Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Bernadotte in Berlin I: Waiting for Schellenberg

The meetings that morning all went perfectly. As Bernadotte had expected, everyone was eager to sign whatever agreement they were handed, just so long as it was worded vaguely enough and required nothing from them beyond good intentions. He went first to Ribbentrop, and then to Ley. Both were drunk. So was nearly everyone else. And, Bernadotte noted, the meetings all seemed to follow a wholly new protocol, one which adhered to only a few of the old formalities while replacing the others with whatever approximations were at hand.

Previously, before such meetings would start, he’d find himself in a plush ante-room drinking coffee offered to him by young, pretty secretaries. Then a few minutes later, an older, inevitably punctilious male secretary with a leather agenda folder in his hands would appear and escort him into whichever minister’s inner chambers. In the minister’s office, there’d be a large window on one side, an oak-paneled wall on the other, a large rectangular conference table in the center, lined with heavy, carved wooden armchairs and, off by the inner wall, the minister’s enormous, though mostly empty desk, above which hung a large Nazi party banner, sumptuously festooned with golden braid, fringe and tassels.

But this time the young secretaries brought him straight in to the ministers’ offices. There was no longer any point keeping him waiting since the ministers could no longer pretend to have more pressing business. Besides, there was no coffee to offer him, only a weak and bitter brew made from acorns, which they really preferred not serving. The ministers’ offices no longer had glass in any of the windows. Most didn’t even have window frames, since those had been blown out by the bombing. The large conference tables were now buried beneath stacks of bound papers and files. In lieu of lamps and candles, they made do with cups on their desks filled with grease and a burning twist of rag for a wick. And as for the banners, they had grown frayed and musty and the fringe and tassels all seemed to have been stripped from them. He wondered what greater purpose they might possibly now be serving.

But what was most noticeably absent was the colossal arrogance of the ministers and their staff. Now everyone was helpful and solicitous. They’d listen with almost exaggerated interest as Bernadotte outlined the issues at hand. All of them did their best to sound deeply concerned over the refugees’ plight. But they were also quick to point out just how limited they were, and that even if they wanted to help, what could they do? And Bernadotte would tell them this: You can want to help. You can intend to do the right thing, situation permitting. You can lessen the mechanisms of unnecessary suffering. You can agree not to impede missions of mercy. You can agree to that, can’t you? And they’d all say, well yes, if you put it that way, I guess we could. How about we drink on that Herr Count?

By two o’clock he had finished. He went back to his hotel hoping to find a message waiting for him from Schellenberg. His flight would leave at six thirty the next morning. If he missed it, he’d be stuck in Berlin for at least two more days, something he really wished to avoid.

For an hour he lolled in the hotel lobby, reading and rereading a copy of Volkischer Beobachter, trying to act as if having a team of shabbily dressed secret police spies staring at him from three different points in the room didn’t bother him in the slightest. Finally, at three thirty, the clerk at the front desk signaled to him.

He had a message from Schellenberg telling him that a car would come by for him in half an hour. Until then he should continue waiting in the lobby. Which he did, only to get another message twenty-five minutes later that the meeting had been delayed and to stay put until they knew something. He did that too.

Sometime before five another message came in saying that there had been another delay and that if he could please go back to his room or to dinner, they’d let him know later what the new plans were. Bernadotte decided to go out for a walk.

The skies over Berlin were covered in thick, soupy gray rain clouds, which explained why there hadn’t been any air raids that day. As a result, the streets were teeming with people taking advantage of the bad weather to spend some time outdoors. Bernadotte was struck by how tired, hungry and irritable everyone looked. During the two months since he’d last been there, the air raids had become incessant: American heavy bombers attacked during the day, while British ones came at night. And the whole time the Russians kept pushing closer. The thunder of their artillery never seemed to stop. It seemed that in another week or two they’d have the city surrounded. And when they’d done that, the battle would start, the big final bloody battle and there was nothing the Berliners could do to stop it. And when it was finished, that was when the real horror would start; rape, murder, wanton destruction. Bernadotte knew it, and so did all the Berliners he passed on the street.

It hadn’t been quite the same for the Nazi bigwigs he’d been talking to today. They all seemed in a state of alcohol-fuelled unreality. But then Bernadotte had no doubt that when the time came, they’d all find a way out of the trap. People like that always did.

And when it was over, would there even be anything left of Berlin besides rubble and corpses?

When he got back to the hotel, there was still no message for him. He went up to his room, had a bath, dressed for dinner which turned out to be potatoes and cabbage served on none-too-clean plates and mismatched silverware. After that he spent another interminable hour in the lobby. Finally at ten, he’d had enough and went up to his room and went to sleep. At two in the morning he was awakened by the telephone ringing next to his bed. “Bernadotte,” he announced drowsily.

“This is the reception,” said the voice. “Sorry to wake you, Herr Count. But there is an urgent message from General Schellenberg asking you to be ready in the lobby in twenty minutes.”

“I’ll be there,” Bernadotte answered and rang off.

When he got downstairs, a black, six-wheeledMercedes with SS flags on the front mudguards was already waiting for him outside. He settled his bill at the front desk and quickly walked outside to the car’s rear door which the smartly-dressed SS driver was holding open for him. But when Bernadotte looked inside, he discovered waiting for him inside not Schellenberg, but his adjutant, Captain Steiner.

(This is a chapter that got cut during the final edits of my novel Germania, first published by Simon & Schuster in 2008, now also available on Kindle here).

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