlotte chose to stay in Ireland, where war on a different scale was hotting up in Ulster. She had a young family, and a circle of friends who appreciated her selfless, generous commitment to her adopted homeland.

In time, she remarried and settled in County Kildare. Her second husband, Thomas O'Connell, became a senior counsel. Private life rewarded her for many difficulties in the past.

W. J. Mc Cormack