|Publication info:||Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
vol. 3, no. 1, Summer 2001
|Article Type:||Book Review|
Kansas State University
Christabel Bielenberg. When I was a German. An Englishwoman in Nazi Germany. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1998. 285 pp. $15.00
"You'll have to write a book, Chris—Life amongst the Huns," her friends tell Christabel Bielenberg as she struggles to keep her family together in wartorn Germany. This Englishwoman's account of her life in Germany from the beginnings of the Third Reich until the end of the war is a gripping autobiography, told with much eloquence and wit. It is the story of her resistance against the Nazis, which culminates in the successful attempt to liberate her husband Peter from the Ravensbrück concentration camp where he is held prisoner because of his alleged participation in the plot on Hitler's life on the 20th of July, 1944. Three thrilling moments make up the climactic ending of this book: the first, when after long separation she and her husband stand face to face in the concentration camp and have to communicate in an encoded language; the second, when she confronts Peter's cruel interrogator and, with a maximum of charm and cleverness, effects the release of her husband; and the third moment, when she is reunited with her husband in the Black Forest town of Rohrbach where she has fled with her children during the war. Despite the hatred of the Nazi regime that she shares with her husband and some of their friends, who include such memorable characters as Adam von Trott and Lexi von Alvensleben, she manages again and again to dismantle some of the stereotypes that exist about such events as the Reich Crystal Night and the Germans' ready participation in it. Although she initially describes the Germans with an ironic distance that shows her bewilderment at some of their cultural idiosyncracies, in the course of her account she increasingly distinguishes between the good and the bad Germans. She often comments on German accomplishments and German culture in comparison with her own culture. For example, when she first arrives in Hamburg, she fears that she will probably never fit the image of an ideal Hausfrau and observes that "independence, financial or otherwise, was not a state of affairs to be encouraged in a German woman" (17). An analysis of the German national character receives prominent space in this autobiography, whether it be through the eyes of the author or the voice of Germans who speak through her. As says one of her German friends—just after those involved in the July 20 plot, including her friend Adam von Trott, had been hanged from meat hooks and filmed while they were dying—"Chris, thank your stars, every day of your life, that you do not belong to my rotten, yes my rotten, unhappy and accursed race" (212).
This book reflects clearly that, as Hayden White claims, all history writing is to some extent fictional because all historiography is subjective. Yet, paradoxically, thanks to this subjectivity we may obtain a more rounded and ultimately more objective rendering of history. In the Rohrbach chapters of Bielenberg's book, for example, we hear some of the voices of those 'ordinary' Germans who did not support Nazi politics. As is so often the case in biographical accounts, they make history come alive far more than can the recitation of facts and figures or the focus on some prominent historical figure. Klemens von Klemperer refers to this phenomenon when, in his stimulating introduction to the book, he says: "Christabel's recollections allow everyday Germans to speak and lend the past a vividness that monographs, however learned, cannot easily marshal" (3). Because, as a foreign national, Christabel always remains an outsider, her position on the periphery allows her to have a heightened awareness of what goes on in the center. German history is witnessed throughthe eyes of a foreigner who gets as close to the German people and mindset as a foreigner (and "the enemy" at that) could possibly get during the Nazi years. As is the case with people living abroad, Christabel Bielenberg's identity loses its national solidity and opens those boundaries that are determined by one's own culture. She gives up her British passport, hides behind her Irish heritage so as not to reveal herself as an enemy, and, although she never entirely becomes German, she becomes estranged to some of the politics of her own country. Carl Schmitt's distinction between friend and foe is transformed from a confrontation between nations to one between individuals. Despite her criticism of the German mentality and German politics of her time, she describes the Germans as a nation to be pitied and as caught within certain compulsions dictated to them by their own culture. Far from demonizing the Germans, she claims that she cannot hate the Germans because she knows too much (143), implying that hatred, enmity, and war ultimately result from a lack of knowledge and understanding for the other culture. One can see here how crosscultural immersion brings about true and beneficial Bildung. In light of this she expresses her resentment not only of the ignorance that many Germans voice about her country, but also of the American airman who is found one day in the town of Rohrbach and who wages war on a country whose major river he had never heard of.
Christabel Bielenberg's autobiography reveals her acute insight into different characters, and, rather than being filled exclusively with scenes of suspense and trepidation, it also shows the author's unflagging sense of humor. The reader is drawn into her description of comical social situations such as the incident at a tea party where she encounters a very pro-Nazi, very Aryan looking Scandinavian. Unaware of Christa's national origin, this woman, who openly displays her golden Mother's Cross, calls the British a "degenerate race." What follows is a highly entertaining little scene in which Christabel's nationality is finally given away, whereupon the arctic blonde asks her: "You are English?" Christabel's answer leaves the Scandinavian speechless: "No, I am German now, actually about as German as you are" (92). Her sharp tongue leaves few Nazi sympathizers unscathed. Of the Austrians and Bavarians she says: "I no longer shared my countrymen's lyrical exuberance where Austrians, or, for that matter, Bavarians were concerned.... They were more attractive perhaps, but the fact that they wore flowers in their hats did not alter, for me anyway, the undeniable truth that Munich was the Hauptstadt der Bewegung [the capital of the movement], that Hitler was an Austrian and that he had recruited some of his foulest minions from amongst the Küss die Hand ['May I kiss your hand'], coffee-sipping, beer-swilling yodellers from the South" (99). This comment does not seem to be a careless generalization if one views it in light of contemporary Austrian politics. Similarly, at the end of the book, when the war is over, laughter reigns supreme as Christabel releases everyone's tension by telling a joke about Hitler talking to his portrait "looking at it and saying, 'I wonder what will happen to you and me after the war's over,' and the picture answering back, 'I don't wonder, I know. You will be hung, and I will be unhung'" (284).