Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Albert Speer Searches for Landmarks in Bombed-Out Berlin

Back in his office, Speer hung up his helmet but kept his overcoat on. The paper on the front windows had been blown out in the bombing and all that remained were a few jagged triangular strips fluttering along the edges like race pennants. It had been at least a year since anyone had replaced a window. Usually the electricity didn’t work and since the roof was mostly holes at this point, everything had a perpetually damp, musty smell. Speer lit a cigarette and stared out the window. It was early March and the skies over Berlin were perpetually gray. He wondered if by the time the actual spring came the war might already be over. He’d already had a number of the women in the office come up and ask if, with his connections, he could get them suicide pills. He promised he would look into it but he still hadn’t started asking around.

The intercom on his desk buzzed. Speer went over and pressed down the switch. “Yes?”

A female voice crackled on the other end. “Colonel von Poser is here to see you.”

“Send him in,” said Speer. A few seconds later the office door opened and in strode a short, frowning, white-haired soldier easily twenty years his senior. Colonel von Poser was Speer’s military liaison to the Army General Staff and by now one of the few men he trusted completely. Von Poser was of the old school. He hated Nazis and dilettantes and he hated discussing things in rooms he assumed were bugged. “Speer,” he grunted, “it has happened.”

Speer knew it could only mean one thing; that the Americans were now across the Rhine: Germany’s last barrier in the west. He got up from his desk and followed von Poser to the wall map. “Where?” he asked in a low voice.

Von Poser put his finger on a town called Remagen. “Apparently efforts to blow up the railroad bridge had not been as successful as originally claimed,” he muttered.

“Any chance they’ll be thrown back?”

Von Poser shook his head. “Speer, we don’t have anything to throw them back with. But you see what lies next.” His finger made a circle around the area just east of Remagen. It was the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heart, the biggest concentration of mines, steel mills, chemical plants and manufacturing anywhere in the world. “You know what’s going to happen next, don’t you?”

Speer nodded. Hitler would now have all the excuse he needed to unleash a spate of scorched-earth orders, just like he did when the Russians had moved into East Prussia a few months earlier. All the factories, all the mines, the rail yards, electrical plants, telephone exchanges, everything, would get blown up, smashed and destroyed, leaving behind a mangled, smoldering wasteland.

Blowing up the Ruhr’s factories was not going to keep the enemy from winning the war. Nothing could at this point. All it would accomplish was to ensure that the Germans who survived would spend the rest of their lives in the dark ages. This was Hitler’s new vision for Germany. It had to be stopped.

“So are you still willing to go ahead with our plan?” asked von Poser.

Speer nodded.

Von Poser gave a grim smile. “You know what your friend will do if he finds out?”

Speer shrugged. He knew.

“All right,” said von Poser. “I’ll get the auto ready. We leave when it gets dark.”

After that Speer had meetings that went on through the afternoon. When everyone had finally gone, Speer went back to his quarters and packed all his things into two pigskin traveling bags. In his valise he stuffed some reports and letterhead stationery, along with a thick sheaf of “Stay of Demolition Orders,” which his ministry had no authority to possess, let alone hand out, along with an inkpad and an assortment of rubberstamps from different governmental authorities. Then he gathered all the canned food from his personal larder and bundled it into a pillowcase from his bed.

With still an hour to kill, Speer lit a cigarette and went over to the couch and sat down.

You know what your friend will do if he finds out? They always referred to Hitler that way. Speer had always hated that. Hitler wasn’t his friend, Perhaps Speer was Hitler’s friend, perhaps even his only friend. But that wasn’t the same thing, was it? Besides, Speer knew what Hitler would do when he found out.

Reasonably speaking, all they could hope for now was to keep as much of Germany’s industrial base together so that some level of civilized life could continue after it was all over. He’d carefully broached that matter with Hitler during the winter, but Hitler dismissed it. “There is no need to preserve anything for the survivors, Speer,” he told him. “They will have proven themselves unworthy.”

Speer went over to the window and stared out. By now the bombing had taken out most of the city’s landmarks, leaving him without his usual points of reference. Locating Alexanderplatz had always been a matter of simply finding the old Town Hall’s clock tower and then going a little bit left. But now the tower was gone. So was the Karstadt department store, the Columbus building on Potsdamerplatz, the twin steeples of Saint Nicholas church. He tried to remember what they looked like, but they were already excised from his memory.

Instead what blazed unforgettably was the skyline of a city which had only existed on paper and tabletop scale models. He saw the dome, stretched out before him, larger than a sunrise, with its dozens of gigantic columns and a massive bronze eagle perched ominously atop its cupola.

And he heard Hitler’s voice reciting the numbers to onlookers, Sixteen times the size of Saint Peter’s in Rome!

And he saw the rest of the imaginary city, the broad avenues, the monuments, the palaces and plazas, the gigantic ministry buildings, cinemas, concert halls, hotels and storefronts, miles and miles of it. The two of them had spent years dreaming it up; a city greater than Rome, a light among nations, a capital fit to rule the world for a thousand years; Germania!

Speer had actually believed in it back when Germany’s future still loomed bright, enough so that he went ahead with demolition orders for whole neighborhoods in order to make way for it. Berlin’s destruction hadn’t started with the first British bombing raids, but with the bulldozing he had himself engineered.

Once the war had started the whole thing should have been shelved, but the war only stoked Hitler’s enthusiasm. And when the enemy bombing did come, Hitler acted gleeful. “They’re only doing our work for us, Speer,” he’d say. And Speer accepted it without question. Even after things went bad in Russia, Hitler insisted it be kept on as a top priority, summoning Speer to the studio in the middle of the night so they could discuss the changes which still kept occurring to him on a daily basis. They’d spend endless hours bent down at eyelevel to the miniature streets and buildings, peering under archways, discussing each gallery and staircase.

Even now, with the enemy at their door, Hitler still wouldn’t let it go. In his mind, Germania was still every bit as real as the miracle weapons, Inevitable Victory and all the other shabby fantasies which he insisted everyone believe in. And it was all Speer’s fault for wanting a thousand years of glory.

Going to pick up his bags, he paused for a moment to look at himself in the mirror. Was this the face of a future world leader? Except for some rings under his eyes and a receding hairline, there was still far too much boyishness in it. He was neither handsome nor ugly, his face was round, his chin soft. It was only the face of a technocrat. No, that’s not completely true, he told himself. His eyes had it. Dark, brooding, even without a night’s sleep, they had a sharpness to them, inquisitiveness, too, and sardonic humor. The face of a man who could put things into perspectice.

Speer went downstairs to the garage where Colonel von Poser was waiting beside a supercharged, six-wheeled Mercedes. They drove out after nightfall, heading west.

(Excerpt from Germania, Simon & Schuster, 2008, now also available on Kindle here).

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