When I Was
An English Woman
Living in Nazi Germany
(Bison --- University
of Nebraska)In 1945, when I was twelve, my family and I went to the Florida Theater to see "I Married an Angel." The newsreel between features showed us the first shots taken at Belsen: black-and-white footage of mounds of human hair, glasses, thousands of discarded prosthetic devices, most of all --- the disordered, heaped-up, skin-and-bone, infinitely sad naked bodies. "Why do they show things like that?" I asked my mother. "They've got to," she said, tight-lipped, hurrying us out to the car.
Over the years, like most of us, I have been trying to figure out where in god's name this stupefying cruelty came from. How did it happen that the modern German state was able to create such a vast disregard for human life --- one that's not been seen since the days of Cortéz, or the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864?
We're speaking of the Germany of Telemann, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Thomas Mann, Rilke, Goethe. Who or what got the whole country involved in this barbarity? Was the stage set by the First World War, with its millions routinely murdered and gassed on the fields of Flanders? Is it that the Germans are just naturally vile?
And since it takes a large number of people to go through the mechanics of murdering six million other people --- and, at the same time, wage a war where even more millions die --- where did all the willing helpers come from? Was there anyone in Germany, in Vichy France, in Poland, in Austria, in Hungary, to rise up and denounce this conscious policy of destroying a whole peoples?
Most of us who ask these questions have read Speer, Bullock and Shirer and we still don't get it. Eichmann in Jerusalem is no help either, because all we saw there was an old man with a twitch, pretending that he was merely a cog. If he and all the others were just cogs, we wonder, who wasn't?
The only book we've found over the years that started to answer any of these questions came not from historians or philosophers or from the memoirs of those who suffered --- but from the unlikely Italian satirist Curzio Malaparte. In Kaputt we get a taste of the obscenity of a bunch of ruffians being given an entire sovereign state to run as they please, an entire population to terrorize as they see fit.
Outside of this, as far as we know, there never has been someone that said to us: "Listen --- I'm going to tell you what it was really like on the inside." That is, until Ride Out the Dark was published in 1971. (This is now reissued by Bison as When I was a German. We prefer the original title.)
In 1934, Christabel Burton, niece of Lord Northcliffe, married an Oxford graduate and German lawyer, Peter Bielenberg. In 1935 she elected to become a German citizen and move to Hamburg. She kept notes during the next ten years, and a few years afterwards, wrote up the complete story of what it was like to be English in a country at war with England.
Her survival is miraculous (she damn near got killed in the raids that her countrymen were conducting on Berlin) but even more miraculous is the tale she spins --- fine writing that takes us with her from the early days, very much in love, when she agonized over whether she would make it as a hausfrau, to the last days of Nazi Germany, in the Black Forest, lacking food, and adequate clothing, trying somehow to survive and care for three sons and trying, desperately, to get her husband out of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp (he had known some of the conspirators of the July 20, 1944 plot against Hitler; in Nazi Germany, if you knew a traitor, you were suspected of being a traitor and jailed and probably murdered.)
What makes When I Was a German such a stunning memoir is the fact that Christabel Bielenberg comes across as a fine, thoughtful, sometimes funny, always questioning person. She is, as we would all hope to be, outraged by what is going on around her. She's a natural survivor, filled with guile, and yet also humane --- swept by the same doubts that should afflict us all (why am I eating when others are starving; how can I sew up this dress so that it doesn't look so ragged; can I drink another cup of the mud they call coffee; how can that woman so callously hit that prisoner; what shall I say when they ask me where I was born?)
She is naturally trusting, but soon enough learns to look for the hidden microphones, to disconnect the telephone before talking to her friends, to speak in riddles with those who are close to the Nazis and yet might be able to help her. In other words, this upper-class Englishwoman, never before in danger, learns to be the kind of paranoiac nut that you have to be to survive in such a political system.
And what fine tales she spins --- each one worthy of a short story itself! In 1943, she spots some wild potatoes growing just outside a bombed-out house in Berlin. She sneaks out at night and digs them up for her friends. A Jewish family comes to her, begs her to let them stay at her house. She knows that to agree will mean, once discovered (she's English --- she's already being watched, her telephone is tapped) that she will be sent to a concentration camp. She offers them the basement for two days, and one of the most heartrending passages is her description of what she finds after she tells them they have to go:
The man and the woman left in the night. They left a little note. I never saw the man, but he must have been nice because the woman spoke of him with such affection. The house smelled of bees-wax, and our bits of silver shone gratefully with unaccustomed glow on the side-board in the dining room. Down in the cellar the camp-bed had been folded together and the bedclothes piled neatly beside it on the stone floor. A pot of forsythia twigs had been moved and placed near the barred windows. Someone had told me that if I left them in the warm air, I would have blossom by Christmas, but I had forgotten about them, and they had flowered long since, and the branches were covered with sickly green leaves.
§ § §
She never says so, but we know that Bielenberg had grown up quite comfortably in England. Her uncle was Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production in England. And how does a member of the English aristocracy deal with being an alien in a totalitarian society run by madmen? She sees, she tries hard not to judge, and she does her damnedest to make it possible for her, her family, and close friends to survive. Indeed, one of the most wonderful passage deals with her visit to Herr Kriminalrat Lange at the headquarters of the Gestapo in Berlin to beg for mercy for her husband.
Lange is one who, with a mere signature, can have him tortured, or have him murdered --- or can set him free. (As well, he has the absolute power to do any of the above to her). Her visit to the lion's den, is, then, an act of bravery, and her description of it is precise, highly detailed (we're there with her), and even laced with a dry morbid humor.
She spends hours planning exactly how she should dress. Her friend Lexi tells her that
in spite of their warped mentalities most Gestapo officials were essentially middle-class and conventional in their tastes ... After a day's work they would clear their desks, put their whips and knuckledusters neatly back in the drawer and return to their exemplary family lives, their misdeeds locked away with their files.She prepares accordingly:
When I stopped in front of the mirror in the hall before I set out, I thought I had made quite a good job of myself. My best black coat, a simple black hat, my grey-blue dress, slightly the worse for wear but otherwise clean and neat, my last pair of ladderless stockings and black flat-heeled shoes. It did not possess an Einkauyfstasche, that capacious handbag, which hangs like a pavingstone from the arm of every German housewife worthy of her salt, but the get-up oozed respectability and abstinence from black marketeering...
She is brought into the office of Lange, who
was a short, thick-set, youngish man with a head shaped like a pear. He had a high narrow forehead topped with dark thinning hair, rather pudgy cheeks and a small red full-lipped mouth. He was surely not beautiful on any count, but it was the expression in his eyes which gave him the distinction of horror. They were set close together, very small, very blue, very cold and they were staring at me with unwinking intensity .... Strange, for a moment I thought I had seen those eyes before.
"...which hangs like a pavingstone..." "...a youngish man with a head shaped like a pear..." "I had seen those eyes before..." These are the details that turn When I Was a German from a memoir of an interesting person in an interesting situation into what Russell Baker would call "a real page-turner." For the first time, we get to see the Nazis shorn of the these-are-devils-
and-we-won't- let-you-forget-it literary sets that have been passed on to us over the years. Bielenberg describes her gardener at length, a man who joined the party early on. He is great with roses, and trimming --- but he is also a Blockwart (neighborhood organizer). She makes it understandable why a good man would become a member of a gang of thugs: he lost most of his savings in the great inflation of 1923. Then he lost the rest in the depression of 1930-33. He was attracted by the Nazis' promise to end the fighting in the streets and the constant turmoil of the Weimar Republic. There were spooks in the closet that came along with their regime, but most didn't notice because the Nazis ostensibly gave the middle class what the middle class so urgently needs:
There was a titbit for all in his political stewpot, work for the unemployed, an army for the generals, a phoney religion for the gullible, a loud, insistent, and not unheeded voice in international affairs for those who still smarted under the indignity of a lost war: there were also detention camps and carefully broadcast hints of what might be in store for anyone who had temerity enough to enquire into his methods too closely, let alone openly disapprove of them. Hitler made every move, though, behind a smoke-screen of legality and also of propriety, for he was shrewd enough to know that the spirits of the revolution came from the disgruntled, disenchanted, dispossessed middle classes. He must strike the right note therefore, and he did so by making respectability the quintessence, the irresistible pièce de résistance, of all that he had to offer.
§ § §
RALPH gets twenty to thirty books a week dumped in our mailbox. Most of our reviewers try to get through at least that number every month. We drop some after a page, some after ten pages --- a few after fifty. This one I picked up, started reading in the morning, left it (reluctantly) to do some shopping, got back to it in the late afternoon, and stayed with it until three in the morning --- and you know how much I hate losing my beauty sleep.
This honest kind of story-telling seems to be almost unheard of in the modern-day book biz. I know of maybe fifty books that have come to us over the years that have such a stunning story to tell, told so stunningly. Now it's fifty-one.---- Lolita Lark