February 27, 1933. In this stunning prequel to the John Russell espionage novels, the Reichstag parliament building in Berlin is set ablaze. It’s just a month after Hitler’s inauguration as Chancellor of Germany, and the Nazis use the torching to justify a campaign of terror against their political opponents. John Russell’s recent separation from his wife threatens his right to reside in Germany and any meaningful relationship with his six-year-old son, Paul. He has just secured work as a crime reporter for a Berlin newspaper, and the crimes which he has to report—the gruesome murder of a rent boy, the hit-and-run death of a professional genealogist, the suspicious disappearance of a Nazi-supporting celebrity fortune-teller—are increasingly entangled in the wider nightmare engulfing Germany.
Each new investigation carries the risk of Russell’s falling foul of the authorities, at a time when the rule of law has completely vanished, and the Nazis are running scores of pop-up detention centers, complete with torture chambers, in every corner of Berlin.
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A Degenerate Cuckoo
As the packed Stadtbahn train emerged from beneath the roof of Friedrichstrasse Station and rumbled onto the iron bridge across the Spree, John Russell saw the fire. First as dancing reflections on the rippling water, then as flames licking skyward above the bend in the river.
And then it was gone, masked by the bulk of the Moabit tax office. For a moment Russell wondered—or merely hoped—that he was drunk enough to be seeing things, but as the train pulled past the adjoining electricity station he knew that was not the case. The building that housed the German parliament really was ablaze.
Other passengers had seen it now. There were gasps, low whistles, even one doubtful cheer. Russell’s new companion, whose enthusiastic kiss on the Clärchens Ballhaus dance floor had seemed so promising half an hour earlier, and whose body was currently pressed against his own, could only come up with a nervous giggle. In the silence that followed, his cup of desire, fairly brimming five minutes before, drained sadly away.
Their train took the long bridge over the Humboldt Hafen and into the Stadtbahn platforms that hung over the throat of Lehrter Station. The fire was now hidden by the latter’s roof, but everyone in the carriage seemed to be talking, if only to themselves. There was excitement in some voices, consternation in others. And fear, Russell, thought. Fear above all.
“Ours is the next stop,” the girl told him.
Her name, he remembered, was Henni.
“And my parents are away,” she reminded him with a smile.
After descending the stairs at Bellevue, they walked arm in arm down the affluent-looking Flensburger Strasse, stopping halfway down, at her instigation, for a kiss and a squeeze. She was quite lovely, Russell thought. Old enough to be free, young enough not to know or care what the fire behind them would mean before the night was out. All hell was going to break out, as the arsonists had no doubt intended.
It occurred to Russell, with only the slightest flicker of shame, that Henni’s bed, apart from its most obvious attraction, would be one of the safer places he could spend this particular night. He didn’t think the SA stormtroopers would be prioritising foreign ex-communists on their list of prospective victims, but there was always the chance of putting himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He currently lived in Wedding, a much poorer part of the city, and his apartment was only a stone’s throw away from streets famed as communist strongholds. In Wedding the local brownshirts would be out in force, out for blood.
But the giggle had told him too much about her. About himself for being with her.
And he was a journalist. Working, for almost three weeks now, on the crime desk of a daily newspaper. And if he wasn’t much mistaken, the orange sky behind him craved his professional attention.
“I’m really sorry,” he said, when they reached the steps leading up to her house, “but I have to go to work.”
Her expression suggested he must be mad. Or joking?
“I’m a reporter,” he explained. “The fire we saw. It’s something my editor will expect me to cover.”
“Well then, that’s that,” she said, looking more confused than angry.
“You’re a great dancer,” he told her.
She shook her head and started up the steps.
He walked back down to Bellevue Station, and then eastward along the side of the River Spree. On reaching the Lutherbrücke he could see the Reichstag in the distance, still spurting flames like a torch held up to the sky. A Nazi one, he assumed. They did love their torches, and who else would this spasm of pyromania serve? The communists would be blamed, the dogs let loose.
He entered the forested Tiergarten. There were still patches of snow on the ground from Saturday’s fall, and it felt decidedly chilly among the dark trees. He thought of Henni, who might already be warm in bed, and allowed himself a rueful smile.
There were other people about, and Russell judged it wiser to take the smaller paths than the better-lit roads. Every now and then a flicker of flame would show through the trees, and he would adjust his course accordingly. He sensed rather than saw others moving in a similar direction, all drawn by the fire and silenced by what it might mean.
He was still in the trees when he made out the cordon of men on the open ground ahead. Brownshirts mostly, with a smattering of regular police, confronting a motley crowd of the curious, some clearly out for a night on the town, others still on their way home from work. Many of the park’s unofficial residents—most of them homeless and unemployed—were also on hand, enjoying the free entertainment. Some were holding their palms up to the burning building three hundred metres away, making the most of the complimentary warmth.
Russell approached the brightest-looking stormtrooper he could see—“spoilt for choice” was not the phrase—and pulled out his press card.
The man barely glanced at it. “I can’t let anyone through,” he said, with surprising civility. “Follow the perimeter round to Budapester Strasse—that’s where the command post is.”
Russell thanked him—you never knew when an SA friend might prove handy—and followed the instruction, taking the chance to weigh up his fellow spectators as he walked. Most of them looked like they were attending a fireworks display, faces reflecting the glow, mouths hanging half open, uttering ooohs and aaahs when something noisily cracked in the blazing Reichstag building.
There didn’t seem many fire engines on hand, but three more came racing up Budapester Strasse as he approached the SA command post. They were followed by three black Mercedes saloons, each of them flying the Nazi flag. Germany’s new Chancellor stepped out of the first, the Nazi propaganda chief out of the second. The third was either just for show, or President Hindenburg had fallen asleep.
Hitler and Goebbels strode through the checkpoint and on towards the Reichstag, presumably keen to inspect the job their hired hand had done. Hitler looked in a rage, either feigned or real, neither of which was unusual. Goebbels limped along in his wake looking faintly amused, which also seemed par for the course. Göring was now visible in the distance, wagging a fat finger in some unfortunate’s face. “The gang’s all here,” Russell murmured to himself. And he did mean gang.
Several of the men around the command post were journalists Russell recognised, and none were receiving permission to breach the cordon. He talked to those he knew, and then retraced his steps Around the perimeter, listening in on unguarded conversations and asking the occasional question. There were few who didn’t have their suspicions, but none who had any evidence. Back among the journalists, he heard that one communist had already been arrested, and that others were likely to follow. All 300,000 members of the German Communist Party, if Hitler had his wish.
What now? Russell wondered, lighting up a Da Capo cigarette. They were an indulgence, but he couldn’t bring himself to smoke one of the cheaper brands the SA manufactured as a profitable sideline for their rank and file. He would cut down his intake instead, save the money that way.
It was gone eleven. The early editions should have been printed by now, but if this wasn’t a night for “holding the presses” he didn’t know which would be. He had nothing much to report—and doubtless the paper’s political team were already on top of the story—but he might as well make his way down to Kochstrasse and see if there was anything he could do.
The office was a ten-minute walk away. As he cut across Potsdamer Platz Russell noticed that Haus Vaterland and its seven themed restaurants were all still brightly lit and crowded. And why shouldn’t they be? The news would seep out across Germany overnight, before erupting across front pages and airwaves. Most of the diners across the way had no idea their world had taken another big turn for the worse in the hour or two since they’d sat down.
Leipziger Strasse was quieter, all the stores having closed some time before. Russell turned left down Mauerstrasse, whose only occupants were a couple in evening dress, the woman throwing up in the gutter while the man held her handbag. At the corner of Kochstrasse the Café Friedrichshof was open but poorly attended, most of its usual press clientele out seeking or writing last minute copy. Russell walked on another hundred metres to the building that housed the Morgenspiegel and a dozen other newspapers and magazines. Once inside he cocked an ear for the printer machines in the basement, but as he’d suspected they were still biding their time.
His boss, editor Theodor Hiedler, was large without being fat, with a good head of wavy dark hair for his age and a face that looked forgetful fronting a mind that was anything but. He was currently talking into one of his telephones, looking annoyed but doing his best not to lose his temper. One of the owners, Russell guessed. They would not want their editor taking them out on a limb.
The large open newsroom was as crowded as Russell had ever seen it, despite the hour. There were still a lot of faces he couldn’t put a name to, but none of the hostile glances he’d encountered during his first few days at the paper, when many had wrongly assumed that his appointment in place of a Jew was part of some Aryanisation process. The Jew in question had simply seen the writing on the Nazi wall, and quit as a prelude to leaving the country.
“And what have you got for me?” Hiedler shouted in greeting.
“Next to nothing,” Russell replied, making his way to the editor’s desk. He had already discovered that anything less than complete frankness drove Hiedler to distraction. “One arrest so far. A communist, needless to say, allegedly caught with a lighted match in his hand. A fire-fighter I talked to said at least a dozen fires had been started almost simultaneously. More than one pair of hands could manage, was his opinion.”
Hiedler smiled at that. “Did you get the Red’s name?”
“No, they hadn’t given it out when I left.”
“I expect they soon will.”
Half an hour later they did. The messenger was a Prussian Interior Ministry lackey, the message on a single sheet of Ministry paper strewn with typing errors. The man already arrested was a young Dutch communist named Marinus van der Lubbe; others involved in this Soviet-inspired plot against the German people would soon be joining him behind bars. The German people would be expecting a vigorous response from their government, and harsh new measures would be announced over the next twenty-four hours.
The lackey had barely left when Johannes Oertel arrived with fresh information. Russell had known the wiry political reporter for several years, and knew why Hiedler had such faith in him.
According to Oertel, van Lubbe was well known in communist circles as a loner with a screw loose. Which made him someone who might want to set such a fire, but probably not with such efficacy. Van Lubbe was apparently more than half-blind following eye injuries sustained in his youth, and probably incapable of setting so many fires in such a short time. There was no doubt he’d been inside the Reichstag, but had he been alone? Several sources had told Oertel that Göring had been on the scene with almost indecent haste, and that the tunnel connecting his Air Ministry to the Reichstag could have been used by a team of SA arsonists.
Hiedler kneaded his chin between thumb and forefinger, then shook his head. “We’ll stick to the official version,” he said, to murmurs of dismay. “We’ll point out any inconsistencies, but we won’t offer any alternative narratives. No speculation, just the known facts. I want to be still publishing a week from now.” His gaze went round the assembled reporters. “I know,” he said with a sigh. “Believe me, I know.”
Not long after, as he laid himself out on one of the camping beds supplied for overnighters on the fourth floor, Russell could still see the look in his editor’s eyes. He could also hear and feel the presses in the basement far below as they pounded out copies of the official version. Sensible caution or the latest in a line of surrenders? Probably both.