THE PAST IS MYSELF by Christabel Bielenberg, originally published 1968 (first edition)
Bookcase 4, shelf 4, book 7
I have been a bad blogger. The truth is that after a whole year of reading from stock (as it were), I just wanted to read a few new things. But I didn’t break my resolve of cutting down on the purchase of new books – I went to my local libraries instead. And discovered just how good even small libraries in small Welsh towns can be, even in these straightened economic times; long may they last. Go Gwynedd Libraries!
Now I’m back on track, reading my ‘backlist’ books, though I’m not giving up on the libraries. They need support, and that support is gauged by borrowing, so I’m borrowing. But I am also reading through my own library, and the books in this blog will continue to be from my excessive (can such a thing be possible?) collection.
What a treat the roll of the dice gave me, too.
The Past is Myself is one of my favourite books of all time, and there’s no cover shot, because my first edition has unfortunately lost its dust jacket (probably why I found it lurking cheaply in a dusty corner of an otherwise expensive second-hand bookshop in Cambridge). I probably re-read this every year, so it’s not a surprise rediscovery or forgotten jewel. What it is, undoubtedly, is a remarkable memoir, intelligent and humane, written by someone who got caught up in the nightmare that was Germany during the Third Reich.
When Christabel Bielenberg died in 2003, one or two of the obituaries made me see red. One in particular was quite snotty about this book, and I suspect the writer hadn’t actually ventured beyond the first few pages. Yes, CB was a well-connected deb – her uncles were press barons – when she married Peter Bielenberg in 1934, but though she may have been naive at times, she was no empty-headed, upper-crust bimbo. And this particular obit described Peter as ‘apolitical’. Maybe a little, maybe at the start but, like his wife, his naivety disappeared and they moved from fighting their way to the back of a Nazi rally – where they discovered other like-minded, slightly incredulous watchers – to more active participation.
His real awakening came when he saw one of his freed clients (he was a lawyer at that stage) leave the court only to be seized and bundled away in an anonymous green van. Her politicisation was more gradual, an accumulation of individually disturbing incidents. But it’s probably inevitable that they would have been anti-Nazi: Adam von Trott was an old friend of Peter’s and, completely coincidentally, their neighbour was Carl Langbehn. Peter himself was arrested in the aftermath of the plot to assassinate Hitler and ended up in Ravensbrück, from where he was freed in the last days of the war.
So credentials have been established, but what of the book? Well, it’s episodic, moving from those early days of a disappearing doctor – he was Jewish, and fled to Holland – to CB’s life in the Black Forest with the children while PB was in Ravensbrück. There is narrative flow, but the book covers many years and I personally find the episodic nature completely satisfying. The small sketches of life under the Reich are so evocative, from the story of her gardener, party small-fry, to the time fate in the shape of two Jews seeking a hiding place came literally knocking at her door one night.
There’s almost a quality of Greek drama about some of them: the Latvian SS man she encounters on a blacked-out train, seeking death as some retribution for what he has done ‘in the East’; her encounter with the Gestapo interrogator – she volunteered to be interrogated to support Peter’s bodged-together account of his involvement; the women’s tea party uniting in the face of an informer; and, indeed, the difficult life of her gardener, battered by the winds of economics and history.
He was an innocent, really, and the embodiment of the joke about Hitler and the gifts of four fairies. The first told him that every German would be honest, the second said every German would be bright, and the third said that every German would be a member of the Nazi party. And then the fourth spoke up, and said that every German could ‘only possess two of those attributes. She left the Fuhrer then with Intelligent Nazis who were not honest, honest Nazis who had no brains, and honest and intelligent citizens who were not Nazis.’ Herr Neisse fell into the middle category, never uttered any word about anything untoward he observed (he may not have understood the implications, but nonetheless he evidently said nothing), ‘passed on no incriminating titbits, such as other zealous informers had thought fit to do.’ He’d been hanged from a lamppost when the Russians arrived in Berlin.
The Past is Myself is a remarkable and wonderful book. I will go on re-reading it for ever, I suspect, getting something new out of it each time I do so. It’s essentially a celebration of humanity, at a time when, in the words of Bonhoeffer: ‘…we now have the black storm cloud and the brilliant lightning flash. The outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness. Reality lays itself bare. Shakespeare’s characters walk in our midst.’ I’ll say.
(The photographs of Third Reich Germany are courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)