Friday, January 1, 2010

DBTL 51C: City of Shadows - Interest

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 . . .

3. Interest

Berlin, Germany
18 June 1937

The streets of Berlin were empty again.

The day before, the Polish army had succeeded in squeezing shut the corridor connecting Berlin to the rest of unoccupied Germany. Everybody who was in the city now would be staying here until it surrendered to the Poles, including the Brownshirt leadership and William L. Shirer.

And Leni Riefenstahl, of course. She had decided that the view of the street from Shirer's window would be one of the documentary's visual touchstones, an image to which it would return several times to chart the city's progress through the siege. She had even talked him into letting her film him while he was making his weekly radio report to the United States. Not that he had
needed much persuading.

As they had done every week for the past six months, he and Ed Murrow each gave their views of the war, first Ed from among the Poles, then himself from among the Germans. They had started out three hundred miles apart, with Ed in Warsaw during the German siege, and himself in Berlin. Since then, Ed had followed the Polish Army as it drove the Germans back from Warsaw, across the border, and on to the German capital, until by now Ed was broadcasting from twenty miles away. Shirer would have liked to do a live broadcast from a Berlin rooftop, as Ed had done in Warsaw six months before. Unfortunately, Röhm's government wasn't nearly as accommodating as Pilsudski's had been, and permission had not been forthcoming.

"This is Potsdam," Shirer heard Murrow say over his headphones. "It's a suburb of Berlin about twenty miles west of the city center where Mr. Shirer will be broadcasting. I'm here because this is where General Sikorski has established his headquarters. It was only five miles north of here that the Poles completed their encirclement of Berlin, when elements of Sikorski's First Army Group made contact with General Skwarazinski's Second Army Group. In a briefing to the press this evening, General Sikorski announced that the Second Army Group would remain to continue the siege of Berlin, while his own forces would resume the drive west into the heart of Germany. General Sikorski predicts that he'll be linking up with the British and French armies by the end of the month.

"For the people of Poland, this day represents a milestone; the penultimate milestone, perhaps, in their fight for survival. After thirteen months of constant struggle, the end is finally in sight. Now, all eyes turn to Berlin, where the final act in this long drama is destined to be played out. For Ernst Röhm and his New National Movement, the moment of truth is fast approaching. It's too late now for Germany's Führer to save himself. The only question remaining is what he can do to save Germany.

"This is Edward R. Murrow, reporting live from Potsdam."

"Thank you, Mr. Murrow," came the voice of Bob Trout in New York over Shirer's headphones. "William L. Shirer remains in Berlin to report on events in the now isolated German capital. We take you now to Berlin!"

Shirer had his report written out, as usual, and as his engineer gave him the go sign, he began to read into the microphone. "This is Berlin. The streets here are no longer jammed with refugees fleeing west. The way out has been cut off, and now those remaining must share in whatever fate the government chooses for them. The Führer gave a speech this morning over the radio in which he promised a bullet in the head for every Polish soldier who enters Berlin. Herr Röhm also swore that the Brownshirts would die fighting to the last man rather than surrender to, as he put it, 'the subhuman Slavic hordes and their secret Jewish-Bolshevist masters'. He also issued another call for the people of England and France to rise up and overthrow the, quote, 'race traitors and Jews', unquote, who currently govern those nations.

"Meanwhile, despite the encirclement of Berlin, Germany's government continues to function as usual. Thursday saw the arrest of Foreign Minister Alfred Rosenberg on charges of conspiracy to commit treason. In a hearing before the Revolutionary Tribunal Friday morning, Rosenberg was found guilty, and shortly afterwards was shot outside the Palace of Justice. There has been no word yet on who will be replacing Rosenberg at the Foreign Ministry.

"This is William L. Shirer, reporting live from Berlin."

After the broadcast, Leni spoke to him in astonishment. "The Communications Ministry actually allows you to say things like that?"

Shirer had often wondered about that himself. "I suppose they don't care what I say about them to the Americans, as long as I don't say anything bad about them to the Germans."

Leni nodded. "That would be just like them. Are the Poles like that, do you think?"

"Not according to Ed Murrow. He says the Poles have been rebroadcasting his reports over their own radio network, with a Polish translation. After he picked up some Polish, Ed said he offered to do the translated version himself, but they turned him down. They said they liked the way it sounded in English. Anyway, they've got Pola Negri doing the Polish version, so I guess they get the best of both worlds."

Shirer yawned. A live broadcast from Europe sounded like a good idea, and it was a good idea, but in order to make the six o'clock news in New York, he had to stay up past midnight. That in itself wasn't too bad, but due to the curfew, he was stuck in the RRG's Broadcasting House until 8 am. When Leni proposed filming his broadcast, he had warned her that she too would be stuck
in the station all night.

She had dismissed that concern with an airy wave of her hand. "When you've spent as much time as I have filming on location in the Bavarian Alps, the prospect of spending a night in a radio station holds no terrors."

Shirer thought no more about it until the engineer bid his farewells and left the studio, when it suddenly came to him that he was alone at night in an empty building with a beautiful woman. Of course, they had been just as alone, and she had been just as beautiful, plenty of times before, even in his apartment. But being in the studio with her was different somehow. Maybe it was the fact that, for the first time, they were alone together in the night.

At first he tried to tell himself that he was letting his loneliness run away with him. It had been a long time, too long, since Tess had been in the city with him. But after shutting down her camera, Leni remained perched on the desk beside him, gazing wordlessly into his eyes. There was no mistaking her intent.

I could end this now, Shirer thought. All I have to do is start talking about Tess, how relieved I am that she's not in Berlin, how much I miss her, how much I love her.

And now for some reason he was thinking of Yvonne, from his stay in Paris back in the '20s, before he met Tess. A vision came to him of the two of them married now and living in Paris. Of course, in that case he'd probably be with the French troops right now advancing across Bavaria. His place in Berlin would be filled by Ed, or by Eric Sevareid.

"What are you thinking about?" Leni asked.

"Decisions," Shirer answered. "Consequences."

Her lovely face was expressionless. "What about them?"

"They say that all choices have consequences, but they're wrong. Some have consequences, and some don't. The trick is telling which is which."

"Are you worried about consequences now?"

He shook his head. "No, not now." And he reached for her.

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