..HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MEIN FUHRER, SORRY, BUT I GOTTA LEAVE EARLY! HAVE TO SEE A MAN ABOUT A DOG!
Excerpt from Germania, a Novel by Brendan McNally
Copyright, Simon & Schuster, 2012
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 reduced it to ruins.
Passing through the airlock’s steel doors 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 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 canapés 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 the 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 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, 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. Warily, they followed Hitler back down into the bunker for cake.
The rest of the party was a shabby, uncomfortable affair. Relieved as they were to have been given permission to leave Berlin, as long as they were down there in the bunker with him, they were still his captives. Precious minutes were ticking by and he was plainly in no hurry to let them go.
All this time, Speer had been unable to exchange even a few words with him. At one point he had approached Hitler as he was being beset by Ley and Ribbentrop, carrying on with their customary drunken blandishments, which Hitler looked plainly tired of. Speer approached respectfully, positioning himself a few feet away like a waiter. But rather than avail himself of Speer’s ready presence to get rid of the other two, Hitler shot Speer a dirty look and enmeshed himself even deeper with them. Speer waited awkwardly for several minutes before finally withdrawing.
Then Hitler called up Himmler and, hand on his shoulder, began to talk nostalgically about their early days of struggle on the streets of Munich, where day after day, they’d fight it out with the Reds. Hitler lavished praise on his treue Heinrich, who had always stood by him, no matter how tough the going got. For some reason Himmler responded with only an embarrassed smile.
“Reichsfuhrer,” urged Hitler, “tell everyone what it was like back then.”
Himmler awkwardly shifted on his feet. “Ah yes, those days,” he said with the greatest effort. “If I, ah, live to be a hundred, I’ll never forget.” Himmler paused. “But that is not to say, of course, that the best is still not to come.” Everyone felt compelled to make agreeable noises to that.
Just then one of the Reichsfuhrer’s adjutants came in and handed him a message. Himmler looked at it and grunted, “Five minutes.” The major gave Himmler a hard, nonnegotiable glare and withdrew to the corridor. Himmler stuffed the message in his pocket and continued speaking. “Yes, very soon the tide of this battle will turn and the Russians will be fleeing back across the Oder. All the karmic balances will be restored and our millennia of interrupted peace can resume.” He was now getting into his stride. He began talking about the bright future of the German race, how, freed of negative racial pollutants, their full potentiality would blossom forth unhindered onto the very stars. Everyone was startled at the unabashed magnificence of his pronouncements. Speer noticed the SS major standing at the entrance, glaring significantly at Himmler. The major silently mouthed the word, Now!
Suddenly, Himmler stood up and announced that he had to be going. The other guests looked at each other in shock. No one had ever done that to Hitler before. Not his closest, most favored underlings, not his most choleric, combative generals. People waited until Hitler dismissed them. That was the rule.
“Urgent business, I am afraid,” mumbled Himmler by way of explanation. “The war.”
Hitler was fuming. But Himmler paid him no heed. He repeated his birthday greetings and his hope to see him again soon, and then turned on his heel and was gone.
“I guess he had to see to the new millennium,” Goering muttered to Speer. Speer thought of the conversation he’d had with Himmler in his office. So apparently he was capable of independent action. He wondered what news had spurred this urgent move.
For another hour the party went on, more dispiritedly than before. Then, without Speer hearing it, permission to leave was given and all at once everyone was in a hurry to get out. They formed a line to bid the Fuhrer farewell.