It was at about the same moment, not that many miles away, Minister for Finance Schwerin von Krosigk was sitting at a campfire with a dozen-odd members of his staff drinking tea from tin cups in the middle of a field that stood between the lake and a large apple orchard. They’d made their camp there, parking the three ministry lorries and four automobiles in two lines and stringing camouflage netting up over them to make them less visible. They hung some large tarps, like lean-tos, down from the sides of the different vehicles, which they’d slept under. They’d dug a fire-pit off to the side, lined it with large rocks and then arranged their camp chairs and logs around it and in its own way it was almost pleasant.
They’d arrived there the day before last after an absolutely harrowing trip out of Berlin. What would normally have been a five-hour drive ended up taking them the better part of a week. The roads were a nightmare, jammed with everyone who’d been allowed out: mostly it was government people and administrators from the different ministries who’d been given permission to relocate their critical files and other records to Hamburg. And of course it was the Brown Pheasants too; the Nazi party officials, so named because of their sumptuous brown-and-gold uniforms, and even though most of them were no longer wearing them, it was easy enough to tell who they were.
And the route was long and winding and full of detours since by now, most of the bridges had been knocked out either by the allied air attacks or by their own demolition squads, determined to prevent anything workable from getting into enemy hands. Driving anytime during the day was impossible because of the air attacks which by now were endless, and directed against any thing that moved, regardless of whether it be civilian or military. And anytime there was a military convoy going in either direction they’d have to immediately get completely off the road. But almost worst of all, there were the endless roadblocks and checkpoints where they’d have to present their papers and authorization documents which would then be examined and checked against whatever very incomplete and fragmentary lists the police had been supplied with. More than once they’d been ordered to turn around and go back to Berlin, and if not for some very lucky higher intervention, they would have had to.
They managed to reach Hamburg only to find out that it was about to fall to the British, which meant they’d have to keep going east to Luneberg and then across the Elbe. Their anabasis finally ended at a checkpoint outside Eutin on the Baltic coast, where at first the military police tersely informed him that neither he nor his staff had passes allowing them to enter the Northern Zone, but then after one of his men got one of the liaison officers on Field Marshal Busch’s staff to determine that even if their names weren’t on any of the six official evacuation lists, they should have been included on them, they were issued temporary residence documents allowing them to stay. By that point there were no longer any billets for them anywhere in town so they ended up driving to a field near one of the smaller lakes and setting up their camp there.
Now sitting there in their gypsy encampment it was as if time itself had come to a halt. The things which for so long had defined their existence no longer had any bearing. For the moment they were wherever they were. For the moment there was nothing to escape from and nowhere to escape to. It was a bright warm spring morning and there were leaves on the trees and birds singing and the earth they stood on was warm and soft and full of life. And even though in another five or ten minutes a bunch of British Typhoon fighters might come screaming out of the clouds, with their guns blazing, sending them all scurrying into the ditch, at least now everything was quiet and peaceful and that was good enough.
Throughout the days and evenings they’d sit around a big portable Telefunken wireless listening to whichever news broadcasts they could pick up. It was pretty clear that Berlin was by now almost entirely overrun. Whether the Russians had taken the Fuehrerbunker or the Reichskanzelei was still unclear at that point. But one thing was completely certain, there would be no miracle turnaround such as the propagandists had endlessly prophesied. Berlin, for all intents and purposes, had already fallen.
Sometime during these days he’d find himself remembering the odd conversations he’d had with the SS general Schellenberg and with Himmler. He almost had to laugh when he recalled how portentous they’d seemed to him at the time, all the promise and hope they offered. But now a mere month and a half later, it turned out that none of it had come to anything. After that one bizarre dinner, he’d never heard another word from either of them.
Mostly though, he tried not to think about anything. There was no point dwelling on what was now definitely the past and the future still seemed altogether too elusive to try to construct anything from. As finance minister, there were few jobs presently more irrelevant than his. The end would come in another day or two and he was glad none of it was his responsibility. Besides the weather here in the country was pleasant enough and they still had enough food to last the week. So he sat back and tried to relax.
Now, as he sat in his shirtsleeves drinking tea, one of his section heads pointed at something. “Hey, look at that!” he exclaimed. Von Krosigk turned and saw a long line of green, open-roofed kubelwagens and staff cars slowly lumbering out of the apple orchards toward them.
“I wonder what they want?” someone said.
“Well there’s nobody here but us,” said someone else.
“They’re SS,” observed another.
Fifty yards from their camp, the convoy halted. The front door opened on one of the Mercedes and a young SS officer jumped out and ran towards them.
“What could they want with us?” one of the deputy section heads muttered as they watched his approach. “They must think we’re from a different ministry.”
Then the young SS officer called out, “Is one of you Finance Minister Schwerin von Krosigk?”
“Right here,” answered Von Krosigk raising his hand and then immediately wishing he hadn’t.
“Would you come with me please?” the officer asked. “The Reichsfuehrer SS wants to speak to you.”
“If he’s looking for emergency cash, tell him we don’t have any,” one of the section chiefs muttered in a low voice, though loud enough for the rest of them to hear.
Von Krosigk followed the young officer back to one of the staff cars. Its rear door opened and out stepped General Schellenberg. “Hello Herr Minister,” he began, fixing von Krosigk with his foxy smile. “I’m glad to see you and your staff succeeded in getting out of Berlin.”
Immediately an uneasiness came over von Krosigk. “What is it?” he asked.
“The Reichsfuehrer would like you to come with him to meet Grand Admiral Doenitz. Do you remember that thing we discussed that time, do you think you can tell it to the Admiral?”
“Of course, I remember,” answered von Krosigk. “But why? What does Admiral Doenitz have to do with any of it?”
“We can’t explain that to you right now,” answered Schellenberg. “There’s no time to spare.” Then he noticed how von Krosigk was dressed. “Is that all you’ve got?” he asked, looking slightly askance. “Can you find a tie?”
“General, please tell me what is going on?”
“We need to get moving right away,” insisted Schellenberg. “Don’t you have a tie?”
“I can’t just leave my staff like this,” protested von Krosigk. “I have responsibility for them. We are all still operating here in an official capacity.”
A man stepped out from one of the open kubelwagens. It was a large SS colonel. “Is there a problem here, General?” he asked.
“Reichminister von Krosigk feels that he’d be wrong to leave his staff unsupervised,” Schellenberg answered, still smiling foxily.
“Is that so?” asked the colonel staring hard at von Krosigk. “Maybe you should just do as you’re told.” The way he said it, von Krosigk knew it was probably a good idea.
“Go back and get a tie,” added Schellenberg. “Hurry, the Reichsfuehrer doesn’t want to waste any more time.”
Von Krosigk turned and double-timed it back to the camp. Everyone looked alarmed, and when he asked for a tie, one of his deputies immediately went into a clutch bag, pulled one out, and handed it to him. Without bothering to say anything more than, ‘I’ll be back,’ von Krosigk ran back to the waiting vehicles, fixing the tie around his neck as he ran and hoping all the while that this whole thing wouldn’t get him killed.
The whole way to Doenitz’s headquarters, von Krosigk sat wedged between Schellenberg and Himmler. While Schellenberg was bringing von Krosigk up to speed on the recent developments, Himmler did little besides grunt irritably. At first von Krosigk thought Himmler was extremely angry about something, but then as the ride went on, he began suspecting that the Reichsfuehrer might actually be in extreme pain.
Schellenberg explained how, by some complete fluke, it was Doenitz, not Himmler that Hitler had named as his successor and that since last night Doenitz had been acting in that capacity. This was a disastrous choice since Doenitz, good man though he was, had no knowledge whatsoever of politics or foreign affairs. And now they’d just learned he was looking for someone to handle foreign affairs for him and apparently had his eye on a completely inappropriate candidate, who would be an even bigger disaster and since von Krosigk had always been Himmler’s choice for a foreign minister, he thought he should find von Krosigk and get him there in front of Doenitz so Doenitz could see how well-versed he was in foreign issues and pick him instead. “It’s just a question of getting you there before somebody else shows up,” Schellenberg explained. “It’s also a question of explaining to the Grand Admiral how you think the Western Allies would want somebody like the Reichsfuehrer to negotiate with them. You can do that, can’t you?”
But before von Krosigk could answer Himmler cut in. “Can you tell it to him? Are you capable?” he asked. He looked nervous, like things weren’t working the way he’d expected them to.
“Yes, Reichsfuehrer, of course I can,” said von Krosigk, though he didn’t see how he ever could. Those two previous meetings, all he’d really done was parrot the logic and lines fed to him by Schellenberg.
At first Schellenberg attempted to coach von Krosigk on what he should tell Doenitz and how he should act. But as he went on and on, what he was saying seemed only to further irritate Himmler, until he finally took the hint and stopped talking.
That seemed to placate Himmler. But then after a few minutes of silence, he began moaning loudly. Alarmed at his distress, Schelenberg immediately ordered the whole convoy to halt. As soon as it did, he opened his door and sticking his head out, shouted “Send a medic!” But instead, Himmler rasped out excitedly, “No! Get Loerber!”
A moment later a young SS officer in a black uniform ran up. He stuck his head into the rear compartment to take a look at Himmler’s condition.
“He’s having one of his attacks,” Schellenberg told him. “You have to do something.”
The young man nodded intently. He unbuttoned his dress tunic and handed it to one of the other officers and then began rolling up his sleeves. “Don’t worry, Reichsfuehrer, you’re going to be all right,” he said reassuringly. But the Reichsfuehrer only groaned louder. The young man quickly started unbuttoning Himmler’s shirt so that his chest was exposed. He began working his hands over the man’s chest. “Does that feel better Reichsfuehrer?” But the Reichsfuehrer’s screams did not abate.
Von Krosigk turned to Schellenberg. “What’s wrong? Is he sick? Is, is he wounded?”
Schellenberg shook his head. “It’s his stomach.”
Warily von Krosigk edged himself back, away from the milling throng of SS men.
The young man had stepped halfway inside the car, one foot still on the ground, the other on the floor of the rear compartment, leaning over the Reichsfuehrer’s supine figure.
He stuck his head back out. “Someone get my bag; the black one! Hurry!” he shouted. A few seconds later it was in his hands. A big leather doctor’s bag. “Here, hold this!” he said, thrusting it into a bystander’s hands and immediately began rummaging through it.
“So who’s that,” von Krosigk asked one of the officers. “Is that his doctor?”
“It’s not his doctor,” the officer explained. “It’s his masseur.”
“No, it’s not his masseur,” corrected another officer. “His masseur is in Stockholm. That’s Loerber, his astrologer. Don’t worry,” he added. “He’s good.”
Von Krosigk saw that the young man hadpulled from his bag a small purple velvet sack that appeared to be tied with a golden cord. He undid the cord and from the bag he extracted two large crystals. Holding one in each hand, he then passed them to Himmler uttering something in a very low voice as he did. Himmler eagerly clutched the two crystals in his hands, nodding tearfully, but compliantly to whatever the young man was saying to him. Then the young man took the Reichsfuehrer’s hands in his and pulled them up above his head. He regarded them momentarily, only to correct their apparent alignment, then nodded gravely and turned back outside to go into his bag once more. He took out another small velvet sack, this one bright red and extracted a large, pinecone shaped, hexagonal crystal which he first rubbed with a piece of soft cloth, then he placed it on the Reichsfuehrer’s stomach, shifting its position several times before presumably determining the proper spot where he then left it.
It went on like this for another five minutes, with the young man taking things in and out of the bag, at one point handing a small handful of what looked like a ball of compressed wood shavings to a bystander, instructing him to light it. Once it was burning, he slipped it into what looked like a tiny golden censer on a long chain. Immediately a sulfurous gray-yellow began issuing from the censer’s many tiny holes. Holding it by its chain, the young man then solemnly swung the censer a half dozen times over the Reichsfuehrer’s figure, muttering words that did not sound even remotely Germanic
Even from where he stood, the smell of the smoke made von Krosigk so queasy he wondered how anyone nearer or inside the car could stand it. But to his surprise, no one besides himself seemed particularly affected by it. All the while, the stricken Reichsfuehrer continued faithfully clutching the crystals above his head in the prescribed manner.
As he continued to rub the Reichsfuehrer’s stomach with one hand, with the other, he deftly gathered the two crystals the Reichsfuehrer had been holding, then the one on his stomach. Then, still holding them in his hand, he pulled a handkerchief from one of his pockets, using just two fingers, and wiped the crystals clean before letting them slip back into their velvet sacks, which suddenly seemed to have appeared hanging from his wrist by their golden cords. And with a single, elegant motion, he slipped the velvet sacks off his wrist, pulling the cords shut as he did.
Watching the young man, von Krosigk was struck by the sheer seamlessness of his motions. There’d been no fumbling, no wasted movement. All of it had been executed with the smooth, confident precision of an expert waiter, or a seasoned thief, or a top stage magician performing complicated tricks. Then he remembered that the young man’s name was Loerber.
“Is he one of the Loerber Brothers?” von Krosigk blurted out suddenly.
The SS men officers solemnly nodded. “Yes, that’s Franzi Loerber,” said one. “I’ve been seeing him work all this last week and he’s definitely the magic one!” The others nodded too. They’d also seen him in action.
The funny thing was, after that, Himmler was acting bright and excited and full of energy and ideas. “We’ll set the Grand Admiral right about things. He’ll let me go to Eisenhower. There’s no reason he should go all the way back to square one on this when I’ve already got months of legwork behind me. Yes, Gentlemen, I’ve got a feeling we all might just be having lunch with Ike himself this very time tomorrow.”
Von Krosigk found himself sharing a glance with Schellenberg. As their eyes met, he raised his eyebrows at von Krosigk, like he was completely sharing his boss’ jubilation. Von Krosigk made a polite smile and spent the rest of the drive staring fixedly as he could at a stain mark on the back of the seat in front of him.
When they arrived at Doenitz’s headquarters, a collection of drab, grey, one-and-two storey huts built on the edge of some Baltic inlet, Von Krosigk, walked with Himmler and a dozen of his men up to the camp commandant’s hut. The whole way up dozens of sailors stood watching them like they were almost expecting a show down. In front of the commandant’s hut a line of armed sailors presented arms and after talking with the Grand Admiral’s adjutant, Himmler and Schellenberg were escorted inside, leaving von Krosigk standing with the escorts.
“What happened?” he asked the SS colonel heading Himmler’s guard detail.
“Grand Admiral Doenitz invited the Reichsfuehrer in for lunch,” the colonel said.\
“But what about me?”
“I guess you weren’t invited,” he answered.
“But was the Grand Admiral informed of my presence? I’m the reason the Reichsfuehrer came here.”
“Hey, don’t ask me,” the colonel answered.
Thoroughly peeved, Von Krosigk then turned to the man commanding the Naval guard. “I think I was supposed to go in with them.” The man pointed to a petty officer, standing nearby. “Talk to him,” he said. “He’s the Grand Admiral’s adjutant’s assistant.”
“Excuse me,” said von Krosigk to the adjutant’s assistant. “But I believe I was supposed to go in with them. That man said I should talk to you.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but who are you?” the adjutant’s assistant asked.
“Reichsminister for Finance Count Lutz Graf Schwerin von Krosigk,” he growled. “I was supposed to meet with the Grand Admiral as well.”
“I’m sorry, but the Reichfuehrer hadn’t said anything about it to the Grand Admiral’s adjutant. Finance minister, you say, sir?”
“Yes,” said von Krosigk.
“I need to talk to Captain Ludde-Neurath about this, sir,” he said. “Please wait.”
The adjutant’s assistant went inside. A few minutes later he came out. “Captain Ludde-Neurath would like to know what the matter was you were supposed to talk to the Grand Admiral about.”
So Schwerin von Krosigk told the adjutant’s assistant whatever it was Schellenberg had said about someone to do foreign affairs. The adjutant’s assistant listened dutifully to what he was being told.” He nodded. “Let me go tell Captain Ludde-Neurath. I’ll be back.” He went back in and for ten minutes there was nothing. Himmler’s guard detachment was by then standing at ease alongside Navy guards a few feet away. Their commanders, the scary colonel and a Navy captain wearing infantryman’s feldgrau stood together smoking cigarettes, like they already knew each other. Seeing von Krosigk standing there forlornly, the SS colonel snickered. “What’s the matter, Herr Minister, did the Reichsfuehrer forget about you?” the Navy captain also smiled like it was all typical of what was going on. Von Krosigk glowered back agreeably and found something else to stare at.
Then the door opened and the adjutant’s assistant popped his head out and waved him in.
“I’m sorry about that, sir,” he told von Krosigk. But if you’ll just have a seat Captain Ludde-Neurath will be with you.” He was pointed to a bench in the middle of the busy corridor.
He sat there alone for nearly another hour, wondering the whole time if he’d been completely forgotten and that perhaps he should just quietly find his way back to the encampment. Then, just as he was about to leave, the naval officer he recognized earlier as being the Grand Admiral’s adjutant came up to him. “Finance Minister Schwerin von Krosigk?” he asked.
“Come with me, please.”
The officer, who identified himself as Captain Ludde-Neurath took him down the hall and into to an outer office where two yeoman clerks sat silently typing. “Wait there, please,” he said, pointing him to a chair. He then went inside the inner office, shutting the door behind him. A minute later the door opened and out trooped Albert Speer and Heinrich Himmler. Seeing von Krosigk sitting there as he walked past, Himmler glanced at him absent-mindedly like he didn’t remember who he was. Five more minutes alone. Then ten minutes, then fifteen. And all the while the two sailors kept typing and their furious pace, not even once looking up to acknowledge his presence. Then suddenly the door to the inner office opened a crack and Doenitz stuck his head out and coldly regarding von Krosigk he said, “would you come in, please.” Nervously von Krosigk got to his feet and walked inside the admiral’s office.
Doenitz pointed him to one of the recently vacated chairs. “So, you’ve been Finance Minister since when?” he asked tersely.
“Since 1929, Grand Admiral.”
“And you spent several years living in London?”
"Cambridge, actually. I was a Rhodes Scholar.”
"A Rhodes Scholar? So would you say you understand the English?”
“I suppose so.”
“And how long has it been since you’ve been there?”
“And you think what you know from it still applies?”
Von Krosigk shrugged. “Things don’t always change that much, Grand Admiral.”
Doentiz seemed to accept the explanation. “Would you have any ideas or recommendations about our current situation?”
Von Krosigk tried to remember the things he’d discussed with Himmler and Schellenberg, what they’d agreed on about international contacts with the Red Cross or with Postal Union representatives, but somehow none of it seemed coherent enough to bring up. “I suppose it depends on what the Grand Admiral intends to do,” he said finally.
“What I intend to do is seek an immediate end to the war,” Doenitz answered in a cold, angry voice.
“I see,” said von Krosigk.
Doenitz continued. “Reichsfuehrer Himmler seems to think the Western Allies are eager to make common cause with us against the Bolsheviks. Do you agree?”
Von Krosigk had to think about it. For the last few weeks everyone had been saying just that and they’d all agreed that was what Churchill and Eisenhower and the new American President Truman had in mind. But now that he was being asked that question by someone as serious as the Grand Admiral, he suddenly wasn’t so sure. “I don’t know,” he said.
“So you don’t see any hope of us playing the Anglo-Americans and the Russians against each other?”
“No, Grand Admiral, I don’t know that at all,” answered von Krosigk. “All I know is the Russian card is the only one in our hands that we can use with the West. And the only thing we can do is try to play it the best we can. How well the West will want to play with us is hard to say. I’d be lying if I told you I had any special insight into it.”
“Reichsfuehrer Himmler has just spent much of the last hour singing your praises,” said Doenitz. “He thinks your presence could just about guarantee a favorable reaction from the Western Allies. What do you have to say about that?”
“I’m not actually sure what anybody can accomplish at this point.”
“Well at this point I’d say that anything which Reichsfuehrer would wholeheartedly recommend, I’d probably dismiss out of hand. But Speer seems to have a high opinion of you also. Therefore, if you want the job, it’s yours,” said Doenitz.
Von Krosigk blinked twice. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but what exactly is the job, foreign minister you never said?”
“Foreign Minister,” Doenitz grimaced when he said it. “Actually under the circumstances I think it’d be better to just make it chancellor. You’ll be my Number Two. Are you interested?”
< Von Krosigk was dumbfounded. “Chancellor? You want me to be chancellor?”
< “That’s right,” said Doenitz.
“But, that would be the same position as Bismarck or, or the Fuehrer under Hindenburg. Grand Admiral, I don’t know what to say. Honestly, I am not worthy of this honor.”
Doenitz looked unimpressed. “Count, this is not going to be an honor. It’s going to be a dirty, thankless, humiliating task. Now if you want it, it’s yours, otherwise I’ll need to find someone else. So are you in?”
Von Krosigk nodded. “Yes, Grand Admiral, I’m in.”
“Good,” Doenitz said tersely. “Welcome aboard.”
There was a brisk knock on the door. “Enter!” barked Doenitz.
The door opened and in walked Doenitz’s adjutant with a telegram in his hand. “From Berlin,” he said. He gave it to Doenitz and then turned to leave.
“Wait,” said Doenitz. He stared at the message for a moment then looked up. “Get Speer!” he said.
A minute later, Albert Speer had come in and was sitting in the chair next to von Krosigk. Doenitz held out the telegram for them to see. Speer looked at the telegram. He and Doenitz looked at each other for a moment, then Doenitz handed the telegram to von Krosigk.
It read: GRAND ADMIRAL DOENITZ. FUEHRER DECEASED YESTERDAY AT 3:30 PM TESTAMENT OF APRIL 29 APPOINTS YOU REICH PRESIDENT, MINISTER GOEBBLES CHANCELLOR, REICHSLEITER BORMANN PARTY MINISTER, MINISTER SEYSS-INQUART FOREIGN MINISTER. ON THE FUEHRER’S INSTRUCTIONS THE TESTAMENT SENT OUT OF BERLIN TO YOU AND TO FIELD MARSHAL SCHORNER, TO ASSURE ITS PRESERVATION FOR THE PEOPLE. REICHSLEITER BORMANN WILL TRY TO GET TO YOU TODAY TO ORIENT YOU ON THE SITUATION. THE FORM AND TIME OF ANNOUNCEMENT TO THE TROOPS AND PUBLIC ARE LEFT TO YOU. CONFIRM RECEIPT.
Von Krosigk looked at the wall clock. The Fuhrer had been dead twenty-four hours.
“We should work on an announcement,” said Speer.
All three nodded.