Christabel Bielenberg

Author of 'The Past is Myself', a remarkable memoir of Nazi Germany

Christabel Mary Burton, writer: born London 18 June 1909; married 1934 Peter Bielenberg (died 2001; three sons); died Tullow, Co Carlow 2 November 2003.

A beautiful young Englishwoman married a handsome and even younger German on 29 September 1934 at the German Embassy in London. She gave up her British passport and was told, rather dauntingly, by the German embassy official that she had not made a good exchange.

The official was proved emphatically right in his prediction, but the couple's experiences in the years between 1932 and 1945 provided the raw material for a remarkable historical memoir of the Nazi period, The Past is Myself, published in 1968. The couple were Peter and Christabel Bielenberg. Peter Bielenberg died, aged 89, in 2001 and Christabel on Sunday, aged 94.

Her book caught the public imagination slowly but eventually sold half a million copies to a worldwide public and was even dramatised for television by Dennis Potter (as Christabel, 1988, with Elizabeth Hurley in the title role), who conveyed some of the drama but little of the book's sometimes poetic depths.

Christabel Bielenberg would probably not want, however, to be remembered exclusively for her book. The final five decades of her life were spent farming successfully with the redoubtable Peter in Co Carlow in Ireland, but she was by no means inactive - writing a follow-up volume, The Road Ahead (1992), and working hard to promote peace and understanding inside Ireland and between Germany and English-speaking peoples.

She was born Christabel Burton in 1909 and had a chauffeured childhood in Totteridge in north London, one of the four children of Lt-Col Percy Burton and his wife, Christabel, née Harmsworth, a sister both of the first Viscount Rothermere and of the first and last Viscount Northcliffe.

After school she was destined for Somerville College, Oxford, but being a debutante and going to finishing school got in the way. She settled on training as an opera singer in Hamburg with Elisabeth Schumann and Lotte Lehmann. There she met a tall, aristocratic-looking young lawyer who was being groomed to take over his father's successful law practice. Christabel was tall and elegant too and she and Peter made an extraordinarily dashing couple on the dance floor. Despite misgivings by both families the young couple were determined to marry - and did so when Peter was carrying out part of his legal training in London.

Christabel had already experienced the stirrings of Nazism while she was living in Hamburg. She knew that the lingering sense of injustice because of the treaty of Versailles and the miseries of economic collapse had destabilised Germany. But neither she nor Peter had any notion, as they courted in 1932, what miseries lay in store. They went to hear Hitler address an open-air rally and within minutes Peter persuaded her to leave:

You may think that Germans are political idiots, Chris . . . and you may be right, but of one thing I can assure you, they won't be as stupid as to fall for that clown.

A few months later, on 30 January 1933, Hitler was installed as Chancellor.

Peter was notably undiplomatic and always ready to brawl with the Stormtroopers, but Christabel soon noticed an almost embarrassed acquiescence by the middle class in the bullying of minorities. By the time they had come back to live permanently in Germany she felt that Hitler had managed to conceal almost every ruthless action

behind a smoke-screen of legality and also of propriety, for he was shrewd enough to know that the spirit of his revolution came from the disgruntled, disenchanted, dispossessed middle classes. He must strike the right note, therefore, by making respectability the quintessence . . . of all that he had to offer.

It wasn't long before informers began to undermine the social fabric even further. The Bielenbergs had to be careful because they were now connected loosely with a number of other dissidents. Their opposition to the Nazis solidified further when one of Peter's clients was acquitted in court of a political crime but immediately abducted after the trial. Indeed, by 1938 the Bielenbergs had became so disillusioned that they did a kind of well-to-do gap year - tramping the outback in Australia, fruit farming in Africa, lumberjacking in Canada. They even looked at property in Ireland where Christabel's roots were.

When they came back to Germany Peter gave up trying to practise as a lawyer in Hamburg and took a job in the Ministry of Economics in Berlin - where they arrived in February 1939. Peter felt that opposition to the regime could better be continued by getting closer to the heart of the administration. They lived in Dahlem and a were part of a small group of like-minded anti-Nazis, who sometimes had parties where outrageous sketches satirised a leadership that, even in its pomp, had something more than slightly ridiculous about it. The most distinguished of the dissidents was Adam von Trott zu Solz.

The internal Nazi grapevine by now had it that there would be war by the end of the year. Von Trott flew to Britain to try to persuade the British to delay confrontation with Hitler so as to give more time for internal opposition in Germany to mobilise. Christabel records how keen von Trott was to avoid a war in which the Nazis could use the call of patriotism and the example of military heroism to bind the country into solidarity and induce even deeper amnesia about the crimes against minorities.

Von Trott was unsuccessful in his mission in Britain, but it was his influence that persuaded the Bielenbergs not to abandon Germany and seek rural solace in Ireland. The understated portrait of von Trott in The Past is Myself is one of the best things in the book. Christabel, like so many others, seems to have come under the spell of his energy, his political shrewdness, his mercurial intensity and his self-doubt. It was he who ribbed Christabel with "being British to my Irish core" and recommended that she write a book after the war called "Life among the Huns".

By 1941 Peter had been sent to Norway to manage a fish-paste factory, but Christabel remained in Berlin. Jews and any form of political opposition were by now being ruthlessly eliminated. Christabel briefly offered shelter to a Jewish couple. Her neighbour Carl Langbehr was arrested and never seen again and her dentist spent months trying to prove that the girl he wished to marry was not a Jew, whom he couldn't marry, but a second-grade hybrid, whom he could.

As the British raids increased it seemed sensible to take their three sons, Nicholas, John and Christopher, to somewhere safer, so in the summer of 1943 they went to Rohrbach in the Black Forest. There they lived with a farming family and Christabel was glad to be subsumed in the seasonal rituals of a simple agricultural life in which the war seemed - at least at this point - comfortingly remote. But she made long perilous journeys to Berlin and kept in touch with von Trott, who by now in 1944 was determined that the Germans themselves should get rid of Hitler - "before the Allies do it for us".

When the July Plot failed and Hitler miraculously survived the briefcase bomb, von Trott was arrested and soon executed with chilling brutality. Inevitably Peter Bielenberg, as one of his friends, came under suspicion and he too was arrested on 6 August 1944. Christabel heard the news in Rohrbach and herself was put nominally under house arrest. But on Christmas Eve 1944 she ignored this and set off for Berlin to try whatever she could to secure her husband's release.

It took her two days and nights on the train to get there and when she arrived she had to sprint for safety as the by now devastating Allied raids shook the city. Peter was being held with other political prisoners in Ravensbruck concentration camp. She got permission to visit him there - knowing that she was breaking a solemn promise to him never to leave the children.

Pulling strings with friendly Nazi acquaintances, by early January she had achieved an interview with Peter at Ravensbruck. When they met they clasped hands and Peter managed to plant in her palm a matchbox that carried a message outlining the story he had told his interrogators about his involvement with Adam von Trott. She managed to convey in a conversational code that von Trott was dead and that therefore Peter had no need to lie any more to protect his friend.

Christabel now pulled more strings and secured an interview with the Gestapo. She waited fearfully in the partially bombed headquarters in Prinz Albrechtstrasse - until fear turned to anger when she saw a prisoner being hit by a woman typist. The interview with the Gestapo officer was also helped by her shortsightedness - she had always been able to outstare anyone effortlessly because, as she put it, "the object of my stare was never quite in focus". With a mixture of blackmail, suggestions that she had friends in high places in England and lies which were consistent with her husband's story, she contrived the almost impossible: Peter was released, supposedly to go to an army punishment camp, but because of an administrative slip-up he was able to take the train to the Black Forest.

The Bielenbergs' war wasn't quite over, however. The Nazi military machine was running so short of troops that it needed men very badly; by the end of the war Peter was in hiding (fairly comfortably) in the woods around Rohrbach, surviving on food brought to him by his sons.

After the Second World War Christabel worked for a while as a correspondent for The Observer in Germany. She and Peter did not forget the children of other opponents of Hitler who had been less fortunate than they. A 20 July memorial fund was set up and had a huge response from the British public. Many of the orphaned children of the conspirators of the July Plot were supported by the fund and some later spent holidays with the Bielenbergs in Ireland.

For, almost a decade after they had intended, the Bielenbergs came to rest in Ireland. They settled at Munny House, Tullow, in Co Carlow, in 1948. Peter, resourceful as ever, taught himself to be a farmer and they prospered - gradually being surrounded by an ever-increasing extended family of grandchildren and playing an important role in the local community.

Bernard Adams

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