Friday, January 10, 2014

Speer and Hitler: The Birthday Party

It was April 20, Hitler’s birthday. The day was declared a national feast day and in an effort to make it just like all the earlier ones, the last stocks of flour and sugar and sweets were opened up and distributed to the public. For several hours there was electricity and water again flowed from the pipes. People broke from whatever they were doing and took baths, baked cakes and then went outside to watch the parade and cheer.

As in years past, there was a party at the Chancellery. But instead of the usual long line of limousines pulling up with smiling ambassadors, envoys and high government officials, today the guests arrived in a handful of shared staff cars.

Speer came as he always did, driven in his Porsche, which he had parked in one of the underground garages. He made his way through the wrecked halls, climbing over collapsed beams and shattered walls to the bunker’s entrance. The Chancellery, his Chancellery, was falling apart. For five years it had stood up to the Allied air bombardment, but three days of pounding by Soviet artillery had turned it into ruins.
Passing through the airlock’s steeldoors and going down the steps, it seemed he’d returned to a world of order. Here the concrete corridors were still clean-scrubbed, the lights all worked. But then as he got down to the main level, he began noticing the uncollected dirty glasses, plates, and silverware gathering in the corners and beneath end tables. After weeks of endless parties, the housekeeping staff had clearly lost enthusiasm for the job.

In the corridor outside the conference room, a crowd of aides and adjutants milled around, while liveried waiters swirled among them with silver trays of canap├ęs and drinks. Everyone tried to act festive, though it was obvious that what was really on their minds was getting out of Berlin. The Fuhrer had announced he would be flying out to the Obersalzburg to conduct the war from there. But so far he hadn’t told anyone when he’d be leaving. The Russians were now rumored to be in the outer suburbs, and while it was anyone’s guess when their encirclement of Berlin might be completed, until the Fuhrer officially gave word for them to decamp the city, they were all stuck there.

Inside the large room the situation conference was already underway. General Keitel was giving the briefing. Even now, in the midst of the catastrophe, he managed to find morsels of optimism. Whenever the Soviets had elected to withdraw from a sector, Keitel seized upon it as the portent of an upcoming reversal. In each instance, Hitler reacted with glee, rubbing his hands and ordering Keitel to elaborate on how they would exploit it. There seemed so many possible paths to victory, it left scant opportunity to examine those other places where German forces were fleeing in disarray. It went on for another hour. Speer listened to Keitel and Jodl predict how that alliance between the Jewish Bolsheviks and the West was on the verge of disintegrating. Goering talked about the new jet fighter squadrons which were becoming operational that very day. Doenitz chimed in with news that the first of the new miracle U-Boats had finished their testing and were beginning their first war patrols. Hitler loudly praised Doenitz for his indomitable fighting spirit.

Throughout, Hitler ignored Speer. Somehow he had fallen out of favor again, though he had no idea why. It had been weeks since he had committed a single subversive act.

Once the briefing had wrapped up, Hitler surprised everyone by leading them topside to the Chancellery garden, where a large group of twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys stood in ranks, waiting to be decorated for heroism in combat. It was criminal, Speer thought grimly, as he watched Hitler going from boy to boy, exchanging a few words with each, praising their courage and pinning iron crosses on their tiny chests. He doesn’t believe in Victory any more than I do, yet he happily sends children to their deaths.

The sight of Hitler plainly shocked the boys. He wasn’t at all what they’d expected. The hero they’d been taught to revere since the day they were born was just this decrepit old man? Those who’d fanatically believed in victory now knew they’d lost. Hitler immediately sensed their unease. His initial good humor and heartiness turned brittle and soon he was handing out the iron crosses without a word. Once he’d finished, the Hitler Youth were dismissed and he led the partygoers back to the bunker entrance. But at the threshold he stopped and turned to face everyone and announced that he was staying in Berlin. Whoever wanted to leave was free to do so, he declared with an angry wave of his hand. Uneasily, they followed Hitler back down into the bunker for cake.
(Excerpt from Germania, Simon & Schuster, 2008; now also available on Kindle here).

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