Thursday, September 26, 2013

Bernadotte in Berlin II: The Coup Is On

Steiner smiled, giving Bernadotte a respectful bob of his head. “General Schellenberg begs your indulgence and regrets that he cannot be here right now, Herr Count,” he said. “But he wants you to know that things are now in motion, such as has been previously discussed. He asks that you wait with me until he can join us.”

Bernadotte grimaced with displeasure, but got in beside Steiner. The driver shut the door and a moment later they were off. Steiner opened his cigarette case and offered it to Bernadotte, who shook his head. For the next hour as they drove around the darkened city Steiner smoked cigarette after cigarette. Neither man said much. Three times the car motorcycle messengers drove up and flagged them down. Each time Steiner stepped out, read the message they handed him, dictated a reply, which Bernadotte couldn’t hear, then got back in the car and ordered the driver to continue, never offering Bernadotte any explanation.

It was only after the third such stop that Bernadotte turned to him and bluntly asked: “Captain, please tell me what is going on?”

The directness of the question seemed to deeply trouble Steiner. For another minute or two he appeared to mull it over while taking long, meditative pulls from his cigarette. Finally he crushed it out. He ordered the driver to park by a row of bombed out buildings. “Come with me,” he snapped to Bernadotte. “We’ll talk outside.” He opened the door and stepped out. Bernadotte followed him out among the rubble. At the edge of a water-filled bomb crater, Steiner stopped. “It’s happening right now. You should have your message for Eisenhower shortly.”

“What is it that you say is happening right now?” asked Bernadotte.

“You know,” answered Steiner evasively as before. “The same thing you and he talked about the last time you were together. You know, in Stockholm.”

But Bernadotte had already had all the indirectness he could take. “Listen Captain,” he barked back in anger and frustration. “Just quit beating around the bush and tell me precisely what is going on!”

Steiner continued to eye Bernadotte uneasily, but then he spoke. “They’ve gone to the Fuhrer to make him step down,” he said. “They’re going to make him leave Berlin for the Obersalzburg. They’ll let him stay on as Reichsprezident, but all the actual affairs of state will be decided by a six-man executive headed by the Reichsfuhrer. There! You asked and I’ve told you. Have you any more questions, Herr Count?”

Bernadotte was stunned. "Yes, I do have a question,” he said. “Tell me, who are Himmler’s allies?”

“I’m afraid I cannot say,” answered Steiner, giving a slight smirk. “Perhaps General Schellenberg will tell you.”

“And you say it’s happening right now?” Bernadotte asked.

“Yes,” said Steiner, “this very moment. I expect we’ll know something very soon.”

“My God!” said Bernadotte, his voice nearly a whisper. Steiner smiled grimly then nodded back at the car to indicate that they should get going.

For the next hour they drove around in silence, Bernadotte staring from the window while Steiner continued to smoke.

So it’s on, thought Bernadotte, as he stared out at the darkened, unsuspecting city. ‘\The coup is finally taking place. So Himmler and his allies had gone to Hitler and laid it on the line. “We’ve come here tonight, Mein Fuhrer, to discuss with you something that can no longer wait. As you know, Mein Fuhrer, the current course of events is no longer running in Germany’s favor. We believe that we are facing imminent disaster and unless a radical course of action is embarked on, Germany and the German people will not survive. We have concluded, Mein Fuhrer, that we must now seek an immediate peace settlement with the Western Allies. Only then can we convince them to join with us against a common Soviet foe. For this reason, Mein Fuhrer, we are asking you to step down and hand over all executive powers to a six-man executive council led by myself. You will continue to reign as Head of State, Mein Fuhrer, but in order to do that we ask that you immediately leave Berlin and reign from the Obersalzburg.

But would Himmler actually say something like that to Hitler? Did he actually have the guts to look him in the face and tell him that? Bernadotte didn’t think so. After all, in none of their previous closed-door meetings had he even come close to professing anything disloyal. Besides, even if he did, would Hitler even listen long enough to let him say it? Would Himmler lose his courage and back down?

If Bernadotte could find a way to reconcile the cowardly, indecisive Himmler that he knew with the other Himmler: the ruthless and cold blooded one who’d murdered millions without a second thought; the Himmler whom all Europe shivered in fear of. Maybe then he’d be able to see what was in the works and what was coming. Perhaps that Himmler was capable of acting differently, that one wouldn’t be so lily-livered when it came down to facing one mere man, even if that man was Adolf Hitler?

It had started to rain, the heavy drops pelting hard upon the car’s roof. Looking out, he made out the familiar darkened silhouettes of the buildings on the western end of Potzdammer Platz. As they drove through the square, he saw work crews shoveling rubble into a bomb hole where some tram tracks had run, while a few feet away welders were busily fitting rails back into place. With any luck, by dawn, the trams would be running again.

But for Himmler there’d be no possibility of  turning back. He’d have to go through with it. Because if he didn’t act right away, his rivals would find out and word of his betrayal would quickly get to Hitler. And if his rivals didn’t, then his allies certainly would if for no other reason than to save their own skins. No, this time he’d have to stand up, and it would have to be tonight.

Bernadotte tried imagining a logical sequence of events, but because everyone involved was so utterly unpredictable, he had no idea what turns such a conversation might take. Probably they’d begin by making a reasonable and respectful-sounding approach. But then, how quickly would Hitler interrupt them with screaming and accusations? And when that happened, how would they respond? Would they get conciliatory? Would they try to smooth over the ugly reality of what they were asking by making emotional pleas? Of course it’s only for a temporary period, Mein Fuhrer, only until we can find a way to stabilize our situation with the Western Allies…..Please, Mein Fuhrer, think about the German people. Think about the women and the girls and the babies and the children, Mein Fuhrer. The Aryan children, what about them, Mein Fuhrer?.....No, Mein Fuhrer, it is not about capitulation, it is about making a strategic alliance that will allow us to fulfill our goals. It is no different that the pact you signed with Joseph Stalin six years ago. Remember that? Frankly, Bernadotte couldn’t imagine Hitler buying any of it.

So then would they start getting direct and telling him all the blunt, unpleasant things he really didn’t want to hear? This war you’ve led us into has gone on too long, Mein Fuhrer.

Too soft, thought Bernadotte, they wouldn’t say that. Something with the word ‘disaster’ would work much better. This war you’ve led us into has been a disaster, a complete disaster. Disaster and ruin, that’s what they’d serve him. You’ve caused disaster and ruin to the German people! It’s gone on too long and the German People cannot and will not take any more. Accuse him of failure to lead, failure to face reality. It’s gone on too long and right now very hard decisions must be made about the future of the German People and, Mein Fuhrer, you have shown you are not capable of making them. So we are asking you to step down now.

And what if Hitler didn’t agree to step down? Hitler wasn’t one who allowed others to challenge or contradict him. Himmler and the others had better have the resolve and determination to follow it through or else they’d be in big trouble. For one thing they’d have to show him who was boss and whose hand no longer held any cards.

It is too late for you to protest, Mein Fuhrer, the decision has already been made and the first steps have already been taken toward seeking an immediate armistice with the Western Allies. I will be going to meet with Eisenhower myself.

And then, they’d be at a point of no return, where they simply couldn’t back down. Everybody’s backs would be to the wall. Everybody: Hitler, Himmler, Himmler’s supporters….The outcome at that point would be completely unpredictable.

Another motorcycle messenger had come up from behind and was flagging them. Steiner leaned forward and instructed the driver to stop. He read the paper the messenger gave him.

“What now?” asked Bernadotte.

“General Schellenberg says we should come now,” said Steiner.

“Is it over?”

But Steiner didn’t answer.

When they arrived at Schellenberg's offices, Schellenberg looked up and gave Bernadotte a quick nod of recognition before turning back to the cluster of officers he was conferring with. For another five minutes Bernadotte waited before Schellenberg finally dismissed them and walked over. He looked harried, Bernadotte observed, like he hadn’t slept in quite awhile.

“So, has Captain Steiner briefed you?”Schellenberg asked.

“He tells me the coup is on,” Bernadotte said in low voice. “Is it?”

Gravely Schellenberg nodded.

“Any news?”

Schellenberg shook his head. “No, nothing yet,” he aswered. “But we expect to hear something anytime.” Then he added, “You understand, Herr Count, the situation is extremely volatile at the moment. Anything can happen. But let’s just say that at this moment I am extremely optimistic.”

Another group of officers was being brought in. Seeing them, Schellenberg cut short the conversation and walked over to them. Bernadotte settled into an empty chair in the corner and looked on as another hushed, but heated discussion ensued. They left a few minutes later only to be replaced by another group and then by another group and another group after that. Three times Schellenberg gathered some of them in front of a hanging map of Berlin, pointing to different key spots around the city, then making an emphatic, circular sweep of his hand converging onto a spot in the city’s center which he’d then pound with his fist. That spot, Bernadotte knew, was where the Reichskancellei and Fuhrerbunker stood. And each time the men nodded gravely, hardened, resolute men, men prepared to do or die. They had to be discussing special units that were being held in reserve in case fighting broke out, Bernadotte decided.

When would the uprising begin? Or had it already started? Fighting could already be erupting all over the city between the insurgents and forces still loyal to Hitler. He began trying to guess who the loyalists might be. Were they SS units whom Himmler didn’t directly control? It was possible. There had been rumors that Kaltenbrunner, head of the SS security service, was a potential rival to Himmler. But would the soldiers in those units obey the orders given to them once they found out what was actually going on? He wondered what their morale was like at that moment. Could any of them still actually think Hitler was capable of getting them out of this mess? He wished he knew.

Then of course there was the whole question of Himmler’s allies. Bernadotte suddenly realized he hadn’t gotten to ask Schellenberg about who they were.

If Himmler had been able to get Goebbles on his side, he’d have something. But did he? What about Bormann, Hitler’s secretary? No way! He was too close. There was nothing in it for him to go against Hitler. And what about the Luftwaffe and its chief, fat Hermann Goering? Might he suddenly show his loyalty to Hitler for no other reason than to regain all the favor he’d lost in recent years?

Bernadotte got up from his chair and walked to the widow. Sluggish light was beginning to fill the courtyard. It would be dawn soon. There were still a half dozen motorcycle riders tiredly milling about, warming themselves around a wood fire burning in an ashcan placed next to a wall, presumably as protection against the rain.

There was the sound of a rifle shot in the courtyard. Instinctively, Bernadotte jerked back from the window, only to realize a second later that it was just a backfire from one of the motorcycles being started up. A couple of the men inside the room gave nervous laughs.

For the first time, Bernadotte started thinking about his own safety. If the fighting spun out of control and nobody had the upper hand, what would he do? Get out! Get back to Stockholm and if he couldn’t get out of Berlin, he’d need to get to the Swedish Embassy. And if he couldn’t make it there, then he’d need to find his way to the Irish Embassy, or the Swiss Embassy. Find a way to get the word to Eisenhower that it was all falling apart.

Maybe if the fighting went on long enough without any clear outcome, that might compel the individual area commanders to seek separate surrenders. Eisenhower might then be able to quickly seize vast areas of territory. That would work too.

One of the radio operators shot his hand up like he had something. He started scribbling down a message on a piece of paper which he then held up. Immediately Steiner went over, grabbed it and then brought it to Schellenberg, who stared at it and then he broke out into a broad smile. “The Reichsfuhrer has left the Fuhrerbunker!” he announced to everybody in a loud voice. “He’s on his way here now.”

Everyone looked immensely relieved. Schellenberg walked over to Bernadotte. “I think you’ll have your message for Eisenhower,” he said quietly, so no one else could hear. Then he turned on his heel and walked back.

Bernadotte looked at his watch. It was 5:45, he now had exactly forty-five minutes before his flight left Templehof for Stockholm. He had to be on that plane.

He started doing the arithmetic in his head. They’d land in Stockholm by eleven. He could be at the Foreign Ministry by noon. Eisenhower could have the message by one. If they felt like moving on it quickly, there could be a ceasefire in effect possibly by midnight. It was all a question of what Himmler was prepared to do.

Then someone shouted “They’re here!” and everyone rushed to the windows that looked down into the courtyard. Bernadotte saw a procession of five Mercedes driving in from the street. The car doors opened and he could see the figure of Reichsfuhrer Himmler confidently stepping out from the back of one.

(This is a chapter that got cut during the final edits of my novel Germania, first published by Simon & Schuster in 2008, now also available on Kindle here).

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