Friday, February 8, 2013

Margaret Bourke-White Photographs von Friedeburg's Corpse

Here is the original ending for my novel "Germania." It's based on a true incident, in which Margaret Bourke-White, the famous Life Magazine photographer, went to photograph the body of Admiral von Friedeburg. Most of what happens in this chapter is based on her own descriptions in her memoir, though some liberties have of course been taken.

The woman said her name was Margaret Bourke-White and that she was a press photographer with LIFE and wanted to take just a few pictures of the dead admiral. She and the major were coming out of the Flensburg police headquarters where they’d had Speer, Doenitz and Jodl standing together in handcuffs trying to act like it was any other day of their lives. There wasn’t anything else planned. By now all the people from the government and ministry offices had been taken away. There were British soldiers loitering around the government offices, but that didn’t look like anything. She had all the shots she needed of that. By now, everyone else was tired and knocking off. She could go up to the airfield to shoot the top Nazis getting flown off in Dakotas, but it probably wouldn’t happen for another couple of hours and she didn’t want to be up there waiting around with everybody else. And now she’s heard about the admiral killing himself and figured it might be worth trying to get something out of that.

“So what do you say?” she asked the major. “His quarters are just over there, aren’t they? Couldn’t we just go over now and have a look? You and me? Come on.”

The major twirled his forefinger around his mustache as he listened to her request. Yes, he supposed there’d be no harm in letting her have a peek. Certainly, let’s go!

As they walked over to the admiral’s apartment, she explained what they were actually doing was putting together a photo essay; pictures of top Nazis who’ve killed themselves and their families next to pictures of Hitler.

“Oh,” the major answered. He’d seen some of those himself.

“Oh you have?” she said. “Did you notice that it’s almost always the same picture? About ninety percent of the time.”

“Same picture? Sorry?”

“Yeah, of Hitler. It’s always the same one.”


“Artistically speaking, that’s weird.”

“I should think,” said the major. “And you think you might get one of them this way?”

“It’s worth a shot, isn’t it?”

“I suppose,” agreed the major. Then he thought of a question. “So is there some sort of effect you’re trying to achieve?’

“Well yes,” she answered. “I suppose you could say there is a certain repetition. Each one’s different, but they’re still all the same.”

“Dashed dreams of glory and all that,” suggested the major.

“Yeah, exactly,” said Margaret Bourke-White. “Listen, do you have any idea what the story was with him?”

“Von Friedeburg?”

“Why exactly he killed himself?”

“I believe he was of the opinion, Miss, that his treatment had not been entirely honorable. It was a protest.”

“And he was what?”

“Head of the German Navy, following Grand Admiral Doenitz’ brief elevation as Head of State.”

“And he was the one who did all the surrenders?”

“That’s right.”

“Ah,” she said, happy to be able to put her subject into some kind of context.

“Have you thought about Himmler? You’ve heard he’s killed himself too. Why don’t you take his photo?” asked the major.

Margaret Bourke-White frowned. “Well you see I can’t,” she said. “He’s all the way over in Luneburg. I’ll never get there in time. I’m afraid the admiral will have to do.”

“Ah,” said the major, giving his moustache another twirl.

There was a guard standing outside the door who let them in. She expected to find the admiral lying right there, but instead it was just two German sailors, one thin and the other fat, drinking wine and not looking particularly sorrowful about anything. According to the sergeant, the thin one was the admiral’s orderly, the other, the orderly’s “friend.” Both of them were still in uniform, but had judiciously removed any Nazi-looking insignia from them, lest they incur the wrath of the British army. They smiled when they saw her. “Nazi kaput!” the fat one said with a grin.

Margaret Bourke-White turned to the sergeant. “Where is the admiral?”

“He’s in the toilet,” said the sergeant.

“Well in that case, I’ll just wait till he gets out,” she answered. They all had a good laugh with that one.

The major led her to the adjacent bathroom. There he was, still slumped against the toilet. His jaw was open and his eyes stared out emptily. She gave a dissatisfied grunt.“That’s nice, but I can’t use it,” she said.

“We can put a picture of Hitler behind him,” suggested the major. “That would work, wouldn’t it?”

“No it really wouldn’t,” she said. “It would look phony. Nobody brings photographs of Hitler into the bathroom with them. I mean that’s nuts.”

“No, I suppose they wouldn’t. Shame,” said the major.

“What we could do,” she suggested, “is get him out on the bed in that other room, put the picture there, behind him. That would work.”

“Yes, we could do that,” allowed the major, impressed with her inventiveness. “Sergeant, have those two bring the body out and lay him out on that day bed.”

The two Germans came in and did as they were told, smiling helpfully the whole time. They carried the admiral out, one with his arms under his shoulders, the other carrying him by the feet. They laid him on the sofa and folded his hands together. “Sehr gutt,” the skinny one muttered when they’d finished. Then he reached for a blanket and tried to cover it over the body.

But Margaret Bourke-White brusquely waved him off. “Not yet!” Then she called out, “Major, have you found a picture?”

“No,” the major answered with just a touch of worry. “I don’t see one anywhere around.”

“Look again. There has to be one. There always is. Try the study.”

The major came back a moment later with a framed picture in his hand. “All I found was this,” he said, holding it up for her to see. It wasn’t Hitler, but Doenitz.

She stared at it a moment. “Maybe they’ve got one next door,” she said. Then she thought about it a second and took the picture from him and placed it against the wall, beside the body. “Don’t worry,” she declared and started setting up her camera. “It’ll work just as good. They’ll never notice.”
(Germania was published by Simon & Schuster in 2008 and is now also available on Kindle here).

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