Thursday, October 24, 2013

Good-bye Berlin, Hello ... Welthauptstadt Germania!

That evening, still having several hours to kill before it was safe to drive off, they had another campfire. Manni and von Poser had snared a fat rabbit during the afternoon and now it was roasting over the fire. Somehow Manni had also acquired several bottles of dark beer and when the rabbit had turned crispy golden brown, the three had a feast.

For the first time, Manni was quite conversational. They talked about movies and the kind of cars they’d liked and which film actresses had the most oomph. Manni told them how he used to like to hike in the Hartzwald and about a sailboat he’d had for a few months. Listening to him, it was almost as if a spell had been broken and once again he had joined the world of humans. Still Speer kept wondering what the young man’s story was, what he wasn’t telling them.

Von Poser talked about a dog he had for a while in Russia. It was a black mongrel that he kept in his bunker. Then they talked about Indians and building teepees. Then Manni turned to Speer. “I know what you can tell me about, Herr Reichsminister,” he said.

“What?” asked Speer.


Speer couldn’t hide his surprise. “Germania?” he gave a wary laugh.

“Yes, wasn’t that the name for the new Berlin you and the Fuhrer had designed?”

Speer waved him off. “Honestly, I don’t want to talk about that. The whole thing was ridiculous. It was an opium dream that I wasted five years on.”

“Five years? That must have been a lot of work you put into it. You shouldn’t let it all just go to waste.”

“That is precisely what I intend to do,” snapped Speer. “Pretend it never happened and hope no one remembers it.”

“Not much chance of that happening,” laughed Manni. “It was something you and the Fuhrer dreamed up together. Do you think that once this is over, people won’t be clamoring to know all about it? Face it, Herr Reichsminister, if you manage to survive this war, and they don’t hang you as a war criminal, you’ll be explaining Germania to audiences all over the world just like you’ll be telling them about being the Fuhrer’s only friend. The least you can do is get your story straight. People hate inconsistencies.”

Hanged? thought Speer. For what? For being Hitler’s architect? His friend? He couldn’t see what Manni was trying to get at. Could he be an Allied spy? What did he know?

"Germania,” repeated Manni. “Tell me or it’ll be the Three Musketeers Minus One.”

Speer had to laugh. “All right,” he said. “How shall I describe it?” He stared into the fire and in the glowing embers, the images of the different buildings and monuments and grand boulevards began laying themselves out before him. “Start with a street, a grand boulevard running from north to south, three miles long and seventy feet wider that the Champs Elysées. At its southern end would stand the triumphal arch, bigger than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, with the names of all the war dead chiseled onto it.

"At the northern end would stand the dome. Sixteen times larger than Saint Peter’s in Rome, with enough space inside for one hundred and fifty thousand people. Its mass resting on a granite edifice two hundred and forty feet high and over a thousand feet long, surrounded with stone pillars sixty-six feet high. On top there’d be a turreted skylight, crowned by a giant eagle and swastika. The dome would be surrounded by water on three sides with a large public square on the fourth side.”

“At the southern end of the street, just below the triumphal arch, would be the main train station, larger than New York’s Grand Central Station and in striking contrast to all the stone construction, it would be wholly modern, built of steel and copper and glass and have four traffic levels connected by escalators and elevators. Emerging from it, the visitor would face a basin of water thirty-three hundred feet long and eleven hundred and fifty-five feet wide. It would be clean enough for swimming and lined with boat houses, dressing cabins and refreshment terraces.”

Speer described them all one by one; Adolf Hitler Platz, the eleven ministry buildings, Soldiers’ Hall; a combination armory, veterans’ memorial and crypt for Germany’s field marshals, past, present, and future. Then there’d be the Grand Boulevard with its luxury movie houses and symphony halls, the twenty-one story hotel with the large roman-style pool, plus the opera house, the variety theatres, the numerous interior courtyards with their luxury shops where prestigious German goods would be on continuous display.

All this time Speer had been gesturing with a haunch of rabbit in his hand, like it was a pointer. Taking a big bite out of it he added, “The idea was to build it and keep it empty until the 1950 World’s Fair, which would be held there. Then it would belong to the world.”

“It sounds so wonderful,” said Manni. “Just think, an entire city without Jews.”

In an instant the meat in Speer’s mouth turned to sand. Why bring up Jews? Nobody talked about them any more. Speer saw Manni smiling devilishly at him.

“Are you a Jew?” asked Speer.

“What if I was?”

“Well you should know I had nothing to do with any of it.”

“Any of what, Herr Reichsminister?”

“We had to move people out to begin construction. It was only logical to give them the flats confiscated from the Jewish residents that had left.”

“Did they leave voluntarily?”

“I don’t know, that was something the Goebbels ministry handled.”

“Oh,” said Manni. “I guess that explains that.” There was an uneasy silence for a while and then he added: "Germania. I always thought Berlin was such a cheap, tawdry name.”

They got going soon after that, reaching Nuremberg just as dawn was breaking. The last five kilometers the autobahn was lined with the burning wreckage of army convoys that had been shot up during the night. Much of it had simply been pushed off the road where it joined older wreckage.

In the faint early light, the wreckage’s ghostly silhouettes resembled a field filled with the skeletal carcasses of ancient extinct beasts, though the stench of the burning ammunition, rubber, combined with that of dead and dying men, kept it from even a moment seeming like a fantasy. Even so, they all knew that in a little while their entire world would become just as extinct. Enemy daytime fighters were already beginning to appear with the dawn, flying low, attacking any vehicle which hadn’t already found cover.

They found the army headquarters hidden among the half-bombed factories just inside the city. Field Marshall Kesselring hadn’t arrived yet, they’d learned, but was expected at noon. With nothing else to do for the next five hours, they got themselves directed to a darkened corner of the factory where dozens of cots had been laid out and quickly went to sleep.
(A shorter version of this chapter appears in my novel Germania, Simon & Schuster, 2008, now also available on Kindle here).

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