Thursday, September 18, 2014

Where Bonnie and Clyde Longed to Belong

Bonnie and Clyde were two grit kids from hardscrabble West Dallas. Across the river was glittering Downtown Dallas. Color film from the 1930s:

Friend of the Devil is a novel about people from the wrong side of Dallas. But in 1939, the right side sure looked like smart, sophisticated heaven.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Americans Cross the Rhine and Speer's Ruhr Rebellion Goes Nowhere

At first, a war is a cause, a crusade. But ultimately it becomes nothing more than an intersection of x and y axes; a cost-benefit analysis, a calculus of conditions and circumstances. In this particular war, the lines had been crossed a long time ago and there was no longer any benefit, just cost. It wasn’t a question of belief or will, only numbers. And the numbers had said only one thing: the was is lost.

While the Western Allies stayed to the Western bank of the Rhine, people kept hoping it might somehow stay that way, as it had been two thousand years earlier when the Rhine had marked the Roman Empire’s northernmost border. They wondered what it might take to ultimately convince the British and Americans to stay put. The French could keep Strasbourg and the Alsace, the Russians the eastern bank of the Vistula. As far as fallback positions went, it almost bordered on the agreeable, Not that the Fuhrer would have seen it that way. But then again the Fuhrer wouldn’t be around for ever.

But of course now the Rhine was breached and the Americans were racing the Russians to Berlin. Now it was a question of trying to limit the destruction so that there might be something left for the future. It should be something everyone could agree to.

He and von Poser had gone in thinking it would be easy, since by then, Speer was on a personal basis with nearly every factory director in the Ruhr. Despite his youth, they all looked to him as a guiding light, someone who understood their needs and concerns, who respected their expertise and knew what could and could not be done. And he was someone they could speak frankly to about the suicidal course the war had taken. They’d all been acutely aware of what Hitler had done to the industrial areas in the east and were adamant the same thing not happen to their beloved Ruhr. Some had even dropped broad hints about their willingness to go against the regime should Speer elect to break with Hitler and lead a revolt. But now that Speer had come to do just that, they were suddenly overcome with reticence.

"Had I said that, Herr Reichsminister? You must be mistaken.”

"Don’t say these things, Herr Reichsminister. It’s treason.”

"Perhaps we should stop the conversation right here, Herr Reichsminister.”

"Herr Reichsminister, what you are suggesting is quite impossible.”

"Herr Reichsminister, you must not ask this thing!”

"Herr Reichsminister, I’ve always had the utmost respect for you, but if you do not leave at once, it will be my duty to inform the local Party militia of your subversion.”

"Now please, you must leave, immediately.”

"Get out.”

"Leave now!”


Not that it was surprising that everyone was now so scared. With everything in complete disarray and communication with Berlin hopelessly tangled, the local Nazi Party chiefs, the gauleiters, now held absolute power. Their “flying squads” seemed to be everywhere, examining travel documents, searching vehicles, questioning people about what they were doing away from the front lines, and then acting as judge, jury and executioner against anyone whose enthusiasm for the war they found wanting. Their victims were either taken away for torture interrogations or simply strung up from the nearest lamppost where they remained for weeks as a reminder to everyone else.

By the end of the first day, Speer was ready to throw in the towel and head back, and he would have except that von Poser’s steely determination showed no hint of flagging. So they went on, day after day, visiting chemical plants, steel mills, coal mines, electrical generating stations, ammunition works. Most of the distance driving they did at night, since during the day the sky teemed with enemy aircraft. Sometimes they traveled with military convoys, but more often alone. The roads were always kept dark and with their headlights masked down to tiny illuminated squares, they had to proceed slowly, since the roads were full of bomb craters and debris.

It was always a big guess where the roads would take them, since everything was rerouted and changed. Where the front actually was, was kept secret and more than once they ended up at the front lines with less than half a kilometer between themselves and the nearest enemy tank. Even more confusing was the fact that nothing looked familiar anymore. In his years as armaments minister, Speer had visited every factory town there countless times and knew the region like the back of his hand. But with half the buildings flattened and the sprawling industrial plants transformed into forests of twisted metal girders, frames and broken pipes, Speer and von Poser often found themselves disoriented. But as wrecked as everything looked, Speer knew that a surprising amount was repairable. Factories were often up and running again in a matter of days, machine tool works sometimes within hours. Of course if the militiamen really tried, they could render everything completely unfixable. And that was Speer’s biggest worry.

They drove around, visiting the factories that came their way. They’d talk to whoever was around, sound them out, listen to their excuses, nod sympathetically and then move on to the next location, hoping they’d get lucky. They’d knock off late in the afternoon, sleep a little, then drive through the night. Usually toward the dawn they’d find a command post where there were cots or they’d simply pull over and rest for a few hours. Sometimes they ate from their stock of canned food, but mostly they tried to eat whatever was being spooned out for the troops.

Then one night they were driving between Ludenscheid and Dessau on a particularly badly bombed stretch of autobahn. Speer sat beside von Poser in the front seat, an air defense map spread on his lap, while the radio alternated between piano concertos and a lifeless voice reading out positions of enemy aircraft; fighters reported in Grid E-6 heading westward, enemy fighters in Grid F-12 bearing east. Enemy fighters in Grid D-9 heading east, enemy bombers in Grid C-7, C-8 and C-10, high overhead heading west.

Then suddenly they heard the metallic scream of aircraft engines as machinegun fire ripped up the ground in front of them. Von Poser slammed on the brakes and before they knew it, the car was plummeting down the embankment. They pushed open the doors and jumped out onto the ground. A twin-engine Heinkel roared over them, with a smaller American fighter tight on its tail, firing away. The Heinkel’s starboard engine was aflame. Then its wing crumpled and it turned over, plunging into the darkness. A second later they heard the dull explosion and saw the flash of fire in a distant field.

They tried getting their car out of the ditch, but the mud was too thick and the four back wheels only spun uselessly. They stood around in the darkness unsure of what to do next. In another hour it would be light enough for the American Mustangs and Thunderbolts to return and begin strafing anything that wasn’t already blown up.

(Excerpt from Germania, Simon & Schuster, 2008, Kindle ebook version now available here).

Friday, September 12, 2014

Albert Speer Insists He Was Never Hitler's Friend

With still an hour to kill, Speer lit a cigarette and went over to the couch and sat down.

You know what your friend will do if he finds out? They always referred to Hitler that way. Speer had always hated that. Hitler wasn’t his friend. Perhaps Speer was Hitler’s friend, perhaps even his only friend. But that wasn’t the same thing, was it? Besides, Speer knew what Hitler would do when he found out.

Reasonably speaking, all they could hope for now was to keep as much of Germany’s industrial base together so that some level of civilized life could continue after it was all over. He’d carefully broached that matter with Hitler during the winter, but Hitler dismissed it. “There is no need to preserve anything for the survivors, Speer,” he told him. “They will have proven themselves unworthy.”

Speer went over to the window and stared out. By now the bombing had taken out most of the city’s landmarks, leaving him without his usual points of reference. Locating Alexanderplatz had always been a matter of simply finding the old Town Hall’s clock tower and then going a little bit left. But now the tower was gone. So was the Karstadt department store, the Columbus building on Potsdamerplatz, the twin steeples of Saint Nicholas church. He tried to remember what they looked like, but they were already excised from his memory.

Instead what blazed unforgettably was the skyline of a city which had only existed on paper and tabletop scale models. He saw the dome, stretched out before him, larger than a sunrise, with its dozens of gigantic columns and a massive bronze eagle perched ominously atop its cupola.

And he heard Hitler’s voice reciting the numbers to onlookers, Sixteen times the size of Saint Peter’s in Rome! And he saw the rest of the imaginary city, the broad avenues, the monuments, the palaces and plazas, the gigantic ministry buildings, cinemas, concert halls, hotels and storefronts, miles and miles of it. The two of them had spent years dreaming it up; a city greater than Rome, a light among nations, a capital fit to rule the world for a thousand years; Germania!

Speer had actually believed in it back when Germany’s future still loomed bright, enough so that he went ahead with demolition orders for whole neighborhoods in order to make way for it. Berlin’s destruction hadn’t started with the first British bombing raids, but with the bulldozing he had himself engineered.

Once the war had started the whole thing should have been shelved, but the war only stoked Hitler’s enthusiasm. And when the enemy bombing did come, Hitler acted gleeful.

“They’re only doing our work for us, Speer,” he’d say. And Speer accepted it without question. Even after things went bad in Russia, Hitler insisted it be kept on as a top priority, summoning Speer to the studio in the middle of the night so they could discuss the changes which still kept occurring to him on a daily basis. They’d spend endless hours bent down at eyelevel to the miniature streets and buildings, peering under archways, discussing each gallery and staircase.

Even now, with the enemy at their door, Hitler still wouldn’t let it go. In his mind, Germania was still every bit as real as the miracle weapons, Inevitable Victory and all the other shabby fantasies which he insisted everyone believe in. And it was all Speer’s fault for wanting a thousand years of glory.

Going to pick up his bags, he paused for a moment to look at himself in the mirror. Was this the face of a future world leader? Except for some rings under his eyes and a receding hairline, there was still far too much boyishness in it. He was neither handsome nor ugly, his face was round, his chin soft. It was only the face of a technocrat. No, that’s not completely true, he told himself. His eyes had it. Dark, brooding, even without a night’s sleep, they had a sharpness to them, inquisitiveness, too, and sardonic humor. The face of a man who could put things into perspectice.

Speer went downstairs to the garage where Colonel von Poser was waiting beside a supercharged, six-wheeled Mercedes. They drove out after nightfall, heading west.
(Excerpt from Germania, Simon & Schuster, 2008, Kindle version available for download here).

Monday, September 8, 2014

Hipster Nazi Albert Speer

Speer looked up from his desk and saw a young American GI standing in the doorway. “Are you Albert Speer?” he asked in strangely accented German. He was wearing combat gear; helmet, a bandolier of ammunition, and a carbine slung on his shoulder. What could he want? He was the first American soldier Speer had seen so far. Had he come to arrest him?

Speer decided to answer him in English. “Yes, I am Speer,” he said. “Please, how may I help you?”

More than a little taken aback, the GI started to explain to Speer about something called the “United States Strategic Bombing Survey” which wanted to interview him on the effects of strategic bombing on the German war economy."

"Why certainly,” said Speer. “What precisely would you like to know?”

The GI looked confused. “Um, look, if you don’t mind, could you just not go anywhere for a few minutes? Let me get Major Spivak up here.”

The GI turned and left and Speer went back to the report he’d been reading. But he was too excited to concentrate. The Americans wanted to interview him about managing the armaments industry. He tried to repeat in his mind what the young soldier had rattled off, United States Strategic Bombing Survey. What could that possibly mean?

It only took Speer a second to guess the reason. The American air war against Germany had been long, bloody, and until its last six months, largely ineffective. Now their campaign against Japan was underway and they must have figured that whatever lessons there were to be learned from bombing Germany better be learned quickly. Well then, he thought, if that was the case, they’d come to the right man. Nobody knew more about the effects of strategic bombing than Albert Speer.

A half hour later, the GI returned with a middle-aged man, short and heavyset, bespectacled with a big nose, looking every bit the Jew from all the old anti-Semitic posters, only instead of wearing a black banker’s suit and a bowler hat, he was in US Army combat fatigues with a .45 strapped on his hip.

The GI said, “Major Spivak, I present to you, Reichsminister Albert Speer.” Speechless, Major Spivak stared at Speer. Finally he muttered, “Holy Cow!”

Speer stood up from his desk. “Good afternoon, Major,” he said, pleasantly as he could. He thought about extending his hand in greeting, but realized he shouldn’t.

Major Spivak didn’t return his greeting but continued to look at him with nervous distaste. He was thinking the same thing as everyone else; this man I’m talking to is Hitler’ ...friend! Finally he recovered enough to say, “Sergeant Fassberg says you’d be willing to be interviewed.”

"Yes, whatever you’d like to know,” answered Speer. “It’s about strategic bombing you say?”

"Yes, the economic and other effects of daytime strategic bombing on the German war economy.”

"Please, have a seat,” said Speer. “I’m sorry I cannot offer you any coffee or other refreshment.”

Brusquely Major Spivak shook his head, like it was neither expected nor desired. They sat down and both men began undoing the snaps of their shoulder bags and took out notebooks and manila file folders. “Sergeant, do you have the file on the abrasives industry?” asked Major Spivak.

"Right here,” answered Sergeant Fassberg, handing him a sheaf of papers.

"All right, let’s start,” said Major Spivak.

He spent the next three hours asking Speer very detailed questions, first about abrasives and oil baths and then about specialty steels and problems with machine tools and manufacturing different kinds of screws and fasteners, nearly all of which Speer was able to answer easily from the top of his head.

Though it was obvious Major Spivak continued to regard Speer with extreme discomfort, he nevertheless conducted the interview with complete professional detachment. He’d ask questions, write down the answers, ask follow ups and write those down as well. In the end, as he sat looking over all his pages of notes, he turned to Speer, and, shaking his head with amazement, declared, “Well, Sergeant Fassberg was certainly right, Herr Speer. You’re definitely the mother lode.”

Then, for one very long moment, Major Spivak stared blankly ahead, while inside him the angels of light and darkness battled each other. Finally he looked at Speer and with the tiniest hint of cordiality asked if he’d be willing to undergo a more detailed debriefing by senior members of the Survey team.

"Why certainly,” said Speer. “I’d be happy to cooperate in any way I can.”

"Good,” said Major Spivak. “I’ll let the guys know. We’ll be in touch.”

They left without shaking hands or thanking him.

Speer went back to the castle feeling strangely let down. The Americans had come to him like heavenly messengers, only to vanish with the same abruptness with which they’d appeared. It had been the first time in months anyone had come seeking his expertise and even if Major Spivak had not been terribly courteous, he had at least acknowledged that Speer had something no one else had. He wondered what he’d meant when he said his colleagues would be “in touch.”

Baumbach, on the other hand, saw it as a clear sign that his friend’s bad fortune had reversed. “Well, congratulations, Albert. Now they’ll have no choice but to bring you into their new administration. It’s just like what they’re doing with those rocket scientists from Peenemunde. You’ll probably get flown out to Okinawa to join Curtis LeMay’s intelligence staff.”

"We’ll see,” said Speer.

"I’d say this calls for a drink, Albert.” They settled into another night of drinking and storytelling and by the end of it, the whole episode became just a half-remembered jumble in Speer’s mind.

He awoke late in the morning with a terrible hangover. Staggering through the hall down to the kitchens he debated whether he should call in sick or just show up the way he was, since it seemed that was the way everyone else was half the time.

As he was working his way through a cup of tea, he heard agitated footsteps running up the corridor toward him. He started to feel a sense of dread. It was the captain of the honor guard, which had been assigned to him for security.

"Herr Reichsminister, we have an emergency!”

"What is it?"

"The American Army is here, demanding to see you.”

"What?” "The Americans, your Excellency! There must be twenty of them. They’ve come in Jeeps.”

"In Jeeps? But what do they want? Are you sure they’re not looking for Himmler?”

"No, your Excellency. They say they want you. Reichsminister for War Production Albert Speer. Do you want my men to shoot at them?”

"No, absolutely not. Tell them to wait. I must get dressed first.”

He went back to his room and found his best gray suit. Then he selected a French tie and put it on. He took a glimpse in the mirror and thought to himself that he looked pretty good.

(Excerpt from Germania, Simon & Schuster, 2008, ebook version available here).

Friday, September 5, 2014

Reich Government Finally Meets to Discuss Minister Appointments

Doenitz sat at the head of the table, correct and steely-eyed as always. Schwerin von Krosikg, the chancellor and foreign minister, sat to his left, while Speer, in charge of the economic portfolio, at at his right. The other ministers and advisors sat around the table, all of them looking very serious. Doenitz's government was now ten days old. At its inception, it had consisted of Doenitz, Speer, and von Krosigk, and a geographical realm that, besides northern Germany, included all of Denmark, Norway, Bohemia, and Crete, plus fragments of Russia, Latvia, Belgium, France, Greece, Italy and even the British Channel Islands. Now there were more than a dozen ministries, several special departments, and more than sixty typists, clerks, and other staff members. The government's territorial jurisdiction, on the other hand, barely extended beyond the gates of the Marineschule.
They convened each day to have meetings, explore problems, issue orders, and attempt to establish some coherence amid the chaos. But what effect any of it had was hard to say. Whether their orders would be carried out, or, for that matter, even delivered, was largely beyond their control. The all-powerful Allied Control Commission was a bureaucratic hydra that stood in their way, without having any clear plan of its own. From time to time, its members would show up and nose around and issue orders and directives, whose meaning they usually seemed at a loss to explain. 
The discussion on fertilizers went on for another twenty minutes and then they moved to the next topic on the agenda: churches. The question was whether a portfolio should be added for religious affairs. Dorpmuller, the transportation minister, suggested it might be a good idea, given everything the German people had just gone through, indeed it was necessary, that a Christian moral culture be reinstituted in the state.
People bristled at the idea. "Are you suggesting that just because National Socialists weren't Christian, they weren't moral?" one of the ministers countered.
"All I'm saying is we need to go back to old, traditional values. For more than a thousand years the Germans have been a Christian people. We need to emphasize that point both to ourselves and to the world. I think it would also be a good idea to embrace the contemporary Christian theology of human dignity."
"Do you have anyone in mind?" asked Doenitz.
"Yes, I do, Grand Admiral. I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer would be a perfect candidate. Last I heard he was still alive. We should see if we can locate him."
While an aide was dispatched to make some calls, the topic changed to banking issues. There wasn't enough money on hand to pay state employees or to fund purchases of emergency foodstuffs from Sweden and Portugal. The question boiled down to asking the Allies permission to print an emergency issue of reichsmarks. They were discussing it when an aide returned to inform them that Pastor Bonhoeffer had been executed by the Gestapo two weeks before.
The afternoon meeting wound down and Speer trudged back to his office to find a young Luftwaffe colonel waiting for him. It took Speer a second to realize it was Werner Baumbach, whom he'd often run into while kayaking on the Havel back before the war.
By the look of him, Baumbach was the happiest man in the world. He'd just arrived in Flensburg and only now had it occurred to him that he'd survived the war in one piece. And on top of it, it was May and everything was in blossom and he'd seen his first women in several months and they were even more beautiful than he'd remembered them. He'd billeted himself at Schloss Glucksburg, a nearby castle owned by his friend the Duke of Mecklenburg-Holstein, and it was great!
"You Luftwaffe buys have all the luck," said Speer, trying to sound upbeat. "I just got kicked out of my quarters by the British." He told Baumbach how he and the rest of the government had been living aboard the Patria, an old Hamburg-Amerika liner docked in the harbor. But that morning they had been told to vacate it and were now crammed into the cadets' dormitories. He gave a sour look.
Baumbach laughed. "Well, that's great, then, Albert. You can stay with me! There's plenty of room, plenty of food, plenty to drink. Get your stuff together. Let's go!"
(Excerpt from Germania, Simon & Schuster, 2008, ebook version available on Kindle here).

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Devil Knows You Were in Knoxville

I take another big hit, like all the talk he’s putting down is just so much street patter, but the whole time I’m wondering to myself, how the heck does this evil cat know I was ever in Knoxville?

Stevens laughs. ”Oh, I know all kinds of things about you, my friend. Your name is Lowell George, isn’t it? You were second trombone for that lush dance orchestra that plays at the Starlight ballroom at the Van Buren Hotel. What’s its name?”

Stevens takes a big long hit. For the longest time he holds it in his lungs while keeping the burning reefer in his right hand as he flexes his wrist, like there’s a point he’s about to make as soon as he lets the smoke out of his lungs. I stare out the window at the marshmallow fog and wonder how I’m ever going to get out of this one.

“The Ray Covington Melody Makers,” I say like it was a long time ago. But he doesn’t seem to hear me. His mind is his own lungs all packed full with Harlem’s Best marijuana smoke. Stevens begins exhaling and immediately breaks into a hacking fit as he tries telling me something. “Huah, huah!,” he coughs. “But… you… can’t…huah, huah, huah, get…out of it…until, huah, huah, huah,…you get…into it!” he declares. “Huah, huah, huah! Am I right, Mister Lowell George?”“Oh, you are most definitively right,” I answer, rejoicing that he only seems to know my alias.

I put my hand out for the stick, but instead of handing it back to me, Stevens takes another massive hit, again holding it in his lungs but then almost immediately letting it out as he turns to me and says, “Now is your name Lowell George, or is it Herbert T. Barrow of Eagle Ford, Texas?” He hands the three-quarters castigated reefer back to me with a flourish worthy of a cavalier with a big plumed hat.

“Either name works fine for me,” I say, like there’s nothing particularly amazing about this last feat of his. “But I’ve been thinking of calling myself Lawrence “T-Bone” Dupree. What do you think of it?”

“Oh, I like it,” he says. “I like it a lot. That’s a real bluesman’s name, not one anyone would associate with a bank robber and escaped convict.” (Excerpt from Friend of the Devil, available on Kindle)