Saturday, January 30, 2010

DBTL 56: I Feel Safest Of All

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. The largest state in Central Europe is the Polish Commonwealth, which includes the historical Second Polish Republic, eastern Germany, and following the Second Polish Soviet War of 1944 - 45, the former Soviet republics of Byelorussia and Ukraine.

Warsaw, Polish Commonwealth
18 April 1945

It was raining in Warsaw, the kind of steady, unrelenting rain that you got there in the spring. As a taxi carried Ferdinand Porsche through the downpour, he found himself wondering which of the cars that drove past him would be suffering rust damage from the rain. Winter was the season of dead batteries, spring the season of rust, summer the season of blown radiators, and fall . . . fall was the season of unexpected disasters.

It had been the fall of 1932, about a month after the Röhm coup, that Porsche found his employer, Daimler-Benz, taken over by one of the Führer’s cronies. He was a low, uncouth fellow named Max Heydebreck, and he treated the company like his own personal bank account. Production had plummeted, and working conditions grew steadily worse. An order from Berlin had come in 1935 to convert to production of tanks, but by then the company was in such chaos that they were still in the midst of re-tooling when war came with Poland the following year. Over the next few months much of the work force was drafted into the Brown Army, and production on the tanks had still not begun when the plant was overrun by the French in May of 1937.

It had been in the fall of 1937 that the new military governor of the French Zone, Pierre Laval, had ordered all the production machinery at the plant crated up and shipped to Paris. Laval soon fell victim to a corruption investigation, but the damage had been done, and Daimler-Benz shut down for good. Opel and BMW were having troubles of their own, so, by default, Porsche found himself crossing over into the Polish Zone, to work at one of the Auto Union plants in Saxony.

The Poles at least left the company alone, which came as a welcome relief after five years under the Brownshirts. Porsche wound up at the Horch plant in Zwickau, producing luxury cars for the elite of the new Brandenberg devo. The trouble was, building luxury cars was becoming, well, routine. A man with a restless mind despite his advanced age, Porsche was hungry for new automotive worlds to conquer.

Now this summons from the Ministry of Transport in Warsaw. What, Porsche wondered, did old Rudolf Wissell want with him? Porsche had known Wissell slightly when he served as Reich Labor Minister back in the Weimar days. Now he was Transport Minister for the whole Polish Commonwealth, and it was said that he had big plans.

The taxi deposited Porsche at the front entrance of the Ministry building, one of Herr Speer’s grandiose creations. It made Porsche glad he designed cars and not buildings. Inside, the vast lobby reminded him of the final assembly area of the plant in Zwickau. Shaking the rain from his umbrella, Porsche advanced to the reception area. He found a receptionist with a German language pin and gave her his name.

“Ah, yes, Herr Doktor, the Minister is expecting you. Please take the stairs on your right to the next floor. The Minister’s office will be to your left.”

The receptionist’s directions brought him to the Minister’s outer office. As he was about ten minutes early for his appointment (his lifelong curse of too-promptness striking again), Porsche settled down to wait. To his surprise, however, he was immediately ushered into the Minister’s inner office. Whatever Wissell wanted, he evidently wanted it urgently.

Despite being six years older than Porsche, who was no spring chicken himself, Rudolf Wissell was still as spry as a young man. His eyes sparkled behind his round glasses, and a smile showed through the thickets of his white beard as he emerged from behind his desk to offer Porsche his hand.

“Herr Doktor, welcome, welcome!” Wissell enthused. “It was good of you to come.” He led Porsche to a pair of seats that faced one of the office’s broad windows. “Sit down, please, Herr Doktor.”

As he did so, Porsche said, “Thank you, Herr Minister. I’ll admit that I am curious to learn of the reason for your request.”

“Ah, straight to business, eh, Herr Doktor? Good, good! You’re a man after my own heart. The reason you’re here is because the Commonwealth is faced with a problem, and I think you’re the man to solve it.”

“And this problem is?”

“Too much new land,” said Wissell. “Now with the new eastern territories we’ve acquired from the Bolsheviks, the Commonwealth is simply enormous. We’ve got to tie it all together somehow, and the decision has been made to build some high-speed interurban roadways between the various cities. Ach, you wouldn’t believe the state of the roads in the Ukraine. Dirt! Dirt roads hundreds of miles long! It makes you weep to think of it. But what good are roads if there are no cars to run on them, eh? And that, Herr Doktor, is where you come in.”

“With all due respect, Herr Minister, I’m already making cars.”

“But we need a special car from you, Herr Doktor. A car for ordinary people. They tell me you’ve been working on a design for just such a car for some time.”

Porsche felt his interest perk up. So, Wissell had heard about his small car project, eh? “Yes I have, Herr Minister. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to convince anybody to fund development of the design.”

“You have now, Herr Doktor. If you say the word, the Ministry of Transport will set up a project to build your small cars. Mind you, it’s got to be inexpensive enough for most people to afford, and it’s got to be sturdy enough to make it back and forth across the Ukraine.”

“As a matter of fact, Herr Minister, I’ve always thought that a car with an air-cooled engine would be particularly suited for the Ukraine.”

“Yes! Perfect!” Wissell exclaimed. “Just the sort of clever thinking that’s needed here. It’s clear to me that you’re just the man for this job, Herr Doktor. Will you do it?”

A vision came to Porsche then, of millions of his rounded little cars with their rear-mounted, air-cooled engines criss-crossing the Polish Commonwealth. And on the hood of each, in shining chrome, the letters PW for Porschewagen!

Shaking Wissell’s hand, Porche said, “Herr Minister, you can count on me.”

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