Thursday, November 14, 2013

Speer in the Ruhr: Sharing Confidences with a British Spy

Back in the car, driving through the night, rain spattering against the windscreen as the pneumatic wipers made faltering sweeps on the glass, they had the radio turned up high, blaring enemy fighter coordinates along with Bruckner. Speer was in the front seat, staring ahead into the garbled gray horizon, past the flashes of artillery and streams of tracer rounds, and wondering what was going to happen with them. He didn’t want to go back to Berlin. He didn’t want to answer to Hitler for what he’d been doing here. He didn’t want to be forgiven and be allowed to worm his way back into Hitler’s good graces so they could again spend endless hours talking about architecture or movie musicals or how someday the two of them were going to design and build the finest neo-gothic cathedral back in his hometown of Linz.

At the moment they were driving toward Duisburg, not that there was anything waiting for them there other than a fueling station where they could fill up their tanks with diesel. In the three days since the incident, their crusade had deteriorated into an aimless shuffling about. The Battle of the Ruhr Pocket, as it was being called, was already in full force and with it, the fate of the region’s factories and chemical plants had passed from the hands of the gauleiters and militias to the Americans, who seemed content to bomb and shell it all to bits. Even so, it felt better to remain there than go home. Here they were beyond Hitler’s reach and the Russians weren’t likely to get there anytime soon.

He glanced over at Manni Loerber at the wheel and wondered what he was thinking. Having ended his own personal retribution campaign, Manni also didn’t seem to have any idea what to do next. Odd guy, thought Speer. One minute he could be as remote as an iceberg, the next as energetic and affable as your oldest friend. They might spend hours driving about without exchanging a word, then stop somewhere, brew up some coffee, have a bite, and suddenly he would start cracking jokes, break out the balls and insist they spend the next hour juggling. And whenever they did, Speer, who was normally reticent about sharing confidences with anybody, would end up spilling his guts, telling Manni things about Hitler he hadn’t even told his wife. Afterwards he’d always regret the things he’d said. Speer wanted his rebellion to be on his own terms and didn’t like the idea of being so easily manipulated. But being finally around someone so quick and witty was like a drug for him and he couldn’t help telling him things. It also made it all the more obvious just how mediocre and tiresome even the best conversations he’d had with Hitler had been.

“Night fighters in grid C-1, Mosquitoes in grid B-9, squadron of bombers flying east south east Grid B-14,” the voice on the radio announced, then returned to a piano etude.

That day he’d told Manni about the time Hitler had, on a whim, given the order to melt down all the Luftwaffe’s bombers and build nothing but fighter planes. The day before he told him about Germania, and all the endless hours they’d spend together revising cupolas and shopping arcades and imagining the way the great dome would look in the light of a setting sun. He even told him of the time when he’d been gravely ill the summer before, and Hitler had allowed Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and Speer’s chief nemesis, to have him transferred to a special SS clinic where Himmler almost succeeded in having him poisoned.

Manni in turn told Speer a few secretsof his own; how Old Gustav was actually from Bulgaria, and their mother’s great uncle had been a rabbi in Riga. The Loerber Brothers, the blue-eyed, quintessentially Aryan Loerber Brothers, were Jews.

“Night fighters in grid D-16 heading north,” said the radio announcer. “Mustangs in grid D-4 heading east. Mustangs in grid A-6, A-7, and A-9, circling.”

Morning found them on the outskirts of Ludenscheid. They’d driven till three, then taken shelter inside a half-wrecked building which a Volkssturm battalion was using as its command post. Partially demolished buildings had become valuable since they were less likely to be directly targeted for additional pounding. Speer stood at its entrance, huddled in his overcoat, staring out at the drizzle and the gray bleakness and wondering if this was the day he’d finally get caught.

In the yard below, some soldiers had a fire going, using wood pulled from the wreckage, with a large cooking pot dangling from an iron tripod above the flames. Nearby stood the volkssturmers, gray and grizzled, shivering in their heavy coats. They were old men, retired bakers and clerks and librarians. Men who’d fought their own wars long ago and having survived them, didn’t see the point in dying now. Speer wondered what Hitler would think if he saw them. Would he continue proclaiming that they were what was going to turn the war around or would he give a wave of his hand and send them all home?

“He can be quite magnanimous when it suits him,” he remembered telling Manni the day before. At that, Manni gave a cruel snicker which still rankled Speer. He didn’t like having to defend Hitler, but at the same time, he felt miffed by such glaring absence of awe. He was, after all, Hitler, not some puffed-up party hack.

(An abbreviated version of this chapter appears in Germania, first published in 2008 by Simon & Schuster, now also available on Kindle here).

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