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A Blackford Oakes Mystery
By William F. Buckley Jr.
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1978 William F. Buckley, Jr.
All rights reserved.
At first, they were saying about him, Oh my God, it's Hitler all over again! That was back in the days of the Berlin blockade, when this dismayingly young man gave the speech at Heidelberg declaring that it was the German people who must open the roadway to Berlin blocked by the Russians. A middle-aged veteran in the audience got up and, achieving the speaker's attention, delivered the Nazi salute. There was pandemonium, and the heckler was finally dragged out by two campus police, after they were roused from their game of chess at the gatehouse and went at a run to the student union building. But that disturbance wasn't the sensation of the evening.
It was the speaker. This was not the bluster of one of those sulky veterans boozed up on nationalism. Axel Wintergrin spoke with a moderation quite un-Prussian. It made the experience of him all the more vivid. The crowds — there were crowds now, everywhere — would listen, and cheer. And the cheers had in their full-throatedness that resonance that is missing from responses to spellbinding oratory when, in the back of the crowd's mind, the speech is seen as resting, finally, on rhetorical orchestration, vocal fury, bombast. "It's the kind of satisfaction," Blackford Oakes wrote to his superior in the first dispatch, "that Socrates must have given his students after completing one of his syllogisms." The distinctive enthusiasm aroused by a mobilizing analytical demonstration, rather than by a mere call to action to appease tonight's restless glands — his was a call to a fundamental reorientation.
Axel Wintergrin managed this by any number of elaborations on two central themes. The first was that life under the Soviet domination was intolerable. "That isn't the correct word for it," he said on one occasion, pausing to make one of those mid-speech distinctions which no professor of rhetoric would have thought, well, tolerable, in a declamatory situation "— no, if it were intolerable, then people would not tolerate it. But people do tolerate it. Just as" — and here was the kind of thing his critics, more properly his enemies, could not forgive him for — "just as the German people tolerated Adolf Hitler. It is insufferable," he went on, "that a people presumed to have been liberated in 1945 should have been instantly enslaved in 1945. It is worse than insufferable that the brothers of those enslaved people — you, my friends, I, all of us in what they call 'West' Germany — should apparently acquiesce in their enslavement." He had called for a German militia "to enforce the terms of an agreement that has clearly been violated," and everywhere units of young and middle-aged Germans were spontaneously forming when, suddenly, the Russians relented, ending the blockade.
His second theme, as he developed it later, touched America. (He had a way of simply ignoring the other NATO powers, as if they were vermiform appendages. This greatly irritated western European leaders, to say nothing of his second cousin, Queen Caroline of England.) America, he would explain, was a country of decent people who insisted resolutely on their own freedom and had made great exertions to bring freedom to others, and to liberate Germany and East Europe from tyranny. But before their effort was consummated, the will failed; and the result was not only the satellite empire of the Soviet Union but a divided Germany. The thing about America, he said, is that it is engrossed in its own pursuits. Its NATO enterprise is purely defensive. This was the line he was now taking, in 1952, four years after the Berlin blockade. When John Foster Dulles, during the presidential primary campaign that spring, had made the wispiest noises about the liberation of East Europe, he had been roundly denounced as a warmonger, said Wintergrin, and it was plain to see from the hasty retreat of candidate Eisenhower that the good and kindly general believed his Crusade for Europe was ended. It was also quite clear that General Eisenhower had no appetite for reopening that which, however "infelicitously" (the young count's sarcasm was strangely unabrasive), had been settled at the diplomatic conferences of 1945. Under the circumstances, America was of very little tactical use to freedom-seeking Germans. But Germans could find comfort in this. Wintergrin would tell his audiences: Just as American troops in Europe were less than anxious to take on the Russians, neither were they anxious to take on Germans determined to effect their own liberation. And he, Axel Wintergrin, had a plan, which in due course he would divulge.
Whereupon Stalin, who in the early days had himself made something of a joke of Wintergrin — oh yes, they tell jokes in the Kremlin! — became obsessed by the young phenomenon. Orders went out to do something about him.
This, Blackford wrote in a long dispatch one week after arriving in Germany in September, when he became an extension, however attenuated, of Stalin's will, was not going to be easy to do; indeed, all the routine things to control or moderate Wintergrin had been tried now for four years — ever since Heidelberg — and simply hadn't worked. There was the initial setback in 1949.CHAPTER 2
Wintergrin was twenty years old when Hitler marched into Poland. A first lieutenant in the lead reconnaissance battalion, he reached Warsaw ahead of the shock troops that would crush the city. Twenty-four hours after he was in Warsaw, Lieutenant Axel von Euchen Wintergrin disappeared.
For a few months the relevant people tried to find out what had happened to him, but notwithstanding the diligence of German record-keepers, interest waned, and it was supposed that Axel Wintergrin, the gifted young Count of St. Anselm, was the casualty of a Polish sniper, or that he had been kidnaped and killed. After six months, during which the German prisoners held by the Poles were liberated or killed as the resistance movement was smashed, Wintergrin was officially reported Missing in Action and Presumed Dead, and his widowed mother was sent a decoration of sorts which she hung around the photograph of her son but only after prying from the medal the disfiguring swastika. The absence of it was noticed by the mayor of St. Anselm's on the feast day of St. Anselm, when the countess, observing tradition, entertained local officials at the castle; and the countess, her graying hair in perfect trim, her leathery face handsome and resourceful, sipped her tea, then said Yes, decorative swastikas are not safe these days when the patriotic fever causes them to be so greatly coveted. She would not be surprised to see it materialize on the charm bracelet of her silly little maid, Nona.
Did the countess — the subject could now safely be raised without opening the year-old wound — have any private opinion what might have happened to her son? Yes, she said, she did have a private notion, but it was so ridiculous, she did not really want to share it. We are old friends, said the mayor: Confide in me. The countess leaned over to him and pointed to the little gray kitten, asleep near the fireplace, and whispered: "Do you believe in reincarnation?" The mayor changed the subject, and went gladly back to the village to resume the war. The countess, a lifelong clairvoyant, knew Axel was alive, though no word from him or of him had reached her. Moreover, she was sure that he was well; and altogether certain that — wherever he was — he was risking his life in the fight against the Nazis.
It had been, in fact, a very near thing. Axel was roughly treated when, in civilian clothes taken from a corpse, he presented himself to a Polish captain in command of a rear guard outpost. Axel understood only enough Polish to gather that the captain had calmly given orders to take this German lad out somewhere and shoot him. But he had anticipated some such possibility, and accordingly had memorized the Polish words necessary to communicate a willingness to mark on the map the two major repositories in Warsaw of Nazi ammunition laid up by foreign commercial agents before the invasion began, one of them in a part of the city as yet unoccupied. It took less than three hours to verify this, and from the jubilation Wintergrin briefly wondered whether he would be made to stick around and serve as grand marshal of the Pulaski Day Parade. What he wanted was to be escorted out of the country. The Polish captain promised to guide him to Sopot whence, assuming Nazi airplanes did not completely close off the traffic in the Bay of Danzig during the next two or three days, he could be infiltrated by ferry into Sweden, whereafter he would become a Swedish problem. Axel's guide, Zinka, was a woman who spoke no German, and after the first two days of walking and bicycling north toward Olsztyn, his vocabulary failed him, he ran out of variations on hidden ammunition dumps, and so they walked (and sometimes ran), and ate, in silence, the stocky forty-year-old gym teacher from Warsaw, and the angular twenty-year-old Westphalian aristocrat.
Approaching Malbork, Zinka suddenly motioned Axel into a barn when she spotted the checkpoint down the road. The uniforms were Polish but confused reports, snatched here and there from overheard talk, from fragments of broadcasts on municipal radios blaring the grim news into village squares, suggested to Zinka the possibility that units of Polish troops had been conscripted by their captors. The word was that no one carrying papers unfranked by the Gestapo would be permitted to travel, and that anyone without papers of any sort would be detained. Zinka, alone, ran toward the two soldiers. Axel strained to discern what was happening but succeeded only in seeing the indistinct figures apparently in commotion, and then both soldiers racing in their motorcycles up the road over which he and Zinka had just bicycled. The girl motioned Axel to come on, and as the motorcyclists disappeared, he did so, and she described, miming rather more graphically than Axel required in order to catch the gist of her story, her complaint to the patrol that five kilometers back, a young German in soldier's uniform, jumping her from the side of the road, had raped her. Axel wondered whether the chivalrous pair of Polish soldiers was prepared to challenge the entire Nazi Army, rape being the sport in which, at this point, he assumed the German Army to be substantially engaged. He even considered the possibility that he would be apprehended and hanged as a rapist.
So they left the main road and traveled cross-country. As they came closer to the coast Axel's well-disciplined face brightened, even as Zinka's grew pensive and sad. He was moving away from the Nazis, she would return to their most recently occupied European capital. At the garage near the commercial pier she extended her hand, but her eyes looked down. Axel took it, bent his head formally, touching his lips to her graying hair, and, in English, said, "Goodbye, Zinka. I will never forget you."
Axel made his way through Sweden to Norway, where he presented himself to Norwegian intelligence. After the Nazi invasion of Norway he joined the resistance. For five years he made no effort to be in touch with his mother or any other relatives in Germany or England: he would not risk retribution against his family. When the war was over he received from the Norwegian monarch the highest decoration for bravery in a simple ceremony to honor all the surviving heroes of the resistance. "Like lining up for food stamps," one veteran grumbled. Axel returned to Germany with an undetailed story of detention in Sweden, whither he said he had escaped after a brief period of captivity in Poland and where he was held incommunicado. The story was routinely, indeed listlessly, accepted by a society crushed under the events of recent months. In such a season Marco Polo could not have commanded an audience of six people to hear out his exploits.
Axel resumed his studies, pursuing philosophy at Heidelberg under Karl Jaspers, and receiving an advanced degree after three years, working long days in the library and long afternoons in the gymnasium, where he boxed with some success as a middleweight. He was serious, but not fanatical or even obsessive in his pursuits, and though he led an apparently carefree life it was true — as later was widely remarked when every commentator in Europe undertook the definitive portrait of Axel Wintergrin — that strain was etched into a face otherwise that of a healthy twenty-eight-year-old: the calling card of Gestapo torturers in Norway who, pity the poor innocents, never even discovered that the man they were mutilating was a German. But he could smile through his calcified sadness, though nobody could quite remember when last Axel had been seen laughing. This is a very serious world, he told his closest friend Roland Himmelfarb, who as one of the few surviving German Jews — he sat out the holocaust in the strangest, strongest sanctuary of them all, serving undetected in the records department of the Gestapo in Berlin — hardly needed advertisement of the fact. Indeed, in his circle no one disagreed with him, because no one applied to Axel the conventional criteria. It was not expected of Count Wintergrin that he should join in beer-drinking contests or take his turn entertaining his associates with accounts of bawdy adventures or attend the games to cheer on his university team. Even as a boxer, he fought with a certain detachment. Although he was first-rate, adversaries and acute spectators got the impression he had a disinterested concern with the sport: often he eschewed the opportunity to cripple his opponent after maneuvering to do so — rather like throwing back into the stream the trout you have labored so hard to land. And after the match, though always affable and sportsmanlike, he would leave rather than stay on to see the other matches or join the team at refreshments. He would return to his studies, or write a letter to his mother or a friend, or write in his journal, which he never shared with anyone. His desultory romantic life was of concern to his mother, since Axel was her only child, and heir to the huge landed estate of his father. At first he obligingly escorted the ladies proffered by his mother for his attention: the neighboring blue bloods. Then others came from remoter parts of Germany. When he traveled with his mother to England in 1946, he saw for the first time, since graduating from Greyburn in 1938 after six years of English public-school life, his second cousin Caroline, herself first cousin to the reigning monarch, whom she succeeded as queen a few years later after the fatal accident. Caroline was imperious by nature and undertook to find the perfect girl for her glamorous, studious, wealthy, driven German cousin. Axel obligingly affected to be quite taken by the three girls (beautiful, literate, witty, in differing mixes) he escorted during the summer, all of whom were deeply attracted to him (Lady Leinsford in particular, though it had not amused Axel when she said to him, sighing in his arms, "For you, Axel, I'd even become a Nazi"). Axel's treatment was perfunctorily ardent. He would systematically contrive to seduce them (four days, three days, eleven days respectively), and then with much tenderness announce that he had to get back to his work, the nature of which he never specified.
"Has it ever occurred to you, Axel," Princess Caroline once said, "that it isn't absolutely clear whether you are a nice man? I mean, I love you very much — you know that, Axel — but you are very distracted. And your interest in people seems, somehow ... abstract." She searched his eyes. "But I am certain you are going to do great things in European politics. If you don't mind, Axel, when you take over Europe could you please leave this little island to its own idolatrous pleasures? Don't forget now, Axel. That can be your bread-and-butter present to me on leaving Stamford House." Axel smiled — and then actually appeared to ... think about it. ("I do believe," Queen Caroline said, recalling the incident in 1952 when Axel Wintergrin announced the foundation of his political party, "I do believe," she repeated, "that when I made that flippant — that ludicrous — 'request' of Axel, back when he was a mere child [Axel had been a mere child of twenty-six], he hesitated precisely because he was trying to decide whether to grant it!") Back home, after two months' summer indolence in England, Axel drove himself in his studies, adjourning altogether that part of his romantic activity that could be said to be oriented toward a possible marriage. "All in due course, Mother," he comforted the countess.
Excerpted from Stained Glass by William F. Buckley Jr.. Copyright © 1978 William F. Buckley, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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