Berlin, 24 April 1945
General Albers ran up the last few steps from the bunker to ground level and had to stand for a moment at the top, catching his breath. It was his habit to do everything at the double, but a spinal injury and chronic emphysema made that kind of behaviour unwise nowadays.
‘One moment,’ he panted, ‘I’ll take a look…’
He pushed aside a camouflage screen of metal and splintered planks and peered outside, craning his thin neck. All he could see in the immediate area was rubble and a scatter of uprooted shrubs.
‘All clear,’ he said, turning back to the stairs and holding out his hand.
Hitler declined to take it. He braced himself against the side of the stairwell and climbed into the open without help. The young soldier assigned to guard him came clattering up behind, clutching his sub-machine-gun.
‘Please wait, F?hrer,’ Albers said.
He crossed the rubble-strewn garden, smelling cordite and the damp sourness of the earth. A large hole had appeared near the gateway to the street. He detoured around it, turning up the collar of his greatcoat against the rain. He strode out into the middle of the road and stopped, looking both ways. Twenty metres to his left an officer of the Leibstandarte, nearly invisible in his black SS uniform, raised his arm to attract the general’s attention. Albers waved back and glanced over his shoulder at the Chancellery.
For a moment he was transfixed, shocked by the level of damage. This was his first time out of the F?hrerbunker in three days. When he had gone in by the stairs where Hitler and his guard now waited, the back of the Chancellery had been intact. Now, caught by the sideward impact of Soviet artillery closing on the rail junction at Spandau, huge stretches of stonework had been gouged out. Interior support walls had split and the second and third storeys had collapsed on to the crossbeams of the ground floor.
Albers started back the way he had come and felt a sudden pressure on his ears. The ground shook and there was a salvo of heavy gunfire to the west. He dropped to his knees as a pediment on the Chancellery roof flew apart with a loud crack and hurtled down in a shower of fragmented black marble. He crouched and put his hands over his head, feeling shards strike his back and arms.
He stood up again and saw the SS officer leading a string of young boys from a burned-out government building across the road. Over at the Chancellery Joseph Goebbels had come up the steps from the bunker. He spoke for a moment to the F?hrer, then came limping across the garden.
‘Are they ready?’ he asked Albers.
‘They are being brought now, Minister.’ Albers pointed to the straggle of children lining up by the wall on the other side of the road. ‘We couldn’t get proper uniforms, but in the circumstances I don’t think they look too bad.’
The boys wore identical black jerkins, buttoned to the neck, and black forage caps. The youngest, who was eight, was frightened by the gunfire and had begun to cry. He was being comforted by the oldest in the group, a lad of fourteen.
‘I’ll speak to them and prepare them,’ Goebbels said. ‘I will take two minutes, then I’ll come for the F?hrer.’
Albers went back to the stairs, brushing at his coat sleeves, noticing that black marble-dust mingled with rain resembled smears of oil. He looked at the soldier beside the F?hrer and saw how scared he was. Everyone had been against holding this ceremony outside. Hitler had been warned it was suicidal, but he had insisted. An induction as important as this had to be performed in the open air under German skies. Even if the skies were black with the smoke of a dying Berlin.
‘The Minister is addressing the boys, F?hrer.’
Hitler nodded and appeared to shiver. He looked weak, Albers observed, and incredibly old. Four days ago he had turned fifty-six, but today he looked nearer seventy. He was stooped and weary, one side of his body in a perpetual tremor, his light-starved skin the colour of putty. Earlier in the day he had been taken ill and could not stop vomiting. His valet, Heinz Linge, summoned the doctor who administered the usual, an intravenous narcotic that drained the residue of colour from the F?hrer’s face and put a very unnatural glint in his eyes. But afterwards he was no longer so desperately sick, he didn’t shake so obviously, and he had even managed to display a little pleasure at the prospect of this ceremony.
Goebbels had finished talking. He came hobbling across the broken ground, smiling cautiously as he always did.
‘Everything is ready, F?hrer.’
‘Good, good.’ Hitler rubbed one blue-fingered hand on the back of the other, an attempt at vigour. ‘So we have thirty boys, yes?’
‘That is correct.’ Goebbels fished a sheet of paper from his coat pocket and unfolded it. ‘I have prepared a summary of the arrangements which have been made for them, if you would care to read it. Everything is precisely as we planned, of course…’
‘Just give me the main points again, if you will,’ Hitler said.
Goebbels began to speak and a shell exploded a kilometre away, throwing a plume of black and yellow smoke into the sky. The four men moved closer to the Chancellery wall. Goebbels started again.
‘This evening, as soon as it is dark, the boys will be taken from Berlin by military transport to a covert SS airfield six kilometres south-west of Tempelhof. At ten o’clock an air-freighter, flying in the livery of the Red Cross — ’
‘Will this be a genuine Red Cross plane?’
‘No, F?hrer,’ Goebbels said patiently. ‘It is a Wehrmacht troop-supplies aircraft, suitably disguised for its mission. It will take the boys directly to Z?rich, where secure short-term accommodation has been arranged in a converted pavilion in the sheltered grounds of a hospital.’
‘Which hospital?’ Hitler demanded, as if it mattered. He had a habit of using questions to break the flow of others’ speech.
‘The Schwesterhaus von Roten Kreuz, F?hrer. The cost of caring for the boys, and of all their material needs, will be met from the fund set up on your instructions by Secretary Bormann. No outside help will be sought, since none will be needed.’
‘The boys will be completely safe in that place?’
‘Perfectly safe, F?hrer. They will be moved to more permanent quarters within the month.’
‘Where will that be?’
‘A fine location on the outskirts of Bern. It is a large house on a truly vast estate. It will be their home, a place where they will grow together in an environment of wholesomeness and good fellowship.’
The man spoke like a prospectus, Albers thought.
‘They will become brothers in every practical sense, and always,
‘I think we should get started,’ Albers said. ‘The children will be getting cold.’
Hitler nodded. Albers led the way round the edge of the garden and out on to the street. The wind had dropped but the rain was heavier now, falling in ice-cold sheets that numbed the skin. Hitler walked between Goebbels and the guard, his hands tucked in the pockets of his greatcoat, the peak of his cap pulled close to his eyes. As they reached the edge of the road a shell exploded three streets away. The others broke step but Hitler kept walking as if he hadn’t heard.
Drawing near the line of boys, who all looked thoroughly miserable, the F?hrer took his hands from his pockets and straightened his shoulders. Immediately he appeared to grow a couple of inches. He raised his head and thrust forward his jaw, making it taut. He fixed his famous stare on the boys and smiled.
At a nod from Goebbels, thirty arms shot out in the Nazi salute. ‘Heil, Hitler!’ the boys chorused. The sound of it echoed through the hollowed-out buildings behind them.
Hitler stood on the pitted road before them and returned the salute. The SS officer raised a battered Leica camera to his eye and pressed the shutter, recording the moment. Goebbels nodded again and the boys stood at ease. General Albers cleared his throat and stepped forward.
‘F?hrer, I have the honour of presenting to you the most recent and final group of inductees to the Hitler Youth. This is a very special body, made up of thirty appropriately special young men. They are orphans, every one, and each is the son of a hero of the Third Reich.’
Albers walked to one end of the line with a sheaf of notes in his hand. He waited for Hitler to join him, then he introduced the boys one by one.
‘Erich Bahr, aged twelve years, son of Area Commandant Konrad Bahr, killed with his wife Frieda in the bombing of Dresden in February. Klaus Garlan, aged ten years, son of Panzer Commander Gregor Garlan, killed in the Western Desert in 1944, mother Louisa Garlan killed in a bombing raid on north-west Berlin in January 1945. Albrecht Schr?der, aged twelve years, son of Otto Schr?der…’
Hitler listened attentively and shook each boy’s hand before moving on to the next. By the time he reached the end of the line the rain had soaked right through his clothing and he was stooping again, his head jutting forward from hunched shoulders. He continued to smile nevertheless, as if sunshine blessed their little ceremony.
As he moved to the centre of the road to address the boys two shells landed nearby within a split second of each other. The shockwave struck Hitler obliquely, making him stumble. Five of the remaining Chancellery windows blew out in a cascade of glass and metal and stone. Hitler watched clouds of glittering dust rise around the base of the building.
‘A Jewish-Bolshevik reprisal for Kristallnacht, perhaps,’ he said, trying to revive his smile.
He turned, straightening his cap, pulling the lapels of his sopping greatcoat closer to his ears. When he spoke his voice was firm.
‘I am told that tomorrow, or at the latest the day after, American and Soviet tanks will meet on the Elbe at Torgau. My dear boys, in that dark moment the Germany I dreamed of, the Fatherland I fought with all my heart and strength to build into a living reality, will be dead. It will have been killed. It will have been murdered by barbarians at the incitement of the International Jew.’
He paused and took a long deep breath.
‘All that we love most dearly will be turned to smoke, and the smoke will disperse on the wind. Yet I tell you, my young friends, in this moment as I look at you, my heart swells with hope…’
Hitler let his gaze travel along the line, pausing a moment on each young face.
‘I look at you and I see the essence of my
General Albers moved a fraction closer, just to be sure: he took a swift hard look at the F?hrer’s face and yes, he could see, there were tears welling in his eyes.
‘In your maturity you will bear many duties,’ Hitler said, his voice rising above the rumble and crash of gunfire. ‘The most important of them, the most sacred, will be to uphold and keep alive the spirit of the Reich, and to eliminate its darkest enemy, with no thought of mercy. This is a precious charge. You boys, as its bearers, are no less precious.’
He paused and looked along the line again.
‘You are the young, pounding heart of Germany,’ he said. ‘You are the embodiment of Siegfried, the strength and hope of your race. You are the future.’
Several boys were smothering tears. Another shell went off, bringing down rubble at the end of the street.
General Albers sidled up to Hitler and spoke in a sharp whisper. ‘We should get back to the bunker, F?hrer, as much for the sake of the boys as for ourselves. The chances of us all leaving here undamaged must be slim by now.’
Hitler nodded slowly and turned away. Albers and Goebbels fell in behind him. The guard led the way back across the Chancellery garden, the sodden earth sucking under their boots. At the top of the bunker steps Hitler stopped and looked back at the street. The SS officer was shepherding the boys back into the gutted office building. Hitler shook his head.
‘What a thing it would be,’ he said.
Albers and Goebbels looked at each other, mystified.
‘To be young again,’ Hitler said.
* * *
Later, as General Albers sat in his quarters, recording the day’s events in his diary, he looked up at the agonized Christ on a large wood-and-ivory crucifix by his bed.
‘Not long now,’ he said quietly. ‘A week at most, with luck.’
The realism of the crucifix sometimes struck him as grotesque, but he kept it by him. It was the only memento of his wife, the one item to survive the inferno of their cottage after a British bomb reduced everything else, Greta included, to ash and vapour.
‘Perhaps, Lord,’ he said, ‘you will arrange it so I can surrender to someone with a sense of irony, and no great desire to punish.’
He looked at the diary again and thought for a moment before finishing the page.
He put down the pen and rubbed his hands together. The room was cold and damp. He pushed back the chair, got down on his knees and peered under the bed. There was probably enough schnapps under there to ease the chill. He pulled out the bottle and held it up. Three good drinks, maybe four.
‘Enough for now.’
He stood up, took the tumbler from the night-stand and poured a measure. With the glass held out before him he felt an impulse to toast the future of the thirty bedraggled orphans. They had looked so downcast. Just pathetic, frightened, parentless children.
That was now. But years from now…
‘God,’ he groaned, ‘all the black tomorrows.’
He looked at his row of treasured books on the shelf above the bed; at the framed snapshot of himself and his brother as children; at the ivory face of Christ hanging there, twisted with pain and despair.
‘Why should I wish more calamity on the world?’
Outside in the passage there was the sound of shouting. The wise men in the map room were being outraged again, berating absent commanders for the failure of crazy stratagems to rescue the Nazi dream. Albers sighed and raised his glass to the crucifix.
‘Shalom,’ he whispered.