Thursday, May 15, 2014

Himmler's Bungled Escape

There was a British checkpoint in the middle of a bridge half a kilometer up, reported Grothmann. Nothing to it, just two very bored Tommies with enfields and a field telephone. Even so, they all traded looks with other. It was, after all, their first enemy checkpoint.

They’d go through one at a time, Macher told Franzi and Himmler. “It’ll be easy,” he said. “Keep twenty yards apart. When you get there, go right past the sentry. Don’t look him in the eye, but if you’re challenged, don’t avoid them.” He gave Himmler and Franzi each a tap on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, gentlemen, you’ll be fine. I’ll be right behind you.”

Then he took Franzi aside. “All right, Loerber. This is where it starts. Once we cross that bridge, we’ll be in enemy territory. I assume you know how to act. We don’t start anything, but we’ll finish it when it comes to that. You understand?”
He waited for Franzi to nod that, yes, he understood. He went on. “Now listen, there’s no reason we can’t walk through every British checkpoint we come across. There’s too many people out there. As long as you don’t call attention to yourself, they’ll never see you.

"We can walk to Munich in two weeks,” said Macher. “Once we get there, the networks will take over and everything will be easy. Once we get to South America and have the chief settled into some hacienda somewhere, I’ll cut you loose with a nice fat share for you to disappear with. Sounds good, doesn’t it, Loerber?” Again Macher paused and waited for Franzi to nod, then he went in for the kill.

"Now I have to know I can count on you. I have to know that if I go off somewhere to check something out for ten minutes you’re not going to be sneaking off somewhere. Because if you do that, you know what I am going to do?”

Franzi nodded that yes, he knew the answer to that. Macher nodded for him to say it aloud.

"You’re going to hunt me down and kill me,” he said.

Macher nodded. “That’s exactly right. Now can I count on you as a brother-in-arms?”

Franzi nodded effusively. “Yes, Colonel, yes! You can count on me!” Franzi said it with complete earnestness and sincerity. Franzi Loerber was ready to follow Macher to the ends of the earth, which was roughly what Macher had in mind.

Macher was incredible. Never in his life had Franzi seen anyone who came close to him. No one had his awareness or his instincts. Nobody moved like him, like a shadow or a panther. And the casual way he killed put even Manni to shame. No one, except perhaps Grothmann.

"You can count on me, Colonel,” Franzi said again and then added, “I swear, sir.”

Macher nodded solemnly. “All right,” he said, giving Franzi’s shoulder a punch. “Now go get the Reichsfuhrer ready.”

Franzi walked back to the other end of the clearing where Himmler was sitting on a tree stump. Macher made it sound so easy. To get to Munich all they had to do was keep walking and not attract any attention to themselves. But of course there was a problem: Himmler. For twenty years the spotlight had been on him. He was someone the whole world had looked at and pointed out and now he was completely incapable of blending in, of becoming just one in the mass of humanity. He stood out like a sore thumb and now it was Franzi’s job to teach him otherwise.

Himmler was sitting against a stump, sourly examining his new set of identity documents.

What is it, Reichsfuhrer?” Franzi asked wearily.

"I don’t see how this is going to work,” Himmler said, his voice tinged with hysteria. “Here, look at it.” He thrust the papers into Franzi’s hands. Franzi looked. The name on them didn’t say Himmler, but Hitzinger, Heinrich, a sergeant in the Special Field Police, demobilized a week earlier. The face in the photograph wasn’t Himmler’s either, but the resemblance was good enough to get through any cursory inspection.

"Honestly, Reichsfuhrer,” said Franzi. “It’s just fine.”

"But look at this,” said Himmler, tapping his finger on the demobilization certificate. “It looks like it was run off on a mimeograph machine.”

Franzi tried not to sound exasperated. “I’m sure it was run off on a mimeograph machine, Reichsfuhrer,” he said. “But that’s how it’s being done these days.”

Himmler shuddered. “But it’s all so cheap, so unconvincing.”

"Jesus, thought Franzi, what does he want? An engraved, watermarked parchment? Even now, when Himmler’s empire was down to five people walking on foot, the man’s expectations flourished on a grand scale.

"Reichsfuhrer,” said Franzi. “Forget about the documents. They don’t matter. What matters is you.”

He stopped and waited for Himmler to say something or to look him in the eye. Finally he did.

"You have to learn to make yourself invisible.”

"Invisible?” asked Himmler, cringing at the idea.

"You have to carry yourself like you’re nobody. The way you’re walking now tells the world, you’re a king in disguise. And that will get you caught. Tell yourself I’m nobody, I’m nobody, I’m the same as everyone else here. I’m tired, I’m hungry, I’m scared, I’m nobody. Nobody.”

Himmler grimaced unhappily.

"Reichsfuhrer, think of King Alfred and the cakes.”

"He was English.”

"He was Saxon, just like Henry the Fowler.”

"Well, Henry the Fowler never had to,” grumbled Himmler.

"He didn’t have to because it wasn’t his destiny,” said Franzi. “But it is your destiny, Reichsfuhrer. It is what the stars demand.”

Himmler let out a bitter laugh. “The stars? Sometimes I think my stars have abandoned me. Why else would things have gone so badly?”

"Reichsfuhrer,” said Franzi. ”Things are not going that badly at all. We’ll be in Argentina soon. And never think that your stars have abandoned you. The stars always know who they belong to.”

At this, Himmler seemed to brighten. “Really?” he asked.

"Absolutely,” answered Franzi.

"Well, then they have an odd way of showing it,” sniffed Himmler. “Look, Loerber, I just don’t know how to act like I’m nobody. All this time I’ve been somebody people look at and pay attention to. Anything else just doesn’t seem right. I wouldn’t know the first thing about being just a nobody. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

Franzi had an idea. “Reichsfuhrer, you know the song Harlem Rhapsody, don’t you?”

Himmler sniffed. “Well of course I do,” he muttered. “What does that have to do with anything?”

"Well, you know the words, don’t you?”

Himmler looked confused. “I didn’t know it had words,” he said. “I thought it was just a tune.”

"You don’t know the words to Harlem Rhapsody? Franzi rolled his eyes like it was hilarious. “Not even how it begins? Honestly, Reichsfuhrer!”

Franzi wiggled his finger and made sure he had Himmler’s attention. “Reichsfuhrer, it starts like this.” He began singing the opening bars, the ones everyone would always whistle or hum, Doo dah dah doo - doo doo, sing it with me. Doo dah dah doo – doo doo!” And Himmler sang it with him in his whimpering voice. “Doo dah dah doo, do do! Doo dah dah doo, do do!”

And then Franzi added the words. "Nobody knows - my name." And Himmler sang it with him. “Nobody knows my name. Nobody knows my name.”

And then it dawned on Himmler. “Nobody knows my name,” he sang. “Nobody knows my name. Nobody knows my name.”

"You’ve got it?”

Himmler nodded.


"Is he ready, Loerber?” asked Macher.

"He’s ready.”

"Let’s go!”

They joined up with Kiermaier and Grothmann, who were waiting for them at the edge of the woods, looking down on the crowded roadway. They moved in a group down the embankment to the road and stepped into the mass of people making their way toward the checkpoint.

Argentina would be nice, Franzi told himself. Once he got there, maybe he’d even change his name to Ramon! Of course in order to get there, he’d have to hold Himmler’s hand all the whole way to Munich and then across the Appenines to Italy or Spain. He’d prefer not having to do it, but he didn’t want Macher to kill him either. Franzi wanted Macher to like him and Franzi could tell Macher almost did.

Franzi looked over at Himmler trudging up the road flanked by women and two old people wheeling bicycles. He paid them little notice, he just kept singing to himself as he walked along.

Nobody knows my name. Nobody knows my name.

And sure enough, Himmler’s fledgling waddle had already started to even out. He wasn’t quite the sore thumb he’d been earlier. Perhaps they just might make it to Munich.

They came around the bend and there was the bridge and the two Tommies with their enfields. Just as Grothmann had said, they weren’t showing any interest in any of the hundreds of people who were passing by. They seemed to be there purely as signposts, to indicate that this was now British territory.

A hundred yards from the bridge, Macher had them stop and then started sending them across one at a time. Grothmann went first. He situated himself alongside a woman with her family, carrying one of the children. After that Kiermaier went, also without any problem. Once he saw them both on the other side of the bridge, Macher clapped his hand on Himmler’s shoulder.

"See you on the other side. We’re right behind you.”

Himmler put up his hand. “Just one thing before I go,” he said, turning to Franzi. “I would like to ask you something, Loerber.”

Franzi stared at him. “Reichsfuhrer?” he asked.

"You are a homosexual, aren’t you?”

Franzi felt his mouth drop open.

"Reichsfuhrer,” said Macher. “I don’t think this is the time-“

Himmler put up his hand. “Answer my question, Loerber, and don’t lie!”

"Reichsfuhrer,” said Franzi, trying to contain his rage. “I don’t know what to say.”

"Well you do know it’s wrong, don’t you?”

"Lots of things are wrong,” muttered Franzi.

"Don’t change the subject, Loerber,” said Himmler. “It’s one thing to have to do bad things because of operational necessity. But it’s another thing to do it because of weakness of character.”

"I’ve always tried to do the right thing, Reichsfuhrer, but it’s difficult,” said Franzi, pretending he wasn’t boiling on the inside.

"I know that, Loerber,” Himmler answered, sounding suddenly paternal. “I just want you to promise me that when we get to the Argentine, you’ll stop and find a nice Aryan girl and settle down. It’s easier than you think.”

"I promise I will, Reichsfuhrer.”

"All right. That’s all I have to say,” said Himmler. He reached out to shake their hands. “Colonel Macher, Professor Loerber. I’ll see you men on the other side.”

Himmler walked up the road, humming quietly as he did.

They watched him approach the bridge. He walked easily, like he’d been walking for weeks and had the hang of the road.

"It’s working,” said Macher. “Good work, Loerber!”

"Thank you, sir,” said Franzi.

"Cut out the ‘sir,’” grunted Macher.

Franzi thought about Buenos Aires for a moment, then changed his mind.

He had to get the sentry to notice Himmler. He had to make the sentry wake up and see that the meek little demobbed field police sergeant was the one they were supposed to be keeping an eye out for. And at the same time he had to make Himmler start calling attention to himself again. And he only had about twenty seconds left to pull it off!

He focused on the Tommy. The Tommy’s gaze was leaden. He’d been there since morning and his brain was barely functioning.

Franzi started hitting him with little mind-bursts on the right and then left hemispheres, that got his eyes opening and shutting in mild spasms. The sentry shook his head and started examining the people going past him. But it only lasted a few seconds and his awareness began to deaden again. Franzi hit him with a stronger burst. Wake Up! The sentry shook his head again. He was awake. Good. Now Franzi focused on Himmler, ambling comfortably toward the sentry. "Nobody knows my name. Nobody knows my name,” he hummed, moving with the notes. Franzi decided it needed an extra beat.

"Come on, Reichsfuhrer. Just thirty more feet,” whispered Macher. “Just twenty more feet, just ten more feet. That’s it.”

"Nobody knows my name,” hummed Himmler, to which Franzi added Cha-cha-cha!

"Nobody knows my name, Cha-cha-cha sang Himmler, twitching to the left. "Nobody knows my name, Cha-cha-cha,” and a twitch to the right.”

"What the hell is he doing?” gasped Macher.

"Nobody knows my name, Cha-cha-cha! Nobody knows my name!”

Franzi jumped back inside the sentry. Look over there! Look at him! That’s the one! Him! That’s the guy! Look! See!

And seeing through the man’s eyes, Franzi saw him fixing on the half-dancing figure coming up to him. But even though the man’s movements were starting to register, the sentry’s brain slipped back to half sleep.

Himmler walked right past him, quietly humming as he did. Himmler was clear! Macher nudged Franzi.

But then Himmler did something strange. He stopped and turned and then walked back to the Tommy and once he had the man’s attention, he showed him his papers. They could hear him saying, “Are these good?”

The Tommy, now thoroughly awake, put his hand up to stop the line and began politely thumbing through Himmler’s documents.

"What the hell?” whispered Macher.

They could hear the British soldier saying to Himmler, “It says here you’re discharged from the Geheim Feld Polizei. That’s SS! I’m afraid I’m going to have to take you in for questioning.” He put his hand firmly on Himmler’s shoulder and said something in English to the other soldier. Himmler looked back at Macher helplessly.

"Wait here,” Macher said to Franzi and began pushing his way through the crowd to the checkpoint. As he approached them, the two Tommies brought up their rifles and pointed them at Macher. Macher reluctantly put up his hands. One of the soldiers began searching him and pulled out his pistol and knife. Next thing he knew, both he and Himmler had handcuffs on.

Franzi stood there for a little while, frozen with disbelief. Then it suddenly occurred to him that he was free and he turned around and began walking back to Flensburg.

It was nearly nightfall when a Red Cross lorry pulled up and the driver leaned out and asked if he wanted a lift into town. “There’s something very big going on there,” he said.

(A slightly different version of the "Himmler's Arrest" chapter from Germania, Simon & Schuster, 2008, now also available on Kindle here).

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