Friday, November 30, 2012

Interview with Susan Owens, Playmate Turned Perfumer to the Stars

Interview with Susan B. Owens, creator of Child Perfume. From Playmate to Rockstar Girlfriend to Perfumer to Hollywood, and East Dallas Coffee Pal. Read the full article here in D Magazine:
Susan was also the inspiration for the character Rose Dawn in my novel Friend of the Devil (available on Kindle here).

Monday, November 26, 2012

Walter Schellenberg: SS Spymaster Genius or Total Putz

There is something about SS Spymaster Walter Schellenberg that sets him apart from most of the other Nazi bigwigs. He's a lot like Albert Speer in that what's at stake isn't so much what he was, as much as what we need to see him as. Speer is often seen as "the nice Nazi," Schellenberg is a little different from that. Nobody needs to see him as "nice," but there is still this tendency to perceive him as different from all the other evil, knee-jerk, cardboard character Nazi baddies. Unlike all the others, Schellenberg is almost someone we can relate to.

Anyone who reads spy/intrigue/thriller fiction set in Nazi Germany during World War II probably will have encountered Walter Schellenberg at least a dozen times. In whatever particular story you're reading, he's the SS spy chief, whom the protagonist meets just after the first or second plot twist. He's the SS general who is not an evil Nazi ogre, nor is he the smooth, worldly and cultured Nazi who turns out to be utterly twisted. No, Schellenberg is the apparently rational, highly competent, non-fanatic spymaster who has a unique proposition for the protagonist which usually involves him working together with a German opposite number with whom he has much in common, and might ultimately consider a friend until the final reel, when he kills him, or doesn't because it turns out he's actually Jewish or something else in keeping with the genre. 

Whatever the case, Schellenberg is the one hoping to cut a deal, because, unlike all the other die-hard fanatics, he actually grasped the ugly reality of the situation Germany had put itself into. And in this sense alone, the Walter Schellenberg of popular literature did resemble the Walter Schellenberg of reality.  He was the SS Spy Chief who was desperately trying to engineer a peace deal between Nazi Germany and the West. He'd probably had some low-level discussions going on via intermediaries as early as 1942 in places like Lisbon. But in the Spring of 1945, the writing was on the wall for anyone who wasn't totally deluded. At this point, Schellenberg had much higher level discussions going on with the Western Allies in Stockholm. They weren't actual peace negotiations as much as they were an ongoing prelude to peace talks, and they were permanently snagged on one big point.  The Allied representatives made it clear to Schellenberg that there couldn't be any real discussions unless Hitler was removed from office. He could be deposed, assassinated, arrested, or merely persuaded to step down. But until that happened, there could be nothing.

It was a reasonable precondition to peace discussions. The problem was, that Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler, the man Schellenberg hoped would be an acceptable alternative to Hitler, was a hopeless waffler. As much as Himmler believed he ought to be the man who'd lead Nazi Germany into a Grand Alliance with the West against Russia, he couldn't quite bring himself to actually confront Hitler or move against him. It is also at this point where the whole mythology of SS General Walter Schellenberg, the cooly competent spymaster, collapses into slapstick comedy.

Schellenberg wasn't particularly different from the horde of ambitious young men who found their way into the Nazi Party and then the SS in the period immediately following Hitler's ascendency to power in 1933. He'd gone to university first studying medicine, then switching to law. Presumably Schellenberg became a Nazi not out of any grand conviction, but because that was where the opportunity was. He joined the SS and found his way into the counter-intelligence branch of the SD, the SS's burgeoning security apparatus, which was already a confusing mass of departments and sections all vying against each other for power. Luckily for Schellenberg, he was able to attach himself to another rising star, Reinhardt Heydrich.

But what really insured his rise above all the competition was one supremely ballsy feat, which he pulled off early in the war. He got through to some top-level British intelligence officials operating in then still-neutral Holland and created for them the impression that there was a group of discontented German Army officers who might be convinced to depose the Fuhrer. A number of meetings took place and everything seemed to be going positively as far as the Brits were concerned. Another meeting was arranged, this time at the tables outside a cafe in Venlo, a Dutch town, just across the German border. The two British officers were there along with a Dutch colleague. This time one of the disaffected Wehrmacht officers was actually an SS Major named Schellenberg. The trap was sprung, a gunfight ensued and the next thing anyone knew, the Dutch agent was shot dead, and the two British officers had been whisked across the border and into German imprisonment. Not long after that, Schellenberg was made head of SS foreign intelligence.

But despite all the hype, Schellenberg's performance as a spymaster wasn't actually anything great. Most of what he knew about the spy business came from all the cheap, pulpy spy novels he'd read. It wasn't entirely his fault. As much as Germany might have had a long history as a police state, when it came to foreign intelligence, all their continual regime changing meant they were perpetually stuck re-inventing the wheel.  By comparison, Britain's foreign intelligence apparatus went back all the way to Queen Elizabeth I with probably very little in the way of interruption. The closest thing Germany had to a real intelligence service was the Abwehr, but since their chief, Admiral Canaris, was actively involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, he wasn't terribly inclined to serve as much of a mentor to Schellenberg. With nothing but proto-James Bond novels for guidance, Schellenberg built his version of a spy service with more emphasis on honey traps and flashy gadgets than on an actual foundation of spycraft. To show off his incredible amateurishness, Schellenberg's great pride was his desk, which he had equipped with hidden guns aimed out the front which he could fire with the touch of a button.

There is an old saying about people rising to their level of incompetence. For Schellenberg, it came in the aftermath of the failed, July 20, 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler. Having been discovered among the conspirators, Canaris was arrested, and eventually executed, and the Abwehr and all the other German foreign intelligence agencies were rolled up, combined and put under Schellenberg's control.

With all the information he now had access to, Schellenberg ought to have seen the writing on the wall and correctly concluded that Germany's situation was now hopeless and that the only possible course of action was unconditional surrender. But Schellenberg was an incorrigible optimist, not a good quality for an intelligence officer. Despite everything, he remained convinced not only that the West would be willing to effect a separate peace with Germany and join with them against the Soviets, but possibly, most ridiculous of all, Schellenberg believed they would accept Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler as an ally and partner in a new Grand Alliance. Even though Schellenberg was himself quite aware of  Himmler's role carrying out the wholescale murder of millions of Jews, Slavs, Gypsies and others, he still assumed Eisenhower and the other Western leaders would blithely overlook it all in the interests of defeating the Soviets.

But perhaps, craziest of all was believing that his boss, Heinrich Himmler, was capable of standing up to Hitler, let alone moving against him. The fact was that, despite his cold efficiency and utter remorselessness in carrying out Hitler's orders, Himmler was completely incapable of acting on his own. With Himmler, as with many of the top Nazis, there was an odd sort of anti-darwinism in play.  He became one of the most powerful men in Europe largely because he never once made any decisions on his own.

The Nazis believed in the Law of the Jungle and to them, the "Fuhrer-Prinzip" was an extension of this natural law. They accepted its harshness, and though they would never discuss it, there was an implicit understanding that even a supremely great leader like Adolf Hitler would ultimately get replaced, the same way any lion-king would have to give way to a younger, more powerful successor.  Hitler might have initially led Germany to many great victories, but now the victories had all turned to disaster and he'd shown he was incapable of doing anything to stop it.  Being the one with the most power, it was now Himmler's time to step to the fore and take over. But even if Himmler did have the power, he didn't have the will.

It went on like this until late April, 1945, when the Red Army was just hours from closing the ring on Berlin. Only then did Himmler make his move. On the last commercial flight into Berlin from Stockholm, Schellenberg brought down their longtime intermediary, Count Folke Bernadotte, the head of the Swedish Red Cross, along with Norbert Masur, from the World Jewish Congress. After promising to Masur that no more Jews would be harmed or moved, Himmler extended his hand to Masur, declaring that he was now taking charge and that it was time for the SS and the Jews to "bury the hatchet."   Masur did as he was asked, and soon after that they returned to Stockholm.  Bernadotte immediately sent word to Western intelligence that Himmler would be taking over from Hitler and that negotiations could now finally begin.

With Hitler stuck in Berlin, all but dead, and the war all but over, Himmler and Schellenberg settled down in Luebeck, a small city in northern Germany, and while they waited for Eisenhower to get back with them, they began happily planning their role in what would soon be a new world order. In a way, it must have been a wonderful time. Each day saw visits from former Nazi bigwigs that had managed to get out of Berlin, now angling for top jobs in Himmler's administration. Schellenberg had convinced Himmler that it was just a matter of time before he would be accepted by Eisenhower as a key new ally. Himmler liked the way that sounded. It all seemed so nice, that Schellenberg probably was believing it himself.

The problem was, Himmler kept his coup a secret and Hitler only learned about it a week later, when word of it got publicly announced at the United Nations conference in San Francisco. Hitler, who at that point was already on the verge of blowing his brains out, held off just long enough to denounce the treachery of the man he'd always called his "Faithful Heinrich," and strip him of all offices, ranks and party membership. To stick the knife deeper, Hitler then named Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, head of the Navy, as his successor, and having done that, went ahead and committed suicide.

Thus began Heinrich Himmler's steep decline and fall. That night Doenitz took the unprecenteded step of ordering Himmler to his headquarters in Ploen, in Northern Germany, where he bluntly informed him that he, not Himmler, was the new head of state, and even if they did not know at that moment whether Hitler was dead or alive, Himmler would be following Doenitz' orders.  Himmler was shocked, but even so, recovered quickly enough to ask the Grand Admiral to make him the "Second Man" in his government.  Doenitz coldly responded that this would not be the case, since, as he explained, he planned on setting up a government that was less overtly political in nature.  The real reason was that Doenitz, as a soldier, could not countenance Himmler's duplicity. He'd witnessed it first hand,  having had to visit the Reichsfuhrer's headquarters twice earlier that day. Doenitz also didn't bother raising the question of Hitler's firing of Himmler, figuring he'd cross that bridge later.

The next day, at the behest of Schellenberg, Himmler returned to Doenitz' headquarters in a last desperate attempt to wheedle a post in the new administration. This time Schellenberg went with him, along with the current Finance Minister, Schwerin von Krosigk. Von Krosigk had been a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford thirty-five years earlier and even though he had not been in England or anywhere abroad since, they touted him as a foreign affairs expert. Over lunch, Doenitz rejected Himmler's entreaties, though he did make Schwerin von Krosigk his foreign minister.  A couple days later Himmler received official notification that he had been removed from all offices. By then he had gone from one of the most powerful men in Europe into a kind of living ghost. For the next three weeks he drifted about. His empire evaporated around him until it was just a small handful of followers.  Schellenberg, it appears, was not among them.

Schellenberg also became a ghost, although of a much different sort. While the history books do tell us that Doenitz made Schwerin von Krosigk his Foreign Minister at the same time that he told Himmler to take a hike, they leave out Schellenberg, who was also at the meeting. Officially, nothing happened. Nothing in the official records of the Doenitz Government indicates he was given any kind of post. But one extremely controversial writer, forensic doctor and historian Hugh Thomas, alleges that Schellenberg was then provided with a diplomatic passport, the first issued by the Doenitz regime. He then traveled to Stockholm where he met again with Bernadotte and it was further alleged, British Intelligence officers, including Anthony Blunt, who, years later, was revealed to be a Soviet mole.

It's not known when it finally dawned on Schellenberg that the talks he'd been having with Allied representatives and intermediaries were not going to actually come to anything. One of the last images he presents in his memoir, The Labyrinth, was of leaving Stockholm and arriving in Copenhagen, where the Danes, mistaking him for one of the liberators, greeted his car with joyousness. If he ever reported back to Doenitz, who'd set up his short-lived government at the naval academy in Flensburg on the Danish border, no one knows. But if he did, he didn't stick around very long.

What had probably happened during his lunchtime meeting with Doenitz, was that Schellenberg painted a version of the same optimistic picture he'd been painting for Himmler. He probably insisted that the Western Allies would be agreeable to a peace deal, especially since the negotiations, which were already underway, were going so well. Of course these were the same negotiations, which, Himmler had insisted only the day before, were nothing but a piece of Allied disinformation. Once it became clear to Doenitz that the peace talks actually did exist and that they were making solid progress, he probably gave Schellenberg permission to go back to Stockholm and continue them. Doenitz was the first to admit, he knew nothing whatsoever about international politics. Since Schellenberg had been the Reich's top foreign intelligence official, he assumed he must know what he was talking about.

Of course the actual fact was, despite everybody's claims to the contrary and otherwise, the peacetalks had never actually started. The Western Allies weren't interested in discussing anything with the Germans other than an unconditonal surrender, which is what Doenitz ultimately found out when he sent delegations, first to British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery in Luneburg, then to Eisenhower in Rheims and finally to the Russians in Berlin. He probably had little interest in hearing what Germany's spymaster had to say after that.

When Doenitz's pathetic little government finally got arrested and rolled up on May 23, 1945, Schellenberg was in Denmark. It wasn't until sometime in June that he finally got tracked down and taken into custody. It was the British that took him prisoner and, interestingly, they would not let the Americans talk to him for a long time, which has led some to suspect that British discussions with the the SS leadership were far more extensive than the British have ever acknowledged.  The one American intelligence officer who did interview Schellenberg was a onetime Hollywood actor named Horace L. Hahn.

Schellenberg's postwar career wasn't much to speak of. He cooperated with Allied prosecutors and testified against various top Nazis at the Nuremberg War Crimes trials and was himself sentenced to six years imprisonment.  He was let out early for health reasons.  He managed to write his memoirs, which were extremely interesting without being overly frank or confessional. It has been continually in print over the years. He died in 1952, soon after completing it.  He had contracted some mysterious liver ailment, which many suspected might have been the result of an exotic poison which he'd been given. Although he was only 42 when he died, by all accounts he looked like a very old man.

But what died was only Schellenberg the man. As long as Nazi Germany continues as a subject for spy fiction and thrillers, Schellenberg the fictional spymaster and worthy enemy will probably outlive us all.

Walter Schellenberg is also a major character in my novel Germania (first published by Simon & Schuster in 2008, now also available on Kindle here).

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Captain Frank Hamer and The Last Standing Member of the Barrow Gang

For as long as humans have existed, God and the Devil have walked among them, endlessly searching for a virtuous man. Whenever they’d find one, which actually wasn’t that often, they’d get together and place some nasty obstacles in front of him. Then they’d make bets, sit back and watch what happened.

It’s impossible to say when exactly the two got bored with the arrangement and began to add side bets to spice it up a little. If they hadn’t, they would probably never have bothered with Herbert T. Barrow in the first place.

It’s not that Herbert wasn’t, in his own way, a virtuous man; he just wasn’t anybody’s immediate choice on the matter. He tended to do things on impulse, whether it was jazz, women, or stealing cars. Nor was he, even by his own estimation, particularly kind or generous. But then it was hard to be in 1933, when the Great Depression was in its fifth year and anyone who still had two nickels to rub together only had them because they’d run out of sympathy for anyone who didn’t. Besides, Herbert T. Barrow was an avowed atheist and whatever moral compass he possessed was strictly his own. Perhaps this was something neither deity completely grasped, or perhaps they thought they did, but were wrong. It’s always hard to tell with gods. Either way, that was their big mistake.


The real subject of their wager was the legendary Texas Ranger, Captain Frank Hamer. If there was a single lawman in Texas whose honesty and incorruptibility was beyond reproach, it was Hamer. Renowned for his skills as a detective and a tracker with more than fifty kills to his credit, Frank Hamer was one exceedingly straight, tough hombre. His mistake was letting his pride get the best of him.

Herbert’s mistake was picking up a hitchhiker named Stevens, while running from the ‘laws’ in a stolen car. It was not the sort of thing he usually did, especially since Stevens appeared to be some kind of backwoods preacher. Herbert was fleeing back to Texas, Stevens was late for a midnight meeting with somebody at a crossroads near Tupelo, Mississippi. Getting him there almost on time put Stevens in Herbert’s debt, something Herbert wasn’t interested in collecting on, since Stevens didn’t have any money on him and all the things he was offering seemed like really bad ideas.

Like all good fugitives, Herbert was heading for the border, to a small city on the Rio Grande called Del Rio. While nearly everyone else was hungry and broke, Del Rio was rolling in dough, thanks to a quack doctor named J.R. Brinkley, who had set up a goat gland clinic, where his phony sexual rejuvenation cure brought in dozens of well-heeled suckers each day. To reach them, Brinkley built the world’s most powerful radio station across the river in Mexico, just outside the FCC’s reach. Beside him gather a freebooting assortment of preachers, clairvoyants, hillbilly quartets and snake-oil salesmen, all eager to catch some of the easy money that’s suddenly floating around. Herbert drives to Del Rio, hoping to join their ranks as a singing cowboy and even shill for products of questionable purpose.

But after letting Stevens off, things get strange. Herbert learns that he is being linked to the notorious Texas outlaws Bonnie and Clyde. According to the newspapers and radio news bulletins, he has joined them as a ‘criminal mastermind.’ This puts him into the path, first of Frank Hamer, who is hunting them down, and then of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who turns out to be his much younger cousin.

Without wanting to, Herbert travels with the Barrow Gang and though he does ultimately break free from them and escape to Del Rio, Hamer remains on his trail even after killing the others. Eventually he shows up there and a final bloody reckoning ensues, and always with God and the Devil nearby, arguing endlessly over perceived violations and interferences of their bets. Herbert, having no use for either, vows to stick it to them both, and bad. Luckily for him, he finds an unlikely ally in Rose Dawn, a pregnant, unhappily married radio prophetess.

FRIEND OF THE DEVIL is a darkly comic, historical thriller with touches of the paranormal, following in the tradition of my debut novel, GERMANIA, published in 2009 by Simon and Schuster.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Final Battle with Frank Hamer

Finishing up translation for the Czech-language edition of "Friend of the Devil", which will be launching soon as na ebook. Lots of shooting, crazy driving and romance here in the last chapter. Here's a little sample - enjoy!

"Rose keeps driving for a minute, then stops and turns the car around. She looks over and sees all the blood coming out of my shoulder and starts to cry. Then she stops. “How many shots we got left?” she asks.

“In the chamber? One.”

She nods at my report.

“Plus the one you got.” I add. “What do you want to do?”

She thinks about it for a second. “You take your best shot, Slim. I’ll take mine.”


We stay where we are, looking silently up the road until Hamer’s car appears. Rose mashes in first, hits the gas and we’re off. Second, third, fourth, and Dr Brinkley’s Packard is now a speeding Sikorsky fighter, a fiery meteor shooting across the sky, hogging the middle lane, the same as Hamer.

This time it’s a real bitch getting up to my shooting spot. I manage to seat on the edge of the window, while using my left hand to grab hold of a piece of the dashboard. Hamer’s a hundred yards away now, Rose floors it and now we’re charging hard. Hamer still doesn’t get out of the way and neither does Rose. I aim at the spot on the windshield where I know he is. An instant later we’re up on each other and I fire. A second later, we smash into each other and I go flying."

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ambushing the Ambusher

Excerpt from Friend of the Devil:

"Hamer’s head surveys the street before disappearing again. This time, I slowly count to twenty and when it doesn’t reappear, I step off the front porch and walk very deliberately down the sidewalk in the opposite direction, turning right at the corner and then left at the beginning of the next block. I walk up past the well-to-do homes, walking erect like I belong here, a respected businessman, a gentleman of Del Rio, Texas, and not some low-down desperado with a price on his head. The houses all have their windows open and from every one of them, music from the radio is issuing forth; a mandolin quartet, it sounds like, and a lone guitar marking out a melody that might have once been Wildwood Flower. But they’ve changed it, made it their own song. I wonder who these guys are. No way of telling. Musicians come and go from Del Rio so quickly all the time. Who knows, if Hamer kills me today, before I’m even laid out, one of those mandolin players will suddenly sprout a personality, call himself Tex or Lonesome Bob or something similar, and the Royal Consolidated Chemical Corporation of Chicago, Illinois, will have him shilling for them and they won’t ever give a thought to who might have preceded them any more than I did."

Get Friend of the Devil for your Kindle or iPad here Friend of the Devil by Brendan McNally

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How Heinrich Himmler Lost the Fuehrership to Doenitz


Late April, 1945


Determined to remain in the besieged Berlin and continue directing the war from there, Hitler divided up the parts of the Reich still in German hands into Southern and Northern Zones and entrusted their day-to-day administration respectively to Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe, and Grand Admiral Doenitz, commander of the Navy. While Goering had already held many government posts in his day, Doenitz had absolutely no experience outside the Navy. Suddenly he found himself in charge of all civilian and military affairs not only for northern Germany, Denmark and Norway. It was not something he relished.

With the war in its final days, the refugee problems Doenitz faced were staggering. Though the Northern Zone was host to hundreds of thousands of refugees, next to nothing had been set up for them; not emergency field kitchens, hospitals nor camps. Mostly this was because Hitler had forbidden any planning for the eventuality of defeat or even retreat. In his mind, the survivors of a defeated Germany had already proven their own unworthiness and did not warrant any aid or accommodation. As a result, the refugees who’d made it into northern Germany were left to wander, starving, wounded and sick, wheeling their few possessions stuffed into carts and prams, others with only the clothes on their backs.

Nevertheless, as dire as the civilian situation was, it largely failed to obtrude into Doenitz’ consciousness. Even with defeat so obviously imminent, the Grand Admiral’s focus stayed on fighting the war. At this point he was probably the last of Hitler’s commanders who still hadn’t given any thought to ending the fighting. Part of the reason was that his own arm, the U-Boats, had not been defeated yet, and what’s more, they were about to a deploy the Type XXIs; a revolutionary new class of hydrogen peroxide-powered, super submarines, which Doenitz believed could still turn the course of the war around.

Doenitz’ other preoccupation was the massive seaborne rescue operation going on in the eastern Baltic. Using a scratch force of everything from destroyers to fishing boats and even barges and harbor craft, the Navy had evacuated nearly a million soldiers and civilians from ports in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and East Prussia. Nearly a million still remained, and he loathed letting them fall into Russian hands. Beyond that, Doenitz felt he had neither the time nor energy to spare for people who, for all their misery, were already relatively safe. He delegated their welfare to a subordinate and put them out of his mind.

As the days crept toward the end of April, and the prospects of rescue of the Berlin festung grew ever more remote, the situation in the Northern Zone also continued to worsen. The British 21st Army Group, which had been advancing on Berlin, suddenly pivoted northward and was soon standing at the outskirts of Hamburg, Bremen, and other port cities along the German North Sea coast. Doenitz was forced to evacuate his headquarters at Koralle for Forelle in Ploen in the Schleswig Holstein peninsula just below Denmark. Soon all that remained between them and the British Army was the Elbe river, which, to the British juggernaut, barely registered as a barrier.

Not far from Ploen were the Eutin Lakes, around which most of the government ministries had set up encampments. Speer was there with his staff, as was just about everyone else who’d escaped Berlin. Some departments who’d managed to bring their files with them resumed a semblance of operations in trailers and trucks. But most spent their time sitting around campfires, trying to decipher the relentlessly optimistic radio broadcasts still coming out of the beleaguered Berlin for any hint of what was really going on. By now all rescue attempts had been thrown back and whatever faith people might once have professed in the miracle weapons were put aside without comment. Everyone knew the war could not possibly go on much longer. But with the memory of the flying squads fresh in their minds, people kept their more realistic speculations to themselves.

By contrast, a much more upbeat atmosphere reigned at SS headquarters in nearby Luebeck. Having sent his secret peace offer to Eisenhower a week earlier, Himmler and his men were confident the Western Allies would soon accept his olive branch and enter into an alliance with Germany against Russia. Himmler, with his eyes squarely on the future, now imagined himself alongside Eisenhower, jointly leading Europe into a fresh millennium of glory. Flush with optimism, he began planning a new government and a new party to replace the Nazis, which he was tentatively calling Nationale Sammlungspartai, or, Party of National Union.

Though he never directly admitted to negotiations with Eisenhower to anyone beyond his inner circle, the broad insinuations Himmler kept making were quite sufficient. Soon everyone began showing up in droves at the Luebeck police presidium to pledge their support to the next Fuhrer and try wheedling posts in his upcoming regime. About all that was missing was for Hitler to take the hint and depart the stage.

Actually, there was something else missing, and being a man accustomed to having all his ducks in a row, Himmler found it perplexing. Grand Admiral Doenitz still had not come to offer allegiance. Was something wrong? The uncertainty was beginning to grate on him. Had Doenitz failed to see the writing on the wall or was he already backing Goering or some other pretender to Hitler’s throne? Finally Himmler had had enough. On April 30, he sent a radio message to Doenitz, telling the Grand Admiral to come to Luebeck for a meeting.

Reading Himmler’s summons, Doenitz felt miffed. Not only was he not being told what the meeting would be about, but as head of the Northern Zone, he should be the one, not Himmler, to initiate meetings. But the state of the Reich being what it was, Doenitz did not see much point in quibbling over protocol with the man who by all appearances was Hitler’s de facto successor. With a small detachment of U-Boat men for security, he set out to see what the Reichsfuhrer wanted.

It was only during that long harrowing drive to Luebeck that it finally dawned on Doenitz how bad things were. There was little traffic except for the endless streams of refugees wandering the roads. The dead lay where they collapsed along the roadside, people who only days before had been solidly bourgeois were now ragged, dirty and fighting over food scraps. It was the sort of thing he’d seen in the defeated nations at the beginning of the war. But watching it happen to his own countrymen was not something he was prepared for.

Reaching Himmler’s headquarters at the Luebeck police presidium, Doenitz felt briefly buoyed by the sight of the SS troops concentrated there. Unlike what he’d seen on the road, these men looked well-fed, well-clothed, well-armed, confident; anything but defeated. Still, they were but a tiny island in a sea of misery.

His meeting with the Reichsfuhrer SS turned out to be a much bigger shock. What began as an ordinary situation briefing soon deteriorated into Himmler’s mystical ramblings. Having just come face-to-face with the enormity of the refugee situation, Doenitz was shocked at Himmler’s lack of empathy toward their plight. Instead of addressing the humanitarian catastrophe going on outside, Himmler talked about Karma and the state of the cosmos, but mainly about himself.

Doenitz listened with growing exasperation as Himmler explained how the great cosmic gyres were spinning, and how the moment had come for him to seize his destiny along with that of Europe. Certainly things were dark at the moment, but soon that darkness would be replaced by the light of a new day. He was at the nexus of a moment of great changes and it was important to recognize this and not fight it. What was happening to Berlin was regrettable, but with the cosmos in flux, it would be foolish to squander any more men and material on a lost cause. What they had to think about instead was the future.

Himmler told him about the fissure soon to erupt between the Western Allies and the Russians and how this could be exploited to Germany’s benefit. Soon they would be at war with each other, leaving the West no choice but to bring Germany into their alliance. Certain measures were already underway which would hasten the new entente, he told Doenitz, though he deftly avoided providing any specifics.

Listening to Himmler, Doenitz felt the cold flash of realization come over him. Certainly the man was a nut, but all this mystical gibberish of his was nothing more than a smokescreen for treason. All this time he’d been dutifully parroting the Fuhrer’s calls for duty, sacrifice and for fighting to the death, while plotting his own peace deal, as if the Fuhrer no longer mattered. So this was what the SS was all about! At least the Navy wasn’t like this. Backstabbing was unthinkable there. It saddened him that Hitler should live to see such betrayal by his closest friends.

Finally Himmler made his pitch. “Grand Admiral, I want to know that when the time comes, as the new Fuhrer, I will be able to count on your support.”

Doenitz’ answer was abrupt. Staring into Himmler’s eyes, he replied icily: “Reichsfuhrer, as a German officer, I will naturally support any legally constituted government.” With a certain grim satisfaction he watched Himmler nervously pull back. It was obviously not the answer he’d been hoping for. Then Doenitz added: “And until we are ordered otherwise, we will of course continue fighting the British and Americans the same as the Russians.” Himmler nodded feebly.

When Doenitz returned to Ploen, he found a radio message waiting for him from Berlin. Far away in San Francisco, something called the United Nations was holding its founding conference and as part of the opening festivities, they’d publicly announced the Reichsfuhrer’s secret peace overtures to Eisenhower. Hitler had learned about it from Western news broadcasts and in his fury, stripped Himmler of all titles and rank. Now he wanted Doenitz to move against him with everything he had.

Putting the message down, Doenitz turned to Admiral Godt and asked him come with him as he walked his dog on the beach. It wasn’t at all clear what Hitler thought Doenitz could do. The fact was, he hadn’t the men or weapons to move against anyone, least of all the Reichsfuhrer, who still has full divisions of heavily Waffen SS at his command. Besides, Himmler’s demotion had come from someone buried inside a bunker in what was now a faraway city, cut off and almost entirely overrun by the Russians. Hitler had to understand by now that his orders wouldn’t carry much weight. “What do they expect me to go after him with?” Doenitz grumbled to Godt, “my sheepdog?”

Still, orders were orders, so he returned to Luebeck to pay Himmler another visit. The drive back didn’t help his bleak state of mind. The ranks of refugees seemed to have only swelled in the last few hours, their misery even more pronounced. The reception at Himmler’s headquarters was much cooler this time. When Doenitz confronted him with Hitler’s accusations, the Reichsfuhrer haughtily dismissed them as enemy disinformation. Though Doenitz didn’t believe Himmler, it was obvious to him that the Reichsfuhrer held all the cards and there was nothing he or the Navy could do about it.

Driving back to Plon, Doenitz felt wracked by helplessness and disgust. Himmler, Hitler’s Faithful Heinrich, was a liar and a traitor and everyone else in the Nazi hierarchy rats scurrying to save their own miserable necks. All that grand talk about loyalty and honor which had for so long been watchwords to a nation now turned out to be empty. He thought about suicide. A soldier’s last bullet is always for himself. Then he thought about getting aboard one of his new U-Boats and taking it out for a last glorious battle. All he’d have to do was drive to the nearest airfield and fly out to Norway, where the new boats were waiting. They would sail out, engage the enemy, sink as many of them as they could, until it became their turn to die. Then the Navy would be free to surrender and go into captivity with its head held high. But in the end, instead of doing any of those things, Grand Admiral Doenitz went back to his headquarters.

This time there were no messages waiting for him from the Fuhrerbunker. Instead he had a surprise visitor. Slumped in a chair outside his office and looking terrible was Albert Speer. He’d come, he said, to offer his services, anything he could do. Looking at his younger colleague, Doenitz felt all the antipathy he’d harbored against him evaporate. He invited Speer to join him and his staff for dinner.


Dinner was largely the same as the enlisted men were getting; turnip soup, black bread and bitter-tasting synthetic coffee, but even so, it must have been welcoming fare to Speer, who had spent most of the last ten days wandering with little sustained human contact. They were all men he knew from countless previous meetings and sitting among them, he no doubt felt again immersed in a certain mess room camaraderie. They were Admiral Meisel, Admiral Godt, Admiral Kummertz, and Captain Hessler, Doenitz’ adjutant and son-in-law, while Doenitz’ aide, Commander Ludde Neurath, came in and out with messages.

After Admirals Kummertz and Godt gave their reports on the day’s progress in the Baltic evacuation and U-Boat and surface operations elsewhere in the theater, Doenitz raised his hand to make an announcement. As soon as it became impossible to continue the Baltic evacuation, he would get aboard one of the new U-Boats and seek out death at sea in a final battle. He turned to Hessler, his son-in-law. “You are now head of the family, Gunther. I trust you to do what’s right for my wife and daughter.”

When the meal was finished and the dishes cleared, Doenitz asked the others to leave him and Speer alone so they could have a private conversation. Though they’d seen each other at Hitler’s birthday party on April 20, this was the first time they’d actually talked since February. They brought each other up to date on what they’d been doing and compared notes on their different meetings with Himmler. Speer alerted Doenitz to the growing mood of revolt in Hamburg, one of the key arrival ports for the Baltic evacuation. Kaufmann, the gauleiter there, was getting antsy about letting his already shattered city get further destroyed in a land battle and had made no secret about his intent to make a deal with the British. Speer also talked about his spur-of-the-moment flight back into Berlin the day before for a last conversation with Hitler. It was a daring stunt, but pointless. When he finally made it through the burning city to the Fuhrerbunker, he was received by a cold and remote Hitler who seemed to regard his appearance as more an intrusion than anything else. Though Doenitz could tell Speer was crushed by this treatment, his numbness was already interspersed with flitterings of dark humor which was not far from Doenitz’ own mood at the moment.

It was perhaps ironic that fate should bring these two men together at the Reich’s darkest hour. In certain respects, the two could not have been more different. Speer, ten years younger, decidedly civilian in bearing, always more than a bit smug and arrogant, played by his own rules as much as he could, bypassing the government and party structures whenever it suited him. His narcissistic nature made him often quite ruthless in how he used people to further his own ends. Doenitz, by contrast, hardly even had a self. He was the Navy and its needs were all he cared about.

Yet what they shared was even more pronounced. Both were at heart technocrats, who viewed politics as beneath them, a petty distraction from more important tasks. They had largely stayed out of the inner workings; Speer, because of his closeness to Hitler and Doenitz, because naval warfare was something which so baffled Hitler, he allowed him a free hand to run his shop.

Doenitz and Speer had always worked well together professionally. They both had a taste for numbers and technology and though Speer might have been a prima-donna, whenever Doenitz needed something, Speer usually could be counted on to deliver.

As they talked, Doenitz’ aide, Captain Ludde Neurath, came in with a fresh report. The U-2511, the first of the Type XXI boats, had just completed another key phase of its shakedown cruise off the Norwegian coast. Everything was progressing so well that in another day the shakedown cruise could be transitioned into its first war patrol. It was the moment he’d spent years waiting for. The most revolutionary and deadly submarine ever designed was ready to go to war. But looking at the report, Doenitz wondered if now any of it even had a point. The war was lost and not even his miracle boats could change its course.

Up to now, it had all been simple for Doenitz. He’d get his orders from Hitler and he’d carry them out. Hitler was in charge, he knew what he was doing and as far as Doenitz was concerned it all worked fine. But once Berlin got surrounded and Hitler gave up his freedom of movement, all of it got crazy. You can’t run a war, even a losing one, from inside a beleaguered fortress. To hell with appearances! Hitler should have gotten out and gone somewhere else, but he wouldn’t. Now he was sending out orders that didn’t make any sense. He no longer had any idea what was going on outside Berlin. Everything in the Northern Zone was completely falling apart. And now Himmler had gone behind his back and was cutting a deal with the Allies.

Doenitz had never planned for surviving the war. Other than his wife and daughter, he’d already lost everything that he’d held dear. Both his sons had been killed, so had his brother. His estates were overrun. If the war was going to just end in a surrender, what would it say to all those who’d already paid the ultimate sacrifice? For Speer too, everything was gone. The buildings he had designed and built to last a millennium had already been pounded to rubble. This was perhaps what bound them together as they sat together in a deathwatch for their world. Hitler’s death might mark a new beginning for Himmler and his crew, but for the two of them, it was obviously the end of the road.

The door opened again. Ludde Neurath had another message. This time, it was a telegram from the Fuhrerbunker. Doenitz stared at it a moment, then handed it to Speer. It read: “IN PLACE OF THE FORMER REICH-MARSHAL GOERING, THE FUHRER APPOINTS YOU, HERR GRAND ADMIRAL, AS HIS SUCCESSOR. WRITTEN AUTHORIZATION ON THE WAY. IMMEDIATELY TAKE ALL STEPS REQUIRED BY THE PRESENT SITUATION. BORMANN.”

Speer didn’t know what to say. He mumbled weak congratulations. Doenitz looked back at him like he was joking. Then he turned to Ludde Neurath. “Who else has seen this?” he asked.

“Besides myself, only the radio operator,” answered the adjutant.

“I want him taken aside and sworn to secrecy on this,” snapped Doenitz. “I want this message sealed and put in my safe. No one is to know about this until I give the word. Understand?”

“Yes, Herr Admiral,” answered Ludde Neurath.

After Ludde Neurath had gone, Doenitz looked at Speer. “What am I supposed to do now? I don’t know anything about politics.”

Speer demurred. “Notice how it didn’t say anything about the Fuhrer. Does this mean he’s still alive?”

Speer had a point. Odd that the telegram hadn’t actually mentioned it. Did it imply Hitler was alive, but had gone off to join the fighting? Or was he dead, but they’d elected not to tell him? If it was the first, it was unforgivable. It was one thing for a general to do that, but for a head of state, it was completely irresponsible! If, on the other hand, Hitler was dead, then they should have informed their new leader of that key fact. Doenitz called in the other admirals. They passed the message around. No one said anything.

“You need to deal with the Reichsfuhrer immediately,” one of them advised.

“I know,” said Doenitz. “With such a man anything is possible. Speer, I want you to draft a message back to the bunker. I think you know what to say. Captain Ludde Neurath, call up Luebeck, tell the Reichsfuhrer I want to see him here immediately.”

Himmler rebuffed the first summons. Only after Doenitz called him himself, did he consent to come. Meanwhile Speer wrote a message; MY FUHRER, MY LOYALTY TO YOU IS UNCONDITIONAL…

Outside, preparations were underway for Himmler’s arrival. Captain Peter Cremer, the U-Boat ace commanding Doenitz’ guard battalion, had his men hide themselves among the trees and bushes in the path leading from the car park to the building housing Doenitz’ offices.

As they had feared, Himmler arrived accompanied by a guard detail of huge SS men armed for bear. They included his two adjutants Grothmann and Macher, of the Das Reich Division, and veterans of the Russian campaign. They immediately spotted Cremer’s men hiding and told them that if they didn’t come out immediately, they would kill them all “with the greatest of ease.

Cremer and his men stepped out of the bushes, rifles and submachine guns at the ready. A tense standoff ensued in which Grothmann and Cremer both tried to get the other side to stand down, but neither would relent.

It only ended when Ludde Neurath appeared at the building entrance and invited the Reichsfuhrer inside to meet with the Grand Admiral.

Inside his office, Doenitz waited for Himmler to arrive, a Browning automatic pistol hidden within easy reach under a pile of files on his desk.

Himmler came in, eyeing Doenitz coldly. “What is it?” he demanded.

Without getting up from his desk, Doenitz handed him Bormann’s telegram. “Read this,” he ordered. Himmler looked at the telegram and his face turned white. Then he managed to regain some of his composure.

“Grand Admiral, may I express my most sincere congratulations. The Fuhrer is right. It is up to a soldier to put an end to the war.” He paused for a long moment, then added, “You will of course, allow me to be the Second Man in your government.

“I’m afraid that is out of the question,” Doenitz answered.

“May I ask why?”

“The government I intend to form will be of a non-political nature. In the event of negotiations, your presence would not be acceptable to the enemy.”

“May I make an observation, Grand Admiral?” asked Himmler politely.

Doenitz nodded for him to proceed and for the next hour, Himmler went off on a long polemic which seemed to include everything under the sun. Doenitz let him go on, but didn’t give in to any of his subsequent pleas for a post in the new government. Finally, Himmler stood up, saluted and left.

Doenitz sent his staff to bed, and getting himself another cup of ersatz, settled into a long dark night of agonizing over what he should do next. Sometime before dawn he reached his decision and called his first government meeting where he would announce it.

Alone finally, Doenitz let his eyes close for a moment. It had been nearly six hours since the telegram had arrived from the Fuhrerbunker naming him Hitler’s successor and only now, with Himmler out of the way, was the weight of this new job beginning to sink in. Head of State, Reichspräsident, Fuhrer, Heil Doenitz! The last thought made him shudder.

He went back to his pile of reports and for two hours his attention remained focused only on paperwork. After thirty five years in the Navy, it had become second nature and now it provided him with a sense of reassurance that things were not as utterly chaotic as they appeared. Armies, even on their last legs, continued to generate reports, requests, tallies, statistics, strategic assessments. They kept streaming in and Doenitz continued reading them. But then somewhere around four thirty he looked up, rubbed his eyes, and realized nothing he was reading addressed the real heart of the matter; that the war was lost and as Head of State, the only choice left to him was deciding how large the funeral pyre should be.

He picked up a report from the Admiral Kummetz, in charge of the Baltic evacuation. Twenty more ships had come into different German ports with refugees and soldiers. Estimated numbers, thirty five thousand men, women and children. Tomorrow they hoped to get out fifty thousand. Every freighter, barge, and fishing boat they could get their hands on was now going to and from the Latvian ports of Lepaya and Memel, where upwards of a million Germans were still holding off the Russians. He knew as well as anyone what the Russians would do to them when they got them. He had to continue the evacuation. He couldn’t give up on them.

He needed to put together a government. But how was he supposed to do that? He didn’t know the first thing about government or diplomacy. He wondered if what Himmler had said about the Americans and British considering an alliance with Germany against the Russians could be true. It seemed crazy. But then didn’t he have all those spies and that whiz-kid Schellenberg with all his foreign contacts?

Besides, forming a new government is still only a means to an end. So what end was he seeking? What was left? A surrender? A few hours ago, the idea had still been completely unthinkable. But now it seemed to be the only thing that made any sense. The irony was that the Fuhrer had given the job to him because he knew he would never surrender.

(Excerpt from Germania, first published by Simon & Schuster in 2008, now also available on Kindle here)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Albert Speer Juggling in the Middle of an Air Raid

They drove through the night, changing direction frequently and sticking to back roads where there were fewer checkpoints. Manni Loerber remained unconscious the whole time. Every hour or so, Speer would check on him. His pulse had returned and his breathing seemed almost normal, but nothing would rouse him. The roads were mostly empty now. There wasn’t fuel for convoys to move around much anymore. But in contrast to the stillness on the ground, the sky was full of constant buzzing. The allied fighters were everywhere, roaring low overhead without a moment’s warning. Somewhere before dawn they found an abandoned farmhouse on a hillside overlooking Detmold. Von Poser helped Speer carry Manni inside. They put him in the large bed and covered him with a blanket. Then they ate something, opened their bedrolls and went to sleep.
After weeks of never getting more than an hour or two of sleep, Speer fell into a deep uninterrupted slumber. If at any point he dreamed, he wasn’t aware of it. It was late morning when he finally awoke. For more than an hour he remained under his blanket, vaguely aware of snatches of conversation going on between two voices. Finally getting up, he found von Poser and Manni in the other room sharing a cigarette at the hearth, where a small fire was burning.

Manni looked over. “Hello,” he said in a small voice.

“How are you feeling?” asked Speer.

“Terrible,” he answered sourly, but still managing a grin. “I was just telling the Colonel that I think I’ve pulled my last trick for a long time.”

“That’s all right,” answered Speer. “I think we’re all done with it.”

Von Poser held up a battered-looking coffee pot. “It’s fresh, compliments of Herr Manni.”

“You have coffee?” asked Speer. As far as he knew, it had been a nonexistent commodity for more than a year.

Von Poser handed him a steaming cup. “Here’s to new beginnings,” he said.

For a long time, Speer luxuriated in the coffee’s deep aroma, then took a sip. “So what do we do now?” he asked.

They spent the afternoon milling around the farmhouse, not doing anything in particular. The few conversations they had were sparse and inconsequential. The young man himself spent most of the time in silence, but it seemed to have none of the brittle edginess which had marked his previous regime. He seemed relieved that whatever he’d been doing was now over. He was relaxed, shared his cigarettes and coffee and though he didn’t join in much of the conversation, by the same token his presence didn’t deter it either. Once when Speer was in the other room half-dozing on the bed, he heard the two of them briefly laugh at something. They’d take turns sitting by the fire or standing at the windows or doorway, staring outside as American Mustangs and Thunderbolts roared low overhead in continuous waves, hunting for things to kill. They seemed to operate with almost reptilian brains, going only after shiny things that moved. The Mercedes stood in the middle of the field, with only a thin layer of netting over it, and though its profile was still unmistakable, it didn’t seem to register with them. Speer wondered where the front was. Von Poser’s map was by now several days out of date, and it was likely that in that time the situation had changed radically. What was certain was that they were inside a shrinking fishbowl.

By afternoon it stopped raining. They made more coffee, sliced some bread and opened their last remaining cans, which they passed around, spooning out beets and potatoes and chunks of fish onto their plates. They ate with the reserved familiarity of three strangers of the same class sharing a table in a dining car. When they were finished Colonel von Poser took out a cigarette from his silver case, lit it and after taking a puff, passed it to Manni.

“Did they ever find out what happened to your brother?” he asked.

Manni Loerber looked back at von Poser in languorous silence. “No we never did.”

“No explanation one way or the other?”

Manni shook his head.

“My daughter wept for many days. He was her favorite.”

Manni let a slight smile cross his lips. “Who was her second favorite?”

“I believe it was Franzi,” said von Poser. “Would you like to hear what else she said?”

Manni gestured with his eyes to tell him.

“After much thought on the matter, my daughter concluded you four were not actually quadruplets but two sets of identical twins.”

For once, Manni looked completely taken aback. For several minutes, he fell into deep, meditative silence. Then he stood up from his chair. “That’s it,” he declared, brightly. “Herr Reichsminister, come with me please.” He headed for the door.

“What are you doing?” asked Speer.

“Herr Reichsminister,” said Manni. “It’s time you learned to juggle. I’m going to teach you. At times like this, a man needs to know how to juggle. That’s the problem with the world. Nobody in charge of anything can juggle. It’s a scandal. I’m getting my balls out of the car now!”

“Don’t go outside, you’ll get killed!” said von Poser.

“Watch me,” laughed Manni as he strode outside.

Speer looked from the doorway, while Manni went out to the car. Immediately an American fighter roared low overhead. More screamed past while he rummaged around the boot, pulling a number of gaily colored balls out of one of his bags. Heaping them in his arms, he began walking back.

Then he stopped. “What are you waiting for, Herr Reichsminister? Come on out.”

“Are you crazy?” answered Speer. “It’s not safe out there.”

Manni looked around, like he was trying to see what danger Speer could be referring to. Down the hill, Detmold was on fire. Fighters and twin-engine bombers swooped down low over the city’s factories, dropping bombs as they did, which exploded with an evil burst that didn’t sound anything like thunder.

“I know, but the ceiling inside the farmhouse is too low,” Manni answered. “It’ll never work in there. Come on out. You’ll be fine.”

“We’ll get killed. Come inside right now!”

Another fighter swept low over the field but Manni didn’t flinch. “Forget them,” he said. “They’re not interested in us. Come on out!”

“No,” said Speer and turned to go inside.

“Herr Reichsminister, this moment will never happen again. Aren’t you interested in knowing how magic works? Well this is how it starts. Right here.”

“Herr Reichsminister, just turn around.”

Speer didn’t know why he didn’t just go inside and hide himself in the farthest corner of the farmhouse. He really should have, but instead he turned around. A ball flew at him and he caught it, but barely.

“Now toss it back to me,” urged Manni.

Speer tossed it back. But Manni had already tossed another ball at him. He caught it.

“Quickly toss it back,” said Manni. “Don’t stop. As soon as you have it, shoot it back the exact same trajectory that you caught it. Don’t think! It’s easier that way.”

Speer did as Manni instructed. He caught the ball and tossed it right back. A second later another ball came, and then another and then another.

Manni took a step backward and Speer took one forward to catch the ball that was coming toward him. Manni took another step backward. Speer took another step forward. Manni added another ball, then another. “That’s it! Keep it up!”

The balls were coming faster now, one after the other in quick succession. But even so, Speer was surprised at how much time he had to catch them and shoot them back.

He was aware of the airplanes flying just over their heads, of bursts of machinegun fire and explosions which had none of thunder’s innocence. But Speer knew that as long as he could fix his attention on the balls, on catching them and throwing them back, he would be immune. He wasn’t the Reichsminister for War Production standing in an empty field, he was a tree, a brick wall, a part of a machine; a cog, a cam follower, a take-up spool, a reciprocating gear. Another one, another one, another one. More enemy planes screamed over their heads. More balls kept flying towards him.

“How many balls are we doing now?”

“Can’t you count?”

“No,” answered Speer with a laugh. “How many?”


Five. Five balls. Speer wondered what his wife would think. Juggling five balls in the middle of an air raid.

“Are you afraid?”

“Of what?” Speer shouted back.

Catch it, throw it back, catch it, throw it back. There was a perfect logic to it, focused on the moment, on the "now". Nothing else mattered, but the moment, the motion. The spaces between the moments became vast, even though he knew they couldn’t be more than a second apart. Enough time for flawless reaction. Enough time for an eternity of thought.

And somewhere in this wilderness of space was room to alter outcomes. Here somewhere magic lay. And here, with Manni, Speer sensed he was walking the very edge of it.
 (Excerpt from Germania, Simon & Schuster, 2008, now also available on Kindle here)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Charlemagne's Daughters

This is an exerpt from a book I was working on between drafts of Germania. Though they don't show up in this fragment, the book was about Charlemagne's daughters, as observed by the Roman priest sent up to tutor them. History doesn't actually tell much about them, except that they were possibly the only women in western Europe able to read and write. But they were also well-versed in the sciences, particularly astronomy and more than once, convinced their father to call off battles because of what they'd seen in the stars.

Excerpt from Year Zero, or Charlemagne's Daughters 
Father Marcellus got sent from the still largely civilized Rome to the boonies in Aachen. Twenty years later on a visit back home, Marcellus is shocked to see the state his city is in and when the main aqueduct breaks and Rome is suddenly without water, Marcellus is called upon to use the engineering skills he picked up at Charlemagne’s court to fix it.

View of the Aqua Virgo Aqueduct in Rome
“Father Marcellus, there will be no water for bathing today.” For me, this was how it started. I’d been eating breakfast when my servant Rufus shuffled in with the news. I remember looking up at him and thinking this was scarcely anything to get excited about. A month never went by without the system shutting down at least once; a pipe would crack and lose pressure or a cistern got clogged with sediment. But the water workers were a clever bunch, for all their grubby appearance, and usually fixed things within a day or two. I told Rufus not to worry about it.

But Rufus stood his ground. “Oh no, Father Marcellus,” he moaned. “It’s worse than that, much worse! Part of the aqueduct collapsed north of the city and they say no one knows who’s going to fix it. It’s the end, Father Marcellus, the end of everything!”

Naturally I knew it couldn’t possibly be true. The Aqua Virgo had stood for a thousand years. Why would it choose this moment to stop working? I dismissed him, telling him he shouldn’t believe everything he heard on the street and then calmly went back to my food.

After breakfast, I put on my teacher’s cloak and hat and embarked on my daily journey down the Caelian hill into the city. But no sooner had I left the monastery gates, than passersby began shouting the news to me; an entire span of the aqueduct had indeed collapsed during the night and now the city was completely out of water. Not even the great baths at Carcalla were working. It seemed unthinkable. Certainly, life here was a far cry from the old glory days, when the city had a million inhabitants and eleven different aqueducts bringing us water. Now we were down to one, the Aqua Virgo, which was all that our greatly reduced population needed to hold on to the modicum of civilization we still required. Unless it was quickly repaired, that small modicum would become a thing of the past and Rome would become a truly dead city. I decided to go survey the damage for myself.

I distinctly remember how loudly the birds were singing that morning as I walked down the hill toward the aqueduct. It had rained the night before, the ground was soft and damp under my feet and there was a fresh sea breeze blowing herds of small grey clouds from the west. People were going about their business, pushing hand carts and wheelbarrows, and carrying baskets of food or bundled dry goods back from the marketplace.

At this point, I’d been back from Aachen for two months and this was my first springtime in Rome in twenty years. I’d been put up in fairly pleasant diggings at the Monastery of Saint Erasmus. I had wangled a cush teaching post at one of the lesser colleges in the city. I’d spent twenty years away from Rome, but I fell back into it almost immediately. Everyone I’d known was still there and they were glad to have me back. Looking back on it now, I couldn’t say if I was happy, but I certainly wasn’t miserable.

Pausing on the hillside overlook, I stared down at the city and saw the different lines of aqueducts running high above the cover of trees and picked out the Aqua Virgo. It stood just north of the Saepta arena, its elevated arcades running only a short distance from where it emerged from under the hillside at the Horti Lucullam to its terminus at the Pincan. Of all the water that the aqueducts had brought to Rome, Aqua Virgo’s waters were said to have been the sweetest. Now our only remaining source of water was the polluted Tiber.

It was hard to overstate what the aqueducts represented to Romans. Technically speaking, we hadn’t invented aqueducts, but we had perfected them, and with our unmatched talent as engineers, made them into exquisite things of great physical and spiritual beauty. To any man of intelligence, the parallel between the aqueducts and the Church was inescapable. For just as the Church carried God’s sanctifying grace all the way from heaven, the aqueducts carried water over great distances; pure, sweet, health-giving, mountain spring water. And just as God’s grace elevated our souls above the brutish pagan mass, the water elevated our lives and preserved our civilization. The aqueducts were a perfect marriage of function and form; as elegant as they were practical, as spiritual as they were physical. And in the same way that a church’s apse and nave are designed to focus congregants’ attention toward God in the heavens, the aqueducts, running as they did, over and under the city in beautiful elevated archways and invisible subterranean tunnels, seemed there to remind us that as humans, our nature resided as much in the earth as in the sky. Like the Church, they were the last surviving bequests from our city’s glorious past. Or at least that was what I often heard people say after a lot of wine.

I passed the Forum, now known only as the Campus Vaccinus, since it was used exclusively for pasturing Rome’s cows. They wandered languidly among the complication of ruins, with the cowherds sitting on the steps and fallen columns. I wondered if they even suspected that this place had once been the very center of our society and government. The fact that we had an open place to publicly discuss the day’s important issues kept us from descending into the dark whispered secrecy of oriental despotism. Now it was a place for conspiracy among cows and cowherds. I surveyed the sad landscape until my eyes fell on something I hadn’t noticed before. Alone in the middle of a cow field, three slender columns stood together like sentries, as if to remind us that this place had once meant something. They were capped by a single rectangular fragment of entabulature from which small shrubs insolently pushed out.

I walked on, turning onto the Via Lata, a mostly deserted thoroughfare flanked by collapsed apartment buildings and houses where imperial bureaucrats used to have their offices. Finally I came to the aqueduct. Like a stone rainbow, it spanned the entire street in a single, overreaching arch. It had been built to honor Emperor Claudius; its facades covered with friezes illustrating his triumphal battles. By now though, the figures were largely obliterated by grime and the lush moss and ferns fed by the water leaking through its many cracks. Here and there a stone arm or horse’s head poked out fitfully from the moss as if entreating any onlookers for help. But at this place, I thought, none were likely to come.

I began following the arcade north. Walking underneath it, I felt dwarfed by its sheer immensity. Two rows of arches, one on top of the other, they seemed to take up most of the sky, dividing and sub-dividing it into windows, yet leaving all of it visible in the process. They reached so high that the massive granite pillars holding them looked as slender and insignificant as ribbons. Then from a distance, I heard the thunder of falling water hitting rock. I looked far ahead and there was the break. It was so large I felt a shock. I began running the rest of the way.

When I got there I saw that it was even worse than I’d imagined. An enormous section had fallen, reduced now to piles of shattered granite, from which protruded six sets of short stone pillars, like a line of giant soldiers cut off at the knees. A hundred yards away, the rest of the aqueduct stood, seemingly unmindful of the torrent of water pouring down from its severed conduit. As it cascaded down, sprays of water blew off, forming a veil that glistened with rainbow colors, and seemed to taunt wickedly the crowd standing below it with its spectacular beauty.

There were thirty or forty men gathered there on the rocks. Some were clearly water-workers; short, thick-bearded, plebeian men in muck-blackened leather trousers and smocks, while the rest were nobles. Everyone was engaged in heated discussion, gesticulating wildly, rubbing their chins, pounding their fists against their foreheads, the kind of thing Franks liked to caricature back in Aachen.

“Don’t you see?” I heard one noble shout. “We don’t have any choice. We have to go to the Pope.”

“Good luck with that,” another shouted back. “You know what he’s like.”

“But your grace,” interjected one of the water-workers, “if’n we gave him a detailed plan of what we was gonna do, describing all the material and expenses, wouldn’t he look at it differently than if we just asked him for money?”

“My friend, I don’t think you grasp the enormity of the Holy Father’s obtuseness.”

“And just when I shelled out for a bakery!”

“Just when I shelled out for a food shop!”

“All my money is sunk is a half-built hotel.”

“Well gentlemen, one thing is certain, if we don’t get the baths up and running soon, we’re all going to be out of a lot more money.”

Then I heard someone shout, “Ho, Marcellus! It that you? You’re a sight for sore eyes. Come on over and join us.”

It was my old schoolmate Alberic Crescenzi and next to him was my own cousin, Wido Tuscolani.

“Where have you been all these years?”

I told them.

They both looked at me like I was a madman. “At Frankish king’s court? In Aachen? I don’t believe it,” said Alberic.

“But Mother told me you were in a monastery in Sienna,” said Wido.

“I guess Aunt Carmella was wrong,” I said with a smirk.

“Well what were you doing up there?”

“Oh, a little of this and that,” I told him. “Teaching, copying books, helping build things.” It had only been two months. I was still feeling more than a little bitter about the whole thing.

“Building what kind of things?” asked Alberic.

I shrugged. “Bridges, boats, a catapult.”

“You built bridges?”


“Would you know how to fix the Aqua Virgo?”

Suddenly everyone was staring at me.

“But these were little bridges,” I explained. “A little stone, mostly wood. Nothing beautiful, not like that,” I waved my arm at the structure looming above us.

“But Marcellus, nobody has built a bridge around here in four centuries. Couldn’t you at least come up with an idea that the workmen could bring about?”

I looked up at the arcade. If we could bridge the gap with something basic, I thought. A trestle bridge made from tree trunks lashed together into stanchions, ten at the bottom layer, eight at the second, six at the third, four at the fourth, three at the fifth, cross-braced at each level. You’d need at least twenty rows, spaced about five meters apart, with more cross-braces, longitudinal and diagonal. It could support a conduit that size, at least for a few years.

“Yes, I could try something,” I told them.

We spent the next hour discussing the details. I sketched out the basic idea for the stanchions and tiers, using a stick to draw lines in a patch of dirt. Everyone agreed that it sounded like a workable idea. We talked about where we’d find tree trunks of the proper length and girth. Then one of the water-workers suggested we could quickly repair another aqueduct, the Aqua Julia. One of its inverted siphons was shattered, but still repairable. The more daunting problem was that the inside of its conduit was completely blocked by several centuries of calcite buildup. Many miles of it would have to be chipped out by hand. The good part was that it was not a particularly difficult task, just time consuming. But when the job was completed there’d be twice as much water flowing into Rome and we’d have a backup in case Aqua Virgo gave out again.

And as I listened to them talk, I kept thinking to myself how much things must have changed while I’d been gone. In my day, it had been unheard of for people of such distant classes to be standing around together, holding a discussion. But far stranger, Rome’s nobles agreeing on anything was, well, inconceivable. Cooperation simply wasn’t in their nature. They were too rapacious, too competitive, too proud. But now, listening to them here, I strained to detect some sign of the normal rancor, but found none. They weren’t trying to outdo each other or set each other up. Instead they were all acting like they cared about nothing but the common benefit. What was going on?

At the end of it, everyone agreed it sounded like a workable temporary solution. But the problem still remained how it would be paid for. There was no alternative but to try to get the Pope’s help. They asked if I would agree to be part of the delegation and I said yes.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Flensburg: The Bizarre, Three-Week Post-Hitler Government

My novel Germania is set in Germany during the last days of the Third Reich and is about living in the strange moments that take place in the space between epochs.

On May 1, 1945, mere hours after Adolf Hitler had killed himself deep in his Berlin Fuhrerbunker, a new Nazi government was coming to life in the little north German town of Flensburg. Set up by Grand Admiral Doenitz, the head of the navy and Hitler’s hapless successor, the ‘Flensburg Reich,’ was an absurd little comic opera affair which somehow managed to hold on for three weeks before the Allies decided to unceremoniously roll it up and arrest everyone.But much of what happened in Flensburg during that three weeks was so odd it defies credulity. With the war over and Hitler no longer telling them what to think, Flensburg’s inhabitants, mostly high-ranking Nazis who’d managed to flee Berlin, were suddenly free to imagine up whatever bright, shiny postwar future struck their fancy. Neither are they hindered by their guilt or by the fact that the Allies are now walking among them.

SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler now fancies himself co-ruling postwar Europe with Dwight Eisenhower, while Hitler’s architect and armaments minister Albert Speer contemplates escaping to Greenland with a friend to hunt walrus, fish, and write their memoirs together. In a brazen attempt at reinvention, SS doctor Karl Gebhardt appoints himself as the new head of the Red Cross and wanders about easing any misery he can find. Meanwhile Rosenberg, Ribbentrop and other former top Nazi henchmen, having lost their jobs, now stumble around in drunken desperation, trying to get their hands on anything that might give them official cover, or allow their escape: ministerial appointment, diplomatic passport, submarine, medical certificate, desk, or even just a few sheets of office letterhead.

Woven among all this craziness is the story of four Jewish brothers, former Berlin vaudeville child-stars, Manni, Franzi, Ziggy, and Sebastian, known during the 1920s and 30s as the Flying Magical Loerber Brothers. Flensburg is where they find themselves reunited after twelve years apart and suddenly things start getting quite strange...
Germania was first published by Simon & Schuster in 2008, but is now also available on Kindle here.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Albert Speer, Magic, the Fall of Nazi Germany and the Story of the Flying Magical Loerber Brothers

Maybe my big problem as an author is that I don't properly grasp the concept of "Paranormal."

I just write novels about reality and if that reality happens to have what someone else considers "magic," that's kind of their problem.  I just consider it reality.  Reality is what exists and it has rules and, being reality, it's mostly gritty and messy and utterly, totally lacking in wonderfullness.  Okay, so people have visions, and can levitate and project ideas into other people's minds. They still have itchy feet and achey knees and if Franzi Loerber, one of my protaganists, has just managed to project enough psychic slippery onto a couple of stairsteps that an SS Major going down them has just flown ass-over-teakettles and broken his neck,   well Franzi is definitely going to be so wiped out from that feat, that all he's going to do is go find an empty chair and curl up into it and crash. To me, that's just reality.  But in book publishing, it's considered paranormal.

Both of my novels, Germania and Friend of the Devil, are full of encounters with the magical and the surreal and characters with abilities that are beyond their understanding. But I still think of it as realism rather than "Paranormal."

So you may wonder who the Flying Magical Loerber Brothers are and what all this happens to do with Albert Speer and the fall of Nazi Germany. Read on.

They were the toast of old Berlin. For ten years, during the raucous golden era before the Nazi takeover, the Magical Loerber Brothers were indisputably Berlin's most popular variety act.

What was it about the four young men that so completely captured the hearts of their audiences? Was it simply that they were identical? Or was it the way they somehow brought kitschy, lowbrow entertainment to a level which even the edgiest of the avant-garde found irresistible? No, it was something more than that. The brothers were magic. They were so magic, in fact, that even when the Nazis took over, none of them bothered noticing that they were Jewish.

But even magic has its limitations. In life, no one is ever truly exempt. What were they like ten years after their act had broken up, when they were pushing thirty and the Third Reich which had loved them so unconditionally was in its last bloody weeks?

Perhaps the best person to answer that question would be Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, armaments minister, and estranged only friend. At the time he ran into Manni Loerber, Speer was crisscrossing the industrial Ruhr in a lonely, fruitless rebellion against Hitler's orders to blow up everything before it fell into American hands. Manni was sneaking around the Ruhr, killing any Nazi Party official he could get his hands on. Speer needed help. Manni Loerber needed cover. And with Manni's uncanny ability to talk anyone into nearly anything, things suddenly began turning around for Speer. They were going so well, in fact, that Speer soon began believing that, like Manni, he could alter reality. Crazier still, he even started to think he had freed himself from Hitler.

What happened to Speer was not that different from what was also happening to SS spymaster Walter Schellenberg. After more than a year unsuccessfully trying to goad his powerful but hopelessly indecisive and superstitious boss, Reichsfuhrer SS Himmler, into deposing Hitler and ending the war, Schellenberg had just about given up hope. Then in walked Franzi Loerber, a low-level horoscope-jockey who'd spent the entire war buried in the bureaucratic depths of the Ahnenerbe, the SS mystical research institue. Franzi, it turned out, had an ability to calm Himmler and quickly turn his waffling into confidence and steely determination. Suddenly Schellenberg was back in business, or so he thought.

The normally crafty and suspicious Schellenberg should have easily figured out that Franzi Loerber was a Soviet mole, but he didn't, for the same reason Speer didn't really care that Manni Loerber was most certainly a British spy and assassin. They needed to believe in magic.

Then, of course, there are the other two Loerber brothers. There is Sebastian, whom everyone believes is long dead, only now he has turned up with the Blood of Israel, a Jewish underground group which is using his unique ability to project dreams to sow terror in their enemies' hearts. And then there is the normal one; Ziggy Loerber, the U-Boat ace, whose hatred of the Nazis runs nearly second to the aversion he feels toward his own nutball siblings and their carryings-on. Given the choice of a reunion or death, he would have gladly chosen the latter. But things don't always turn out the way people would like.

With Berlin falling and the war crashing towards its end, everything is thrown into chaos, and responsibility for continuing the fighting falls onto the shoulders of Grand Admiral Doenitz, head of the Navy and commander of the Northern Zone. With the war lost, all he wants is to die like a soldier. And he might have gotten to, had a telegram not arrived from Berlin, informing him that Hitler was dead and he was now the new Fuhrer.

In the midnight after Hitler's death, the remnants of Nazi Germany converge on Flensburg, a small port city on the Danish border where Doenitz has set up his capital. There they try to conjure up a rosy future in which their Nazi pasts do not matter. Some imagine glowing relationships with Eisenhower, the man they presume will now rule Europe like a Caesar. Others dream of escaping to Greenland to write their memoirs. Others try ingratiating themselves with the Allied Control Commission representatives wandering about. It's springtime and seeing Doenitz' government grow each day, people begin believing it might actually put down roots and last beyond the few days allotted to it through the world's inattention.

And into this world sail the four Magical Loerber Brothers. Though most have spent the war far from the spotlight, once in proximity of each other, their celebrity quickly catches up with them. Nobody cares that they are not the same people they were fifteen years earlier. In the public's memory, they are inseparable from the good old Weimar days and by extension, a portent of better times to come.

But to them, it is not so easy. While their reunion might be preordained by the stars, its tragic outcome is written in the war's lingering brutality and their divergent paths which can no longer be fully bridged by love, hope or magic.