Ivan's Place

In honor of the greatest moralist who never lived
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker


Christabel and the SS Officer

For years I was obsessed with World War II and the Holocaust/Shoah — that they happened — and I continue to seek information about this most horrific event in all history; perhaps the defining event of history itself.

There is one aspect of the Holocaust of which I have only the barest information: the impact on those who actually carried out the inhumane orders of their superiors. It has been something of an article of faith by those of us who grew up in the victorious nations after the war that guilt was an emotion that the average German soldier, to say nothing of his cold-blooded superiors, could not feel. I do not presume to present here anything like an adequate analysis of how German soldiers felt then, but the materials I present below indicate that guilt feelings were not entirely absent in them. One episode in particular has touched me beyond all expression.

Christabel Mary Burton was a young, well-connected Englishwoman who met a somewhat younger German, law student Peter Bielenberg, while she studied singing in Hamburg. On September 29, 1934, she and Peter married. Christabel moved to Germany with Peter, gave up her British passport, and became a German citizen. The German clerk who traded her passports said that she had not made a "good swop."

The Bielenbergs were deeply opposed to Hitler, and soon became part of a quiet opposition. In 1943, Christabel and their three sons moved to the rural village of Rohrbach, in the Black Forest, to get away from ever-more dangerous Berlin. Peter stayed behind, as manager of a factory.

During Christabel's time in Rohrbach, some of their friends who had been more actively opposed to Hitler, such as Adam von Trott zu Solz, and German Army Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, finally moved, and attempted to assassinate Hitler with a suitcase bomb carried by Stauffenberg himself. The attempt failed, and Stauffenberg, von Trott, and most of the others invloved in the plot were rounded up and executed. Peter Bielenberg was also arrested, even though there is no direct evidence linking him to the plot. One day, Christabel returns to Berlin by train to speak with a friend, Lexi. Lexi works in the Nazi offices, and is familiar with Peter's situation. She will instruct Christabel about how she —Christabel— might be able to effect Peter's release from the Ravensbruck concentration camp. On the way to Berlin, Christabel meets a Nazi SS officer on the train.

The film clip below contains the six minute dramatization of that meeting as shown in the 1988 BBC docudrama Christabel. Christabel, the film, is based on Bielenberg's account of her experiences in Germany during that period, The Past is Myself, and was co-written by Dennis Potter and Christabel herself. In the film, Christabel is played by Elizabeth Hurley, and the SS officer is played by Andrew Wilde. I consider it the most perfect performance by an actor—Wilde— and the most powerful film segment I have ever seen.

The clip begins as Christabel leaves Rohrbach at night on a sleigh, and ends with her calling Lexi from a pay phone in Berlin.


Peter was released from Ravensbruck, and he and Christabel settled in Ireland after the war. Lexi was arrested in March 1945, but she also survived the war.

In the documentary series The World At War, a 26-episode series first shown on British televsion in 1973-74, Christabel Bielenberg is interviewed. 43 minutes into the introductory episode, she describes this meeting with the SS officer in more detail, and with traces of the emotion seen in Elizabeth Hurley's performance. She remarks that she traveled the entire night with this officer. After falling asleep, she woke up with her head on his shoulder and his greatcoat across her knees.

In her book, Christabel also writes of Ernst, the host of Rohrbach's only inn, the Gasthaus zum Adler. Ernst is on leave from the Russian front:
"'If we are paid back one quarter of what we are doing in Russia and Poland, Frau Doktor,' he had said simply, 'we will suffer, and we will deserve to suffer.' Ernst was an honest man, and sad and war-weary, and I had not had the heart to probe further."
In Ireland, Peter and Christabel spent many years as successful farmers. Peter Bielenberg died March 13, 2001, and Christabel died November 2, 2003. Lexi married after the war, and died in Spain in 1968.

The Past Is Myself was subsequently republished as When I Was A German, and Christabel. As I write, all three titles are available through Amazon.

More on the psychological effect of the mass killings on the German soldier:

37 minutes into the first episode of the KCET/BBC docudrama Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, Heinrich Himmler is depicted witnessing the execution of Soviet civilians by troops under the command of SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski. [There is no historical German footage of these specific killings available, but plausibly similar footage from Latvia is shown.] As the SS officials turn away from the trench where the victims lay, von dem Bach remarks to Himmler that there is a problem with the SS troops.

"These were only 100," says von dem Bach.

"What do you mean," Himmler asks.

"Look at the eyes of the men in this commando," von dem Bach says. "These men are finished for the rest of their lives. What kind of followers are we producing here? Either neurotics or brutes."

"Von dem Bach-Zelewski knew that all over the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, the Nazis and their collaborators were murdering women and children, at close range and in cold blood," says series narrator Linda Hunt. "Himmler realized that he had to find a better way of killing. Better for the murderers, not their victims." This event played a major role in Himmler's decision to ramp up Auschwitz-Birkenau's killing capacity.

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In the docudrama Conspiracy, Kenneth Brannagh, playing SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, convenes a conference of top-level Nazi officials from all sectors of the state. Together they decide on the "final solution" for eliminating the Jewish people entirely. The mass-killing methodologies under development at Auschwitz and other camps are approved, not least because it is understood by all present that the average German soldier would be unable to carry out the required mass shootings without suffering psychological breakdown.

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Finally, in Searching for Schindler, Thomas Keneally recounts the experience of Jewish prisoner Leopold "Poldek" Page at the hands of a sadistic SS guard at the Płaszów work camp:
"Poldek had somehow attracted the young man's irritable attention. The SS man intended to break Poldek. During one beating Poldek felt a sudden collapse of a disc in his back. But the intuition came to him that if he yelled now, the man would kill him. So he remained silent as his brain shrieked with pain. The beating ended, and from that point on, the NCO never touched him again, and Poldek became what Himmler had warned the SS about—he became man's special friend. As Płaszów was being closed down, the NCO came to Poldek one night, gave him a bottle of vodka, and advised him to get onto Schindler's list. Then he broke down and wept and said that he had done things his mother wouldn't believe. He hoped to be transferred to the Waffen-SS and die in battle. As far as Poldek knew, that was what happened, for the man never turned up on the lists of war criminals and was not in the files of the Simon Wiesnthal Center."

Searching for Schindler, by Thomas Keneally. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2007, p. 56
[The Płaszów work camp was replaced by Schindler's second work camp at Brinnlitz - B.B.]