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Posted by portugalpress on March 08, 2018

Journalist Sue Hall speaks to former Algarve resident Barbara Fellgiebel about the impact of living with a traumatic family history. She is the granddaughter of General Erich Fellgiebel, who was part of the resistance against Hitler and the Nazis. He paid the price with his life. This is a powerful story, as told by Barbara, that we are publishing to mark International Women’s Day and the Women’s History Month.

Barbara Fellgiebel lived for 30 years in the Algarve, sending her children to the international school in Lagoa where they were taught an accepted history of World War II. Her son came home one day with an English history book that stated, “all Germans were Nazis during WWII”. Barbara visited the school and spoke to the history teacher about her grandfather and the Wolf’s Lair plot to kill Hitler. The international school curriculum now includes more facts.

General Erich Fellgiebel was Barbara’s grandfather. He was part of the resistance against Hitler and the Nazis and paid the price with his life. For his involvement in the failed assassination plot of July 20, 1944, Erich was judicially put to death by hanging on September 4 of the same year.

Erich was head of Hitler’s signal services and, although not totally trusted by Hitler, he was needed for his expertise. Hitler considered him too independently minded. Erich’s role in the preparations for Operation Valkyrie (the attempt on the Führer’s life) was to cut off Hitler’s headquarters at Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia from all telecommunication connections. He only partly succeeded, as he could not prevent the shutdown of the SS communication links in Berlin.

A few years ago, Barbara moved to Sweden but is still well known in the Algarve as a writer and organiser of literary events, having started ALFA, the Algarve Literature and Film Association.

After many years of not talking about her family, Barbara is now sharing her grandfather’s story and the impact of living with a traumatic family history.

In the next few months, she will be delivering 10 talks across Sweden. She said: “I am highly excited and very grateful that there is so much interest, especially in Sweden and in the Swedish community in the Algarve. Later this year, I may come to the Algarve and share my talk there. There is not the same interest in Germany,” she said. “The German reaction to the resistance has always been very, very bad.”

I asked why she thought the reaction in Germany was bad and she said: “I don’t really know. I am talking about West Germany because the situation in East Germany was different. There is also a difference between older people’s reactions and young people’s.”

Reflecting on the upcoming talks she said: “I would love to go to schools as I don’t know what the full reaction of younger people will be either in Germany or Sweden. I really don’t know why in Germany older people are not interested in the resistance and why they are not proud of the few attempts that were made. To know what is right and wrong and to make a choice shows an extremely strong character. My grandfather had strong opinions and spoke out. The White Rose resistance group, that included Hans and Sophie Scholl in Munich in 1942, had this same belief about standing up for what is right. They knew they would be killed, but they said ‘we have to do it’.”

In the 2008 film “Valkyrie”, Eddie Izzard was cast to play the role of the Communications General Erich Fellgiebel. Barbara is not impressed with how her grandfather was portrayed in the film. According to Barbara and surviving family members, Izzard did not present Erich the way the family knew him.

She said: “I think this was a typical Hollywood thing and they changed a lot of the story for extra impact. I was glad Tom Cruise was in the film because so many more people became aware of the resistance. Daily, I discover more things about my grandfather. He did not write, but he gave speeches. There is very little information left by him or about him, which is sad. But what is said about him by people who worked for him tells me that he tried to avoid the war. He was one of several Generals who said ‘we must not enter into any type of war’. He said this in 1936, 37 and 38. He asked his colleagues, other Generals, ‘how do you want to win this war?’ The Generals tried in many different ways to convince Hitler that to fight a war was not the right thing to do. They could not get through to him. They could not convince him. They initially did not want to kill him, rather thought they could get rid of him as leader of the country in a democratic way. But this was not possible.

This was not just an assassination attempt. The idea was to blow up Hitler, Himmler and Goering. They wanted to avoid surrendering unconditionally. So, the idea was to try and convince the allies that there was a strategic plan as to how Germany could become a democratic country in the future after Hitler.”

Barbara never met Erich as she was born in 1950 and he was put to death in 1944. She said: “I knew early on that my grandfather was someone to be very, very proud of because of his resistance. There were all sorts of resistance groups, religious, communistic and the student group the White Rose. None of these people and groups were recognised after the war. They were regarded as criminals until 1976. I find this fact horrendous.

“My parents were married in 1944 and, at the wedding, my grandfather gave a great speech, saying to Rosemary, my mother, ‘today you are recognised as the wife of a Major (because that was what my father was), but in a year’s time, he will be ploughing the fields, if he is lucky’. That is exactly what happened and he said that in front of 50-60 people, complete strangers. He was never afraid of talking about his beliefs.”

As a child, at home, Barbara’s father talked about Erich. She had a good sense of who he was and his courageous stand. One day at school, Barbara was asked by a teacher if she was a relative of General Fellgiebel. Very happy and proud to acknowledge him, she said, “yes, he was my grandfather”. The teacher responded, “do not be proud, he was a traitor. People like him caused Germany to lose the war.”

Barbara went home and asked her parents, “what is a traitor?” She said, “as a family, we learned to live with some people within German society thinking my grandfather was a traitor.”

The families of resistance fighters suffered after the war not least because of the lack of support in West Germany. Barbara continued: “In the 1950s, it was extremely difficult for the widows of the men who had resisted. My grandmother got her pension in 1953. For six years she was not allowed or given any pension whatsoever. It was very hard for these women and their families. In 1951, my grandmother received a letter from the West German government, asking her to prove that her husband was part of the conspiracy to kill Hitler. The widows of the Nazi leaders, Goering, Hess and Himmler, immediately received pensions. It was not questioned. The resistance families found support with each other and came together to create a Foundation. On July 20, each year they get together for a ceremony in Berlin. I try to go whenever I can. On one occasion, I stood next to a French Professor who asked me if I was related to the great General Fellgiebel. I said ‘yes, he was my grandfather’. He said, ‘when will you Germans acknowledge your heroes? The French do. Why not the Germans?’ This gave me a lot to think about.”

After the failed conspiracy to kill Hitler, Goering and Himmler, the Fellgiebel family was picked up under the German concept of Sippenhaft. The term refers to the idea that a family or tribe shares the responsibility for a crime or act committed by one of its members; it is a form of collective punishment because of family association.

Barbara explained: “My grandmother was kept in jail for two months even though she was no part of the whole thing. My father’s sister was imprisoned as well as my father. When my grandfather was arrested, his colleague handed him a revolver, but he said, ‘No, you do not do this. You should stand up for your convictions.’ He thought he would be allowed to speak during the trial. He was tortured several times a day from July 20 until September 4, 1944. Most of the other people involved were tried on August 4 or 8 and then killed one or two days after their trials, but he was kept alive and tortured. The story goes that on August 4, when he should have been tried, he had been so badly tortured that he could not stand up, so they waited until August 10 to bring him to the court. Other people who were tried with him on August 10 were killed on the 11th or 12th, but they continued to torture my grandfather for a further three weeks until September 4 to try and extract more information. He did not reveal names. I have met people who have said to me ‘I have your grandfather to thank for being alive. Had he mentioned my name I could have died as well’. My grandfather’s brother Hans was imprisoned for many months and had a hard time trying to convince his interrogators that he was not part of the plot. Hans was head of the Arabian white horse stables in Poland. Some of the members of the Valkyrie group were great horsemen and went to the stables to ride and to discuss their plans. Hans was not actively involved in the plot and was eventually released.”

Barbara mentioned that in the past, thinking about her grandfather had brought her to tears. So I asked her how she felt now that she was talking about him to a wider audience.

“It is wonderful to be able to talk about this. There is a time and a place for everything. Now I have the time to concentrate on this and it feels like a new job. In April, I am going to Berlin to meet with people from the foundation ‘20 July’, to discuss how to continue to document the stories, especially now as we have so many right-wing parties coming up everywhere. I always mention the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers Party) was elected democratically and look how things worked out. There is a lot of information in the archives. All the processes and protocols are documented there, but the protocol about my grandfather does not exist and no one can explain it. My explanation is that my grandfather said to the judge, ‘Your Honor; I suggest you hurry up and hang us, or else you will hang before we do.’ I think the authorities did not want to make a record of that. It is extraordinary that every single protocol is there but not his trial. All the trials are described in books and so I know what he said because people who were there have shared the story of what happened during the trial.”

So, will there be a book? “If a publisher says ‘please write a book’, I will write a book, but I will not self-publish or chase a publisher. If Steven Spielberg wants to make a film about my grandfather, then I will be there.

For the last six years, I have worked for a community college which covers the south of Sweden, but I am now retired. So maybe after the 10 talks there will be more opportunities to share my grandfather’s story. I am doing this in a simple way with no Powerpoint. In my case, you have to see with your ears. People have to really concentrate. One thing my grandfather’s story has taught me is to stand up for your beliefs.”

I am looking forward to hearing more when Barbara comes to the Algarve.