By Theresa Choske
She was the niece of Irish newspaper magnates Lord Harmsworth (Cecil King), Lord Rothermere (Alfred Harmsworth), and Lord Northcliffe (Harold Harmsworth). These were some of her relatives with enormous drive and single-minded ambition, but they were people of modest enough background in Chapelizod, Co. Dublin.
Christabel Bielenberg (1909-2003)
Christabel Bielenberg was the author of two books, ‘The Past is Myself’ about her experiences living in Germany during WW2. The sequel book ‘The Road Ahead’ tells about her postwar years living in Ireland. With her strong connection to Ireland, along with her husband, Peter and their three children, they decided in 1948 to leave Germany to settle in Co. Carlow.
They put down a deposit on an over-exploited piece of dilapidated farm property called ‘Munny House,’ where daffodils bloomed in their thousands against the purple background of Mount Lugnaquilla, the highest peak in the rolling Wicklow Mountains, which is in close proximity of the little town of Tullow, Co. Carlow. It was decided that regardless of the ‘poor old ruined house, the ragged yew trees and the tangled bushes, nothing could beat that view.’
But before moving to Ireland in 1948, a few years after the end of the war, Christabel was a woman who defied the Nazis during WW2 by outsmarting Gestapo interrogators to help free her husband from a concentration camp prison.
She was born Christabel Mary Burton in 1909 in Hertfordshire, near London. She was a member of an Irish Protestant Ascendancy family and her mother named her after the British suffragette, Christabel Pankhurst. While living in London she had a chauffeured childhood.
Her mother, also named Christabel, could trace her Irish heritage back to the village (population today is 776) of Corofin, Co. Clare, (also known as the gateway to the Burren) where her daughter, Christabel, had visited many times as a child. While in her teens, during the 1920s, she spent some time there, becoming good friends with Gwennie McCormack, the daughter of the Irish tenor, John McCormack. She stayed at their Moore Abbey home in Monasterevin, Co. Kildare. In the evenings, they would gather around the piano to sing opera and the many haunting Irish melodies. This gave her the courage to become a singer herself.
She did win a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, but she decided instead to go to Hamburg, Germany, to study singing under Alma Schadow who had been the teacher of the German sopranos, Lotte Lehman and Elizabeth Schumann. While there she met Peter Bielenberg, a handsome 22 year old law student, who was born in Hamburg. At that time, neither one of them had any interest in politics. He was studying law with a future of joining his father’s law practice in Hamburg. The couple, both handsome and immensely tall. They married in 1934 and she took German citizenship. As she handed in her British Passport a German embassy official warned her that she had not made a good exchange.
The marriage prompted much doubt and skepticism on both sides of the family and in taking German citizenship, Christabel had to renounce her British citizenship, further appalling her own parents. But the young couple were blissfully happy in love. At that time, initially it was possible to dismiss the early stirrings of National Socialism (Nazism). They were unable to believe the German people could succumb to Hitler’s manic rhetoric, even as the mood changed around them and the menace, especially the direct threat to Jews, crept more and more into daily life.
They moved to Berlin and had three sons, Nicholas, John and Christopher, but the heavy bombing raids forced them to move to Rohrbach in the Black Forest of Southwest Germany, where they and others coped with food rationings. Their life in Rohrbach was relatively safe. They would remain there until the war’s end. Their friend, Adam Von Trott, was a German lawyer and diplomat, and a Rhodes Scholar, as well as one of the resistance fighters. He would illegally procure ‘The Times’ newspaper from the foreign office and Christabel listened to the BBC broadcasts on the wireless. If they were found out, this was a restriction and a punishable act.
The Bielenbergs became distressed by the direction Germany was taking. Peter Bielenberg was not allowed to practice law in Germany because he had refused to join the Nazi Party. He was not particularly suited to life in either the resistance or the Nazi hierarchy and his outspokenness led to frequent brushes with the German Gestapo. Instead he volunteered to join the army. He and Christabel were disgusted and so appalled by ‘Kristallnacht’ (Night of Broken Glass) in 1938, when Jewish shops and businesses were attacked and looted by Nazi mobs. Peter received a telegram from his friend, Adam Von Trott telling him to come to Berlin. Two days later, Peter learned of the ‘failed’ plot.
At this 1938 time, Christabel & Peter were anxious about bringing up their family in such a police state and considered moving to neutral Ireland. However, they remained in Germany after Adam Von Trott had conceived a role for all his friends and convinced them it was their ‘patriotic duty’ to stay and fight Nazism. Von Trott also wanted the Germans themselves to stop Hitler and tried to persuade the British leaders to delay an attack on Germany.
Adam Von Trott together with Claus Von Stauffenberg and Fritz Von der Shulenburg conspired in the July 20, 1944 ‘Briefcase Bomb Plot’ to assassinate Hitler. At that time, Peter Bielenberg was working for the Minster of Economics, spending most of the war years managing an aircraft factory. He was extraordinarily lucky to be prevented from being with the conspirators on July 20 as he was in hiding near Rohrbach.
The ‘Bomb Plot’ failed to kill Hitler and Adam Von Trott was arrested and executed by the Gestapo. However, Peter Bielenberg being a friend of Von Trott was tracked down, arrested on suspicion of being a collaborator in the plot and without trial, was sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp for men. (Northern Germany) (There was also a women’s concentration camp, which was right next to the men’s camp in Ravensbruck).
Christabel deployed time-honored, upper-class networking tactics in her efforts to secure her husband’s freedom. She played up her Irish roots and her family links with the press baron Lord Rothermere, who had once been a Nazi sympathizer. She was used to getting her own way and asked her contacts to get Peter transferred to Berlin. She also asked to be interviewed by the Gestapo in order to convince them of her husband’s political naivety and innocence. The interview was intense and hostile. However, she contrived the almost impossible. She was successful, and he was released to a punishment unit, but he was mistakenly allowed leave before joining it.
Peter was supposed to go to an army punishment camp, but because of an administrative error, he was able to take the train to hide out in the Rohrbach Woods in the Black Forest. With Christabel’s string-pulling, she ensured that her husband was the first German civilian to get a permit to go to Britain. Years after his release, Peter talked of his experience only once and throughout the after years never spoke of it again.
After the war, Christabel worked for a while as a correspondent in Germany for the British newspaper, ‘The Observer’. Christabel and Peter were two of a very few who managed to flee Germany when the 1944 plot to kill Hitler was unsuccessful.
It was decided in 1948 when Peter had recovered from a serious motorcycle accident, they and their three children emigrated to Ireland. They took up farming at ‘Munny House’ in Tullow, Co. Carlow. Peter taught himself farming from some ‘Teach Yourself to Farm’ books. The final five decades of Christabel Bielenberg’s life from 1948 up until her death at age 94 in 2003, were spent farming in Tullow, Co. Carlow, Ireland.
From Christabel Bielenberg’s experience in the years 1932 to 1945 provided the raw material for her remarkable historical memoir ‘The Past is Myself’ which was published in 1968.
From her experiences living and farming in Ireland from 1948 she wrote her memoir book, ‘The Road Ahead’ which was published in 1992.
The Bielenbergs helped many of the children of Hitler’s Germany. She and Peter did not forget these children of other opponents of Hitler who had been less fortunate than they were. A memorial fund was set up and it had a huge response from the British public. Many of the orphaned children of the July Plot were supported by this fund. Some of these children would spend holidays with the Bielenbergs in Ireland.
In 1988, the Federal Republic of Germany awarded Christabel Bielenberg ‘The Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit.’
- Font Size
- Reading Mode
By Theresa Choske