Friday, October 4, 2013

Albert Speer Dreams of Greenland

To just fly away.

What a thought! To separate oneself from all the details and involvements and get away to a place where life was down to its essentials. He could leave all this behind. Why not? They could take off in a flying boat in the middle of the night and by sunrise they’d be halfway to Greenland.

At least that was how it seemed to Albert Speer while he sat through another morning cabinet meeting. Doenitz sat at the head of the table, correct and steely-eyed as always. Today’s topic was housing. Some bright boy from the transportation ministry was explaining how to mass produce worker housing. It would mean organizing construction into separate phases; one crew putting down piping followed by a concrete bed, the next crew would do the framing, another prefabricated side panels, another a roof and then a finishing crew would put in the electrical wiring and the interior. He argued that with a force of two hundred workers, operating in teams, they could build thirty single-family cottages in a week. The idea was that they could quickly supply semi-permanent family housing for areas where there were high priority factories and industrial sites, but a shortage of usable dwelling space. Speer watched Doenitz nod as he listened to the young man describe the processes and the breakdown of logistics, as though he agreed that under the right circumstances it might actually work. But as it was, they still had not gotten a single go-ahead from the Allied
Control Commission on any of their proposals. They hadn’t even gotten an acknowledgement that the proposals had gone anywhere besides the bottom of a desk drawer.

Eventually the subject switched to renewed Allied demands that the Doenitz Government hand over Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler. “I’ve told them again and again that Himmler is beyond my control and that I haven’t seen him since I turned down his request to be in my government,” Doenitz told them. “Now they are claiming to have spotted him inside Flensburg the night before last. I intend to respond that I don’t know anything about it. But please, if any of you hear anything, even just a rumor, bring it to my attention immediately. Anything positive we can tell them would probably help.”

While he listened, Speer began absentmindedly making doodles on the sheet of paper he had for making notes. He started with a small circle, then he began surrounding it with smaller circles, until it resembled a daisy. After that, he started putting down vertical lines, then horizontal ones, and then, almost without realizing it, he began sketching a house.

He started with the front door, making it wide and curved at the top. Then he drew the windows: a square one on the right and a long rectangular one on the left, both the same height, with shutters on the ends. After that, he drew in flowerboxes. He then put in vertical lines, one on each end, to mark out the sides of the house. He followed these with horizontal lines; one to mark the top of the roof and the other the bottom. But no sooner had he drawn them than he realized it had been a mistake. The roof was too low. He wanted to put in a second story, one with a balcony and a long bank of windows and a door. He took out a small gum eraser and began carefully removing the top horizontal lines. Looking up, he saw Doenitz glowering at him. Speer put down more lines. Staring at it, he realized how much more he preferred small-scale to large-scale. Yes, small-scale suited him better. In school, his building designs were all for small-scale structures. That was where the original Speer was, but would anybody bother looking at his designs and trying to figure out where Hitler’s gargantuan influence left off and Speer’s more reasonable, intimate sensibility took over? Was there a chance that someday someone of rare talent and understanding might declare ‘Here! You see! This element is pure Speer! See how the simple, elegant lines emerge!’ A nice thought, but that might take centuries.

Abandoning his straight lines for the moment, Speer’s pencil began making squiggly lines and shapes on the paper to represent the irregular outlines of icebergs. Speer stared at the paper and imagined watching the sunrise from high above the shimmering north Atlantic. Flying west, he’d probably have to leave the cockpit and go aft to find a window he could observe it from. He thought of listening to the heavy drone of the aircraft’s six engines with his hands on the cold metal bulkhead and his nose pressed against the glass and seeing the first rays of light spread across the dark surface of the water, then filling in to reveal the waves’ white foam.

Back in his office, Speer stared out the window and suddenly realized the giant flying boats were gone from the harbor. For a moment he felt a rush of panic as it occurred to him that Baumbach might have flown away without him.
(An excerpt from Germania, first published by Simon & Schuster in 2008, now also available on Kindle here).

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