Monday, January 4, 2010

DBTL 51E: City of Shadows - Interruption

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 . . .

5. Interruption

Berlin, Germany
28 June 1937

They were fighting down at the end of the Tauentzienstrasse, on the Kurfürstendamm.

He could hear the flat crack of rifle fire, and the sharper sound of pistols being fired. Most of it was rifle fire, and most of that came from the better-armed Polish troops.

Shirer had covered the living room's window with a mattress, then cut a hole in the middle for Leni to poke her camera lens through. He was looking through the viewfinder now at the fighting down the street.

The Brown Army had stationed several snipers amid the spires of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, and they were holding off a company of Polish troops. He considered this to be depressingly typical of the Browns -- make an important cultural artifact into a military target to ensure that it gets destroyed in the fighting. That was the way they had fought in Poland, and that was the way they were fighting in Berlin.

For all their claims to be creating a new society, the Brownshirts had never managed to accomplish anything except the destruction of bits and pieces of the old one. And despite their loud exclamations of fervent patriotism, they seemed eager to see their beloved Fatherland obliterated. Shirer was irresistibly reminded of those French conservatives who had made 'Better Röhm than Blum' their slogan during the elections the year before.

He felt a tug on his sleeve, and Leni said, "Time's up, it's my turn."

"You've got twice as many eyes as I have," he countered, "so I should have twice as long."

"Tell it to the Marines," she answered him in English.

Shirer laughed, and yielded his place behind the camera, but the remark set him to thinking. Where had Leni picked up that particular phrase? He was sure she hadn't learned it from him, because as far as he could remember, he had never spoken to her in English. Of course, she had listened to him make his broadcasts in English, and heard the other broadcasts by Ed Murrow and Eric Sevareid, but they hadn't used the phrase either. There were, Shirer finally decided, hidden depths to Leni.

Faintly at first, then more loudly, Shirer heard a sound like the world's largest bumblebee. It was the sound of an airplane. The Polish and German air forces had fought each other to a standstill early in the war. In the last six months, though, the Poles had been able to rebuild their air force by borrowing aircraft from their British and French allies. They were mostly used as scouts, and to keep the remnants of the German air force under control, but the Poles also used them to bomb military targets.

There was a low whistle falling in pitch, a sound that everyone in Berlin had learned to recognize as a falling bomb. Shirer and Leni both ducked down under the mattress for cover. The whistle came to an abrupt end, followed in rapid succession by the building shuddering and an explosion that was far too close for comfort.

Shirer looked up from the mattress to see that Leni had already resumed her position at the camera. "They bombed it!" she exclaimed. "They bombed the church! How could they?"

"How could they not?" Shirer asked in return as he rose to his feet. "The Brownshirts made a point of stationing snipers on the roof, for no better reason than to make it into a military target. That's the way barbarians behave, Leni. That's what makes them barbarians." He felt a sudden craving for a smoke, and crossed over to the sideboard where he kept the last of his pipe tobacco.

"It wasn't necessary to bomb it," Leni insisted as she followed him. "This was just their way of paying us back for all those buildings the Brownshirts destroyed in Poland."

"The Poles could level every building in Berlin," Shirer retorted, "and it still wouldn't make up for all the death and destruction the Brownshirts have inflicted on them."

"You'd love to see that, wouldn't you?" Leni snarled. "You've always hated my country!"

"Why shouldn't I hate it? You let a bunch of gangsters take control, and sat back while they violated every rule of civilized behavior. I stood in this very room and watched the crowds cheering when the Brown Army marched off to invade Poland. I hope they do level Berlin! I hope they level every city in Germany and turn the whole country into one big farm! Maybe then the rest of Europe won't have to worry about being invaded every twenty years!"

She slapped him. A second later there was an explosion of broken glass and a bullet's ricochet as the camera spun back into the room and clattered to a stop in the middle of the floor. The two of them dove for cover under the sideboard as more shots blasted through the window, knocking the mattress back. There was a sound of splintering wood from below, then the sound of heavy footsteps.

Shirer remained still, Leni beside him, as the footsteps charged up the stairs, then burst into the room. He saw a man in a gray-green uniform and bowl-shaped helmet level his rifle at them and bark out a phrase in Polish.

Shirer used a Polish phrase he had been practicing for months. "I surrender."

The soldier motioned for them to emerge, and they slowly did so, hands raised. Two more men entered, one with a sergeant's insignia on his sleeve. The one pointing the rifle at them spoke to the sergeant, and nodded towards the twisted wreckage of the camera.

"Who are you?" the sergeant asked in heavily-accented German.

"I am an American," Shirer answered, slowly and clearly. "I'm a reporter. My name is William L. Shirer."

"Shirer?" said the sergeant. "From radio?"

"Yes," said Shirer, "from the radio."

"You come," said the sergeant.

Surrounded by the Polish soldiers, Shirer and Leni were led down out of the apartment to the street, then west along the Tauentzienstrasse to the Kurfürstendamm. There he saw more Polish troops who were accompanied by a man in civilian clothes. The civilian was --

"Ed!" Shirer exclaimed.

The smile on his face a mile wide, Ed Murrow strode forward to shake Shirer's hand. "Bill, dammit but it's good to see you safe!" Then, catching sight of Leni, he added, "And who is this?"

A long look passed between the two men, and Shirer knew that he would eventually tell his colleague everything. "This is Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker," he answered. "She's been filming the siege. I guess one of the Poles mistook her camera for a rifle."

"Are you both okay?" Murrow asked.

"Yeah. Luckily, we weren't near it when they shot it. The camera's a goner, though."

A Polish officer in a captain's uniform approached them. "A pleasure to meet you again, Mr. Shirer," he said in English.

"The pleasure's mutual, Captain Blair," said Shirer, as he shook the Englishman's hand. Murrow had told him how Blair had come to Poland the year before as a war correspondent, then wound up joining the Polish Army.

"If you'll come with me," Blair continued, "I'll get you and Miss Riefenstahl kitted out with some Polish press passes. I don't think you'll be needing your German ones anymore." As Shirer followed Blair down the Kurfürstendamm, it felt like he was emerging from shadow into daylight.

Epilogue: Interment
30 June 1937

"This is Berlin. Today, the body of Ernst Röhm, Führer of the German National Republic, was found in a bunker beneath the Chancellery Building, dead by suicide. With the suicide of Security Minister Reinhard Heydrich two days ago following his capture by the Polish Army, this leaves War Minister Wilhelm Keitel as the senior surviving member of Röhm's government. Except for the Brown Army garrison which continues to hold out in Magdeburg, all organized German resistance has ended.

"Polish War Minister Jósef Piłsudski is in Berlin today, visiting the ruins of various government buildings, including the Reichstag and the Chancellery, and preparing for tomorrow's summit meeting in Potsdam with British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and French Premier Léon Blum. Both Baldwin and Blum have stated their opposition to Piłsudski's plan for a postwar partition of Germany into Polish, French and British zones of occupation.

"The Polish Army has begun conducting tours of the Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück concentration camps, including mass graves found outside of both camps. The Poles have uncovered hundreds of bodies in each, and estimate that the number of bodies found could rise into the thousands. There are unconfirmed reports that a similar mass grave has been discovered by French troops outside the Dachau concentration camp near Munich.

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

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