Bielenberg, Christabel Mary Harmsworth (1909–2003), writer, was born on 18 June 1909 at the Old House, Totteridge, Hertfordshire, England, the second of four children (two boys and two girls) of Percy Collingwood Burton (1879–1953) of Totteridge, a British army officer and advertising executive, and his wife Christabel Rose (née Harmsworth) (1880–1967). She had Irish connections on both sides of her family. Her mother – the daughter of Alfred Harmsworth (1837–89), an English-born barrister who lived much of his life in Ireland, and his wife Geraldine Mary (qv), who was born in Dublin – was a sister of the newspaper publishers Alfred (qv) and Harold Harmsworth (Viscounts Northcliffe and Rothermere), and the Liberal politician Cecil (qv) (Baron) Harmsworth. Her father, who was born in Corofin, Co. Clare, served with the British army throughout the Boer war and the first world war, retiring as a lieutenant-colonel and being awarded an OBE (1919). He founded an advertising agency and was chairman of the World's Press News Publishing Company.
Christabel attended boarding school at St Margaret's School, Bushey, Hertfordshire, but regularly took school holidays in Ireland, where she felt very much at home. She won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, but was intent on becoming a professional singer and, with the encouragement of John McCormack (qv), whose daughter Gwennie was a close friend, she went to Hamburg in 1932 to study singing. There she met Peter Bielenberg (1911–2001), a law student. Like her, he was tall and athletic, and they danced beautifully together. They fell in love and married on 29 September 1934 at Marylebone Register Office (Peter was working temporarily with the German embassy in London), which required her to surrender her British passport and become a German citizen.
The rise of Nazism formed the political backdrop to their courtship, but Peter refused to take Hitler seriously and after attending one of his party rallies in autumn 1932 assured Christabel that the German people 'won't be so stupid as to fall for that clown' (The past is myself, 22). As Hitler consolidated his power and Brownshirt attacks on Jews and political opponents became ever more vicious, the Bielenbergs came to detest Nazi brutality and fanaticism. On occasion Peter, a brave and direct man who had a number of Jewish friends, was involved in street brawls with Brownshirts. But to carry on with their lives the couple had to compromise with the regime and each successive compromise was harder to make. Peter received his doctorate in 1937 (despite refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler), and worked with his father's law firm in Hamburg, but saw little point in practising his profession in a country in which the rule of law was subverted to serve the Nazi state. In 1938 he and Christabel considered emigrating to Ireland, and she spent some time there looking for a suitable home. However, they were persuaded to stay in Germany by a friend, Adam von Trott zu Solz, a lawyer, diplomat and dedicated anti-Nazi, who encouraged Peter to join the resistance to Hitler. To put himself closer to the centre of power, Peter took a job with the Ministry of Industry and Commerce in Berlin in spring 1939. In August 1939 he went to London in a fruitless attempt to persuade some influential figure to warn Hitler in person that any attack on Polish territory would mean war with Britain, and returned to Germany just before the outbreak of hostilities.
During the war the Bielenbergs associated with a small group of aristocratic and intellectual anti-Nazis, but as an English-born woman living in Germany Christabel was in an awkward position and her prime concern was to take care of her three young sons, Nicholas (b. 1935), John (b. 1937) and Christopher (b. 1942). In 1940 Nicholas was expelled from school for protesting when his teacher referred to the English as 'schweine'. (When asked her nationality during the war, Christabel often replied that her people were Irish.) To avoid Nazi scrutiny and Allied air raids, she decided to move from Berlin, and spent periods at a Baltic seaside resort, a village in Austria, and an old castle in Swabia, before settling in the village of Rohrbach in the Black Forest in September 1943. She rarely saw Peter, who was called up by the Luftwaffe in January 1940, but managed to pull strings and return to civilian employment after four weeks. However, his open contempt for the Nazis made Berlin a dangerous place for him, and he took jobs managing fish-paste production in Norway and aircraft repair in West Prussia. The Bielenbergs were close to dissidents, such as Trott, who were arrested after the bomb plot of 20 July 1944 against Hitler, and, although Peter was not directly involved, he was planning to rescue Trott when he himself was arrested on 6 August 1944. Months later Christabel visited him at Ravensbrück concentration camp and intimated that Trott and other friends had already been executed so he would not compromise himself by trying to protect them. He managed to pass her a note outlining his response to Gestapo interrogation, which was that he had no interest in politics and knew the conspirators only socially. Armed with this information, she volunteered to be questioned by the Gestapo to back up his account. During her interrogation, she emphasised her Irish blood and loyalties while making the most of her Harmsworth connections in England, and hinted to her interrogator that she might be able to help him after the war. Her combination of charm and bluster worked, and Peter was released from custody to a punishment squad clearing minefields on the eastern front. He managed to escape, and joined his family in the early spring of 1945, remaining in the Black Forest until the war ended.
After the war, the family moved to England (where Christabel renaturalised herself as a British citizen), but returned to Germany a year later. Through David Astor, a close friend of Trott and foreign editor of the Observer, she got a job as a special German correspondent in 1946 and wrote several articles critical of Allied vindictiveness towards German civilians and POWs. However, she and Peter no longer wished to live in Germany, where so many of their friends had been killed by the Nazis, and anti-German sentiment made it difficult for Peter to live in England. Christabel contracted a serious illness around this time and Peter fractured his skull in a motorcycle accident, encouraging them both to make a sharp break with their past.
In the summer of 1947 Christabel and the children took a house in Kilmore Quay, Co. Wexford. After her experience of living under a totalitarian regime she enjoyed Ireland's easy-going ways and concluded that she 'must return to live in this strange haphazard country' (The road ahead, 131). Reviving their plan of a decade earlier, the Bielenbergs moved to Ireland in August 1948 and, after searching for a suitable property, bought a farm of almost 500 acres near Tullow, Co. Carlow, in February 1949. Munny House, the large eighteenth-century dwelling that came with the farm, was dilapidated, the gardens were overgrown, and the fields exhausted by years of overcropping, but the couple were enchanted by the beautiful views of the Wicklow mountains and decided to give it a chance. Peter took to the venture with great enthusiasm and embarked on a 'four-year plan' to transform the farm, learning as he went along with a Teach yourself farming primer. He consulted the agricultural chemist Stephen Cullinan (qv), who carried out rigorous tests on the soil and advised that it needed to be heavily fertilised with lime and phosphate. Many locals were sceptical, but Peter's hard work and scientific methods bore fruit, and the land eventually produced good crops of barley and wheat and supported substantial herds of cattle and sheep. Additional labour was often provided by the three Bielenberg sons and the children of friends and relatives. Christabel admitted that she adapted to farming life with some difficulty; on her first day she was shocked at the sight of eight heifers calving in the farmyard, and later remarked: 'I am not by nature a farmer's wife. I don't like sheep and I hate cows. I had to milk the rotten cows' (Ir. Times, 2 September 1999). She also admitted to a general distaste for domestic chores, claiming that she had never washed a cup; her picnic lunches for her grandchildren usually consisted of a bar of chocolate placed between two slices of bread.
From Ireland the Bielenbergs continued to help the families of friends killed by the Nazis, setting up a fund for them and throwing open their home in Tullow. This forged close links with German families who had resisted Hitler: the Bielenberg sons Nicholas and Christopher married Charlotte (1958) and Angela (1966) respectively, daughters of the anti-Nazi official Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg (1902–44) who was hanged for his part in the 20 July plot. Christabel regarded the plotters as brave patriots and always strove to promote their memory; Adam von Trott emerges from her account as a particularly courageous and charismatic figure.
After assisting with a biography of Trott in 1959 by talking to Oxford academics who knew him, she found that those who had not lived under a dictatorship had no idea of what it was like and decided to write a book about her own experiences. Around this time she discovered some diaries she had kept in Germany during the war, and they formed the basis of her memoir The past is myself (1968). A keen observer of her own and other people's lives, she vividly recounts the atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion under the Nazi regime and the grim wartime struggle for survival in the face of crippling food shortages and devastating Allied bombing raids. Her conflicting emotions are always apparent: she realised that the Nazis could be defeated only by all-out war, yet she often felt a deep sense of shame and horror at the terrible effects of bombing on civilians, Nazi and anti-Nazi alike. At times she is baffled and outraged by the cruelty and inhumanity she witnessed, but this never quashes her belief in basic human decency. The past is myself eventually sold nearly a million copies and won several awards, including the 1968 Richard Hillary Memorial Prize for Literature. Translated into seven languages, it was included on school curricula in Ireland, England and Germany. It was serialised by BBC Radio 4 in 1985, and adapted for television by Dennis Potter for the BBC in 1988 under the title Christabel with Elizabeth Hurley in the lead role (which contributed significantly to the book's sales).
The book's success (and the thousands of letters from readers asking her to describe what happened next) encouraged her to write a sequel, The road ahead (1992), based on her family's efforts to create a new life in Ireland. The events it recounted are clearly less dramatic than its predecessor, but it too was marked by honest and acute observation. Although very fond of Ireland and its people – she infinitely preferred Irish openness and loquacity to German reserve – she also made some pointed criticisms. She strongly disagreed with the fact that the teachings of the catholic church held such sway over all citizens of Ireland, especially in relation to censorship, divorce and birth control. Her reading of Irish history often left her bewildered at the depth of religious and national hatred she encountered. She was troubled by Éamon de Valera's (qv) 'mythical, almost Hitlerian, dream for Irish rural society where, instead of buxom, blond blue-eyed Teutons thumping around dressed up as peasants, it was to be innocent, nimble-footed Gaels dancing jigs and reels, singing and conversing in a language which few but themselves could understand' (The road ahead, 174). Her bewilderment, however, was always mingled with affection; as to her own national identity, she concluded: 'By nature I'm Irish, that's how I feel' (Ir. Times, ibid.).
Having witnessed at first hand the results of Nazism, the Bielenbergs were strongly committed to liberal democratic values, and were passionate advocates of human rights. They abhorred racial and religious discrimination, and were suspicious of party ties and rigid ideologies. A regular writer to the letters page of the Irish Times, Christabel drew on her experience in Germany to point out the dangers of fanaticism and simplistic thinking in all aspects of Irish life, from the debate on abortion to the Northern 'troubles'. She became a strong supporter of the peace movement of the 1970s and a close ally of Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, and was overjoyed when they won the 1976 Nobel peace prize. She was convinced that violence would be ended primarily by women, and compared the efforts of the Northern peace women with those of German women who had spearheaded the post-war revival of their country. Like her mother, she was named after the suffragist Christabel Pankhurst and took a keen interest in women's rights. However, she remarked in 1999 that her perspective had changed now that she was an 'old bird', noting: 'Women have a role to play and they are playing it now. But it would be a pity if they get too bossy and pleased with themselves' (Ir. Times, ibid.).
She appeared on Thames Television's World at war series (1974), speaking of her wartime experience attempting to shelter Jews. (She sheltered a Jewish couple in her house in Berlin, but was advised by a neighbour that she was putting her family in danger and had to ask them to leave, a decision that caused her great anguish.) Determined that the crimes of the Nazis should never be forgotten, she strongly challenged the views of the holocaust denier David Irving when he gave a talk in Dublin in 1983, and was critical of the decision by Aosdána in 1997 to honour Francis Stuart (qv), given that he had had never expressed any regret for his Nazi propaganda work. She was made a commander of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (1986) for her work in promoting understanding and reconciliation between Britain and Germany, and was awarded a gold medal of merit by the European parliament (1993). Her sight and hearing grew weak in her last years but she never lost her vitality, mental sharpness or sense of humour. She died 2 November 2003 in Tullow; her funeral service was at St Columba's church, Tullow. She was predeceased by Peter (who died 13 March 2001 in Co. Carlow), and was survived by her three sons and twenty-six grandchildren and great-grandchildren.