Hitler’s war is over. Lieutenant-General Erich von Schellendorf of the German General Staff is a prisoner-of-war.
Exhausted by the collapse of every aspect of his life, deeply disturbed that he could not moderate the utter destruction of Germany, his only compensation is that he has survived the most destructive war in history. His first desire is to see his miracle child, a ‘war baby’ born to the Englishwoman he once loved and who may not wish ever to see him again.
But now that the guns have stopped, Erich must ultimately answer his own conscience, and face his personal ghosts.
This was Erich’s first stop in England. The drive from the military prison took a good part of an hour while his two guards kept a stiff silence. One sat beside him to block the door. The other, opposite, braced a rifle casually between his knees, knowing that a German general had nowhere to go.
He was glad of their silence. He was weary of watching every word he said, wondering what they would do with him. Voigtländer was the key. Would they shake his hand and send him home? Put him up against the wall? He’d heard rumours of an international tribunal to be set up somewhere in Germany. War crimes trials, they called it.
Deliberately he shut his mind to it. He was not a criminal.
He tried to see out through the tiny rear window of the van. A red double-decker bus filled the frame, then a line of tall black taxi-cabs dodged for position. On both sides the buildings looked the same as ever. Goebbels’ propaganda machine had London virtually obliterated by the Blitz in the first year of the war, but, peering out, Erich could glimpse only bits of damage. Space of one destroyed building opened like a missing tooth. A small field of rubble neatly piled between rows of shops. Farther on, a crane swung a twisted steel beam out of a giant pit in the ground. Beyond that just the weather-stained stones of old London, nothing to compare with miles and miles of pulverised wastelands of Berlin and Dresden and Hamburg and...
Don’t think. Hold on.
He’d had a bath and a shave this morning, that was a bonus. Wash water was not always provided to prisoners-of-war. Rough treatment, that was the thing. Rough, harsh and fair. No visitors, no mail, no escape, no suicide. Keep the bastards isolated. The higher the rank the greater the responsibility. Let them suffer, make them crawl. It had been a vicious, disgusting war. An indefensible war. In the POW camps they’d lined them up and forced the appalling photographs upon them, the motion picture films of the Jew-camps, hard evidence that the Nazi regime, seriously and with focussed intent, had tried to obliterate entire populations of peoples. The Americans were calling them death camps. Hundreds of death camps scattered all over Germany and Poland. Hundreds of thousands of murdered Jews
Why hadn’t he known? How had they kept such secrets? Everyone knew the Jews had been shipped somewhere east for resettlement, but nobody knew where, and nobody really cared. No-one had associated ‘resettlement’ with ‘annihilation’. In casual conversation someone had once called it a ‘final solution’. It meant nothing to him at the time.
But he had known. Nobody talked about it, but they’d all known. In the mess they’d even made a stupid joke about it, “I know just enough to know...”
Don’t think, don’t think.
The van braked with a squeal and stopped against the kerb.
“Here we are,” said one of the guards.
They were in Whitehall. The mythical Whitehall. The War Office on the left, the Admiralty across the street. As he climbed out he caught a glimpse of Trafalgar Square up the way, Lord Nelson at the top of his column. A few civilians passing on the pavement turned to stare with mild, incurious eyes. He felt naked before them in his grimy uniform and battered boots, worn constantly over six long months. In a defiant gesture he slapped his service cap on his head, see this, you Limeys. He tugged to straighten his tunic and folded his greatcoat over his arm to conceal the red lapels, as if ashamed of his rank. Was he ashamed...?
“Come along then,” said the guard.
He forced his mind blank as they marched him through the hallways of the War Office. Servicemen and civilians scarcely looked up to mark the passing of an enemy general. Up three flights of stairs, out of condition and short of breath at the top, then through a set of doors marked ‘MI-6 Admin’. The doors swung closed behind them.
And almost silence.
MI-6, the branch of Military Intelligence controlling field operatives. The unconscionable source of many of his troubles, and probably the end of his road.
An army corporal signed the guard’s clipboard. “General von Schellendorf?”
“This way sir.”
Was it habit, mockery, or courtesy, the ‘sir’? Or British irony?
He followed the corporal into a room without windows. Metal bookcases and banks of filing cabinets along two walls, and a large work table covered with piles of files, with several folding chairs staggered about. The corporal tapped at a door and stepped into the office beyond. Erich heard a murmur of men’s voices, then a sharp, “Oh fine!” and a British army colonel appeared in the doorway. “General? Come in, please. We have to sort you out.”
They measured each other across a desk stacked with more papers. The brass plaque on the desk revealed, ‘Col Harold B Churchill O.C.’. The colonel was tall and spare, with wavy grey hair and an open face. Rosenberg would have called him the perfect Aryan type. He wore his uniform the English way, casually rumpled, not quite spit-and-polish, the old-boy, public-school thing, never to appear studied. His cool, blue eyes ran up and down Erich’s uniform, registered a flush of distaste, and quickly recovered. He waved to a chair close to the desk. “Sit down, sir, will you please.”
Erich hitched the chair farther back from the desk and sank down on it. The colonel sat in his chair and folded his hands on the desk. The corporal had marched off somewhere.
“Lazarus,” said the colonel.
Erich nodded in relief. “Voigtländer.” He finished the code, “A Voigtländer for Lazarus.”
“Sorry for all the knocking about. Had to be certain whom we were dealing with. Didn’t help that you’d lost your papers.” Again his eyes ranged over Erich’s grimy tunic. “We’ll find some proper clothes for you over in Stores. The Wehrmacht uniform has seen rather enough mileage.” He flashed a smile. “In every respect.”
His affability put Erich more on alert.
“I’m Harry Churchill,” said the colonel. “No relation to our lately great P.M.” A wave of his hand took in the cluttered desktop. “These papers are bumph the Section collected about you through the years. Not to worry, we don’t need any more details at the moment. P/Admin will process you later today, but meanwhile I’ve got the job of classifying you for MI-6, Rank level, etcetera. I aimed for light colonel, but it’s Acting Major in accordance with King’s Regs, given your twelve years of time served.”
At least they still believed it. It gave him the slightest edge.
“We weren’t sure,” the colonel said, “how to handle you coming in. Whilst you were on our roster we’ve held many a conference about you.” He seemed to expect a reply.
“Well it’s plain you provided some valuable service to the Crown. Back in ‘thirty-three you pinned down the military build-up, and the flight training squadrons in Russia. But it’s been up-and-down with you, hasn’t it. You warned us about Czechoslovakia, all well and good, but you knew at the time there wasn’t a bloody thing we could do to...”
“If you’d stood firm on your treaty with Benes we could have stopped Hitler at that point.”
“Aaaah.” He pushed back in his chair, bracing his hands on the desk. “Ah yes. Well.” He studied Erich another moment and then relaxed again. “Your last few months whilst in Berlin you rendered an amazing service.”
“Yet you made no use of it.”
“You let the Russians roll over us. We wanted you to meet them east of the Polish frontier. You didn’t, and now they occupy half the country.”
“We won the war, that’s all that counts.”
“It depends on where you stand, I suppose.”
“And where exactly do you stand, General?”
“I stand alive, Colonel.” With effort he kept a faint smile on a blank face. “And I thank God not a Russian POW, out of sight, out of mind.”
A tap at the door. The corporal put his head around the corner. “Tea sir?”
“Damn it Higgins!”
“Sorry sir, you said—”
“No, bring it in.”
They watched as the corporal set the tray on the desk between them and poured tea from a brown crockery teapot into two crockery cups, and with nervous fingers repositioned a tiny jug of milk and a bowl of exactly four sugar cubes.
“Sorry sir.” He ducked out of the office, gently clicking the door shut. Erich smiled within himself. The orderly had broken the cardinal rule of never crashing in at the wrong point of an enemy interrogation.
The colonel sighed. “Do help yourself to, ah...” He poured a splash of milk into his tea and nudged the other cup closer to Erich.
Erich waited. He did not taste the tea.
“By special Order-in-Council,” the colonel said, “and with the approval of my namesake Prime Minister Churchill, we have the necessary authority to continue your service with MI-6. You may well prove useful to us in future, but the problem at the moment is that we have nothing for you actively to do.”
“However, the situation threatens to change.”
“In what way?”
“Not at liberty, ‘Eyes Only’, that sort of thing. For the moment I’ll establish a suitable function for you from which we can reactivate your service when we need you.”
“Do I have anything to say about it?”
“Well of course it’s entirely voluntary.”
“Of course.” Voluntary? Twelve years of blackmail?
The colonel took a sip of tea, observing Erich over the edge of his cup. “Questions?”
He shook his head.
“Yes, well. I want you to understand that first and foremost we do not abandon our people. But if you so desire we can terminate your service, detain you as a regular prisoner-of-war, and see how the chips fall. On the other hand, our American cousins have given us an answer for your unique case, sir, but it’s entirely up to you.”
“In America they’ve put a group of Nazi generals to work writing their military memoirs of the Third Reich. Under the command of Colonel-General Franz Halder, your former Chief of Staff.”
He couldn’t suppress a genuine smile. “So he survived.”
“Friend of yours?”
“The Gestapo arrested him after the July bomb last year. We heard nothing after that.”
“Well our thought was to have you write your own history for us. That would keep you on without breaking your cover, whilst holding you as a POW, on parole as it were, until the dust settles. But... you know... free to come and go. An added inducement, shall we say.”
He could not think of this. His weariness from the past nine months had just caught up with him. It was over, and he was alive. He tasted the tea. Without milk or sugar it was bitter and dry and acid on the tongue. “Colonel...” he ventured, and paused.
“Among all these papers...” He paused to find a way to say it. “I’d be willing to continue on with MI-6 on one condition.”
“Ah yes?” The colonel smiled and leaned back in his chair, teacup between his hands.
“That you remove from those records all references to my wife. My ex-wife. So that she is no longer a factor in the equation, as she is no longer a factor in my life.”
“Your wife?” His eyes were genuinely puzzled. He set down the cup and scribbled a note on a pad. He cast a puzzled glance over the papers. “No trouble,” he said doubtfully. “The divorce, you mean?”
“No. The other. You know what I mean.”
“But... Blow me, I’ve read every word of this, and the only record we have about your wife is her maiden name, her family background, and the divorce.” A wry, puzzled smile.
Bewildered, his brain swam. No mention of the shooting, no mention of...?
“Lovely woman,” the colonel’s voice penetrated the wall of his weariness. “I spoke with her in Heidelberg last month. No news of the present husband missing in action. She’s bearing up with the American Occupation. She sent this over for you.” He lifted a box out of a drawer and came around the desk and held it out to Erich, then lounged one hip on the edge of the desk. His brown army oxfords had a mirror polish. “She sent your camera bag as well. It’s somewhere here about the Section.”
The box was the size of a library bible, polished wood, brass hinges, brass latch. Cautiously, as if it might explode, Erich set it on his knee and raised the lid.
On a bed of black velvet lay his service badges and ribbons and Imperial campaign medals. First- and second-class Iron Cross. And his wedding ring. The Nazi decorations were not there to bear witness against him.
His mind was numb. He shut the box and placed it gently on the desk. He surrendered his mind and he breathed. And breathed.
No record of the shooting?
Was this a trick?
He could not think through the weariness. He breathed in mute struggle not to speak the wrong word, not to weaken, not to give in...
“We’re in no rush,” said the colonel. “Decide at your leisure. Either way, twelve years of hazardous-duty pay has accumulated in your accounts record.”
“Whether or not you continue. Perhaps not enough to retire on in your customary style, but quite a tidy spot of cash.”
Spot of cash? Twelve years of pay in British pounds sterling?
No, it must be a trick.
He would play this fellow’s game until he could return safely to his own proper place. Until he had at least a place to go. He heard his own voice say, “Yes, I’ll go along with that.”
“Fine.” The colonel shifted off the desk. “Before anything else we must get you out of that damned uniform. Afterwards we’ll come back here and sign you in.”
Erich roused and pulled himself up from the chair.
They rode in the colonel’s staff car across central London to a modest building beside a small city park. On the way he tried to orient himself, but beyond sight of Trafalgar Square he was lost. Riding on the left side of the street alarmed him, but gave him no familiar memory. “I’ve been back only once since before the first war,” he said. “We took hansom cabs then.”
“Dreadfully long time.”
“I can imagine.”
That was their whole conversation.
Inside the building the colonel signed in at the front security desk, and they walked along a narrow, hushed corridor. The colonel opened a dim lift and worked the controls himself, and they trundled two floors down to the cellar level where there were no lights at all. In the corridor he flicked a switch which brought life to a few small bulbs strung along under a concrete ceiling. “Stores,” he said cryptically. “This underground served as an air raid shelter during the Blitz for some of the junior members of government. Three feet of steel-reinforced concrete over our heads here.” He led the way onward past several closed doors. Dampness and dust gave off a smell of neglect. The colonel stopped to shake out a key-ring and unlocked a door and pushed it open to a dark room. “This is where we outfitted our field agents before we dropped them into enemy territory.” He turned on the lights to a large warehouse filled from floor to roof with rack after rack of clothing. “Take your pick, General. Uh... Major. Most of this will be turned over to charities in the near future. It’s all surplus now. You can put together an entire wardrobe. Whatever you like, whatever fits. I believe the gentlemen’s suits are over this way.”
They wandered the racks picking up one thing and another, underwear, socks, shirts, a grey pullover, a cardigan, all previously worn and well-washed for the authenticity of a spy amid the enemy. Erich found a necktie with his Heidelberg colours, which he grabbed up as a life preserver.
“Go on, go on,” urged the colonel, snatching up several more neckties at random. “Take at least two suits and extra trousers and socks. You’ll find the shortages brutal on civvy-street. One of the chaps will pack it up for you and deliver it over.”
In the end he changed into fresh underwear and white shirt and a neat grey suit with a Bosch label, vintage 1937. Pair of black Dutch-made Oxford-style shoes, rumpled grey raincoat, fedora hat, leather gloves. The colonel picked up a club bag to pack the extra clothes. “The Man in Grey,” he quipped, viewing the pile. Then, to explain, “It’s a film showing at the cinema, James Mason, ‘The Man in Grey’.”
Everything Erich had chosen was grey. He’d lived his entire adult life in field-grey.
“Just leave your old uniform here,” The colonel said. “One of the chaps can chuck it out for you.”
“No...!” How did he justify keeping the uniform? “I’ll bundle it up, my tatters of the war. The boots may be useful if ever I should ride again.” Grimly conscious of the colonel watching, he laid the boots together and shook out the grimy breeches with their General Staff red stripes and wound them around the boots, and he shook out the battered tunic and wound it around the breeches around the boots, then wrapped the roll in his dusty greatcoat, and laid his service cap like a crown on top.
“Ready,” he said.
Then he walked out of Stores, disguised as the man in grey, carrying his life under his arm.
They drove to a senior officer’s mess in Oxford Street. Erich walked a step behind the colonel who gave an affable little tourist speech about the paintings lining the antechamber walls. “This one, now, this is Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, who caused so many casualties at Passchendaele they called him ‘Bloody Haig’, four hundred thousand casualties to gain a few hundred yards of ground.”
Portrait of an English officer in khaki uniform, a general’s red collar tabs, one fist braced on a hip, bristling cavalry moustache on a bland face.
He closed his mind. They were coming from opposite places...
“And this...” the colonel waved at an empty space on the wall, “is presently reserved for one of our more recent heroes.”
“Who would that be?” Erich asked to suggest an interest he did not feel.
“Top secret.” He grinned up at the space. “They’re planning a mess dinner to christen it. You’ll want to be there.” He led past a hotel-style reception desk through to the lounge.
The lounge brought a flash of memory of Father’s Law Society club, thirty or forty years ago. Plush leather chesterfields and armchairs scattered in random clusters over a large half-timbered room, Soundless scatter rugs, traditional oil portraits along the sides, walnut end-tables, brass spittoons for the love of God, did anyone still chew tobacco? A few officers sat in the deep chairs, reading newspapers in splendid solitude, cigarette smoke curling up from ashtrays close at hand.
Signing in as a new member gave him a strange feeling. British this, British that, voices speaking English. The mess manager allotted him an L-shaped suite on the second floor, a sitting room with desk and chair and two armchairs, a bedroom with wardrobe, an attached bathroom with tub, no shower. Erich preferred a shower. He did not say so. He placed his rolled-up uniform on the bed, and the driver set the club bag beside it, and the mess manager said that he would send up the orderly to unpack, and Erich said no, he would do it himself. He did not want enemy hands on that uniform. He did not say so.
He had lunch with the colonel in the mess dining room, and then drove back to Whitehall. The rest of the afternoon was taken in the grinding routine of signing in with the British Army, activating his new credentials, being assigned a new regimental number and a new identification card, opening his pay-accounts, swearing a new oath of allegiance. He paced it through, lead-footed with weariness. At the end of the day, after a quiet supper in the mess with the colonel, he was finally left to draw breath in the seclusion of his new digs.
He hadn’t enough energy to organise his stuff. He sank into an armchair and stared out the only window at a blank red brick wall lit by reflections from a street lamp below. Sounds of traffic came faintly in peaceful echoes. The world had got accustomed to the noise and upheaval of war... and now this frightening peace. No guns. No bombs. No danger. Nothing to do and nowhere to go.
What did a general do when the war was lost? Take lessons for the next war? This one had been pure hell, no lessons there except what not to do. He stared out at the brick wall and drifted in helplessness. For the second time in his life he felt lost, with no support, no rules to guide him, no idea of this unknown place where he found himself isolated in distrustful freedom. A soldier had to hold himself together, face all dangers, face the consequences of defeat, he had to go forward and not look back, never look back...
Defeat. The word rolled inside his head.
No. Not really.
Considering Hitler, the right side had won.
Considering Germany, the wrong side had lost.
There was no right or wrong, no up or down.
In the dark mirror of his window he saw his own face gazing back, and at another level in that layered image he saw a flash, a fleeting memory of skeleton figures moving in a dark tunnel, a memory so startling he came half out of the chair, and the image was gone. He sank back, head spinning, heart pounding, his mouth dry. Something... He didn’t know...
But he knew.
He must not let anyone see this in him. He must not weaken. He must not despair, he must not look back. He didn’t have anything to do with those skeletons in the tunnel, they had nothing to do with him, he didn’t even remember where he had seen them, and as long as he couldn’t remember he could not be held...
He stared at his image in the window. Face too lean, cheeks hollow, mouth a compressed line from all those years of responsibility. Still a good-looking man. Clipped sandy hair, bleak ice-blue eyes, regular features. A man that ladies smiled at...
But still a man of principle. He must hold to his principles.
For thirty years he had doggedly worked his way up the ladder, guided by a code of ethics that sprang out of a simpler, cavalier age. He had followed The Officer’s Code, had closed his eyes to outside powers, had deliberately turned his brain away from political reality, and had obeyed, as every good soldier must obey.
Now he must confront the two-edged sword that he had helped to forge.
* * *
Excerpt from Chapter 7
The underlying theme of the Schellendorf series.
She sat down behind her desk. She waved him to the other chair, a straight wooden chair that forced good posture. "This war will never be over, Erich. This was not like the last war. Last time they gave us the Versailles Treaty. This time they will give us nothing."
"What makes you so wise?"
"I hear them talking. The professors. They meet to smoke and talk outside my door where they think nobody listens. They're under investigation, you know, all the professors. They helped burn the books and they got rid of the Jewish professors. Now it's payday. Some of them have already been arrested as Nazis. Some of them have escaped out of Germany altogether."
"And have they investigated you?"
She shrugged. "I'm too small. The wife of the missing Private Schuegen." She gazed at him across the desk. "But as the ex-wife of a general...?" She smiled. "The head of the library knows. He's hiding me. It's all upside down." She shook her head, bewildered. "How can we be punished for being Nazi? The whole country was Nazi, Erich. In the end it was a crime not to be Nazi. Now it's a crime to be Nazi. How does one survive?"
He had no answer.
"The Amis are hypocrites," she said. "They restore all the books that Goebbels ordered to be burned, but you know? At the same time they themselves remove all the books connected with Nazism. What's the difference, Erich? Between the Nazis burning the books and the Amis burning the books?"
He didn't try to answer.
She put her elbows on the desk and folded her hands and hid her mouth behind a double fist. "I know about the camps in the east." Her voice was muffled. She watched his face.
"The Amis. They forced us to go to the cinema to watch films of the concentration camps at Dachau." Tears slid down her face. "Millions of people died..."
His brain had stopped. White skeleton bodies drifted like snowflakes inside the black void of his skull...
"How could you support such a thing, Erich? How could you fight for that?"
"I knew nothing about it." Standard answer.
"How could you not know?"
He shook his head, more to himself than in answer. She had forced the question, she of all people. She who had spent their married life afraid of him, refusing to live with him, she who had clung to solitude until Albrecht Schuegen arrived at her door and lovingly led her back to the outer world.
She had forced the question. Forced the answer.
His entire life had come down to this. A sham. Thirty years of waste, of nothing. Of worse than nothing, of shame, not sham. Everything of his life today was based on thirty years of lies leading up to a shame so prodigious, so Olympian...
Millions, they said.
How could anyone set out by design to murder millions of people? Surround them with wire, starve them, beat them, torture them, work them to death, gas them to death, incinerate their emaciated corpses like rotten meat, and proudly count the heads...
How could anyone fight for that?
"It's all a giant lie," Britt said mournfully. "The whole country is a lie, Erich, the whole German people. Nobody is any longer a Nazi. Nobody you can find."