Thursday, May 22, 2014

Himmler in Hiding: Himmler's Astrologer Ponders the Cambridge Spies

“I thought I told you not to go outside,” said Macher. He was furious. He pointed to the house. “Get back inside now.”

Meekly, Franzi Loerber did as he was told and started walking back to the house. “I needed to see the stars,” he mumbled apologetically.

Macher was unimpressed. “You pull something like that again, I swear I’ll blow your brains out. I don’t care how great the Chief thinks you are.” had no doubt that Macher would not hesitate to shoot him. Only the day before he’d killed an SS man who’d given him backtalk. Just like that. Bullet in the head, drag the body off, somebody clean the blood off the floor. Now where were we?

The others were standing along the side of the house, keeping back from the open front yard as they watched Macher throttle Franzi. There were three of them, Grothmann, Kiermaier and Gebhardt, who until then had been on lookout duty. Himmler was standing at the threshold, buttoning up his trousers as he stared out at them. “Macher, what is it?” he demanded. “Is everything all right? Tell me what is going on?”

“Zonag the Magnificent here wanted to go look at the stars,” Macher fumed. “Little fairy’s going to get us all caught.”

“He wanted to look at the stars?” Himmler asked. “Well maybe you should let him.” He turned to Franzi. “Did you see something? What was it?” he demanded, his voice squealing with excitement. “You should let him look, Macher. How can you expect him to complete my horoscope? Let him stay outside. I’ll watch him.”

Macher shook his head. “It’s too dangerous,” he said. “Everyone back inside.”

From far inside the house, a woman’s voice, high-pitched and fretful, called out, “Heinzi, what is it?”

“It’s nothing, nothing at all,” Himmler called back.

“Then come back to bed,” they heard her purr. “I’m so cold.” Even from outside, it was easy to tell she was pouting. Immediately Himmler turned and made his way back inside, unbuttoning his trousers as he did. Macher shook his head with disgust, then, turning his attention back to Franzi, he grabbed him by the collar and threw him against the ground. “I’ve about had it with you,” he said.

Franzi got back to his feet and stumbled back inside, numbly making his way into the empty parlor. But once there, he found that he could not, for the life of him, remember which chair he’d been sitting in before going out. There were four chairs in the parlor and four of them sitting there in them; Franzi, Macher, Grothmann and Kiermaier. Each with his own place and for Franzi to sit in someone else’s was to invite no small amount of abuse upon himself. By this point, everyone’s nerves were on edge and being at the absolute bottom of the totem pole, Franzi was everybody’s target of choice.

He tried to remember, but couldn’t. The vision he’d just had left him too drained. Even though it had been barely five minutes since he’d been sitting there, the way his head felt it could have been last year. He remained standing, woozily surveying the chairs, hoping to let the others sit down first.

"Sit down!” barked Macher.

Franzi went to an armchair and fell into it. “Get out of my chair!” Kiermaier growled from the doorway. Wearily, Franzi got back up and looked at the other chairs. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “Where was I sitting?” Angrily, Kiermaier pointed to the one across from him and Franzi lowered himself again, feeling more dazed than he ever had in his life.

“What’s with you, anyway?” asked Grothmann. “You’re acting strange.”

Franzi put his hand to his brow and said. “I’m sorry, I just...bad headache."

“Oh? So the Swami is having trouble getting out of his trance?” sneered Grothmann.

Franzi gave a week grimace and nodded.

“Hey! The Reichsfuhrer might buy that crap but don’t expect me to,” said Grothmann combatively.

Franzi closed his eyes and let the back of his head rest against the top of the chair. He tried to gather his thoughts, but his head felt like it was full of cold, wet cement. His thoughts moved listlessly through his brain like dying animals.

Then he remembered the vision and what he’d seen, and as dead as he’d been feeling, he suddenly felt a spark of warmth in his heart. Ziggy was near! Manni too, he knew it now with a certainty. They were looking for him, they were looking for him together! Was it even possible? And there was someone else there too, holding Ziggy’s hand and forcing him to look…….It felt like his old friend Nigel Westerby. He couldn’t believe it, but he knew it was true. What were they doing? What did they know? What could be going on that would bring them all together like this? For the first time in weeks he felt hope.

Up till now, he’d been feeling so worn down from fear and futility, he knew he’d soon run out of the strength and will to continue contending with Macher. The only reason Franzi was even alive was that no one else could take away Himmler’s pain. But that didn’t mean they trusted Franzi in the slightest. He was nothing more than a servant, someone they would have gotten rid of long ago if they’d been able to figure out a way to do without his talents. Nothing he could say could ever convince Macher that he wouldn’t try to run away at the first opportunity. As a result, they wouldn’t even let him go out unescorted to the outhouse.

The others got out quite a bit. Every few hours one of them would go sneak around outside to make sure no one had infiltrated in. Franzi had volunteered to go, but Macher wouldn’t let him. “This is man’s work,” he’d say with a superior smirk, as if being homosexual made Franzi an inferior sneaker.

Were they setting up some plan to rescue him? Did they know something about Himmler’s plans that he didn’t know? Franzi knew next to nothing about any of the day-to-day planning that went on. He wasn’t even sure how much Himmler knew. They seemed to be keeping a lot from him, ever since Macher found out he would confide things to Franzi during the course of a massage. They were making very sure that none of that information filtered down to him.

But since the Reichsfuhrer had nothing mundane with which to impress Franzi, he’d resorted to handing him morsels of information on a far grander scale. He never told him very much, by themselves they were all tantalizing, but useless little chunks.

Except what no one understood about Franzi Loerber was his ability to store up all the little chunks and fit them against and alongside each other until he managed to piece large pieces of the puzzle together. And by this point he actually knew quite a lot about the extent of German infiltration into the Soviet intelligence apparatus.

He knew they had two men in the NKVD’s Thirteenth Directorate, which handled foreign counter-intelligence. He didn’t know their names but he did know something about how they operated. He knew that they were among the bargaining chips that Schellenberg hoped to use to get them all in with the British. He also knew that the Soviets had British Intelligence pretty well riddled with their people whom they’d recruited straight from Cambridge. He even knew several of their names, Burgess, Philby, Donald McLean. But there was also another one, one whom Schellenberg had yet to identify.

He knew lots of other things as well. It wasn’t just spies and infiltration and intelligence estimates. He knew about linkages. He knew about the trading houses and holding companies and the foreign subsidiaries and which bankers and industrialists had worked with the Nazis throughout the war. He knew about British lords and American senators. There were plenty of powerful people out there with a vested interest in keeping that information from ever getting out. It was a sure bet that they’d have their people out among the advance parties tidying up and removing certain inconvenient realities before the main force arrived.

Just then a loud creaking of bedsprings erupted from the other side of the parlor wall. Himmler and his mistress were at it again. It had to be the fifth time that day.

Her name was Fraulein Potthast and she was, Franzi had learned, the Reichsfuhrer’s longtime mistress. She had already been living at the farmhouse for two weeks when they had arrived. Apparently Himmler had Kiermaier arrange her accommodation without anyone else knowing about it. She was young, blonde and pretty, though in a horse-faced way. She was also vivacious, flirtatious and loud. She liked wearing shimmery silk robes; lilac and silvery blue and when it was cold she would wrap herself in a heavy, full-length fur which she told them was sable, though Franzi knew it was something else.

It was strange having her brought into their pared-down, die-hard ranks. Franzi could tell Macher didn’t approve of such a reckless change to what had until then been his flawless regime of evasion and escape. But before he could voice his objections, the Reichsfuhrer had already vanished into the bedroom with her.

Her presence was a mixed blessing to say the least. She got on everyone’s nerves and seemed spectacularly unmindful of the perilous situation they were in. It didn’t register with her that they were, at that moment, the focus of possibly the largest manhunt in history. All that mattered was that finally she was the one closest to the Reichsfuhrer! That his mighty empire was now down to a handful of people and that it barely extended beyond the farmhouse was of no consequence. She had him now! She had risen to the very top and no one could take that away from her.

And because of this, she felt entitled to rule the roost, to be treated as the lady of the house, First Lady of the whole SS Empire. She would voice her opinions, she would ask questions, demand answers and accounts. She demanded deference and was quick to inform the four subjects of her dominion which of them were currently on her good list and which were not.

On the other hand, she kept Himmler occupied and out of their hair for hours at a time. Until now, Franzi never had the impression the Reichsfuhrer was much of a swordsman. He seemed more the mousey, schoolmaster type, too prissy and fastidious to ever get really down and nasty. But now he was absolutely unstoppable. Nothing, it seemed, spurred the Reichsfuehrer’s romantic ardor quite like impending doom.

It shouldn’t have affected Franzi’s situation either way except that it did. It made it a lot worse. To his dismay, Franzi discovered that Fraulein Potthast regarded him as her rival. Even though she managed to occupy nearly all of the Reichsfuhrer’s waking attention, there were nevertheless things he needed that she could not provide, physical things, things altogether too similar to her own ministrations for her to be able to brush them aside.

For much as Himmler was now generally calmer and more stable from having her around, his stomach did occasionally erupt into paroxysms of pain, that were worse than ever before. When that happened there was nobody who could take the pain away but Franzi. Each time, she would be dismissed from her privileged place and forced into the common room to sulk while Franzi would come in and go to work on Himmler’s stomach and abdomen, kneading the spasms and squeezing out the knots and replacing them with warmth. He’d listen to Himmler as he’d freshly detail all his fears and he’d calm him and tell him about what the stars were saying about the future. And by the time he’d leave, the Reichsfuhrer would again be glowing in happiness and optimism. Sometimes he would want to have a little party, light the nice candles, break out a bottle or two of the good stuff and even play the gramophone. During which time Fraulein Potthast would feel impelled to act as the charming hostess, addressing everybody with pet names of her own devising; everyone, of course, except Franzi. And they’d all have to treat her with graciousness and deference, which was asking an awful lot of Macher, who had a hard enough time keeping up the pretense that she was anything more than some snatch-on-the-run.

Franzi opened his eyes only to see Kiermaier staring at him. Kiermaier had the unnerving quality of sitting motionless and staring straight at you for an hour, two hours, three, it made no difference to him. He didn’t talk about things, he didn’t give off any indication what he was thinking, if he was thinking anything. And as the groaning bedsprings grew noisier and more imperative, Kiermaier’s stillness only grew disconcerting. Franzi knew better than to start a conversation or, worse, make a comment about what was going on in the next room. Kiermaier was Himmler’s personal bodyguard and while he might have to put up with Macher’s or Grothmann’s little digs, he certainly wasn’t going to take anything from Franzi Loerber.

Franzi drifted back into his thoughts about his brothers and wondered if the view he’d found of the town and that castle was enough landmark that they could find their way. He hoped he was right, he prayed to God they were coming to get him out of this hell. It would be so wonderful to be rescued, to be free. He felt like a Rapunzel locked in a tower, waiting to let down his golden stair, so he and his rescuers could descend it, dismantling it in the process and taking it with them on their escape. Wherever they were going, he knew they’d need it.

The creaking grew louder, but always irregular and arrhythmic and punctuated by the Reichsfuhrer’s sporatic, labored grunting. Does he think himself a great lover? Franzi wondered. Is he relishing his role of public stud? Probably.

“Jesus God, is that all he’s good for?” It was Macher, seething with disgust. He hated weakness in any form and the thought of serving a Reichsfuhrer so enslaved to his own urges ran against his grain.

Kiermaier shot him a poisonous look. “Watch your mouth,” he growled. Macher pursed his lips into a contemptuous sneer, but said nothing. Franzi looked down, not wanting to get drawn into the argument, knowing it would only get him beaten on by both of them.

Macher had only been Himmler’s adjutant for the last two months, but Kiermaier had served as bodyguard for twenty years. It didn’t matter that Macher outranked him and was obviously in charge, Kiermaier’s loyalty was absolute and he wasn’t about to let Macher or anybody even suggest disrespect to his boss. The two butted heads on a regular basis, and, as a result, Franzi sometimes fantasized about Macher and Kiermaier having such an argument that it would get out of hand and they’d end up shooting and killing each other, leaving Franzi free to walk out. But he knew it wasn’t going to happen. They were both pros, and knew better than to tread very hard on the other’s space. Besides, any excess anger they had, they usually took out on Franzi.

He thought about Ziggy and Manni again. How would they escape? Would they steal through the night fields and forests, hiding in the shadows while their pursuers and the victorious armies forged past? And after that, what? Would they find passage across the waters aboard anonymous, nondescript steamships, melding themselves into the mass of humanity in transit?

Where would they go? Anywhere, as long as it was someplace where the dogs couldn’t follow. A sunny land, somewhere lazy and entropic. Someplace where they could go to ground and hide themselves, someplace where even the presence of three identical-looking foreign men would scarce arouse curiosity in the good-natured natives. Spain, Portugal, Chile, the Andes, Uruguay, The Argentine. On second thought, maybe not The Argentine, since it seemed like half the SS was already on their way there. Uruguay, then. Buy a hacienda or a cattle ranch, sink into happy oblivion, keep a low profile, maybe marry, have children. Why not?

Then another thought came into his head. If they were planning to come and rescue him, they had better get a move on it. Even though Macher and the others had gone out of their way to keep Franzi in the dark, he knew beyond a doubt that something was about to happen. There had been several visitors during the last few days, all coming from Flensburg to discuss things with Macher and Grothmann. Every time they did, he’d get sent into the parlor with the girl while Himmler stayed hidden in another room, listening in on the conversation.

That very morning, in fact, a Luftwaffe officer came up in a jeep driven by two British soldiers, both of whom remained in their vehicle while he went inside to talk to Macher and Grothmann. About the only things Franzi actually made out was the Luftwaffe man saying ‘flying boat,’ and Macher telling him, ‘we’ll have it here tomorrow.’

We’ll have it here tomorrow.” What could Macher have been referring to? What could the Luftwaffe guy care about that much besides payment. He couldn’t want Reichsmarks. No paper money, unless it was Swissfrancs. Couldn’t be British Fivers either, not with the way Schellenberg had been forging them. No, for something like that, it’d have to be Specie; Gold, up front, payment in hand, nothing promissory. Thank you very much, welcome aboard, take any seat you like, we’ll be taking off shortly!

Besides, the Russians were also closing in on them. Only a few days earlier, while they were hiding out in a manor house on the edge of a small village, looking out the window onto the street, Franzi noticed a zigzag mark in yellow chalk on a traffic sign across the street. An inconsequential mark, to be sure, not something anyone would pay any attention to, except that, it hadn’t been there the day before, and it just happened also to be the hailing mark of his old Moscow-Center spy ring. They were looking for him and he didn’t know what to do.

The obvious answer was of course that they were looking for Himmler to bring him to justice. He could find a way to leave them a countermark and lead them to him, which would earn him praise and reward and even a bright, quiet, unproblematic future.

Of course another possibility was that they also wanted the Gold. In which case he could only expect praise and reward if the gold was going to the public good, which was, by the nature of the substance, a bit of a stretch. More likely, they’d want to pocket it for themselves and get rid of him.

Perhaps they wanted him because he’d been their man inside the SS for all these years and it was time to get their spy out and bring him home. Even on an honest, straightforward level, the idea sounded horrendous. He had no desire to go to Russia, even as a hero of the Soviet People. But he knew it was doubtful they would ever do that.

But there was always the possibility they’d figured out he wasn’t a Soviet hero at all, but someone who’d been playing both sides and giving his best work to the British. If that was the case, it wouldn’t be a quick shot in the back of the neck. No, Franzi would have real hell to pay!

Could they have figured that out? Ever since he’d learned from Schellenberg that the Russians had their own people at the top of British Intelligence, he knew it was a very real possibility. All it would take was someone figuring out where Manni had been getting his information from and passing it on to the Russians, who’d promptly connect the dots.

The creaking grew louder and louder, Fraulein Potthast began moaning and making little mewing squeals of joy and then she started screaming full out. She’s faking it, Franzi thought to himself. He’s putting it to her with that pathetic asparagus sprout of his, thinking he’s King Kong reincarnated. Franzi saw Macher and Grothmann exchange a less-than-bemused glance.

Then suddenly it wasn’t the girl who was screaming but Himmler! He shrieked out in excruciating agony, infinitely worse than he had during any of his previous attacks. Kiermaier bolted up from his chair and ran over to the bedroom to investigate. If that bitch has tried something, Franzi could hear him thinking. Had she bitten him someplace? Goddammit, I’ll kill her! 

(A slightly different version of this chapter appears in Germania, Simon & Schuster, 2008, now also available on Kindle here). 

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