Thursday, December 31, 2009

DBTL 51B: City of Shadows - Intervention

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 . . .

2. Intervention

Berlin, Germany
10 June 1937

The streets of Berlin had suddenly filled with people.

Despite everything Heydrich's secret police could do to stop them, the rumors had flown fast and furious through the battered capital. The Brownshirts had sworn to stay. The Brownshirts were pulling out tomorrow. The Brownshirts would declare Berlin an open city. The Brownshirts were going to booby-trap the city. The Brownshirts were going to blow up the city. The Poles were going to bypass Berlin. The Poles were going to encircle Berlin and shell it. The Poles were going to wall up Berlin and bombard it with poison gas canisters. The Poles were going to raze Berlin and butcher its inhabitants.

Every hour brought a new rumor, and every rumor led more people to attempt to flee the city. By now every westbound street in Berlin was choked with people fleeing on foot, along with a scattering of bicycles, motorcycles and horse-drawn carts. No cars, of course; the Brownshirts owned every car in Germany, and the secret police would be sure to stop any cars that took part in the exodus and arrest their occupants.

Bill Shirer stood just outside the doorway of his apartment building and watched as the river of fearful humanity flowed past. As he let his gaze move across the tide of refugees, his eye caught something unusual moving among the crowd several blocks to the east. Lacking the use of both eyes, Shirer was unable to judge the distance any better.

Fifteen minutes later, the crowd brought it close enough for him to make out: it was a motorcycle and sidecar with an elevated platform rising above it. Crouched atop the platform a figure with a movie camera was filming the stream of refugees. It wasn't until the oddly equipped motorcycle had approached within a hundred feet of him that Shirer realized that the camera operator was a woman. Then it dawned on him who it had to be.

Leni Riefenstahl was one of the most innovative filmmakers to come out of Weimar Germany. Her film The Blue Light had immediately established her among the top rank of the country's directors. Her triumph, though, proved to be short-lived. The Röhm Coup had followed within months of its release, and Röhm quickly made it clear that he had no more use for Riefenstahl than he had for any other woman. She had been subjected to the usual petty harassment meted out to intellectuals by the Brownshirts -- random acts of workplace vandalism, periodic arrests, and a few weeks' stretch in one of their concentration camps.

The motorcycle had almost come abreast of Shirer's building when it was halted by a khaki-uniformed member of the Vopos -- the People's Police. Even from thirty feet away, Shirer could see dismay on the woman's face. Was it illegal for her to be filming the exodus? It hardly mattered, because the Brownshirts had a habit of making up new laws on the spot whenever they couldn't be bothered to cite an existing one.

Brownshirt "justice" was rough at the best of times; with Berlin coming under siege, they had taken to shooting detainees out of hand. Before he could think his actions over, Shirer had plunged into the crowd and was forcing his way through to the Vopo and his quarry.

"Herr Comrade Policeman, I can explain," Shirer called out to the Vopo.

The thug turned and scowled at Shirer. "Who are you?"

Shirer produced his press pass -- he made a point never to be without it in Röhm's Germany. "William L. Shirer, Columbia Broadcasting System, United States of America. Fraulein Riefenstahl is an employee of mine. We're shooting newsreel footage for the Movietone News Company." It was a desperately flimsy lie. Not only did Riefenstahl not work for Shirer, Shirer didn't work for Movietone -- the newsreel companies were owned by the film studios, not the radio networks.

The Vopo held out his hand. "May I see your filming permit from the Ministry of Communications?"

With an inward sigh of relief, Shirer produced his passport from another pocket -- he always made sure to carry it as well -- and passed it over. The Vopo glanced inside, then returned it to Shirer. "This permit expires today," he said. "You would be well advised to finish your newsreel very quickly."

"Yes, thank you, Comrade Policeman, we shall do so," Shirer answered. As the Vopo stood and watched, Shirer led the motorcycle down an alleyway that led to the courtyard behind his apartment.

Riefenstahl clambered down from the platform, then took Shirer's hand. "You have my sincerest gratitude, Herr Shirer," she said. "You may very well have just saved the lives of Hans and myself." The driver, who introduced himself as Reifenstahl's sound man, Hans Bittmann, shook his hand also.

"What was that you gave the Vopo?" Riefenstahl wondered. "It certainly was not a filming permit."

"It was my passport," said Shirer. "I make it a habit to carry a folded fifty-mark note inside." He shrugged. "It gets written up in my expense voucher as 'miscellaneous expenses'."

Riefenstahl smiled. "You are a resourceful man, Herr Shirer."

Shirer shrugged again. "You have to be in this country."

"True, unfortunately," said Riefenstahl with a frown. She turned and looked up at the camera. "May I impose upon you further, Herr Shirer? I fear I may be under observation by the police, and I have several canisters of film I do not wish to see confiscated and destroyed. May I leave them here in your safekeeping?"

"I would be honored, Fraulein Riefenstahl."

Smiling once more, she said, "Please, call me Leni."

"Thank you, Leni," said Shirer. "Call me Bill."

As the three of them carried the canisters into the apartment building, Leni explained about her current project. "I intend to make a filmed record of the siege of Berlin. I hope it will serve as a warning to future generations of Germans of the hazards of allowing themselves to be ruled by a senseless brute."

"That's assuming there are any future generations of Germans," said Shirer.

"That remark is in very poor taste," Bittmann said stiffly.

Shirer looked at him intently. "How many times do you think Germany can invade her neighbors before the neighbors decide to put a stop to it once and for all?"

"Are you suggesting," said Riefenstahl, "that the German people will be exterminated?"

"No," said Shirer, "what I'm suggesting is that the German state will be broken up. We can see it happening right now as the British, French, and Poles conquer the country. They've already set up their own separate administrations over the territory they occupy. All they have to do is decide after the war to make the arrangement permanent, and Germany will be gone."

"Impossible," Bittmann declared, but there was a catch in the man's voice that told Shirer that he didn't think it impossible at all. "Why would they do such a thing?" he continued.

Shirer gestured towards the street, with its panicked masses. "Why don't you go out and ask them? They could tell you. They're trying to flee because they know perfectly well how the Brownshirts dealt with the Poles who came under their rule, and they fear the Poles will deal with them the same way."

"Propaganda," Bittmann sniffed. "Lies."

Shirer fixed Bittmann with a stare. "Ed Murrow does not spread lies and propaganda. If he says the Brownshirts burned synagogues and murdered Jews, then the Brownshirts burned synagogues and murdered Jews."

Leni spoke up. "If the Brownshirts knew about our film, they would call it lies and propaganda."

"That's absurd," Bittmann said. "Nobody would ever accuse you of being a propagandist, Leni."

"Speaking of the film," said Shirer, "if you want, you can film the street from my apartment in the loft."

"Thank you, Bill," said Leni, "that is an excellent suggestion. Come, Hans, we'll go dismount the camera from the platform."

It took the three of them half an hour to unbolt the camera from the platform, ease it to the ground, and carry it up the stairs to Shirer's apartment. Once there, Leni perched it from one of the windows looking down onto the street, then spent the next two hours filming the people who streamed past.

A vision came to Shirer of a time years in the future when film buffs would come to this apartment to see where Leni's documentary was filmed. He found himself wondering what sort of city Berlin would be then, and what sort of country Germany would be, or whether there would even be a Germany.

In the street below, frightened people continued to trudge past.


Jussi Jalonen said...

I don't know why, but somehow, I had remembered that the abbreviation was "Volpos" instead of "Vopos".

Since I'm always reluctant to admit that my memory is starting to fail me, I had to check the original from the usenet archives, just to make sure that you hadn't changed it. Of course you hadn't, so this must be considered as the final proof of my impending Alzheimer's.


J. J.

Johnny Pez said...

Jussi, are your DBTL posts online anywhere? If so, I can add their links to the Big List.

Jussi Jalonen said...

They're not online, apart from the usenet archives. But if you want to, I can send you the texts and you can publish them here at some suitable moment.

(The functional e-mail address is j.o.jalonen at


J. J.