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From the national bestselling author of Prague Fatale, a powerful new thriller that returns Bernie Gunther, our sardonic Berlin cop, to the Eastern Front.
Berlin, March, 1943. A month has passed since the stunning defeat at Stalingrad. Though Hitler insists Germany is winning the war, commanders on the ground know better. Morale is low, discipline at risk. Now word has reached Berlin of a Red massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn ...
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From the national bestselling author of Prague Fatale, a powerful new thriller that returns Bernie Gunther, our sardonic Berlin cop, to the Eastern Front.
Berlin, March, 1943. A month has passed since the stunning defeat at Stalingrad. Though Hitler insists Germany is winning the war, commanders on the ground know better. Morale is low, discipline at risk. Now word has reached Berlin of a Red massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk. If true, the message it would send to the troops is clear: Fight on or risk certain death. For once, both the Wehrmacht and Propaganda Minister Goebbels want the same thing: irrefutable evidence of this Russian atrocity. To the Wehrmacht, such proof will soften the reality of its own war crimes in the eyes of the victors. For Goebbels, such proof could turn the tide of war by destroying the Alliance, cutting Russia off from its western supply lines.
Both parties agree that the ensuing investigation must be overseen by a professional trained in sifting evidence and interrogating witnesses. Anything that smells of incompetence or tampering will defeat their purposes. And so Bernie Gunther is dispatched to Smolensk, where truth is as much a victim of war as those poor dead Polish officers.
Smolensk, March, 1943. Army Group Center is an enclave of Prussian aristocrats who have owned the Wehrmacht almost as long as they’ve owned their baronial estates, an officer class whose families have been intermarrying for generations. The wisecracking, rough-edged Gunther is not a good fit. He is, after all, a Berlin bull. But he has a far bigger concern than sharp elbows and supercilious stares, for somewhere in this mix is a cunning and savage killer who has left a trail of bloody victims.
This is no psycho case. This is a man with motive enough to kill and skills enough to leave no trace of himself. Bad luck that in this war zone, such skills are two-a-penny. Somehow Bernie must put a face to this killer before he puts an end to Bernie.
Philip Kerr's A Man Without Breath spans just three months in the spring of 1943 yet includes some of the most dramatic events of the Second World War. The German defeat at Stalingrad; the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler; the Russian massacre of more than 14,000 Polish officers in the Katyn Forest: these are weighty matters to graft onto the slim armature of a crime novel. But Kerr is an old hand at this. A Man Without Breath is, after all, the ninth installment in his wartime Bernie Gunther series, and from the first, March Violets, it was clear that he could blend formidable historical research and keen political insight to produce thrilling fiction.
Kerr is also an acute satirist. Throughout the series, employing Gunther's sardonic gaze, he portrays the chief architects of Nazi Germany and their underlings in all their brutality, venality, and shabbiness."[T]hat's the trouble with dyed-in-the-wool Nazis," Gunther observes, for instance, of a zealous Gestapo agent, "stupidity, ignorance, and prejudice always get in the way of them seeing the bigger picture. But for that they might be impossible to deal with."
As a Berlin police detective, Gunther has dealings with Heydrich, Goebbels, and other Reich leaders who are often the objects of his most caustic wit. By 1943, however, even that wit is subdued. There are fewer wisecracks in A Man Without Breath, a novel that from the outset exudes an air of exhaustion and defeat. "[W]e're pretending that there's law and order and something worth fighting for," Gunther shouts at a Wehrmacht officer. "But there isn't. Not now. There's just insanity and chaos and slaughter and maybe something worse that's yet to come."
Following the defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943 and the Russian advance westward, the likelihood of an Allied victory seems inevitable to a tight circle of German officers and field commanders. In an atmosphere of heightened paranoia and dread, wonderfully evoked by Kerr, a report reaches Berlin of a mass grave discovered in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia. Bernie Gunther, now employed by the War Crimes Bureau (part of the Wehrmacht's legal department), is sent to investigate. "I'm supposed to make sure that this is the correct mass grave we're uncovering," he sarcastically concludes when his boss lists the possibilities: the bones could be those of Russian political prisoners; of German or Russian soldiers killed in action; of missing Polish officers; or, Gunther adds helpfully, "?of Jews murdered by the SS."
Evidence of a Russian massacre of Polish officers is what the Wehrmacht and propaganda master Joseph Goebbels, for different reasons, desire. Such an atrocity could rupture the Alliance, isolate Russia, reinvigorate German troops, and soften the victors' view of Nazi war crimes. No wonder that Gunther, his investigation hardly begun, is summoned to the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, where his eye, as usual, misses nothing. "As Goebbels limped into the room," he observes, "I stood up and saluted in the customary way and he flapped a delicate little hand back over his shoulder in imitation of the way the Leader did it — as if swatting an irritating mosquito, or dismissing some sycophant?"
The sketch of Goebbels is one of many superb portraits. Kerr has obviously immersed himself in the manners and speech of this period, and his details are always telling; they reveal both the essence of a character, whether minor or infamous, and the texture of events long calcified into legend. The repeated attempts to assassinate Hitler, for example, woven artfully into the plot, expose the desperation of the time and the nature of the Prussian aristocrats involved. "They were just careless people?" Gunther observes of the officers. "It was their carelessness that had allowed Hitler to take possession of the country in 1933; and through their carelessness they had failed to remove him now?"
By the time he reaches this conclusion, Gunther has killed. and almost been killed, in Smolensk. (He also falls in love, but this is brief and doomed.) Even as the mass grave of Polish officers is excavated, fresh murders demand his attention; two German telephonists on duty during a brief visit by Hitler are found dead (what did they overhear?), and a key witness in the Katyn massacre case is murdered. Crimes new and old, corruption personal and political, conspiracies of all kinds: Kerr eases these components into place with his usual dexterity. But A Man Without Breath, for all its intricacy and spark, is also Kerr's most contemplative — and substantial — novel to date. More gray than noir. The gray of ashes.
Anna Mundow, a longtime contributor to The Irish Times and The Boston Globe, has written for The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, among other publications.
Reviewer: Anna Mundow
Also by Philip Kerr
1: MONDAY, MARCH 1, 1943
2: WEDNESDAY, MARCH 3, 1943
3: FRIDAY, MARCH 5, 1943
4: MONDAY, MARCH 8, 1943
5: WEDNESDAY, MARCH 10, 1943
6: THURSDAY, MARCH 11, 1943
7: FRIDAY, MARCH 12, 1943
8: SATURDAY, MARCH 13, 1943
9: SUNDAY, MARCH 14, 1943
10: THURSDAY, MARCH 18, 1943
11: SUNDAY, MARCH 21, 1943
12: MONDAY, MARCH 22, 1943
1: FRIDAY, MARCH 26, 1943
2: SATURDAY, MARCH 27, 1943
3: MONDAY, MARCH 29, 1943
4: WEDNESDAY, MARCH 31, 1943
5: THURSDAY, APRIL 1, 1943
6: WEDNESDAY, APRIL 7, 1943
7: THURSDAY, APRIL 8, 1943
8: THURSDAY, APRIL 15, 1943
9: WEDNESDAY, APRIL 28, 1943
10: THURSDAY, APRIL 29, 1943
11: FRIDAY, APRIL 30, 1943
12: SATURDAY, MAY 1, 1943
13: SUNDAY, MAY 2, 1943
14: MONDAY, MAY 3, 1943
An excerpt from The Lady From Zabreb
Franz Meyer stood up at the head of the table, glanced down, touched the cloth, and awaited our silence. With his fair hair, blue eyes, and neoclassical features that looked as if they’d been carved by Arno Breker, Hitler’s official state sculptor, he was no one’s idea of a Jew. Half of the SS and SD were more obviously Semitic. Meyer took a deep, almost euphoric breath, gave a broad grin that was part relief and part joie de vivre, and raised his glass to each of the four women seated around the table. None were Jewish and yet, by the racial stereotypes beloved of the Propaganda Ministry, they might have been; all were Germans with strong noses, dark eyes, and even darker hair. For a moment Meyer seemed choked with emotion, and when at last he was able to speak, there were tears in his eyes.
“I’d like to thank my wife and her sisters for your efforts on my behalf,” he said. “To do what you did took great courage, and I can’t tell you what it meant to those of us who were imprisoned in the Jewish Welfare Office to know that there were so many people on the outside who cared enough to come and demonstrate on our behalf.”
“I still can’t believe they haven’t arrested us,” said Meyer’s wife, Siv.
“They’re so used to people just doing what they’re told,” said his sister-in-law, Klara, “that they don’t know what to do.”
“We’ll go back to Rosenstrasse tomorrow,” insisted Siv. “We won’t stop until everyone in there is released. All two thousand of them. We’ve shown what we can do when public opinion is mobilized. We have to keep the pressure up.”
“Yes,” said Meyer. “And we will. We will. But right now I’d like to propose a toast. To our new friend Bernie Gunther. But for him and his colleagues at the War Crimes Bureau, I’d probably still be imprisoned in the Jewish Welfare Office. And who knows where after that?” He smiled. “To Bernie.”
There were six of us in the cozy little dining room in the Meyers’ apartment in Lützowerstrasse. As four of them stood up and toasted me silently, I shook my head. I wasn’t sure I deserved Franz Meyer’s thanks, and besides, the wine we were drinking was a decent German red—a Spätburgunder from long before the war that he and his wife would have done better to have traded for some food instead of wasting it on me. Any wine—let alone a good German red—was almost impossible to come by in Berlin.
Politely I waited for them to drink to my health before standing up to contradict my host. “I’m not sure I can claim to have had much influence on the SS,” I explained. “I spoke to a couple of cops I know who were policing your demonstration and they told me there’s a strong rumor doing the rounds that most of the prisoners arrested on Saturday as part of the factory action will probably be released in a few days.”
“That’s incredible,” said Klara. “But what does it mean, Bernie? Do you think the authorities are actually going soft on deportations?”
Before I could offer my opinion the air raid warning siren sounded. We all looked at each other in surprise; it had been almost two years since the last air raid by the Royal Air Force.
“We should go to the shelter,” I said. “Or the basement, perhaps.”
Meyer nodded. “Yes, you’re right,” he said firmly. “You should all go. Just in case it’s for real.”
I fetched my coat and hat off the stand and turned back to Meyer.
“But you’re coming, too, aren’t you?” I said.
“Jews aren’t permitted in the shelters. Perhaps you didn’t notice it before. Well, there’s no reason why you should have. I don’t think there’s been an air raid since we started to wear the yellow star.”
I shook my head. “No, I didn’t.” I shrugged. “So, where are Jews supposed to go?”
“To hell, of course. At least that’s what they hope.” This time Meyer’s grin was sardonic. “Besides, people know this is a Jewish apartment, and since the law requires that homes be left with their doors and windows open, to minimize the effect of a pressure wave from a bomb blast, that’s also an invitation to some local thief to come and steal from us.” He shook his head. “So I shall stay here.”
I glanced out the window; in the street below, hundreds of people were already being herded toward the local shelter by uniformed police. There wasn’t much time to lose.
“Franz,” said Siv. “We’re not going there without you. Just leave your coat. If they can’t see your star, they’ll have to assume you’re German. You can carry me in and say I fainted, and if I show my pass and say I’m your wife then no one will be any the wiser.”
“She’s right,” I said.
“And if I’m arrested, what then? I’ve only just been released.” Meyer shook his head and laughed. “Besides, it’s probably a false alarm. Hasn’t Fat Hermann promised us that this is the best-defended city in Europe?”
The siren continued to wail outside like some dreadful mechanical clarion announcing the end of a night shift in the smoking factories of hell.
Siv Meyer sat down at the table and clasped her hands tight. “If you’re not going, then I’m not going.”
“Neither am I,” Klara said, sitting down beside her.
“There’s no time to argue about this,” said Meyer. “You should go. All of you.”
“He’s right,” I said, more urgently now as already we could hear the drone of the bombers in the distance; it was obvious this was no false alarm. I opened the door and waved the four women toward me. “Come on,” I said.
“No,” said Siv. “We’re staying.”
The two other sisters glanced at each other and then sat down alongside their Jewish brother-in-law. This left me on my feet with a coat in my hand and a nervous look on my face. After all, I’d seen what our own bombers had done to Minsk and parts of France. I put on the coat and shoved my hands in the pockets so as to conceal the fact that they were shaking.
“I don’t think they’re coming to drop propaganda leaflets,” I said. “Not this time.”
“Yes, but it’s not civilians like us they’re after, surely,” said Siv. “It’s the government district. They’ll know there’s a hospital near here. The RAF won’t want to risk hitting the Catholic Hospital, will they? The English aren’t like that. It’s the Wilhelmstrasse they’ll be after.”
“How will they know from two thousand feet up in the air?” I heard myself utter weakly.
“She’s right,” said Meyer. “It’s not the west of Berlin they’re targeting. It’s the east. Which means it’s probably just as well we’re none of us in Rosenstrasse tonight.” He smiled at me. “You should go, Bernie. We’ll be all right. You’ll see.”
“I expect you’re right,” I said and, deciding to ignore the air raid siren like the others, I started to take off my coat. “All the same, I can hardly leave you all here.”
“Why not?” asked Klara.
I shrugged, but what it really came down to was this: I could hardly leave and still manage to look good in Klara’s lovely brown eyes, and I was quite keen that she should have a good impression of me; but I didn’t feel I could say this to her, not yet.
For a moment I felt my chest tighten as my nerves continued to get the better of me. Then I heard some bombs explode in the distance and breathed a sigh of relief. Back in the trenches, during the Great War, when you could hear the shells exploding somewhere else, it usually meant you were safe because it was commonly held that you never heard the one that killed you.
“Sounds like it’s north Berlin that’s getting it,” I said, leaning in the doorway. “The petroleum refinery on Thalerstrasse, probably. It’s the only real target around here. But I think we should at least get under the table. Just in case a stray bomb—”
I think that was the last thing I said and probably it was the fact that I was standing in the doorway that saved my life because just then the glass in the nearest window frame seemed to melt into a thousand drops of light. Some of these old Berlin apartment buildings were made to last, and I later learned that the bomb that blew up the one we were in—not to mention the hospital on Lützowstrasse—and flattened it in a split second would certainly have killed me had not the lintel above my head and the stout oak door that was hanging inside it resisted the weight of the roof’s metal joist, for this is what killed Siv Meyer and her three sisters.
After that there was darkness and silence, except for the sound of a kettle on a gas plate whistling as it came slowly to the boil, although this was probably just the sensation in my battered eardrums. It was as if someone had switched off an electric light and then pulled away the floorboards on which I had been standing, and the effect of the world disappearing from underneath my feet might have been similar to the sensation of being hooded and hanged on a gallows. I don’t know. All I really remember of what happened is that I was upside down lying on a pile of rubble when I recovered consciousness and there was a door on top of my face which, for several minutes until I recovered enough breath in my bomb-blasted lungs to moan for help, I was convinced was the lid of my own damned coffin.
• • •
I HAD LEFT KRIPO IN THE SUMMER of 1942 and joined the Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau with the connivance of my old colleague Arthur Nebe. As the commander of Special Action Group B, which was headquartered in Smolensk, where tens of thousands of Russian Jews had been murdered, Nebe knew a thing or two about war crimes himself; I’m certain it appealed to his Berliner’s black humor that I should find myself attached to an organization of old Prussian judges, most of whom were staunchly anti-Nazi. Dedicated to the military ideals as laid down in the Geneva Convention of 1929, they believed there was a proper and honorable way for the army—any army—to fight a war. Nebe must have thought it very funny that there existed a judicial body within the German High Command that not only resisted having Party members in its distinguished ranks but was also quite prepared to devote its considerable resources to the investigation and prosecution of crimes committed by and against German soldiers: theft, looting, rape, and murder could all be the subject of lengthy and serious inquiries—sometimes earning their perpetrators a death sentence. I thought it was kind of funny myself but then, like Nebe, I’m also from Berlin and it’s known that we have a strange sense of humor. By the winter of 1943, you found your laughs where you could, and I don’t know how else to describe a situation in which you can have an army corporal hanged for the rape and murder of a Russian peasant girl in one village that’s only a few kilometers from another village where an SS special action group has just murdered twenty-five thousand men, women, and children. I expect the Greeks have a word for that kind of comedy, and if I’d paid a little more attention to my classics master at school I might have known what that word was.
The judges—they were nearly all judges—who worked for the bureau were not hypocrites any more than they were Nazis, and they saw no reason why their moral standards should decline just because the government of Germany had no moral standards at all. The Greeks certainly had a word for that, all right, and I even knew what it was, although it’s fair to say I’d had to learn how to spell it again; they called that kind of behavior ethics, and my being concerned with rightness and wrongness felt good since it helped to restore in me a sense of pride in who and what I was. At least for a while, anyway.
Most of the time I assisted the bureau’s judges—several of whom I’d known during the Weimar Republic—in taking depositions from witnesses or finding new cases for the bureau to investigate. That was how I first met Siv Meyer. She was a friend of a girl called Renata Matter, who was a good friend of mine and who worked at the Hotel Adlon; Siv played the piano in the orchestra at the Adlon.
I met her at the hotel on Sunday, February 28, which was the day after Berlin’s last Jews—some ten thousand people—had been arrested for deportation to ghettos in the east. Franz Meyer was a worker at the Osram electric lightbulb factory in Wilmersdorf, which was where he was arrested, but before this he had been a doctor, and this was how he came to find himself working as a medical orderly on a German hospital ship that had been attacked and sunk by a British submarine off the coast of Norway in August 1941. My boss and the bureau chief, Johannes Goldsche, had tried to investigate the case but, at the time, it was thought that there had been no survivors. So when Renata Matter told me Franz Meyer’s story, I went to see his wife at their apartment in Lützowerstrasse.
It was a short walk from my own apartment on Fasanenstrasse, with a view of the canal and the local town hall, and only a short walk from the Schulstrasse synagogue, where many of Berlin’s Jews had been held in transit on their way to an unknown fate in the east. Meyer had only escaped arrest himself because he was a Mischling—a Jew who was married to a German.
From the wedding photograph on the Biedermeier sideboard it was easy to see what they saw in each other. Franz Meyer was absurdly handsome and very like Franchot Tone, the movie actor who was once married to Joan Crawford; Siv was just beautiful and there’s nothing absurd about that; more importantly, so were her three sisters, Klara, Frieda, and Hedwig, all of whom were present when I met their sister for the first time.
“Why didn’t your husband come forward before?” I asked Siv Meyer over a cup of ersatz coffee, which was the only kind of coffee anyone had now. “This incident took place on August thirtieth, 1941. Why is he only willing to speak about it now?”
“Clearly you don’t know very much about what it’s like to be a Jew in Berlin,” she said.
“You’re right. I don’t.”
“No Jew wants to draw attention to himself by being a part of any inquiry in Germany. Even if it is a good cause.”
I shrugged. “I can understand that,” I said. “A witness for the bureau one day and a prisoner of the Gestapo the next. On the other hand, I do know what it’s like to be a Jew in the east, and if you want to prevent your husband from ending up there, I hope you’re telling the truth about all this. At the War Crimes Bureau we get lots of people who try to waste our time.”
“You were in the east?”
“Minsk,” I said simply. “They sent me back here to Berlin and the War Crimes Bureau for questioning my orders.”
“What’s happening out there? In the ghettos? In the concentration camps? One hears so many different stories about what resettlement amounts to.”
I shrugged. “I don’t think the stories even get close to the horror of what’s happening in the eastern ghettos. And by the way, there is no resettlement. There’s just starvation and death.”
Siv Meyer let out a sigh and then exchanged a glance with her sisters. I was fond of looking at her three sisters myself. It made a very pleasant change to take a deposition from an attractive and well-spoken woman instead of an injured soldier.
“Thank you for being honest, Herr Gunther,” she said. “As well as the stories, one hears so many lies.” She nodded. “Since you’ve been so honest, let me be honest, too. The main reason my husband hasn’t talked before about the sinking of the SS Hrotsvitha von Gandersheim is because he hardly wanted to make a gift of some useful anti-British propaganda to Dr. Goebbels. Of course, now that he’s been arrested it seems that this might be his only chance of staying out of a concentration camp.”
“We don’t have much to do with the Propaganda Ministry, Frau Meyer. Not if we can help it. Perhaps it’s them you should be speaking to.”
“I don’t doubt you mean what you say, Herr Gunther,” said Siv Meyer. “Nevertheless, British war crimes against defenseless German hospital ships make good propaganda.”
“That’s just the kind of story which is especially useful now,” added Klara. “After Stalingrad.”
I had to admit she was probably right. The surrender of the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad on February 2 had been the greatest disaster suffered by the Nazis since their coming to power; and Goebbels’s speech on the eighteenth urging total war on the German people certainly needed incidents like the sinking of a hospital ship to prove that there was no way back for us now; that it was victory or nothing.
“Look,” I said, “I can’t promise anything, but if you tell me where they’re holding your husband, I’ll go there right now and see him, Frau Meyer. If I think there’s something in his story, I’ll contact my superiors and see if we can get him released as a key witness for an inquiry.”
“He’s being detained at the Jewish Welfare Office, on Rosenstrasse,” said Siv. “We’ll come with you, if you like.”
I shook my head. “That’s quite all right. I know where it is.”
“You don’t understand,” said Klara. “We’re all going there anyway. To protest against Franz’s detention.”
“I don’t think that’s a very good idea,” I said. “You’ll be arrested.”
“There are lots of wives who are going,” said Siv. “They can’t arrest us all.”
“Why not?” I asked. “In case you haven’t noticed, they’ve arrested all of the Jews.”
• • •
HEARING FOOTSTEPS NEAR MY HEAD, I tried to push the heavy wooden door off my face but my left hand was trapped and the right too painful to use. Someone shouted something and a minute or two later I felt myself slide a little as the rubble on which I lay shifted like the scree on a steep mountainside, and then the door was lifted away to reveal my rescuers. The apartment building was almost completely gone and all that remained in the cold moonlight was one high chimney containing an ascending series of fireplaces. Several hands placed me onto a stretcher and I was carried off the tangled, smoking heap of bricks, concrete, leaking water pipes, and wooden planks and laid in the middle of the road, where I enjoyed a perfect view of a building burning in the distance and then the beams from Berlin’s defense searchlights as they continued to search the sky for enemy planes; but the siren was sounding the all clear and I could hear the footsteps of people already coming up from the shelters to look for what was left of their homes. I wondered if my own home in Fasanenstrasse was all right. Not that there was very much in it. Nearly everything of value had been sold or traded on the black market.
Gradually I began to move my head, one way and the other, until I felt able to push myself up on one elbow to look around. But I could hardly breathe; my chest was still full of dust and smoke and the exertion provoked a fit of coughing that was only alleviated when a man I half recognized helped me to a drink of water and laid a blanket on top of me.
About a minute later there was a loud shout and the chimney came down on top of the spot where I’d been lying. The dust from its collapse covered me so I was moved farther down the street and set down next to some others who were awaiting medical attention. Klara was lying beside me now at less than an arm’s length; her dress was hardly torn, her eyes were open, and her body was quite unmarked; I called her name several times before it finally dawned on me that she was dead. It was as if her life had just stopped like a clock, and it hardly seemed possible that so much of her future—she couldn’t have been older than thirty—had disappeared in the space of a few seconds.
Other corpses were laid out in the street next to her. I couldn’t see how many. I sat up to look for Franz Meyer and the others but the effort was too much and I fell back and closed my eyes. And fainted, I suppose.
• • •
“GIVE US BACK OUR MEN.”
You could hear them three streets away—a large and angry crowd of women—and as we turned the corner of Rosenstrasse I felt my jaw slacken. I hadn’t seen anything like this on the streets of Berlin since before Hitler came to power. And whoever would have thought that wearing a nice hat and carrying a handbag was the best way to dress when you were opposing the Nazis?
“Release our husbands,” shouted the mob of women as we pushed our way along the street. “Release our husbands now.”
There were many more of them than I had been expecting—perhaps several hundred. Even Klara looked surprised, but not as surprised as the cops and SS who were guarding the Jewish Welfare Office. They gripped their machine pistols and rifles and muttered curses and abuse at the women standing nearest to the door and looked horrified to find themselves ignored or even roundly cursed back. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be: if you had a gun, then people were supposed to do what they were told. That’s page one of how to be a Nazi.
The welfare office on Rosenstrasse near Berlin’s Alexanderplatz was a gray granite Wilhelmine building with a saddle roof next to a synagogue—formerly the oldest in Berlin—partly destroyed by the Nazis in November 1938, and within spitting distance of the Police Praesidium, where I had spent most of my adult working life. I might no longer have been working for Kripo but I’d managed to keep my beer token—the brass identity disk that commanded such craven respect in most German citizens.
“We’re decent German women,” shouted one woman. “Loyal to the Leader and to the Fatherland. You can’t speak to us like that, you cheeky young bastard.”
“I can speak to anyone like that who’s misguided enough to be married to a Jew,” I heard one of the uniformed cops—a corporal—say to her. “Go home, lady, or you’ll be shot.”
“You need a good spanking, you little pip,” said another woman. “Does your mother know you’re such an arrogant whelp?”
“You see?” said Klara, triumphantly. “They can’t shoot us all.”
“Can’t we?” sneered the corporal. “When we have the orders to shoot, I can promise you’ll get it first, Granny.”
“Take it easy, Corporal,” I said, and flashed my beer token in front of his face. “There’s really no need to be rude to these ladies. Especially on a Sunday afternoon.”
“Yes, sir,” he said smartly. “Sorry, sir.” He nodded back over his shoulder. “Are you going in there, sir?”
“Yes,” I said. I turned to Klara and Siv. “I’ll try to be as quick as I can.”
“Then if you would be so kind,” said the corporal, “we need orders, sir. No one’s told us what to do. Just to stay here and stop people from going in. Perhaps you might mention that, sir.”
I shrugged. “Sure, Corporal. But from what I can see, you’re already doing a grand job.”
“You’re keeping the peace, aren’t you?”
“You can’t keep the peace if you start shooting at all these ladies, now can you?” I smiled at him and then patted his shoulder. “In my experience, Corporal, the best police work looks like nothing at all and is always soon forgotten.”
I was unprepared for the scene that met me inside, where the smell was already intolerable: a welfare office is not designed to be a transit camp for two thousand prisoners. Men and women with identity tags on strings around their necks like traveling children were lined up to use a lavatory that had no door, while others were crammed fifty or sixty to an office where it was standing room only. Welfare parcels—many of them brought by the women outside—filled another room where they had been tossed but no one was complaining; things were quiet; after almost a decade of Nazi rule, Jews knew better than to complain. It was only the police sergeant in charge of these people who seemed inclined to bemoan his lot, and as he searched a clipboard for Franz Meyer’s name and then led me to the second-floor office where the man was being held, he began to unroll the barbed S-wire of his sharp complaint:
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with all these people. No one’s told me a damned thing. How long they’re going to be here. How to make them comfortable. How to answer all of these bloody women who are demanding answers. It’s not so easy, I can tell you. All I’ve got is what was in this office building when we turned up yesterday. Toilet paper ran out within an hour of us being here. And Christ only knows how I’m going to feed them. There’s nothing open on a Sunday.”
“Why don’t you open those food parcels and give them that?” I asked.
The sergeant looked incredulous. “I couldn’t do that,” he said. “Those are private parcels.”
“I shouldn’t think that the people they belong to will mind,” I said. “Just as long as they get something to eat.”
We found Franz Meyer seated in one of the larger offices where almost a hundred men were waiting patiently for something to happen. The sergeant called Meyer out and, still grumbling, went off to think about what I’d suggested about the parcels, while I spoke to my potential war crimes witness in the comparative privacy of the corridor.
I told him that I worked for the War Crimes Bureau and why I was there. Meanwhile, outside the building, the women’s protest seemed to be getting louder.
“Your wife and sisters-in-law are outside,” I told him. “It’s them who put me up to this.”
“Please tell them to go home,” said Meyer. “It’s safer in here than out there, I think.”
“I agree. But they’re not about to listen to me.”
Meyer grinned. “Yes, I can imagine.”
“The sooner you tell me about what happened on the SS Hrotsvitha von Gandersheim, the sooner I can speak to my boss and see about getting you out of here, and the sooner we can get them all out of harm’s way.” I paused. “That is, if you’re prepared to give me a deposition.”
“It’s my only chance of avoiding a concentration camp, I think.”
“Or worse,” I added, by way of extra incentive.
“Well, that’s honest, I suppose.” He shrugged.
“I’ll take that as a yes, shall I?”
He nodded and we spent the next thirty minutes writing out his statement about what had happened off the coast of Norway in August 1941. When he’d signed it, I wagged my finger at him.
“Coming here like this I’m sticking my neck out for you,” I told him. “So you’d better not let me down. If I so much as get a whiff of you changing your story, I’ll wash my hands of you. Got that?”
He nodded. “So why are you sticking your neck out?”
It was a good question and probably it deserved an answer but I hardly wanted to go into how a friend of a friend had asked me to help, which is how these things usually got fixed in Germany; and I certainly didn’t want to mention how attractive I found his sister-in-law Klara, or that I was making up for some lost time when it came to helping Jews; and maybe a bit more than only lost time.
“Let’s just say I don’t like the Tommies very much and leave it at that, shall we?” I shook my head. “Besides, I’m not promising anything. It’s up to my boss, Judge Goldsche. If he thinks your deposition can start an inquiry into a British war crime, he’s the one who’ll have to persuade the Foreign Office that this is worth a white book, not me.”
“What’s a white book?”
“An official publication that’s intended to present the German side of an incident that might amount to a violation of the laws of war. It’s the bureau that does all the legwork, but it’s the Foreign Office that publishes the report.”
“That sounds as if it might take a while.”
I shook my head. “Fortunately for you, the bureau and the judge have a great deal of power. Even in Nazi Germany. If the judge buys your story, we’ll have you home tomorrow.”
They took me to the state hospital in Friedrichshain. I was suffering from a concussion and smoke inhalation; the smoke inhalation was nothing new, but as a result of the concussion the doctor advised me to stay in bed for a couple of days. I’ve always disliked hospitals. They sell just a little too much reality for my taste. But I did feel tired. Being bombed by the RAF will do that to you. So the advice of this fresh-faced aspirin Jesus suited me very well. I thought I was due a bit of time with my feet up and my mouth in traction. Besides, I was a lot better off in the hospital than in my apartment; they were still feeding patients in the state hospital, which was more than I could say about home, where the pot was empty.
From my window I had a nice view of the St. George’s cemetery but I didn’t mind that: the state hospital faces the Böhmisches Brewery on the other side of Landsberger Allee, which means there’s always a strong smell of hops in the air. I can’t think of a better way to encourage a Berliner’s recovery than the smell of German beer. Not that we saw much of it in the city’s bars: most of the beer brewed in Berlin went straight to our brave boys on the Russian front. But I can’t say that I begrudged them a couple of brews. After Stalingrad I expect they needed a taste of home to keep their spirits up. There wasn’t a great deal else to keep a man’s spirits up in the winter of 1943.
Either way, I was better off than Siv Meyer and her sisters, who were all dead. The only survivors of that night were me and Franz, who was in the Jewish Hospital. Where else? The bigger surprise was that there was a Jewish hospital in the first place.
I was not without visitors. Renata Matter came to see me. It was Renata who told me my own home was undamaged and who gave me the news about the Meyer sisters. She was pretty upset about it, too, and being a good Roman Catholic she had already spent the morning praying for their souls. She seemed just as upset by the news that the priest of St. Hedwig’s, Bernhard Lichtenberg, had been put in prison and seemed likely to be sent to Dachau, where—according to her—“more than two thousand priests” were already incarcerated. Two thousand priests in Dachau was a depressing thought. That’s the thing about hospital visitors: sometimes you wish they simply hadn’t bothered to come along to try to cheer you up.
This was certainly how I felt about my other visitor, a commissar from the Gestapo called Werner Sachse. I knew Sachse from the Alex, and in truth he wasn’t a bad fellow for a Gestapo officer but I knew he wasn’t there to bring me the gift of a stollen and an encouraging word. He wore hair as neat as the lines in a carpenter’s notebook, a black leather coat that creaked like snow under your feet when he moved, and a black hat and black tie that made me uncomfortable.
“I’ll have the brass handles and the satin lining, please,” I said. “And an open casket, I think.”
Sachse’s face looked puzzled.
“I guess your pay grade doesn’t run to black humor. Just black ties and coats.”
“You’d be surprised.” He shrugged. “We have our jokes in the Gestapo.”
“Sure you do. Only they’re called evidence for the People’s Court in Moabit.”
“I like you, Gunther. So you won’t mind if I warn you about making jokes like that. Especially after Stalingrad. These days it’s called ‘undermining defensive strength.’ And they cut your head off for it. Last year they beheaded three people a day for making jokes like that.”
“Haven’t you heard? I’m sick. I’ve got a concussion. I can hardly breathe. I’m not myself. If they cut my head off, I probably wouldn’t notice anyway. That’s my defense if this comes to court. What is your pay grade anyway, Werner?”
“A3. Why do you ask?”
“I was just wondering why a man who makes six hundred marks a week would come all this way to warn me about undermining our defensive strength—assuming such a thing actually exists after Stalingrad.”
“It was just a friendly warning. In passing. But that’s not why I’m here, Gunther.”
“I can’t imagine you’re here to confess to a war crime, Werner. Not yet, anyway.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“I wonder how far we could get with that before they cut off both our heads?”
“Tell me about Franz Meyer.”
“He’s sick, too.”
“Yes, I know. I just came from the Jewish Hospital.”
“How is he?”
Sachse shook his head. “Doing really well. He’s in a coma.”
“You see? I was right. Your pay grade doesn’t run to humor. These days you need to be at least a Kriminalrat before they allow you to make jokes that are actually funny.”
“The Meyers were under surveillance, did you know that?”
“No. I wasn’t there long enough to notice. Not with Klara around. She was a real beauty.”
“Yes, it’s too bad about her, I agree.” He paused. “You were in their apartment, twice. On the Sunday and then the Monday evening.”
“That’s correct. Hey, I don’t suppose the V-men who were watching the Meyers got killed, too?”
“No. They’re still alive.”
“But who says they were V-men? This wasn’t an undercover operation. I expect the Meyers knew they were being watched, even if you were too dumb to notice.”
He lit a couple of cigarettes and put one in my mouth.
“Look, you big dumb ugly bastard, you might as well know it was me and some of the other lads from the Gestapo who found you and pulled you off that pile of rubble before the chimney came down. It was the Gestapo who saved your life, Gunther. So you see, we must have a sense of humor. The sensible thing would probably have been to have left you there to get crushed.”
“Then thanks. I owe you one.”
“That’s what I figured. It’s why I’m here asking about Franz Meyer.”
“All right. I’m listening. Get your klieg light and switch it on.”
“Some honest answers. You owe me that much at least.”
I took a short drag on my cigarette—just to get my breath—and then nodded. “That and this smoke. It actually tastes like a proper nail.”
“What were you doing in Lützowerstrasse? And don’t say ‘just visiting.’”
“When Franz Meyer got picked up by the Gestapo in the factory action, his missus figured on the War Crimes Bureau pulling his coal out of the fire. He was the only surviving witness to a war crime when a Tommy submarine torpedoed a hospital ship off the coast of Norway in 1941. The SS Hrotsvitha von Gandersheim. I took his deposition and then persuaded my boss to sign an order for his release.”
“And what was in this for you?”
“That’s my job, Werner. They point my suit at a possible crime and I try to check it out. Look, I won’t deny that the Meyers were very grateful. They invited me to dinner and opened their last bottle of Spätburgunder in celebration of Meyer’s release from the Jewish Welfare Office on Rosenstrasse. We were raising a glass when the bomb hit. But I can’t deny that I had a certain satisfaction in sticking one on the Tommies. Sanctimonious bastards. According to them, the Hrotsvitha von Gandersheim was just a troop-carrying convoy and not a hospital ship at all. Twelve hundred men drowned. Troops, perhaps, but injured troops who were returning home to Germany. His deposition is with my boss, Judge Goldsche. You can read it for yourself and see if I’m telling the truth.”
“Yes, I checked. But why didn’t you all go to the shelter with everyone else?”
“Meyer’s a Jew. He’s not allowed in the shelter.”
“All right, but what about the rest of you? The wife, her sisters—none of them was a Jew. You must admit that’s a bit suspicious.”
“We didn’t think the air raid was for real. So we decided to stick it out.”
“Fair enough.” Sachse sighed. “None of us will make that mistake again, I suppose. Berlin is a ruin. Saint Hedwig’s is burned out, Prager Platz is just rubble, and the hospital on Lützowerstrasse was completely destroyed. The RAF dropped more than a thousand tons of bombs. On civilian targets. Now, that’s what I call a fucking war crime. While you’re at it, investigate that, will you?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“Did the Meyers make any mention of any foreign currency? Swiss francs, perhaps?”
“You mean for me?” I shook my head. “No. I wasn’t even offered a lousy packet of cigarettes.” I frowned. “Are you saying those bastards had money?”
“Well, they never offered me any.”
“Any mention of a man called Wilhelm Schmidhuber?”
“Friedrich Arnold? Julius Fliess?”
I shook my head.
“Operation Seven, perhaps?”
“Never heard of it.”
“No. I’d have remembered his name. What’s this all about, Werner?”
Sachse took a pull on his cigarette, glanced at the man in the next bed, and drew his chair closer to me—close enough to smell his Klar Klassik shaving water; even on the Gestapo it made a pleasant change from stale bandages, piss on the windowpanes, and forgotten bedpans.
“Operation Seven was a plan to help seven Jews escape from Germany to Switzerland.”
“Seven important Jews?”
“No such thing. Not anymore. All of the important Jews have left Germany or are— Well, they’ve left. No, these were just seven ordinary Jews.”
“Of course, the Swiss are every bit as anti-Semitic as we are and won’t do anything unless it’s for money. We believe the conspirators were obliged to raise a large sum of money in order to ensure that these Jews could pay their own way and not constitute a burden on the Swiss state. This money was smuggled into Switzerland. Operation Seven was originally Operation Eight, however, and included Franz Meyer. We had them under surveillance in the hope that they might lead us to the other conspirators.”
“That’s too bad.”
Werner Sachse nodded slowly. “I believe your story,” he said.
“Thanks, Werner. I appreciate it. All the same, I assume you still searched my pockets for Swiss francs when I was lying on the street.”
“Of course. When you turned up I thought we’d hit pay dirt. You can see how very sad I was to discover you were probably on the level.”
“It’s like I always say, Werner. There’s nothing quite as disappointing as the discovery that our friends and neighbors are no more dishonest than we are ourselves.”
A couple of days later the doctor gave me some more aspirin, advised me to get plenty of fresh air to help with my breathing, and told me I could go home. Berlin was rightly famous for its air, but it wasn’t always so fresh—not since the Nazis had taken over.
Coincidentally, it was the same day the authorities told the Jews still held in the welfare office that they could go home, too. I couldn’t believe it when I heard, and I imagine that the men and women who were released could believe it even less than me. The authorities had gone so far as to track down some Jews who’d already been deported and had them sent back to Berlin and released, like the others.
What was happening here? What was in the minds of the government? Was it possible that after the huge defeat at Stalingrad the Nazis were losing their grip? Or had the Nazis really listened to the protests of a thousand determined German women? It was hard to tell but it seemed the only possible conclusion. There were ten thousand Jews who had been arrested on the twenty-seventh of February and of these, fewer than two thousand had gone to Rosenstrasse; some had been remanded to the Clou Concert Hall on Mauerstrasse, others to the stables of a barracks on Rathenower Strasse, and still more to a synagogue on Levetzowstrasse in Moabit; but it was only at the Rosenstrasse, where Jews married to Germans were detained, that a protest had taken place and it was only there that any Jews were released. The way I heard it later, all of the Jews from the other sites were deported to the east. But if the protest really had succeeded, it begged the question, what might have been achieved if mass protests had taken place before? It was a sobering thought that the first organized opposition to the Nazis in ten years had probably succeeded.
That was one sobering thought; another was that if I hadn’t helped Franz Meyer, he would certainly have stayed in the welfare office in Rosenstrasse and his wife and sisters would probably have remained with the rest of the women outside, in which case all of them would still live. Homeless, perhaps. But alive, yes, that was quite conceivable. There’s no amount of aspirin you can swallow that will take away that kind of toothache.
I left the state hospital but I didn’t go home. At least not right away. I took a Ringbahn train northwest, to Gesundbrunnen. To begin work again.
The Jewish Hospital in Wedding was about six or seven modern buildings on the corner of Schulstrasse and Exerzierstrasse, and next to St. George’s Hospital. As surprising as the fact that such a thing as a Jewish hospital even existed in Berlin was the discovery that the place was modern, relatively well equipped, and full of doctors, nurses, and patients. Since all of them were Jews, the place was also guarded by a small detachment of SS. Almost as soon as I identified myself at the front desk I discovered that the hospital even had its own branch of Gestapo, one of whose officers was summoned at the same time as the hospital director, Dr. Walter Lustig.
Lustig arrived first and it turned out we’d met several times before: a hard-arsed Silesian—they always make the most unpleasant Prussians—Lustig had been head of the medical department in the Police Praesidium at the Alex and we’d always disliked each other. I disliked him because I don’t much care for pompous men with the bearing if not the height of a senior Prussian officer; he probably thought I disliked him because he was a Jew. But in truth, seeing him at the hospital was the first time I realized he was Jewish—the yellow star on his white coat left me in no doubt about that. He disliked me because he was the type who seemed to dislike nearly everyone who was in a subordinate position to him or ill educated by his elevated academic standards. At the Alex we’d called him Doctor Doctor because he had university degrees in both philosophy and medicine, and never failed to remind people of this distinction.
Now he clicked his heels and bowed stiffly as if he’d just marched off the parade ground at the Prussian military academy.
“Herr Gunther,” he said. “After all these long years we meet again. To what do we owe this dubious pleasure?”
It certainly didn’t seem as if his new lower status as a member of a pariah race had affected his attitude in any way. I could almost see the wax on the eagle with which he’d decorated his top lip. I hadn’t forgotten his pomposity but it seemed I had forgotten his breath, which required a good half meter at least for a man with a heavy cold to feel properly safe in his company.
“Good to see you, too, Dr. Lustig. So this is where you’ve been keeping yourself. I always wondered what happened to you.”
“I can’t imagine it kept you awake at night.”
“No. Not in the least. These days I sleep like a dog without dreams. All the same, I’m pleased to see you well.” I glanced around. There were some Hebraic-looking design details on the wall but no sign of the kind of angular, astronomical artwork the Nazis were fond of adding to anything owned or used by Jews. “Nice place you’ve got here, Doc.”
Lustig bowed again and then glanced ostentatiously at his pocket watch. “Yes, yes, but you know, tempus fugit.”
“You have a patient, Franz Meyer, who was brought here on Monday night or perhaps the early hours of Tuesday morning. He’s the key witness in a war crimes inquiry I’m carrying out for the Wehrmacht. I’d like to see him, if I may.”
“You’re no longer with the police?”
“No, sir.” I handed him my business card.
“Then it seems we have something in common. Whoever would have thought such a thing?”
“Life springs all sorts of surprises on the living.”
“That’s especially true in here, Herr Gunther. Address?”
“Mine, or Herr Meyer’s?”
“Herr Meyer’s, of course.”
“Apartment three, Ten Lützowerstrasse, Berlin Charlottenburg.”
Curtly, Lustig repeated the name and address to the attractive nurse now accompanying him. Immediately and without being told, she went into the office behind the front desk and searched a large filing cabinet for the patient’s notes. Somehow I sensed Lustig was used to always having the first plate at dinner.
He was already snapping his fat fingers at her. “Come on, come on, I haven’t got all day.”
“I can see you’re as busy as ever, Herr Doctor,” I said, as the nurse returned to his side and handed over the file.
“There is some sanctuary in that, at least,” he murmured, glancing over the notes. “Yes, I remember him now, poor fellow. Half his head is missing. How he’s still alive is beyond my medical understanding. He’s been in a coma since he got here. Do you still wish to see him? Perhaps wasting time is an institutional habit in the War Crimes Bureau, just as much as it was in Kripo?”
“You know? I’d like to see him. I just want to check he’s not as scared of you as she is, Doc.” I smiled at his nurse. In my experience nurses—even the pretty ones—are always worth a smile.
“Very well.” Lustig uttered a weary sigh that was part groan and walked quickly along the corridor. “Come along, Herr Gunther,” he yelled, “you must pursue me, you must pursue me. We need to hurry if we are to find Herr Meyer capable of uttering the one all-important word that may provide the vital assistance for your inquiry. Evidently my own word counts for very little these days.”
A few seconds later we met a man with a largish scar under his ill-tempered mouth that looked like a third lip.
“And this is why that is,” added the doctor. “Criminal Commissar Dobberke. Dobberke is head of the Gestapo office in this hospital. A very important position that ensures our enduring safety and loyal service to the elected government.”
Lustig handed the Gestapo man my card.
“Dobberke, this is Herr Gunther, formerly of the Alex and now with the Bureau of War Crimes in the Wehrmacht’s legal department. He wishes to see if one of our patients is capable of providing the vital testimony that will change the course of military jurisprudence.”
Quickly I walked after Lustig; so did Dobberke. After several days in bed, I figured such violent exercise could only do me good.
We went into a ward full of men in various states of ill health. It hardly seemed necessary but all of these patients wore a yellow star on their pajamas and dressing gowns. They looked undernourished but that was hardly unusual by Berlin standards; there wasn’t one of us in the city—Jew or German—who couldn’t have used a square meal. Some were smoking, some were talking, and some were playing chess; none of them paid us much regard.
Meyer was behind a screen, in the last bed under a tall window with a view of a fine lawn and a circular ornamental pond. Not that Meyer seemed likely to avail himself of the view; his eyes were closed and there was a bandage around a no longer completely round head, which reminded me of a partly deflated football. But even badly injured he was still startlingly handsome, like some ruined marble Greek statue on the Pergamon Altar.
Lustig went through the motions, checking the unconscious man’s pulse and taking his temperature with one eye on the nurse, and only glancing cursorily at his chart before tutting loudly and shaking his head. It was the kind of bedside manner that would have embarrassed Victor Frankenstein.
“I thought so,” he said firmly. “A vegetable. That’s my prognosis.” He smiled brightly. “But go ahead, Herr Gunther. Be my guest. You may question this patient for as long as you see fit. Just don’t expect any answers.” He laughed. “Especially with Commissar Dobberke at your side.”
And then he was gone, leaving me alone with Dobberke.
“That was a touching reunion.” By way of explanation I added: “Formerly he and I were colleagues at the Police Praesidium.” I shook my head. “I can’t say time or circumstances have mellowed him any.”
“He’s not such a bad fellow,” Dobberke said generously. “For a Jew, I mean. But for him, this place would never keep going.”
I sat down on the edge of Franz Meyer’s bed and sighed.
“I don’t see this fellow talking to anyone soon, except Saint Peter,” I said. “I haven’t seen a man with a head injury like that since 1918. It’s like someone took a hammer to a coconut.”
“That’s quite a lump you have on your own head,” said Dobberke.
I touched my head self-consciously. “I’m all right.” I shrugged. “Why does it keep going? The hospital?”
“It’s a garbage can for misfits,” he said. “A collection camp. You see, the Jews here are an odd lot. They’re orphans of uncertain parentage, some collaborators, a few pet Jews who are under the protection of one bigwig or another, several attempted suicides—”
Dobberke caught the look of surprise on my face and shrugged.
“Yes, suicides,” he said. “Well, you can’t make someone who’s half dead walk on and off a deportation train, can you? That’s just more trouble than it’s worth. So they send those yids here, nurse them back to health and then, when they’re well again, put them on the next train east. That’s what’ll happen to this poor bastard if ever he comes round.”
“So not everyone in here is actually sick?”
“Lord, no.” He lit a cigarette. “I expect they’ll close it down soon enough. Word is that Kaltenbrunner has his eye on owning this hospital.”
“That ought to come in handy. Nice place like this? Make a nice suite of offices.”
Following the death of my old boss, Reinhard Heydrich, Ernst Kaltenbrunner was the new head of the RSHA, but quite what he wanted with his own Jewish hospital was anyone’s guess. His own drying-out clinic, perhaps, but I managed to keep that particular thought to myself; Werner Sachse’s advice to watch my mouth had been wearing red intelligence stripes; after Stalingrad everyone—but more especially Berliners, like me, for whom black humor was a religious calling—was probably well advised to keep a zip on the lip.
“Will he get it? Kaltenbrunner?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea.”
Because I wanted to look at anything other than poor Franz Meyer’s badly damaged head, I went to the window, which was when I noticed the flower arrangement on his bedside table.
“That’s interesting,” I said, looking at the card next to the vase, which was unsigned.
“The daffodils,” I said. “I’ve just come out of the hospital and no one sent me any flowers. And yet this fellow has fresh flowers and from Theodor Hübner’s shop on Prinzenstrasse, no less.”
“I still don’t—”
“It used to be a florist’s by royal appointment. Still is, for all I know. Which means they’re expensive. Very expensive.” I frowned. “What I mean to say is, I doubt there are many people in here who get fresh flowers from Hübner’s. In here or anywhere else, for that matter.”
Dobberke shrugged. “His family must have sent them. The Jews still have plenty of money hidden under their mattresses. Everyone knows that. I was out east, in Riga, and you should have seen what these bastards had in their underwear. Gold, silver, diamonds, you name it.”
I smiled patiently, avoiding the obvious question exactly how it was that Dobberke came to be looking for valuables in someone else’s underwear.
“Meyer’s family were Germans,” I said. “And besides, they’re all dead. Killed by the same bomb that gave him the center parting in his hair. No, this must have been someone else who sent these flowers. Someone German—someone with money and taste. Someone who only has the best.”
“Well, he’s not saying who they’re from,” observed Dobberke.
“No,” I said. “He’s not saying anything, is he? Dr. Lustig was right about that, at least.”
“I could look into it if you thought it was important. Perhaps one of the nurses could tell you who sent them.”
“No,” I said firmly. “Forget about it. It’s an old habit of mine, being a detective. Some people collect stamps, others like postcards or autographs. Me, I collect trivial questions. Why this? Why that? Of course, any fool can start a collection like that and it goes without saying that it’s the answers to the questions that are really valuable, because the answers are a lot harder to track down.”
I took another long hard look at Franz Meyer and realized it could just as easily have been me lying in that bed with half a head, and for the first time in a long time I suppose I felt lucky. I don’t know what else you call it when an RAF bomb kills four, maims one, and leaves you with nothing more than a bump on the head. But just the idea of me being lucky again made me smile. Perhaps I’d turned some sort of a corner in my life. It was that and maybe also the apparent success of the women’s protest in Rosenstrasse and the other good luck I’d had not to have been part of the Sixth Army in Stalingrad.
“What’s amusing?” asked Dobberke.
I shook my head. “I was just thinking that the important thing in life—the really important thing after all is said and done—is just to stay alive.”
“Is that one of the answers?” asked Dobberke.
I nodded. “I think perhaps it’s the most important answer of all, don’t you think?”
It was a twelve-minute walk to work depending on the weather. When it was cold, the streets froze hard and you had to walk slowly or risk a broken arm. When it thawed, you only had to beware of falling icicles. At the beginning of March, it was still very cold at night but getting warmer during the day, and at last I felt able to remove the layers of newspaper that had helped to insulate the inside of my boots against a freezing Berlin winter. That made walking easier, too.
The Wehrmacht High Command (OKW) was housed in perhaps the largest office complex in Berlin: a five-story building of gray granite on the north side of the Landwehr Canal, it occupied the whole corner of Bendlerstrasse and Tirpitzufer. Formerly the headquarters of the Imperial German Navy, it was better known as the Bendlerblock. The bureau’s offices, at Blumeshof 17, looked onto the back of this building and a rose garden that, in summer, filled the air with such a strong smell of roses some of us who worked there called it the flower house. In my office under the eaves of the high red saddle roof, I had a desk, a filing cabinet, a rug on the wooden floor, and an armchair—I even had a painting and a little piece of bronze from the government’s own collection of art. I did not have a portrait of the Leader. Few people who worked at the OKW did.
Usually I got to work early and stayed late but this had very little to do with loyalty or professional zeal; the heating system in the flower house was so efficient that the cold windowpanes were always covered in condensation so that you had to wipe them before you could look outside; there were even uniformed orderlies who went around building up the coal fires in the individual offices; this was just as well, as these were enormous. All of this meant that life was much more comfortable at the office than it was at home—especially when one considered the generosity of the OKW’s canteen, which was always open. Mostly the food was just stodge—potatoes, pasta, and bread—but there was plenty of it. There was even soap and toilet paper in the washrooms, and newspapers in the mess.
The War Crimes Bureau was part of the Wehrmacht legal department’s international section, whose chief was the ailing Maximilian Wagner. Reporting to him was my boss, Judge Johannes Goldsche. He had headed the bureau from its inception in 1939. He was about sixty, with fair hair and a small mustache, a hooked nose, largish ears, a forehead as high as the roof on the flower house, and an Olympian disdain for the Nazis that stemmed from many years in private practice as a lawyer and judge during the Weimar Republic. His appointment to the bureau owed nothing to his politics and everything to his previous experience of war crimes investigations, having been deputy director of a similar Prussian bureau during the Great War. By state law the Wehrmacht was not supposed to be interested in politics and it took this independence very seriously indeed. In the Wehrmacht’s legal office none of the six jurists charged with the regulation of the various military services were Party members. This is why—although I was not a lawyer—I fitted in very well. I think Goldsche regarded a Berlin detective as a useful blunt object in an arsenal that was filled with more subtle weapons, and he frequently used me to investigate cases where a more robust method of inquiry was required than just the taking of depositions. Few of the judges who worked for the bureau were capable of treating the shirking pigs and lying Fritzes that made up the modern German Army—especially the ones who had committed war crimes themselves—as roughly as they sometimes deserved. What none of these invariably Prussian judges perceived was that there were benefits attached to being a witness in a war crimes inquiry: a leave of absence from active service being the main one; as much as possible, we tried to interview men in the field but it wasn’t every judge who wanted to spend days traveling to the Russian front; and one or two of the younger judges who did—Karl Hofmann, for one—found themselves posted to active service. Those who had tried the experience were very nervous about flying to the front and, it’s fair to say, so was I. There are better ways to spend your day than bouncing around inside the freezing fuselage of an Iron Annie in winter. Even Hermann Göring preferred the train. But the train was slow and coal shortages often meant that locomotives were stranded for hours—often days—on end. If you were a judge with the bureau, the best thing was to avoid the front altogether, to stay warm at home in Berlin and send someone else to the field; someone like me.
When I arrived at my desk I found a handwritten note summoning me to Goldsche’s office, so I took off my coat and belts, grabbed a notebook and a pencil, and went down to the second floor. It was a lot colder there on account of the fact that several of the windows had been blown out by the recent bombing and were being replaced by some whistling Russians—part of a POW battalion of glaziers, carpenters, and roofers that had come into being in order to make up for the shortage of German workmen. The Russians seemed happy enough. Replacing windows was a better job than disposing of unexploded RAF bombs. And probably anything was better than the Russian front, especially if you were a Russian, where their casualty rate was ten times worse than ours. Unfortunately that didn’t look like it was going to stop them from winning.
I knocked on Goldsche’s door and then entered to find him sitting by the fire wreathed like Zeus in a cloud of pipe smoke, drinking coffee—it must have been his birthday—and facing a thin, bespectacled, almost delicate man of about forty, who had a face as long and pale as a rasher of streaky bacon, and about as devoid of expression. Like most of the men I saw at the bureau, neither of them looked as if they belonged in uniform. I’d seen more convincing soldiers inside a toy box. I didn’t feel particularly comfortable wearing a uniform myself, especially as mine had a little black SD triangle on the left sleeve. (That was another reason Goldsche liked me working there; being SD gave me a certain clout in the field that wasn’t available to the army.) But their lack of obvious martial aptitude was more easily explained than my own: as civil servants within the armed forces, men like Goldsche and his unknown colleague had administrative or legal titles but not ranks and wore uniforms with distinctive silver braid shoulder boards to denote their special status as non-military soldiers. It was all very confusing, although I daresay it was much more confusing to people in the OKW how an SD officer like me came to be working for the bureau, and sometimes the SD triangle earned me some suspicious looks in the canteen. But I was used to feeling out of place in Nazi Germany. Besides, Johannes Goldsche knew very well I wasn’t a Party member—that, as a member of Kripo, I hadn’t had much choice in the matter of my uniform—and this was really all that mattered in the old Prussian’s republican book; this and the fact that I disliked the Nazis almost as much as he did.
I came to attention beside Goldsche’s chair and glanced over the pictures on the wall while I waited for the judge to address me. Goldsche was a keen musician and in most of the pictures he was part of a piano trio that included a famous German actor called Otto Gebühr. I hadn’t heard the trio play but I had seen Gebühr’s performance as Frederick the Great in more films than seemed altogether necessary. The judge had music on the radio, although that was nothing to do with his love of music; Goldsche always turned on the radio when he wanted to have a private conversation, just in case anyone from the Research Office—which remained under Göring’s control—was eavesdropping.
“Hans, this is the fellow I was telling you about,” said Goldsche. “Captain Bernhard Gunther, formerly a commissar with Kripo at the Police Praesidium on Alexanderplatz, and now attached to the bureau.”
I clicked my heels, like a good Prussian, and the man waved a silent greeting with his cigarette holder.
“Gunther, this is Military Court Official von Dohnanyi, formerly of the Reich Ministry of Justice and the Imperial Court but these days he’s deputy head of the Abwehr’s central section.”
All of which meant, of course, that the special shoulder boards and distinctive collar patches and civil servant titles were really quite unnecessary; von Dohnanyi was a baron, and in the OKW this was the only kind of rank that ever really mattered.
“Pleased to meet you, Gunther.” Dohnanyi was softly spoken like a lot of Berlin lawyers, although perhaps not as slippery as some I’d known. I figured him for one of those lawyers who were more interested in making law than in using it to turn a quick mark.
“Don’t be fooled by that witchcraft badge he’s wearing on his sleeve,” added Goldsche. “Gunther was a loyal servant of the republic for many years. And a damned good policeman. For a while he was quite a thorn in the side of our new masters, weren’t you, Gunther?”
“That’s not for me to say. But I’ll take the compliment.” I glanced at the silver tray on the table between them. “And some of that coffee, perhaps.”
Goldsche grinned. “Of course. Please. Sit down.”
I sat down and Goldsche helped me to some coffee.
“I don’t know where the Putzer got this,” said Goldsche, “but it’s actually very good. As a lawyer I should probably have my suspicions about his being a blackie.”
“Yes, you probably should,” I remarked. The coffee was delicious. “At two hundred marks for a half kilo that’s quite an orderly you have there. I’d hang on to him if I were you and learn to look the other way like everyone else does in this city.”
“Oh dear.” Von Dohnanyi smiled very faintly. “I suppose I should confess that the coffee came from me,” he said. “My father gets it whenever he plays a concert in Budapest or Vienna. I was going to mention it before but I hardly wanted to diminish your good opinion of the Putzer, Johannes. Now it seems I might get him into trouble. The coffee was a gift from me.”
“My dear fellow, you’re too kind.” Goldsche glanced my way. “Von Dohnanyi’s father is the great conductor and composer Ernst von Dohnanyi.” Goldsche was a tremendous snob about classical music.
“Do you like music, Captain Gunther?”
Dohnanyi’s inquiry was scrupulously polite; behind his round, frameless glasses the eyes didn’t care if I liked music or not; but then, neither did I, and without the von in front of my name I certainly wasn’t nearly as scrupulous as he was about what I used to fill my ears.
“I like a good melody if it’s sung by a pretty girl with a good pair of lungs, especially when the lyric is a vulgar one and the lungs are really noticeable. And I can’t tell an arpeggio from an archipelago. But life’s too short for Wagner, I do know that much.”
Goldsche grinned enthusiastically. He always seemed to take a vicarious delight in my capacity for blunt talking, which I enjoyed playing up to. “What else do you know?” he inquired.
“I whistle when I’m in the bath, which isn’t as often as I’d like,” I added, lighting a cigarette. That was the other good thing about working for the OKW, there was always a plentiful supply of quite decent cigarettes. “Talking of which, it seems the Russians are here already.”
“What do you mean?” asked von Dohnanyi, momentarily alarmed.
“Those fellows whistling in the corridor outside the door,” I said. “The skilled German craftsmen from the local glaziers’ guild who are repairing the flower house windows. They’re Russians.”
“Good Lord,” said Goldsche. “Here? In the OKW. That hardly seems like a good idea. What about security?”
“Someone’s got to repair the windows,” I said. “It’s cold outside. There’s no secret about that. I just hope the glass is more durable than the Luftwaffe, because I’ve got the feeling the RAF is planning a return visit.”
Von Dohnanyi allowed himself a thin smile and then an even thinner puff of his cigarette. I’d seen children smoke with more gusto.
“How are you feeling, anyway?” Goldsche looked at the other lawyer and explained. “Gunther was in a house in Lützow that was bombed while he was taking a deposition from a potential witness. He’s lucky to be here at all.”
“That’s certainly the way I feel about it.” I tapped my chest. “And I’m much better, thanks.”
“Fit for work?”
“Chest is still a bit tight, but otherwise I’m more or less back to normal.”
“And the witness? Herr Meyer?”
“He’s alive, but I’m afraid the only evidence he’s going to give anytime soon is in the court of heaven.”
“You’ve seen him?” asked von Dohnanyi. “In the Jewish Hospital?”
“Yes, poor fellow. A large part of his brain seems to have gone missing. Not that anyone notices that kind of thing very much nowadays. But he’s no use to us now, I’m afraid.”
“Pity,” said Goldsche. “He was going to be an important witness in a case we were preparing against the Royal Navy,” he told von Dohnanyi. “The British Navy really does think it can get away with murder. Unlike the American Navy, which recognizes all our hospital ships, the Royal Navy recognizes the larger tonnage hospital ships but not the smaller ones.”
“Because the smaller ones are picking up our unwounded air crews?” asked von Dohnanyi.
“That’s right. It’s a great pity this case collapsed before it even got started. Then again, it does make life a little simpler for us. Not to mention more palatable. Goebbels was interested in putting Franz Meyer on the radio. That wouldn’t have done at all.”
“It’s not just the Ministry of Propaganda who were interested in Franz Meyer,” I said. “The Gestapo came to see me while I was in the state hospital, asking questions about Meyer.”
“Did they?” murmured von Dohnanyi.
“What sort of questions?” asked Goldsche.
I shrugged. “Who his friends were, that kind of thing. They seemed to think Meyer might have been mixed up in some sort of currency smuggling racket in order to help persuade the Swiss to offer asylum to a group of Jews.”
Goldsche looked puzzled.
“Money for refugees,” I added. “Well, you know how big-hearted the Swiss are. They make all that lovely white chocolate just to help sugar the lie that they’re peace-loving and kind. Of course, they’re not. Never were. Even the German Army was in the habit of recruiting Swiss mercenaries. The Italians used to call it a bad war when Swiss pikemen were involved because their kind of fighting was so vicious.”
“What did you tell them?” asked Goldsche. “The Gestapo?”
“I didn’t tell them anything.” I shrugged. “I don’t know about a currency racket. The Gestapo mentioned a few names. But I certainly hadn’t heard of them. Anyway, the commissar who came to see me—I know him. He’s not bad as Gestapo officers go. Fellow by the name of Werner Sachse. I’m not sure if he’s a Party member but I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t.”
“I don’t like the Gestapo involving themselves with our inquiries,” said Goldsche. “I don’t like it at all. Our judicial independence is always under threat from Himmler and his thugs.”
I shook my head. “The Gestapo are like dogs. You have to let them lick the bone for a while or they become savage. Take my word for it. This was a routine inquiry. The commissar licked the bone, let me fold his ears, and then he slunk away. Simple as that. And there’s no need for alarm. I don’t see anyone winding up this department because seven Jews went skiing in Switzerland without permission.”
Von Dohnanyi shrugged. “Captain Gunther is probably right,” he said. “This commissar was just going through the motions, that’s all.”
I smiled patiently, sipped my coffee, checked my own natural curiosity about exactly how it was that von Dohnanyi had known Meyer was in the Jewish Hospital, and tried to bring the meeting to order. “What did you want to see me about, sir?”
“Oh yes.” Goldsche nodded. “You’re sure you’re fit, now?”
“Good.” Goldsche looked at his aristocratic friend. “Hans? Would you care to enlighten the captain?”
“Certainly.” Von Dohnanyi put down his cigarette holder, removed his spectacles and then a neatly folded handkerchief and started to clean the lenses.
I stubbed out my cigarette, opened my notebook, and prepared to take some notes.
Von Dohnanyi shook his head. “Please, just listen for now, if you would, Captain,” he said. “When I’m finished, you’ll perhaps understand my request that no notes are taken of this meeting.”
I closed the notebook and waited.
“Following the Gleiwitz incident, German forces invaded Poland on September first, 1939, and sixteen days later the Red Army invaded from the east, in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed between our two countries on August twenty-third, 1939. Germany annexed western Poland and the Soviet Union incorporated the eastern half into its Ukrainian and Belorussian republics. Some four hundred thousand Polish troops were taken prisoner by the Wehrmacht, while at least another quarter of a million Poles were captured by the Red Army. It is the fate of those Polish men taken prisoner by the Russians with which we are concerned here. Ever since the Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union—”
“Germany’s always been unlucky that way,” I said. “With her friends, I mean.”
Ignoring my sarcasm, von Dohnanyi put his glasses back on and continued: “Possibly even as soon as August 1941, the Abwehr has been receiving reports of a mass murder of Polish officers that took place in the spring or early summer of 1940. But where this took place was anyone’s guess. Until now, perhaps.
“There’s a signals regiment, the 537th, commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Ahrens, stationed in a place called Gnezdovo near Smolensk—I understand from Judge Goldsche that you’ve been to Smolensk, Captain Gunther?”
“Yes, sir. I was there in the summer of 1941.”
He nodded. “That’s good. Then you’ll know the sort of country I’m talking about.”
“It’s a dump,” I said. “I can’t see why we thought it worth capturing at all.”
“Er, yes.” Von Dohnanyi smiled patiently. “Apparently Gnezdovo is an area of thick forest to the west of the city, with wolves and other wild animals, and right now, as you might expect, the whole area is under a thick blanket of snow. The 537th is stationed in a castle or villa in the forest that was formerly used by the Russian secret police—the NKVD. They employ a number of HIWIs—Russian POWs like those glaziers in the corridor—and several weeks ago some of those HIWIs reported that a wolf had dug up some human remains in the forest. Having investigated the site for himself, Ahrens reported finding not one but several human bones. The report was passed on to us in the Abwehr, and we then set about evaluating this intelligence. A number of possibilities have presented themselves.
“One: that the bones are from a mass grave of political prisoners murdered by the NKVD during the so-called Great Purge of 1937 to 1938 following the first and second Moscow trials. We estimate as many as a million Soviet citizens were killed and that they are buried in mass graves all over an area west of Moscow hundreds of square kilometers in size.
“Two: that the bones are from a mass grave of missing Polish officers. The Soviet government has assured the Polish prime minister in exile, General Sikorski, that all Polish prisoners of war were freed in 1940, after having been transported to Manchuria, and that the Soviets have simply lost track of many of these men because of the war, but it seems clear to our sources in London that the Poles do not believe them. A key factor in the Abwehr’s suspicion that these bones might be those of a Polish officer is the fact that this explanation would fit with previous intelligence reports about Polish officers who were seen at the local railway station in Gnezdovo in May 1940. Remarks made by Foreign Minister Molotov to von Ribbentrop at the signing of the Non-Aggression Pact in 1939 have always led us to suppose that Stalin has a deep hatred for the Poles that dates from the Soviet defeat in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919–20. Also, his son was killed by Polish partisans in 1939.
“Three: the mass grave is the site of a battle between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. This is perhaps the most unlikely scenario as the Battle of Smolensk took place largely to the south of Smolensk and not the west. Moreover, the Wehrmacht took over three hundred thousand Red Army soldiers prisoner and most of these men remain alive, incarcerated in a camp to the northeast of Smolensk.”
“Or working in the corridor outside,” I said helpfully.
“Please, Gunther,” said Goldsche. “Let him finish.”
“Four: this is perhaps the most politically sensitive of all the possibilities and is also why I have asked you to forbear from taking notes, Captain Gunther.”
It wasn’t difficult to guess why von Dohnanyi hesitated to describe the fourth possibility; it was hard to talk about this subject—hard for him and even harder for me, who had firsthand experience of some of these dreadful things that were so “politically sensitive.”
“Four is the possibility that this is one of many mass graves in the region full of Jews murdered by the SS,” I said.
Von Dohnanyi nodded. “The SS is very secretive about these matters,” he said. “But we have information that a special battalion of SS attached to Gottlob Berger’s Group B and commanded by an Obersturmführer by the name of Oskar Dirlewanger was active in the area immediately west of Smolensk during the spring of last year. There are no accurate figures available, but one estimate we have holds Dirlewanger’s single battalion responsible for the murders of at least fourteen thousand people.”
“The last thing we want to do is step on the toes of the SS,” said Goldsche. “Which means this is a matter requiring great confidentiality. Frankly, there will be hell to pay if we go around uncovering mass graves of their making.”
“That’s a delicate way of putting it, Judge,” I said. “Since I assume it’s me you want to send down to Smolensk and investigate this, then I’m supposed to make sure that this is the correct mass grave we’re uncovering, is that what you mean?”
“In a nutshell, yes,” said Goldsche. “Right now the ground is frozen hard so there’s no possibility of digging for more bodies. Not for several weeks. Until then, we need to find out all we can. So if you could spend a couple of days down there. Speak to some of the locals, visit the site, evaluate the situation, and then come back to Berlin and report directly to me. If it is our jurisdiction, then we can organize a full war crimes inquiry with a proper judge almost immediately.” He shrugged. “But to send a judge at this stage would be too much.”
“Agreed,” said von Dohnanyi. “It would send the wrong signal. Best to keep things low-key at this stage.”
“Let me check my mental shorthand, gentlemen,” I said. “About just what you want me to do. So as I know, for sure. If this mass grave is full of Jews, then I’m to forget about it. But if it’s full of Polish officers, then it’s the bureau’s meat. Is that what you’re saying?”
“That’s not a very subtle way of putting it,” said von Dohnanyi, “but yes. That’s exactly what’s required of you, Captain Gunther.”
For a moment he glanced up at the landscape above Goldsche’s fireplace as if wishing he could have been there instead of a smoky office in Berlin, and I felt a sneer start to gather at the edge of my mouth. The picture was one of those Italian campagnas painted at the end of a summer’s day, when the light is interesting to a painter, and some tiny old men with long beards and wearing togas are standing around a ruined classical landscape and asking themselves who’s going to carry out the necessary building repairs because all the young men are away at the wars. They didn’t have Russian POWs to fix their windows in those Arcadian days.
My sneer expanded to full contempt for his delicate sensibility.
“Oh, but it won’t be subtle, gentlemen,” I said. “I can promise you that much. Certainly nowhere near as subtle as in that nice picture. Smolensk is no bucolic demi-paradise. It’s a ruin, all right, but it’s a ruin because that’s how our tanks and artillery have left it. It’s a ruin that’s full of ugly, frightened people who were only just managing to eke out a living when the Wehrmacht turned up demanding to be fed and watered for not much money. Zeus won’t be seducing Io, it’ll be a Fritz trying to rape some poor peasant girl. And in Smolensk the pretty landscape isn’t covered in an amber glow of warm Italian sunlight but a hard permafrost. No, it won’t be subtle. And believe me, there’s nothing subtle about a body that’s been in the ground. It’s surprising how indelicate something like that turns out to be and how quickly it becomes something very unpleasant indeed. There’s the smell, for example. Bodies have a habit of decomposing when they’ve been in the earth for a while.”
I lit another cigarette and enjoyed their joint discomfort. There was a silence for a long moment. Von Dohnanyi looked nervous about something—more nervous than what he had just told me suggested, perhaps. Or maybe he just wanted to hit me. I get a lot of that.
“But I take your point,” I added, more helpfully this time, “about the SS, I mean. We wouldn’t want to upset them, now would we? And believe me, I know what I’m talking about—I’ve done it before so I’m equally anxious not to do it again.”
“There is a fifth possibility,” added Goldsche, “which is why I would prefer to have a proper detective on the scene.”
“And that is?”
“I would like you to make absolutely sure that this whole thing is not some ghastly lie dreamed up by the Ministry of Propaganda. That this body has not been deliberately planted there to play first us and then the world’s media like a grand piano. Because make no mistake about it, gentlemen, that’s exactly what will happen if this does turn out to be the dwarf’s ring.”
I nodded. “Fair enough. But you’re forgetting a sixth possibility, surely.”
Von Dohnanyi frowned. “And what is that?”
“If this does turn out to be a mass grave, that it’s full of Polish officers that the German Army murdered.”
Von Dohnanyi shook his head. “Impossible,” he said.
“Is it? I don’t see how your second possibility can even exist without the possibility of the sixth one, too.”
“That’s logically true,” admitted von Dohnanyi. “But the fact remains that the German Army does not murder prisoners of war.”
I grinned. “Oh, well, that’s all right then. Forgive me for mentioning it, sir.”
Von Dohnanyi colored a little; you don’t get a lot of sarcasm in the concert hall or the Imperial Court; and I doubt he’d spoken to a real policeman since 1928, when, like every other aristocrat, he’d applied for a firearm permit so he could shoot wild boar and the odd Bolshevik.
“Besides,” he continued, “this part of Russia has only been in German hands since September 1941. There’s that, and the fact that it’s a matter of military record which Poles were prisoners of Germany and which were prisoners of the Soviet Union. This information is already known to the Polish government in London. For that reason alone it should be easy to establish if any of these men were prisoners of the Red Army. Which is why I myself think it’s highly improbable that this could be something manufactured by the Ministry of Propaganda. Because it would be all too easy to disprove.”
“Perhaps you’re right, Hans,” admitted the judge.
“I am right,” insisted von Dohnanyi. “You know I’m right.”
“Nevertheless,” said the judge, “I want to be sure exactly what we’re dealing with here. And as quickly as possible. So, will you do it, Gunther? Will you go down there and see what you can find out?”
I had little appetite to see Smolensk again or, for that matter, anywhere else in Russia. The whole country filled me with a combination of fear and shame, for there was no doubt that whatever crimes the Red Army had committed in the name of Communism, the SS had committed equally heinous ones in the name of Nazism. Probably our crimes were more heinous. Executing enemy officers in uniform was one thing—I had some experience of that myself—but murdering women and children was quite another.
“Yes, sir. I’ll go. Of course I’ll go.”
“Good fellow,” said the judge. “As I said already, if there’s even a hint that this is the handiwork of those thugs in the SS, don’t do anything—get the hell out of Smolensk as quickly as possible, come straight home, and pretend you know nothing at all about it.”
I smiled wryly and shook my head as I wondered what magic mountaintop these two men were on. Perhaps you had to be a judge or an aristocrat to look down from the heights and see what was important here—important for Germany. Me, I had more pressing concerns; myself, for example. And from where I was sitting the whole business of investigating the mass murder of some Poles looked a lot like one donkey calling another donkey “long ears.”
“Is there something wrong?” asked von Dohnanyi.
“Only that it’s a little difficult for me to see how anyone might think Nazi Germany could ever occupy moral high ground on an issue like this.”
“An investigation and then a white book could prove extremely useful in restoring our reputation for fair play and probity in the eyes of the world,” said the judge. “When all this is over.”
So that was it. A white book. An evidentiary record that influential and honorable men like Judge Goldsche and Court Official von Dohnanyi could produce from a Foreign Office archive after the war was concluded to show other influential and honorable men from England and America that not all Germans had behaved as badly as the Nazis, or that the Russians had been just as bad as we were, or something similar. I had my doubts about that working out.
“Mark my words,” said Dohnanyi, “if this is what I think it is, then it’s just a beginning. We have to start rebuilding our moral fabric somewhere.”
“Tell that to the SS,” I said.
At six A.M. on a bitterly cold Berlin morning I arrived at Tegel airfield to board my flight to Russia. A long journey lay ahead, although only half of the other ten passengers climbing aboard the three-engined Ju52 were actually going as far as Smolensk. Most, it seemed, were getting off at the end of the first leg of the journey—Berlin to Rastenburg—which was a mere four hours. After that there was a second leg, to Minsk, which took another four hours, before the third leg—two hours—to Smolensk. With stops for refueling and a pilot change in Minsk, the whole journey to Smolensk was scheduled to take eleven and a half hours, all of which helped explain why it was me being sent down there instead of some fat-arsed judge with a bad back from the Wehrmacht legal department. So I was surprised when I discovered that one of the other dozen or so passengers arriving on the tarmac in a chauffeur-driven private Mercedes was none other than the fastidious court official from the Abwehr, Hans von Dohnanyi.
“Is this a coincidence?” I asked cheerfully. “Or did you come to see me off?”
“I’m sorry?” He frowned. “Oh, I didn’t recognize you. You’re flying to Smolensk, aren’t you, Captain Bernhard?”
“Unless you know something different,” I said. “And my name is Gunther, Captain Bernhard Gunther.”
Posted March 31, 2013
If you think it's hard for a detective to find a killer today in a city like New York or Los Angeles, imagine what it would be like for an investigator in the German Army in the middle of World War II deep in Nazi occupied Russia. A large portion of the German Army has been crushed by Russian troops at Stalingrad. Tens of thousands are dying on both sides of the war as Bernie Gunther, ex-cop from Berlin, now working for the Army, is called in to investigate the mass murder of over 4,000 Polish officers, who were once prisoners of the Russians near Smolensk. If the Germans can prove the Russian Communist forces have ruthlessly executed these men, it may provide a badly needed public relations coup for the Nazi's, glossing over some of their crimes. Gunther is a loyal German, but not a member of the Nazi party. He has to walk a tightrope between the facts and the results that his superiors want. Any facts are hard to come by as everyone involved, both German and Russian, are looking out for themselves. More often than not lying to keep themselves out of trouble and trying to stay alive. This includes Gunther, who has gotten in trouble before over his less than enthusiastic views of the Nazi's. As if this weren't enough, two German soldiers have been murdered. Their throats sliced open with surgical precision. Gunther is the only competent investigating officer, in the middle of the on going international incident, available to track down their murderer. This is a good blend of fact and fiction, full of action and suspense. Author Philip Kerr's series on the Berlin cop, Bernie Gunther, is a great addition to detective fiction. Highly recommended for those who enjoy hard hitting detective fiction with a touch of noir.
4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 16, 2013
Only one review and its a plot spoiler. So much for a true review where a real reader tells if they liked it or not. No, we get a wannabe author who has to take someone elses work, rewrite as a review and claim it as their own. These rude, inconsiderate plot spoilers need to be fined and banned from posting these plot spoilers.
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Posted August 3, 2013
A bit of a disappointment after reading "Field Gray" and "Prague Fatale". Bernie Gunther continues to be an interesting character, and certainly had his hands full in this one. But, the main mission he was on in trying to uncover the tragic happening in the Katyn woods got a little sidetracked with other activity requiring his attention. A little disjointed it seemed at times, and finally saved at the end with the discovery of the real culprit. Not a bad read, but certainly not a page turner for me.
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Posted April 17, 2013
Philip Kerr has done it again. Another terrific Bernie Gunther mystery / historical fiction. I've loved each book in this series and hope to have new ones to read regularly.
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Posted April 1, 2015
Trying to keep order in middle of a war should have humor for relief but too heavy a style for enjoyment one murderer out of hundreds makes little difference but the personal must not be allowed to upstage the state for wwii reenactorsWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 18, 2014
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Posted May 14, 2013
This is an exceptional novel ! It's the first Bernie Gunther novel I've read and I will definitely read all of the others . It is history and entertainment wrapped in a terrific read . Wow !Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 10, 2013
A fascinating read' saying that, I should remind readers that the Wehrmacht (Make War) was thoroughly despised and hated in all occupied countries. The Nazis were worse but only by degree. The Wehrmacht was just as hard and cruel as any army in modern history. I do know, many of my immediate family were engaged in WWII and a close friend lost his family to the Holocaust.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 10, 2013
I lived in Berlin from 1960 to 1963 as a Mormon missionary. I was in East Berlin on Sunday, August 13, 1961. The German border police and the Soviet infantry built a wall 30 miles through the center of Berlin in essentially one night.
I came to know and love Berliners. I was on the street with almost two million of them when John F Kennedy riveted them with his now famous: Ich bin ein Berliner. Berliners have always been more skeptical and possessive of a wry sense of humor than Germans, or other Europeans. That was true before the war, and was accentuated by the Soviet occupation after the war. Here, Phillip Kerr captures that essential Berliner character in the person of Bernie Gunther. At times, as you read this book, you will wonder if someone could be so brash in the face of the evils of Nazism. I think it is a fair question, and my answer, having known many Berliners as good friends, my answer is it is not only possible, I believe it was prevalent beneath the surface during the era of the triumphant Nazis.
I recommend this to all those who enjoy a hard bitten detective story with an entertaining and compelling figure at its heart.
Posted May 7, 2013
another entertaining Bernie Gunther novel. As with the previous novel, this one goes back into the past, where our intrepid hero is working for the German Army War Crimes Bureau when Polish army bodies are found in Katyn Wood/Forest. Bernie is sent by Joseph Goebbels to help build an international case showing the horrors the Soviet NKVD has unleashed by killing almost 5000 Polish senior NCOs and officer POW's. Along the way he meets a lady friend, has shots fired at him, and as usual, manages to piss off most of the German High Command and those he works around. If found this to be interesting both for its historical notes and for the usual cynical but ultimatley very human main character. However, I did not find it as "deep" as most of the earlier novels about the detective from Berlin. Given the way that Field Grey ended, I'm not sure author Kerr can continue moving the series forward, and will have to simply be content with fleshing out episodes in the past. Still, good readng.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 16, 2013
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Posted July 28, 2014
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Posted June 17, 2013
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Posted May 10, 2013
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Posted August 30, 2013
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Posted June 14, 2013
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