Sunday, April 7, 2013

Martin Bormann, His Escape So Far

Of course, one of the big undying mysteries of the last days of the Third Reich concerns the disappearance of Martin Bormann, Hitler's Secretary and Grey Eminence, who vanished not long after leaving the ruins of the Fuhrerbunker.

By now the heavy fighting had started to die down. There was still shooting going on, but it had become sporadic and when it did happen it was lethargic and rarely prolonged. The battle for Berlin was nearly over. From his hiding place, Martin Bormann listened to the growing silence and wondered when his guide would come back. It had even begun to occur to him that he might even have abandoned him. He had left more than an hour ago, telling Bormann that he needed to scout ahead. He’d already done this several times. Just stay put and don’t make any noise he’d tell Bormann. No one will see you here. Stay put, no noise, I’ll be back. And then he might be gone for five minutes or an hour leaving Bormann in a state of indescribable fear.
It pitched Bormann into a kind of hyper-awareness such as he’d never known before. Suddenly there were no empty moments. Every minute was composed of sixty unforgiving seconds, sixty equally-loaded possibilities for being cast into oblivion. No moment was exempt. Each had to be separately negotiated with an eternity that granted no lenience. Each move, each step, each glance was potentially set to kill you and surviving one moment didn’t buy you any grace for the next. That was the way the universe was really structured. Everything he’d experienced previous to this had been nothing but an illusion. And now for the first time, Martin Bormann felt intimately acquainted with just how little order there actually was to the world. He knew now he wasn’t any different from the rats scurrying among the rubble; only bigger and noisier and more cumbersome. Everything that had made up his life until a few hours ago, his high position as the Fuehrer’s closest advisor, was now just an abstraction, barely even a memory. Now there was nothing beyond the moment and memory was just an illusion, a shadow. Every noise he heard, every movement around him was either a signal or noise, and being able to tell them apart was what his survival was now dependent on.

His hiding place was in a burned out building, in a shadowy narrow space just beneath where a large chunk of collapsed wall was wedged between two others. He was safe there, it was true; on two occasions, Russian soldiers had passed by without even a glance in his direction. But despite that, he’d become anxious waiting for his guide to return.

He really didn’t know about the guide. Sure, the man was good, in fact the best, but this gave Bormann little comfort, since he couldn’t be sure of the man’s actual intentions. His orders had been to take Bormann out of Berlin. But was he following his orders? The one thing Bormann was now sure of was they were not taking the route they’d agreed upon. Whenever he’d tried asking the man about it, all he got back was a hard, almost murderous stare. He wouldn’t tell Bormann anything. Once he’d gotten Bormann out into the inferno, Bormann had become wholly dependent on him which made him free to treat him absolutely any way he wanted.

He remembered how, just before departing the Reichskancellei, they’d gone to a map, and how he’d followed the man’s finger along the route he would take to get them out of Berlin. First across the Unten den Linden to the metro station from there they’d travel the underground tracks to Freidrichstrasse station, there they’d come up to the surface and make their way through a succession of passages and underground corridors to the river Spree. They’d cross over on the small iron footbridge running parallel to the Weidendammer Bridge, head past Charite hospital and the Admiral’s palace and from there to Charlottenburg and Alt Moabit where there was still a stronghold where they could rest and prepare for the next leg, traveling either along the river banks or by boat to Gatow. South of there, the Russians still didn’t have much control. That was what they agreed on. All right then, Bormann declared. Next stop Alt Moabit.

< But somewhere after crossing the Unten den Linden, the man evidently changed his mind and began leading him a different way and now after fifteen hours creeping and crawling through an absolutely disorienting mass of devastation, Bormann realized he couldn’t be anywhere near Alt Moabit. So where was he? And why was he there? Where was his guide and when was he coming back?

He decided he needed to look out into the street and see if he could get a bearing. Furtively he crawled out from his hole and started making his way to the front of the building. He went to what had been a window and looked out. The street was empty, aside from the dead and the rubble and the burned out hulk of an armored vehicle lying on its side. The buildings on either side of the street were all shattered and lifeless.

In the distance he could hear scattered gunfire and what sounded like a line of tanks clattering up a nearby street. They could only be Russian, he surmised. He hadn’t seen a single German vehicle operating the whole time since leaving the bunker. There was a heavy haze hanging on the streets. He craned his head at an angle to see what he could make out further down the street. There, in the distance between the destroyed buildings he could make out hazy outline of the Red Town Hall tower. Then staring again hard at a street a few blocks ahead in the foreground he realized what he was looking at was the edge of the big circle where Kurfurstendamm, Kaiser Allee, and Tauentzien Strasse all met. It meant he had to be either in Schoeneburg or Wilmersdorf, at least three miles south of where they were supposed to be.

Suddenly the silence was shattered by an eruption of machinegun fire from a nearby building, joined a few seconds later by frantic rifle fire, and the sound of bullets hitting and ricocheting against the sides of the building. Then he heard the sound of heavy boots clambering up a pile of loose piles of masonry fragments. Bormann immediately scrambled back into his hiding place, holding his breath as a group of Russian infantrymen hurried past. More gunfire, more angry shouts and then silence.

Was that his guide? Had the Russians ambushed him as he was coming back to get Bormann? No, it couldn’t be. Intensely frightened as he was, Bormann’s instincts told him the guide was still out there alive. He’d seen him in action and knew he was too good to fall for something like that. The man was a killing machine, a predatory animal whose own preternaturally keen instincts allowed him not only to be absolute master of the space around him, but also to see and hear things coming from far away. He was master also of the moment, knowing how to spring forward or sink away. He could also, it seemed, make himself invisible even in broad daylight only to reappear wielding a bayonet, single-handedly massacring everything in his way. The man was magic and that was a fact.

Follow me exactly, he’d said to Bormann by way of instruction. And Bormann tried his best to follow, but the going was rough and after seeing his guide perform what seemed like a particularly agile leap from one uneven concrete slab to another, Bormann decided the jump was farther than his un-athletic legs could go, and that it would be more sensible simply to go around them and doing so, promptly found his foot stuck in a hole in between some half-buried reinforcing rods. Resting against one of the slabs he pulled his foot free and in the process inadvertently dislodged some masonry fragments which fell noisily against a battered piece of corrugated sheet metal. Immediately gunfire erupted from a half dozen different spots nearby. Seeing the bullets striking around him, Bormann froze in helpless terror only to have a hand grab him and yank him down into a nearby bomb crater only an instant before a hail of machinegun fire ripped across the very spot where he’d been standing.

The guide was furious. “Idiot!” he snapped. “You want to get us killed?” But Bormann, paralyzed with fright, could only whimper helplessly. The next thing Bormann knew he was being slapped hard by the guide again and again, until whatever it was that had snapped inside him fuzed itself back together and he started coming back to his senses. The guide pushed him away, back to the crater’s side. Then he turned and crept up to just below the crater’s lip and slowly eased his head up to take a look out. He stared out for a few seconds, then, crawling back down, snatched up some stones lying on the bottom and as soon as the shooting had subsided, he tossed them out as high and far as he could throw. At the same instant he slipped Bormann’s arm up over his own shoulder and brought him to his feet. “Ready?” he asked. A second later the stones clattered noisily against some distant hard surface and immediately gunfire erupted afresh but this time directed against where the stones fell.

“Let’s go!” he shouted, pulling Bormann with him out of the crater, and immediately they both began running for all they were worth. Together they ran, galloped in perfect unison like a single, four-legged animal. Over the rocks and under fallen beams, across the midnight moonscape they ran, past collapsed brickwork, protruding remnants of chimneys and shattered walls that were no longer connected to anything. They leapt over craters and through doorways and windows and the facades which were now all that remained of once-proud buildings. They ran past the twisted metal and stumps of trees and the dead and the dying and the lifeless, burned-out hulks of tanks and trucks. Nothing could stop them, nothing could slow them down. They ran unnoticed, in an apparent vacuum. And in the exhilaration of their flight, Bormann felt his fear falling away.

He imagined his was being carried aloft by a winged horse, invisible in the night, apart, unseen, immune, exempt, safe from all the ever-present danger. Then it occurred to Bormann that he was, they were, that winged horse. He’d been enveloped by the magic which his guide cast about.

They ran and ran, Bormann had no idea how long until they stopped abruptly and found themselves face-to-face with a squad of six Russian soldiers, all with sub-machineguns clutched in their hands, but utterly dumbfounded at the sudden presence of two Germans. Before they could even react, the guide had his bayonet in his hand and was already putting it into them. He was absolutely balletic as a killer, moving from one to the other like a gypsy dancer. A few seconds later it was over. Six Russians lay dead and dying at their feet.

Bormann stood, gaping open-mouthed in awe as the guide wiped the blood from the blade. He looked up from the blade, his eyes flashing angrily at Borman. Then he spoke. “Now let’s you and me get one thing straight,” he said in a surprisingly calm voice. “Until we get to Flensburg, I’m the one giving orders, understand? If you want to live, you will do exactly as I tell you, when I tell you. Otherwise you will die very quickly. Is this all clear to you?”

Bormann nodded.

“Good, now listen, this is what I want you to do. Always look at my eyes and hands. If you have to look away, you may do so, but do it quickly, then come right back. Eyes, hands. Got it? ”

Bormann nodded again. “Eyes, hands,” he repeated, wide-eyed, in the getting of real knowledge.

“Good. You do as I say, I’ll get you out of here,” said the guide, smiling grimly. “I’m a cruel man, but fair.”

Bormann nodded submissively. Yes, yes, anything you say. You are the leader! Cruel, fair, sounds good to me!

“All right, let’s move.”

Eyes and hands. Hands and eyes. For the next couple of hours that’s all it was. Hands and eyes, eyes and hands. Bormann let himself be a puppet, following exactly, focused in that strange groove where, without thinking, he did exactly as he was directed: step here and here and there, faster, slower, down, up, tighten it up, hang back. And as different as it was from their earlier run, it nevertheless possessed a similar intimate intensity. They moved together across the Berlin moonscape, creeping noiselessly, in and out of half-flattened buildings, through courtyards and tunnels and passages, across streets and through alleys, past firefights and street battles.

It seemed no one noticed them coming or going. They slipped through the chaos, like a veil cast free in an autumn wind. They went around and by and through and never entered into any local equation. They never mattered. Somewhere in all those battles he’d been in, the guide had learned whatever it took to subvert the laws of physics to the point where one became exactly the same as invisible. That there seemed to be a difference, Bormann was certain, though he didn’t know why, but he did know a lot of it had to do with moving with moments and adhering into patterns.

Onward they pushed through the apocalypse. Onward through the fog. Late morning haze became early afternoon haze. Sometimes when they’d stop to rest, they’d both be crouched in their own silences, resting but never relaxing, always with a hyper-awareness that barely seemed human. And Bormann gazed dumbly at his guide and he remembered that the reason he picked him was because he’d believed he was magic! Magic? He hadn’t known anything about magic back then, he hadn’t even a clue what magic was. But that was why he’d picked him. And look at him now! This is what magic was all about!

But why then did he think the guide was magic? It hadn’t been just that the man was a break-out artist who’d fought his way out of Stalingrad twice. No, it was that even before the war the man had been a famous and celebrated escape artist. Now he remembered! He was Johannes Loerber of the great Loerber Brothers! Funny that during the past harrowing hours he’d completely forgotten. The Magical Loerber Brothers! I mean of all things?

It really was an amazing world. He found himself trying to remember all the things he’d once known about them and about their father. He himself had met Gustav Loerber quite a number of times and he’d seen the brothers perform at Party rallies and nightclubs. Old Gustav had been a bit of a pervert, but at least of the right sort. Hansi, Manni, Franzi, Ziggy and that other one, the one who disappeared and there’d been all that ruckus that never actually got out. He couldn’t actually remember any of it. But Hansi had done those really remarkable escapes in that old stage act of theirs which had always been followed by either the saxophone quartet or the one where two of them were dressed as girls. And then there was the time he’d been lowered upside down into that huge aquarium of water. People were saying for a while then that he was the magic one. If any of them was the magic one it would have to be Hansi, except of course, he couldn’t be, since he wasn’t one of the quadruplets, so he couldn’t possibly be the seventh son. No, he was the older one. Was that the reason the speculation was always on the others? Bormann also remembered how Hansi hadn’t been actually identical either. He’d looked a little different from the others, though not by much.

And to think this is the guy bringing him out. And he would get him out, he was sure of it. He had to get very quickly to Doenitz’s headquarters to make sure he’d be at the top of the new government. And this time he’d have a much freer hand so they wouldn’t make any of the stupid mistakes they’d done last time.

A few minutes later, they were going through a destroyed building when his guide pointed him to the spot where the half-collapsed piece of wall had wedged itself so tightly between the two and told him to stay there and not do anything till he came back. Listen for my signal, two quick knocks and a slow third one. Remember the countersignal; one, and two-three-four, like that.

As he had the times before, Bormann obediently went in and sank into his spot and became as silent as he could. He heard Loerber walking away and all the confidence and exhilaration he’d felt earlier seemed to evaporate right out of him. Once again Bormann felt paralyzed with fear. It went on and on. More Russians went through. More tanks rumbled and clattered up a nearby street. He listened to airplane flying low overhead. More shooting. Men shouting something in Russian. A long silence. Another look at his watch, an hour and a half had passed. Where was Loerber? Where was his guide? He just wished he’d get back. He wished they’d just get out of the city. The other side of the lake, Kladow, was still mostly in German hands. Once he got there he could probably get on some kind of express transit north. He started to worry about what would happen if he didn’t get to Flensburg quickly. Himmler would take over, and when that happened the first throat he’d likely go for would probably be Bormann’s. Himmler as new fuehrer would be a disaster. Himmler was definitely smart in some things, but not as someone you’d trust to actually cut a deal with Eisenhower. He was a man who didn’t even know the meaning of ‘nuance.’ What could someone like that ever accomplish on the international stage? Actually Himmler was quite impossible.

Knock-knock, a pause and a knock.

It came unannounced, among all the noise. Knock-knock, a pause and a knock. My God, thought Bormann. He was back. Loerber was back. He thought about the response.

How was it supposed to go? He gave it. Knock and a pause, and a knock-knock-knock.

“Come on out,” hissed Loerber. Eagerly Bormann did as he was told. He crawled out.

Loerber stood above him. He was carrying a Russian machine gun and had a camouflage cape fashioned around his shoulders. “You all right?” he asked. Bormann nodded.

“All right, let’s go,” he said.

Bormann raised his hand. “Major Loerber, may I ask a question?”

Loerber turned to look at him. He shrugged to indicate Bormann might.

“We’re not going anywhere near Alt Moabit, are we?"

A slight smile drifted across his lips. “No,” he said.

“Then where are we heading to?”

"Pichelsdorf Bridge.”

Bormann felt like he’d been slammed into a wall. Pichelsdorf? “But why?” he asked.

“That’s where my men are,” answered Loerber.

Bormann was about to loudly object, to point out the Loerber’s orders had been explicit: to get Bormann out of Berlin and directly to Flensburg just as quickly as possible. Not to make some personal side trip to check on the welfare of some infantrymen who were probably all dead by now anyhow. He was about to say all this, but Loerber cut him such an ugly look that Bormann never opened his mouth.

“No other questions?”

Bormann shook his head.

“Good, let’s go.”

They continued west. It was the same as before. Bormann kept a close eye on Loerber’s hands and eyes, ready to react to any cue sent his way. He quit trying to recognize landmarks and buildings. It was all somewhere he’d never been and hopefully would never revisit. He focused himself on what they were doing that minute and whenever thoughts of the political situation popped up in his mind, he’d quickly toss it aside and stay fixed on what they were doing. Mid afternoon turned to late afternoon which then started turning to evening. There was a darkening in the haze and all around the shadows started to spread and making things out in all the jumble of ruin and wreckage became harder. But they pushed on. It became dark. The moon rose in the night sky, but the haze was so thick, any illumination it might have provided was masked. Sometimes the Russians fired flares over the battlefield, but they seemed to create more shadow than light.

They reached Pichelsdorf bridge somewhere after midnight. Bypassed and largely forgotten, the bridge still held. And in a shattered building across the street from it, Loerber found what he’d been looking for. Of the two hundred thirty five men he’d marched to the bridge a week earlier, only seventeen were still alive.

“Major Loerber? It’s you! You’ve come back.” Bormann heard them shout incredulously.

Loerber didn’t waste anytime exchanging pleasantries. “Come on, get everyone together, we’re getting out now,” he said tiredly. But even though the way he talked to them was every bit as abrupt as all the time he’d been ordering Bormann around, Bormann could nevertheless detect a comradeship, which he’d never thought him capable of. Whereas Bormann was nothing more to him than a charge, his men he cared about.

“Nothing from here to Gatow but Russians. Anyone not like that?” he called out gruffly.

There were some fatalistic snickers. No problem here. We love Russians. Bring them on. We’ll show them just like before.

“So it’s going to be just like Stalingrad again, huh Major?” asked one.

“No,” said Loerber, resolutely. “It won’t be anything like Stalingrad.”

"But Major, where are we heading to?”

"Flensburg,” he told them. “That’s where the new Fuehrer is.”

“The new Fuehrer?”

Loerber smirked. “Seems the old one blew his brains out in the bottom of the bunker.”

Bormann noticed several of the soldiers spitting on the ground like they’ve all been doing this at his name for years for a long time, but now they were getting a certain particular satisfaction from it.”

“Blew out his own brains, huh?” one said. “Too bad the Russians weren’t given the chance,” said another.

The men regarded Bormann nervously. “So who is he?” one of them asked.

Johannes Loerber put his hand on Bormann’s shoulder and said, “Gentlemen, meet our ticket out of here.”
(A deleted chapter from Germania, Simon & Schuster 2008, now also available on Kindle here).

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