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By Michael Ridpath
Head of Zeus Ltd Copyright © 2013 Michael Ridpath
All rights reserved.
It was still possible to have fun in Berlin, even in 1938. You could go out to a nightclub, you could drink champagne, speak of old times, drink more champagne, perhaps say more than you should. In more normal countries in more normal times the consequences of such a night might have been a sore head and apologies for the rash words of the night before. In Nazi Germany the consequence was death.
Conrad de Lancey was looking forward to the evening. He had arrived by train from the Hook of Holland that morning, dropped his things off at his hotel and spent the afternoon wandering from the former Imperial Palace past the grand buildings that lined Unter den Linden, through the Brandenburg Gate to the Tiergarten, where he had lost himself amongst the trees and ponds.
After a miserable year spent licking his wounds, he was glad to be out of England.
He had escaped from Mosquito Hill. Unable to go forward or back, he had run sideways, away from the Spanish brigade and towards the retreating Washington Battalion on his right. He had successfully mingled with the American walking wounded staggering back from the front. His luck held out when he managed to hitch a lift to Valencia with an outfit known as 'the Scottish Ambulance Unit', commanded by a formidable nurse wearing a voluminous tartan kilt. From there he stowed away on a ship bound for Marseilles. A week later, his arm in a sling, he was back in Oxford.
He had hoped to return to his old life: his unfinished thesis, his pretty cottage in Manor Road and his beautiful wife. But he came home to find Veronica gone and everything changed. As autumn became winter, the cottage, which Veronica had professed 'divine' when she had moved in, and 'a pokey hovel' when she had moved out, had become a damp, chilly rebuke, a daily reminder of warmer, happier times.
When Veronica had first left him, Conrad had felt shocked, numb. After a couple of weeks the numbness had been replaced by a slow, burning anger. He had tried to ignore it, to pretend it wasn't there. Whenever his friends or his family tried to speak to him about her, he parried with finely honed banalities.
Spain hadn't helped – those memories of the rotting corpses of his comrades on Mosquito Hill, of the desperate faces of the bombed-out orphans of Madrid and above all of the cruel betrayal of the idealistic young workers by the commissars and the politicians which had led to bullets in the backs of Harry and David. A noble cause had been corrupted into a hell of violence, cruelty and death.
Back in Oxford, he tried to work on the thesis for his D.Phil., about Prussia's war with Denmark in 1864. This little war, which had comprised two campaigns of a few weeks each, had eaten up four years of his own life, and he was sick of it. Oxford was damp and miserable without Veronica. When one morning in December Conrad had spied an advertisement in The Times for a teacher at a prep school in the depths of Suffolk, on a whim he had applied.
He was there for the beginning of the Lent term in January, covering for a member of staff who had been badly injured in a car smash. He laid low for a term and a half, not seeing anyone, his family, his friends and certainly not Veronica. He enjoyed teaching small boys French and Latin, and the isolation helped. But when the teacher he was covering for returned to school for the second half of the summer term, Conrad turned down the headmaster's offer of a permanent position.
For almost a year he had ignored all those issues that had been so important to him that he had risked his life for them: peace and war, socialism and fascism, the disaster that was engulfing Europe. But he had had enough of skulking in the lanes and water meadows of Suffolk. He decided it was time to face up to what was happening in the world.
So he bought a one-way ticket to Berlin.
It was a warm night, but unlike London, which had been shrouded in low grey cloud when Conrad had left Liverpool Street station the previous day, the air here was fresh and clean. Even at this hour the Kurfürstendamm was busy; tall blue-uniformed traffic policemen expertly marshalled the cars, trams and buses swishing along the street. It had only just got dark, and the pavements were alive with people flitting in and out of the pools of light emanating from the shop fronts, cafés, restaurants, cinemas and theatres. Many wore uniforms: greenish-grey for the army, brown for the Party functionaries and black for the SS. Many didn't. All of them had a sense of urgency, a sense of purpose.
Conrad paused under a street lamp to consult the note Joachim had sent to his hotel, including directions to the club. A young man, barely more than a boy, wearing a sharp suit and a thin moustache was leaning against an iron poster column a few feet away. He hissed something to Conrad under his breath. Conrad smiled politely and went back to his note. Just then a fashionably dressed lady approached, sniffing loudly. The youth smiled and the two disappeared. Clearly some transaction had occurred or was about to occur, but Conrad wasn't entirely sure what it was.
With a jolt he noticed the advertisement revealed on the poster column, a grotesque caricature of a man with a beard and a hooked nose, holding out a handful of coins and grasping a map of Germany under his arm. It was advertising an exhibition called Der Ewige Jude – The Eternal Jew.
Conrad walked a few steps further along the Ku'damm and turned off along a side street. Within a few yards he came across an illuminated sign of a jolly-looking cockatoo. He descended the neon-lit stairs and plunged into a dark, warm atmosphere of smoke and alcohol, of music and chatter. The place was nearly full and, as Conrad scanned the crowd, he spotted Joachim at a table near the back. Conrad wound his way through the tables towards him and Joachim leaped to his feet, his face breaking into a broad grin as he held out his hand.
Conrad shook it warmly. His cousin was pudgier than when they had last met, and his slicked-back hair had thinned. He was dressed very properly in evening clothes, but his cheeks were shining and his white tie was slightly askew. Conrad noticed an open bottle of champagne on ice on the table, and he suspected it wasn't Joachim's first.
'I'm sorry I'm a little late,' said Conrad, in German.
'I've been here a while,' said Joachim, in English, with a grin. 'It is wonderful to be back in Berlin after freezing Moscow. I know these places are a bit tame, but there is enough of an atmosphere about them to remind me of the good old days.' Joachim's English was excellent, but his accent was unique: a mixture of Germanic precision and the affectation of a 1920s Oxford aesthete.
Conrad scanned the dance floor and was relieved to see that the couples dancing were of mixed sex. Conrad had visited the notorious Eldorado Club in Berlin with Joachim in 1929 at the tender age of eighteen. To say that he had been shocked would be an understatement. 'I imagine the Nazis have closed all your favourite old haunts.'
'Many of them,' said Joachim. 'But there are still some interesting places to go. You just have to know where to look. Have a glass of bubbles, old man. It's filthy stuff these days, I'm afraid, but you get used to it after a couple of glasses.'
Joachim Mühlendorf was Conrad's cousin, a diplomat in Germany's embassy in Moscow who was on a week's leave in Berlin. He was one of the few people with whom Conrad still corresponded, if only on an irregular basis, and when he had heard that Conrad's move to Berlin coincided with his own leave, he had cabled Conrad insisting that they meet. Conrad was happy to agree: Joachim was always good company.
Conrad's mother came from Hamburg, and after the war the de Lanceys had often visited her family there. Of all the cousins, Conrad and Joachim had got on best together. This surprised their parents: Conrad was athletic and a keen shot, while Joachim was pale and had a perennial cold. But Joachim was a voracious reader and had a sharp intellect, and it was this that had interested the younger cousin. Their friendship grew when Joachim came to stay with Conrad's family in London for a few months after an unexplained difficulty during his last year at his Prussian boarding school.
Joachim poured Conrad a glass of champagne. 'What brings you to Berlin? I thought you had dedicated your life to educating the inky-fingered.'
'Not my life, just a term and a half,' said Conrad. 'I wanted to come here and see what's happening. And perhaps write about it.'
'Write about it?'
'Yes. I did a couple of pieces for Mercury when I was in Spain, and they said they would be happy to take some more from Berlin.' Conrad hesitated. 'I also thought I'd try a novel.'
'Oh, like that chap Isherwood. I met him once, you know. A charming man.'
'Not exactly like him. It's about an Englishman in Berlin in 1914. The coming of the last war.'
'The war to end all wars?'
'Yes, that one,' said Conrad.
There was the other reason why Conrad was in Berlin, of course. And Joachim picked up on it.
'I was sorry to hear about Veronica.'
'It was such a shame I couldn't come to your wedding. I'd just been posted to Moscow so I couldn't get away. I would have loved to have met her. At one moment she sounded absolutely wonderful, the next a complete nightmare.'
Conrad smiled ruefully. 'I suppose she is both.' He was grateful for Joachim's sympathy, but he didn't want to talk about Veronica. At least not quite yet.
Joachim smiled in understanding. Then something caught his eye. He frowned and leaned forward. 'Don't look now, but there is a man behind your right shoulder staring at us. And I don't think it's because he wants to pick one of us up.'
Conrad didn't look. 'You think he's Gestapo or something? I suppose that's to be expected in Germany these days, isn't it? I am a foreigner, after all.'
'It's worse in Russia,' Joachim said. He stopped a passing waitress. 'A packet of cigarettes, please.'
When the waitress returned a moment later, he passed her a generous tip. 'Do you know that man over there, the one with the rabbit teeth? Is he a regular?'
The waitress looked up with the barest flick of her eyes. 'No, he hasn't been in before.' Then, understanding, she said: 'Don't worry, he can't overhear you. I have just served him: he's deaf.'
'Ah,' said Joachim. 'That's nice to know.'
Conrad looked around the club. The Kakadu was busy. A line of barmaids was frantically working at a large semi-circular bar to keep the customers supplied. Conrad smiled to himself as he noticed that they alternated between blonde and brunette, everything just so, everything in its proper pattern. A stunning blonde woman on the dance floor caught Conrad's attention. She was wearing a long figure-hugging evening gown with the rear cut away leaving her buttocks bare.
'I'm sure she'd dance with you if you asked her nicely,' Joachim said with a grin.
'Perhaps not this evening,' said Conrad. 'But it is a nice view.'
'I thought you'd like this place,' said Joachim. 'I met your friend here a couple of nights ago. Theo von Hertenberg.'
'I didn't know you were in touch with Theo!'
'I'm not really. That was the trouble. I've only met him through you, that time I visited you in Oxford, and then when you came to Berlin a couple of years later.'
Conrad smiled. 'I remember the Oxford visit and I'm sure Theo does. I will never forget you declaiming Goethe from my window in Front Quad. It was all I could do to stop you falling out.'
Joachim smiled. 'I was a little tight, wasn't I?'
'You were. You also weren't wearing very much.'
'It was a warm evening. I hope you didn't get into too much trouble on my account.'
Conrad had, but it was a long time ago. 'So why did you want to see Theo?'
'I had something I wanted to discuss with him, something I'd heard in Moscow. Unfortunately, he brought a couple of girls along. Perfectly nice girls, but they rather got in the way of a frank discussion. Anyway, I seem to have offended him.'
'I suppose I was a bit indiscreet. Hertenberg became quite huffy and more or less threw me out.'
'I'm sorry about that,' said Conrad.
Joachim shrugged. 'I was a little drunk. But I was speaking in English, and the girls didn't understand. I'm sure there was no one listening.'
'For all his enlightened ideas Theo is a Prussian at heart,' Conrad said. 'He disapproves of people behaving badly. He can't help it.'
Joachim leaned back in his chair. He carefully transferred the cigarettes from the packet the waitress had given him to a silver case engraved with the Mühlendorf family crest. The procedure complete, he offered one to Conrad before lighting one of his own.
'Do you trust him?' Joachim asked, looking closely at Conrad.
'Theo? Yes. Absolutely.' There was not a trace of doubt in Conrad's voice.
'Have you seen him recently?'
'Not for five years now. Not since I was over here in 1933. But we were very close at Oxford.' Theo was a Rhodes scholar, the first to arrive at Oxford from Germany since the war. Conrad and he had quickly become friends. It wasn't just that they shared a mixed heritage – Conrad's mother was German and Theo's grandmother American – nor that they both embraced the intellectual fashions of the time: the Labour Club, pacifism, home rule for India. They seemed to share the same view of the world, or at least they had seemed to then. Conrad was looking forward to seeing him in Berlin. Theo had always been a source of good-natured sanity; it would be interesting to see what he made of the insanity all around him. Besides, a night on the town with Theo was always fun.
'You know he has joined the army now?' Joachim said.
Conrad nodded. 'I know: he wrote to me a couple of years ago and mentioned he had joined the reserves. It seems quite unlike him.'
'It might have been a ploy to avoid signing up for the Nazi Party,' Joachim said. 'I tried that dodge myself, but the reserves wouldn't have me.' He tapped his chest. 'It's my heart. I get these palpitations.'
'So what did you do?'
Joachim shrugged. 'I became a Party member. I had to if I wanted to become a diplomat.'
Conrad couldn't help showing his surprise. Joachim had been a convert to Marxism in the 1920s, several years before it was fashionable in England.
'Don't look so shocked,' said Joachim. 'It doesn't mean anything.'
'Of course it means something,' said Conrad. 'How can you be a member of such a vile organization, even if it is just for the convenience of your career? That's a terrible reason.'
'You're quite right, Conrad,' Joachim said. 'I am a morally corrupted individual who deserves every ounce of your disapproval. But the question is not am I a Nazi, but is Theo one?'
'I doubt it very much,' said Conrad. 'I haven't seen him for years, but he was my closest friend at the university. His views on right and wrong are deeply entrenched. I would be very surprised if he had become a Nazi, a genuine one.' Although when Conrad had spent a month in Berlin in the spring of 1933 just after the Nazis had come to power, Theo had seemed complacent about Hitler. To Conrad's disgust he had said that someone had to bring order back to the country; it was just a pity the new Chancellor was so common and vulgar. As far as Conrad was concerned, the least of Hitler's sins was that he was 'common'. But Conrad couldn't conceive of Theo as a follower of the man.
'That's good to hear,' said Joachim. 'I had made up my mind in Moscow that Theo was the right person to speak to once I got here. After the other night, I thought perhaps I was wrong. But if I trust anyone, I trust you, and if you think he's all right ...'
A group of three girls squeezed past their table. One of them, a tall brunette with a suggestive swing of her hips, paused to ask Conrad for a light. As he obliged, she murmured her thanks, dark eyes under long lashes briefly meeting his, and joined her friends at a table not too far away.
'I'm impressed. It's good to see married life hasn't dulled your talents,' Joachim said.
Conrad ignored him. 'Anyway, what did you want to talk to Theo about?'
'Have you heard of General von Fritsch?
'Yes. He was commander-in-chief of the army, wasn't he? Resigned a couple of months ago. Ill health or something?'
Joachim snorted. 'They accused him of being born on the seventeenth of May.'
Conrad frowned. 'I don't understand.'
'Seventeen five. Article 175 of the Penal Code.'
'Is that the one dealing with homosexuality?'
'The very same,' said Joachim. 'I know it well. But the Gestapo were framing him. They had an elaborate story about him picking up a male prostitute at the Potsdamer Station. There was a secret trial in March and von Fritsch was acquitted, but he resigned anyway. I understand that the army is still very upset about it.'
'I never heard about that.'
'Of course not,' said Joachim. 'But it caused quite a stir in the army, or so I am told.'
'And that's what you were talking to Theo about?'
'That. And something else I heard in Moscow, something even more interesting.'
Excerpted from Traitor's Gate by Michael Ridpath. Copyright © 2013 Michael Ridpath. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
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