This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth. With no spellbinding demagogue to unite them, Germany's radical right remains fragmented. In October 1932, ex-Army Captain Ernst Röhm, the leader of Germany's right-wing street fighters, siezes power in a coup d'etat. The lawlessness and misrule of his Brown Revolution leads to growing popular discontent, and in an effort to head off a possible uprising, Röhm launches an invasion of Poland on 10 May 1936.
The German advance grinds to a halt in October, and the Poles launch a counterattack on Christmas morning. The British and French launch major offensives in April 1937, and by June the Poles are closing in on Berlin, leaving William L. Shirer of CBS News to witness the final downfall of the Röhm regime . . .
24 June 1937
There was a sound like thunder that wasn't thunder. It came softer or louder, and the loudest shook the floor and made the framed artwork sway on the walls. It was the sound of artillery shells smashing into the buildings of Berlin.
When he and his wife had first rented the studio apartment in the fall of 1934, he had considered himself lucky; it was in Tauentzienstrasse, a stone's throw from the top of the Kurfürstendamm, in the very heart of Berlin's chief commercial district. Now that Berlin was under siege, though, being in the capital's heart meant being in the line of fire.
Leni stirred in bed beside him. "Is there any way onto the roof from here?"
Shirer spent a few sleepy moments turning the problem over in his mind before the implications came home to him.
"Are you out of your mind?" he said, wide awake now. "They're shelling the city."
"Not this part," she assured him. "Not yet. It should be safe enough."
As though to contradict her, there was another blast of not-thunder, the loudest yet, and Shirer saw a cloud of plaster dust drift down from the ceiling.
"It's not worth risking your life for," he insisted.
"Bill," she said, "this may be the most important thing I ever do in my life. It's just like your radio broadcasts. You could have left Berlin before the siege started, but you didn't, because you knew that sending your reports out to the world was the most important thing in your life, more important than your life. We are the same, Bill, you with your microphone and me with my
camera. We must let the world know what we see."
Once more the thunder sounded and the room shook, this time without the plaster dust. After long consideration, Shirer said, "I think there's a trapdoor leading up from the art studio."
"I'll show you."
Half an hour later, fully dressed, the two of them entered the studio. There was a potter's wheel in one corner, and blocks of wood and stone shared space with finished sculptures. Shirer rarely came in here. He had to hunt for a while before he found the trapdoor.
"Are you a sculptor?" Leni asked.
Shirer shook his head. "All this belongs to the apartment's owner. We lease these rooms from him."
"Where is he?"
"London. He got out half a step ahead of the Brownshirts. He's a Jew."
Leni remained silent for a time. The sounds of shelling continued. At last she asked, "Are there many Jews in the Polish Army?"
"I couldn't say for certain," Shirer answered. "Marshal Piłsudski has always been pretty consistent about denouncing anti-Semitism, and he runs the army over there, so I wouldn't be surprised if there were."
Another pause, and then she said, "Did I ever tell you about Sachsenhausen?"
"No." Shirer knew that she had been hauled up before a Revolutionary Tribunal two years before on some trumped-up charge and packed off to one of the Brownshirts' concentration camps. Somebody in the Ministry of Justice, he had heard, had reversed the Tribunal's ruling a few weeks later, and Leni had been released.
"There were different barracks," she said tonelessly, as though describing something that had happened long before to someone else, "with different kinds of prisoners. They kept me with the politicals. The food was terrible, but there was enough to live on. The guards were . . . abusive . . . but not murderous. Some of the prisoners had been there for years, since right after the Coup. They were rather gaunt-looking, you know, but nothing really bad.
"But there were stories, about other parts of the camp. The parts where they kept the race criminals. The guards wouldn't feed them for months at a time. If they caught you smuggling food in they shot you.
"Some of the politicals were assigned to work details. They were sent into the other part of the camp, and their job was to collect all the bodies and take them outside the camp to be buried. A few of them had died violently, shot or clubbed to death. Most of them were just skin and bones. Most of the ones still walking around were just skin and bones. And every one had a yellow Star of David sewn onto his clothing."
She looked across the room at him. "Sachsenhausen is maybe forty kilometers north of here. The Poles must have captured it. Do you think they've found the graves yet?"
Shirer's voice was rough, his throat dry. "If they had, Ed would have mentioned it. He wouldn't keep quiet about something like that."
"They will," Leni said. "They'll find the graves. They can't be that hard to find. They must be enormous." Now there were tears running down her face. "They'll find them. They'll find out what we've done." Her head bowed, Leni Riefenstahl stood alone as her tears flowed.
Was she crying for the Jews, Shirer wondered, or for the Germans? Or for both? Slowly, he moved across the room and took her in his arms.
"You were right, you know," she said, her head now pressed against his chest. "After this war, they'll break the reich apart. I wish they'd broken it apart after the last one."