One night they were driving between Ludenscheid and Dessau on a particularly badly bombed stretch of autobahn. Speer sat beside von Poser in the front seat, an air defense map spread on his lap, while the radio alternated between piano concertos and a lifeless voice reading out positions of enemy aircraft; fighters reported in Grid E-6 heading westward, enemy fighters in Grid F-12 bearing east. Enemy fighters in Grid D-9 heading east, enemy bombers in Grid C-7, C-8 and C-10, high overhead heading west.
Then suddenly they heard the metallic scream of aircraft engines as machinegun fire ripped up the ground in front of
them. Von Poser slammed on the brakes and before they knew it, the car was plummeting down the embankment. They pushed open the doors and jumped out onto the ground. A twin-engine Heinkel roared over them, with a smaller American fighter tight on its tail, firing away. The Heinkel’s starboard engine was aflame. Then its wing crumpled and it turned over, plunging into the darkness. A second later they heard the dull explosion and saw the flash of fire in a distant field.
Then they became aware of the easy clopping of horses’ hoofs. They peered into the mist to see what it was. The
clopping came closer until suddenly he was in front of them; a tall thin figure in a long coat and floppy-brimmed hat, leading a team of four large sputtering farm horses. “Hey there,” he called out. “I see you had an accident. Let’s see if my boys here can’t get you out.” He said his name was Jakob and he was a farmer. He’d been tending his cows in a nearby field when he heard the noise. So he went back to the barn and hitched up his team. It used to be that there were hardly ever any accidents on this stretch of the autobahn, he told them. But now it seemed like barely a night went by without someone smashing up.
It didn’t take five minutes to pull the car back up the embankment and onto the road. Jakob worked his horses with a
good-natured firmness that struck Speer as the utter embodiment of German peasant virtue. Speer imagined Germania and the pilgrimages which all the Jakobs of the Greater German Reich would make at least once in their lives so they could see the city and stand inside the Great Hall. Supposedly this war had been for them. Now all it would do was chew them up in its maw.
“Jakob, what will you do when the Americans come?”
Jakob gave a big smile. “It’ll never happen,” he said. “The Fuhrer has those secret weapons of his. And once the
Americans have gotten themselves too far in to escape, boom!” Jakob clapped his hands together joyfully. “He’ll fire those secret weapons and then their goose will be cooked!” Jakob smiled guilelessly at them. Von Poser looked away
“Where did you hear about this?” asked Speer.
“Oh you know, around,” said Jakob. “Everybody agrees about that.”
“Of course,” he said. “The Fuhrer knows what to do. People just need to have faith, that’s all.”
Speer felt sick. They’d really done a good job indoctrinating people. “Jakob, listen to me,” said Speer. “All that
stuff they’re telling you. It’s all a lie. There are no secret weapons.”
Jakob stared at them uncomprehendingly. “But I’ve heard them say it,” he insisted. “Over and over... on the radio...
that they’re almost ready.” Then he laughed nervously. “You’re joking with me, aren’t you? I know, this is all a test. You’re testing my faith, to see if I’m worthy.”
Von Poser stepped in. “Speer, we need to get going.”
But Speer waved him off. “No, we’re not testing you, Jakob. We’re trying to help you, just like you’ve helped us. When
the Americans come, just find a place to hide with your cows and let it all just pass you by. That nonsense they’re telling you will only get you killed. Please Jakob, hide. Save yourself.”
He watched Jakob shifting back and forth on his feet as he stared down at the ground. But then he looked up and
his eyes were blazing with anger.
“Traitors!” he spat the words out. “You betray our Fuhrer. You betray Germany! And to think I helped you out. Look
at you! You’re betraying your uniforms, your country, your people. You’re worse than Jews! And you,” he said, pointing his finger at von Poser. “Look at you, an army officer, of all people. You should be ashamed of yourself!
“I’m getting my gun,” he shouted. “And if you are still here when I get back, so help me, I’ll kill you both!” Giving
a shake of his reins, he put his horses into a brisk trot and left them.
“Speer, are you insane?” shouted Von Poser. “You’re going to get us hanged.”
Speer felt like an idiot. “I’m sorry, Colonel. I just couldn’t stand thinking about somebody like that getting
“Well don’t ever do it again! Things are dangerous enough as it is. I don’t need you screwing it up with some
weak-hearted do-gooding. Get in the car. Let’s get out of here.”
For the next half hour, von Poser drove quickly as he could. Speer made several attempts to apologize, but was rebuffed. He sank into an uncomfortable silence. An hour later, outside Dessau, they came to a roadblock where grim-faced Party militiamen came at them with machineguns and yanked them both out of the car.
“How dare you?” roared Speer, feeling their hands at his shoulder. “Do you know who I am?”
That got him a hard punch in the jaw. “Shut up!” the militiaman grunted, knocking him to the ground. Speer rolled on
the pavement, hands, elbows and shoulder stinging. He tried to push up onto his knees, only to feel a boot heel coming down hard against his side.
“Stop!” wailed Speer. ”You’re making a mistake. I’m Minister for War Production ...” He waited for the militiaman to
step back, but the militiaman didn’t. Speer felt the man’s boot stomp down on his shoulder.
“You think we don’t know what you’ve been doing?” he heard the man hiss. The boot came down again, this time hard
into Speer’s ribs. Speer stopped moving. Raising up his hands, he got onto his
knees and looked up at the two men standing over him, their machine guns
pointing down at him while a third had a pistol pointed at von Poser. He looked
angry and tired.
(Excerpt from Germania, first published by Simon & Schuster in 2008, now also available on Kindle here).