Wednesday, December 30, 2009

DBTL 51A: City of Shadows - Interview

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 . . .

1. Interview

Berlin, Germany
8 June 1937

William L. Shirer reflected, not for the first time, that it was a lot harder to notice the absence of something than the presence of something. Of course, these days, Berlin was missing so many things, like food and fuel, that singling out one item was next to impossible. Still, he was sure that it would come to him in time.

Every day, Shirer was more thankful that he had persuaded his wife to leave the country while she still could. After Mussolini and Dollfuss had declared war on Germany, Tess had become an enemy alien, and wife of an American or no, might have ended up under detention, or even worse, sent off to suffer in one of Röhm's concentration camps.

Shirer, though, was still a reporter, and he still had a job to do. He had an interview scheduled at 10 am with Röhm's Foreign Minister, Alfred Rosenberg. He wasn't particularly looking forward to it, for Shirer regarded Rosenberg as tedious, dull, verbose and just plain stupid. However, Rosenberg wasn't as personally repugnant as the other top Brownshirts such as Heydrich, Funk, or Röhm himself, so Shirer girded his mental loins, smoked a pipeful of some awful tobacco, and left his apartment.

Even before the war, taxis had been growing more and more scarce in Berlin, as petrol rationing made them uneconomical. Now that the Poles were closing in on Berlin, the trolleys had also disappeared from the streets. And unless you were a Brownshirt, you hadn't a chance of buying or renting an automobile. In the course of his stay in Berlin, Shirer had come to rely on a Party functionary named Karl Hanke for transportation. After the Brownshirts had seized power, Hanke had been entrusted with a car confiscated from a "class enemy". Shirer found Hanke to be an outspoken man who would frequently criticize the actions of Röhm and the other Brownshirt leaders. Much as he liked him, Shirer had long since decided that Hanke was a member of Heydrich's secret police, and he tried to be careful around him.

Shirer had noticed that whenever he had an appointment to see a top Party or government official (and the two were basically the same in Röhm's Germany), Hanke was always on time to pick him up. And so it was today: less than five minutes after stepping outside his apartment on the Tauentzienstrasse, Hanke appeared in his small BMW sports car, and Shirer was on his way to the Foreign Office on Wilhelmstrasse.

Shirer couldn't help but be saddened whenever he passed through the Wittenbergplatz. He had visited in the days of the Weimar Republic, and it had seemed to him then that life in Berlin was freer, more modern, more stimulating and exciting than even Paris. Coming back in August of 1934 had been a terrible shock: less than two years after Röhm's Brownshirts had seized power, Berlin had been reduced to a shabby, depressing shadow of its former self. Of course, some of the change had no doubt been due to the Depression, which had struck Germany with particular force; but after the Röhm coup Berlin had become an oversized garrison town, teaming with the brutal thugs who made up Röhm's Brown Army.

Fourteen months of war had accelerated the city's decay, as men were drafted into the BA to fight the Poles, and resources were diverted into the war effort. Most of the shops in the city were closed and boarded up, driven out of business by the regime's anti-Jewish laws or its half-baked economic policies. Rationing and price controls had driven goods off the shelves of the few remaining retail outlets, leaving the black market as the only place to find necessities like food and clothing (and, to Shirer's regret, tobacco).

Shirer was distracted from the depressing thoughts inspired by his surroundings by Hanke's nonstop gabble. "The trouble with the Brownshirts," he was saying, "is that they didn't have anyone who could reach out to the people. If they'd had someone like, oh, Lenin, say, who could galvanize a crowd with the sound of his voice and build up mass support, they wouldn't have had to seize power the way they did. And frankly, just between you and me, Röhm made a big mistake turning on the Army and the capitalists the way he did. Then we wouldn't have the Polish Army sitting on our doorstep, getting ready to crush the life out of Germany. Don't you think so?"

Shirer had heard the same opinions expressed by other Germans, ones he knew were not secret police agents trying to finesse antigovernment comments from him. But he only said, "The Führer seems confident that he can turn back the Poles and win the war."

Hanke gave a short, sharp laugh. "The Führer would be doomed even if he only had the Poles to worry about. With the British and French driving in from the west, and the Italians and Austrians getting ready to attack from the south, it's a foregone conclusion. And they aren't going to let us get away with an armistice the way they did last time. Piłsudski isn't going to accept anything less than unconditional surrender, and the rest of them have to follow his lead."

It was an astute analysis of the situation, Shirer had to give Hanke that. Of course, you would expect the secret police to be better informed than anyone else. Shirer found himself wondering if Hanke had another motive for his candor besides trying to entrap him. Was he trying to ingratiate himself with Shirer, in hopes of avoiding imprisonment after the war?

"What Heydrich ought to do," Hanke continued, "is overthrow Röhm and try to cut a deal with the Western Allies. They wouldn't like to see the Poles annex half of Germany, and that's what it will come to if they let the country be overrun."

That made Shirer sit up and pay attention. Was Hanke sounding him out on behalf of his boss? Shirer could well imagine someone like the Security Minister throwing Röhm to the dogs in an effort to save his own skin. "I don't think the Western Allies would be willing to do business with Heydrich," Shirer answered cautiously. "He's got too unsavory a reputation in the West."

"Lies," sniffed Hanke. "Lies spread by the Bolsheviks and their Jewish allies in the Western press."

"Lies they may be," said Shirer, "but the people in Britain and France believe them. If Heydrich tried to cut a deal with Blum and Baldwin, he'd find himself out of luck."

"Maybe you're right," Hanke said at last. "Anyway, we've reached our destination. It was a pleasure talking with you, Herr Shirer, as always."

"And with you, Herr Hanke," said Shirer.

On time Shirer may have been, but that didn't mean he was immediately escorted up to see Rosenberg. As was common practice with the Brownshirt bigwigs, Rosenberg kept him cooling his heels in an outer office for an hour before finally agreeing to see him. Shirer spent the time thinking about what he had heard from Hanke.

Was Heydrich planning to double-cross Röhm? The upper reaches of the Brownshirt party-state were a snake-pit of lies, deceit and treachery. Four and a half years after gaining power, less than half of Röhm's original government ministers were still alive. A month after his arrival in Germany, Shirer had watched as a bureaucratic turf war between Heydrich and Agriculture Minister Heinrich Himmler ended with the latter's arrest and execution. Since then, the deadly game of political infighting had consumed one top Brownshirt after another. If anything, the war with Poland had intensified the intrigue, as each member of the new German ruling class sought to turn the country's life and death struggle to his own advantage. With Berlin being surrounded by a wave of Polish men and tanks, the chief Brownshirts were fighting ever more ruthlessly for control of a doomed government.

Shirer's musings on the state of Germany were interrupted by the arrival of one of Rosenberg's flunkies, who announced that the Foreign Minister would see him now.

"Thank you for agreeing to see me, sir," said Shirer after he had been escorted into Rosenberg's office.

"Not at all, Herr Shirer," Rosenberg oozed, as though he hadn't just kept the journalist waiting for an hour, "I am always happy to make time to see the gentlemen of the press." Not, Shirer mused, that Rosenberg's official duties kept him busy. Even before their unprovoked attack on Poland, Röhm's government had been an international pariah. In the last month, as the armies of Poland and the Western Allies overran the country, even Admiral Horthy had given the Germans the cold shoulder. Ironically, Germany's closest ties were now with Soviet Russia; since the Bolsheviks had always regarded Röhm's Germany as just another capitalist country, they had maintained an impartial stance during the war, denouncing all the participants equally.

"Minister," said Shirer as his pencil poised above his notebook, "the first thing I'd like to do is get your reaction to yesterday's declaration of war by General Antonescu."

Rosenberg frowned, and no wonder. With Romania joining the fray, there were now seven countries officially at war with Germany. "Naturally," Rosenberg said, "the German government is disappointed that General Antonescu has succumbed to the blandishments of the Judeo-Bolshevist element within Romania." After a pause to gather more of his so-called thoughts, Rosenberg continued. "Disappointed, but not surprised. General Antonescu made perfectly clear his indifference to the welfare of his people when he made common cause with his country's Marxists against Herr Codreanu."

Shirer was disappointed, but not surprised, by Rosenberg's response. Codreanu's fate had always been a sore point with the Foreign Minister. With their populist stance and virulently anti-Semitic rhetoric, Codreanu's Iron Guard movement had been ideological twins to Röhm's Brownshirts. Unfortunately, Codreanu had tried to duplicate Röhm's method of gaining power, launching a coup attempt shortly after the German invasion of Poland, and King Carol had called upon Antonescu to stop him. It had always seemed to Shirer that under different circumstances Antonescu would have been perfectly happy to join forces with Codreanu. As it was, Antonescu had quickly lowered the boom on the Iron Guards, ruthlessly crushing the movement and shooting Codreanu. Now Antonescu ruled Romania in an uneasy coalition with the Socialists, and glared across the Hungarian frontier at Admiral Horthy.

As he jotted down Rosenberg's remarks on Antonescu, Shirer said, "Next, I was wondering if there were any plans by the German government to relocate in the near future."

With the Polish Army in the process of surrounding Berlin, the question of whether the Röhm government would pull out was on the lips of everyone in the city. In the last couple of days, Shirer had put it to every top-ranking Brownshirt he had spoken with. War Minister Keitel had insisted that the German Army was poised to drive the Poles back from the capital. Security Minister Heydrich had denounced the idea as a lie spread by Jews and traitors, and had gone on to threaten Shirer with prison if he mentioned it to anyone else.

Rosenberg simply looked at Shirer with an uncertain expression and said, "Why? Have you heard something?"

"No, Herr Minister," Shirer explained patiently. "I was wondering if you had heard anything. You're the government minister, after all."

"Oh, good heavens, no," said Rosenberg, "I haven't heard anything like that. So far as I know, we're here till the bitter end. Er, that is, until we achieve final victory over the decadent liberals and their Judeo-Bolshevist allies."

Which meant that either the Brownshirts really did intend to remain in Berlin until the Poles cut them off, or that Rosenberg was being kept in the dark. Both alternatives were possible, though Shirer found the latter more likely. He hoped so, at any rate. Berlin was bad enough now. If the Poles laid siege to it, it was bound to get a lot worse.

No comments: