Thursday, October 17, 2013

Speer in the Ruhr: When Magic Fails

They were visiting the local offices of a deputy gauleiter, a short, fat, red-faced man, who they’d hoped would block an order to blow up a nearby series of canal locks. At first everything seemed to go well. “Whatever can I do for Herr Reichsminister?” he asked solicitously. Speer started with his usual bit about heavy industry being the lifeblood of the German nation, and then about “ultimate victory” and how the Ruhr’s infrastructure would be vital once the Americans got thrown back by the Fuhrer’s secret weapons, which, Speer let the deputy know, were now only days from completion.

But try as he might to come off humble and unpretentious, Speer could tell that the deputy really only saw things in terms of weak and strong; of someone mighty and sophisticated like Speer begging favors from a relative nobody like himself. There was something of the inequity of it which he couldn’t accept. The whole time Speer talked, he kept staring at Speer’s tailored gray suit and crumpled as it was, it still somehow made his own sumptuous party uniform seem liks a doorman’s.

At first Speer thought that perhaps he should just stand up and thank the man without ever coming to the point of his visit. Make an excuse, say he’d be back later. But he hesitated and before he knew it, Manni had taken over. “What we need from you is to sign these declarations to prevent the unnecessary destruction of the canal locks.” The man nodded. “It’s for the future,” Manni added. The man nodded again. He took his pen and flipped open the lid of a rather ornate eagle-on-a-swastika inkwell, dipped the pen into it and then started contentedly scratching his signature onto the first of several documents.

But then he stopped. He blinked and shook his head like a horse trying to jolt off a fly. It was like Jakob all over again; a detonation which couldn’t be controlled. His eyes flared at Speer.

“You! You! You betray the Fuhrer! Of all people, you Herr Reichsminister! You are the Fuhrer’s friend and you do this to him?” He stood up from his chair. “I’m going to have you killed!” he declared. Again and again he tried to pull his pistol out from its holster, but for some reason, his hand wasn’t able to find it. He opened his mouth to shout out something, but then suddenly, his eyes went blank and jaw dropped and he slumped back into his chair with a heavy plop.

“Quick,” barked Manni, grabbing the sheaf of papers off the desk. “We’ve got to get out now!” They ran down the corridor, causing the secretaries and typists and party functionaries to look up from their desks.

Once outside, Manni tossed von Poser the keys. “Colonel, you’re driving,” he shouted. “Drive fast!”

He got in the back beside Speer, pulling out several automatic pistols from under the seat, while looking out the back window. Just as Von Poser fired up the engine, the deputy gauleiter stumbled out of the building entrance, pistol in his upraised hand as he screamed at them like a rabid dog. He shot at them as he ran down the steps, striking the car, shattering its rear window.

Von Poser began easing the huge car out into the street, only to suddenly slam his foot on the brake when he saw a truck barreling toward them. More shots rang out, but this time none of them hit the car. Speer saw the deputy running out into the street, right into the path of the oncoming truck. It ran over his like he wasn’t there and kept going past Speer’s Mercedes. Von Poser waited until it had gone past, then pulled out, heading in the opposite direction. The last thing Speer saw as they drove away, was people running up to the deputy’s body.

Then he looked over at Manni and saw he was slumped against the door, the pistol fallen from his hand. “He’s been shot,” he gasped.

“Stay calm Speer,” barked von Poser. “Try to see where he’s been hit.”

Speer bent over the young man to check his face and chest for wounds, but other than some glass cuts he didn’t see anything. “I don’t see any wound,” he said, his voice quivering with panic. “But he looks like he’s dead.”

“Is he breathing?” asked von Poser.

Speer put his ear to Manni’s chest. He could hear breathing but it was shallow, like he was in shock. His face was ashen. Speer pulled open his eyes, but they were not reacting. “He’s breathing, but he’s out,” he told von Poser.

“Just keep an eye on him.”

Von Poser kept driving as fast as he could, swerving occasionally to avoid the potholes and debris. Speer pulled out a blanket and draped it over the young man. He tried to feel his pulse, but he couldn’t tell if it was even there.

A few minutes later they came to a checkpoint. The militiamen looked at the bullet-holes and the shattered windows without interest. Von Poser let them examine his papers.

“Where are you going?” one of them asked.

“We’re trying to find Field Marshal Kesselring’s headquarters,” answered von Poser. “Any idea?”

“How would we know?” one of the militiamen answered. “Everything keeps moving around. The Field Marshal probably doesn’t even know.” He pointed at Manni still lying unconscious in the backseat. “What’s with him?”

“He had too much to drink. His wife just died,” Speer answered.

The militiaman gave a wave of his hand. “You can go,” he told them.

They drove through the night, changing direction frequently and sticking to back roads where there were fewer checkpoints. Manni Loerber remained unconscious the whole time. Every hour or so, Speer would check on him. His pulse had returned and his breathing seemed almost normal, but nothing would rouse him. The roads were mostly empty now. There wasn’t fuel for convoys to move around much anymore. But in contrast to the stillness on the ground, the sky was full of constant buzzing. The allied fighters were everywhere, roaring low overhead without a moment’s warning. Somewhere before dawn they found an abandoned farmhouse on a hillside overlooking Detmold. Von Poser helped Speer carry Manni inside. They put him in the large bed and covered him with a blanket. Then they ate something, opened their bedrolls and went to sleep.
(Excerpt from Germania, first published in 2008 by Simon & Schuster, now also available on Kindle here).

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