PASSING INTO HISTORY (June 6, 1943)
[His best friend Stefan having committed suicide and the Dove Society’s Dr. Weismantle murdered by the Nazis, Rudi Valoren, despairing of the futile attempts by the Society to eliminate Hitler and worried about Gretchen’s safety posing as Eva Braun, decides to go it alone–to kill kill monster on his own. His plan is to have explosive in tubes under his shirt, ignited by a single button under his cuff.He first raises the idea with the Society’s President, Dr. Otto Specuher, his teacher and mentor from undergraduate days at Berlin University.]
This was the moment for which Rudi had prepared when taking that evening walk, a fateful moment prompted by Stefan’s suicide and the death of Dr.Weisenthal–and Mitzie Steeber. But most of all by the obscenity that Gretchen had to endure and for which he blamed himself. The very thought that she was there with that monster, that pervert, that murderer. How long could she play that impossible role without being found out and then suffering the horrible death that would follow? He was the one who came up with the idea for the swap after seeing her in the Hamburg review. She was risking her life daily for his plan. And however well intended that plan was, despite its approval by the Dove Society, at base it was he who was responsible. Perhaps Stefan had killed Mitzie in his rage, then took his own life. Or someone in the Dove Society, hearing of her encounter with Gretchen at the banquet, may have decided, alone or in concert with others, she must be eliminated so that Gretchen wouldn’t be exposed. What if Stefan, finding her dead, committed suicide out of grief? The fact remained that, directly as well as indirectly, Rudi was the ultimate cause of these tragedies. He was to blame. And so now he must set things right, compensate, in some way, for his mistake. Be willing to pay, even at the cost of his own life, for what he had done to others.
As Rudi sat opposite Dr. Speucher he imagined he was back in a graduate seminar, delivering a paper assigned by his teacher the week before.
“You’re what?” Dr. Speucher exclaimed, his mouth open, eyes wide in disbelief.
“I’m going to kill him. It’s that simple.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Oh, yes it is. I get close to him when he greets the Old Guard at the Löwenbräu Keller on June 10. Right after his big speech at the Sportzplatz. Detonate the bomb.”
“You won’t kill him. You’ll kill yourself instead.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“Everyone else who’ve tried this sort of thing has failed.”
“Yes,” a determined Rudi shot back.
“Elser, hid the dynamite in a wooden column on the stage. It went off on time. Eight people killed but Hitler; the bastard had left the hall ten minutes earlier than scheduled. Brandt? Two bottle of cognac on his plane. Filled with explosives. Couldn’t fail. But did.” And now you’re telling me you are gong to succeed.”
“The bastard’s charmed. Can’t be done–”
“I’m going through with it, and you can’t–no one can stop me.”
Rudi knew murdering Hitler while he spoke at the Spotzplatz was futile. Too many SS bodyguards protected him onstage, and everyone coming into the arena was checked. Besides, there was no place to set up a long-range shot since the place would be packed to the gills. Nor would it make sense taking a shot in the crowds lining the boulevard as Hitler made his way to the reception at the Löwenbräu Keller, his favorite tavern. Again, the SS would be patrolling the curbs on both sides. Earlier, during such parades, Hitler used to stand on the front passenger’s-side seat, his left hand resting on the frame of the Mercedes’s windshield, his right hand outstretched in the Nazi salute, a perfect target. But these days this feat took a physical endurance which he apparently no longer had. Now he would sit in the back seat, guards on either side, the crowd able to see only his head, the patented ungainly lock of black hair pulled to one side, the face now puffy, those eyes, that for so long had enchanted the people, glassy, listless, staring straight ahead as into a void.
On Friday, June 7, a determined Rudi Valoren waited with a crowd of soldiers who had marched with Hitler in his abortive 1923 Putsch to welcome the hero to his favorite Berlin beer hall. The uniform Rudi had bought from one of the Old Fighters now down on his luck fit perfectly. Underneath his shirt he wore an ingenious new bomb, devised by an explosives expert in the Dove Society. A series of slender glass tubes filled with liquid dynamite girdled his stomach and ran down his right arm, with a detonator button just under his cuff. No bulky bomb or gun to carry, both of which the SS had long since learned to detect. Even with his jacket removed, nothing showed.
The veterans were already plastered as they awaited the Führer, and Rudi was subjected to endless revisitings of the events of the Putsch. Memories, distorted by beer, had long since led to hyperboles.
“One thousand? No, five thousand. There were five thousand there that night. At the Löwenbräu. I know. I was there!”
“Two shots? Hell! He fired a volley, maybe five or six shots into the ceiling. That brought ‘em to order. What a genius!”
“Imagine, as simple as that. Just firing a shot.”
“The march? He was right up there in front. Right there with General Ludendorff.”
“I heard he ran away when the police started firing.”
“Ran away? You ignorant bastard! He stood right there, daring them. Just like the General. And he didn’t fall. Don’t believe that shit for a moment. The Führer threw himself right in front of a comrade. He even took a bullet.”
“I heard he took two.”
“Got right back up and continued marching.”
“What a man!”
He could hear a loud cheer come from the Sportzplatz three blocks to the north. Hitler would now be getting into his black Mercedes for the ride over, and so in five minutes, or less, Rudi would pass into history. All around him aged soldiers worked themselves into a frenzy he found both comic and terrifying. Arms draped on each other’s shoulders in boozy solidarity, they waited for their leader like impatient lovers, unable to restrain their passion while Hitler drove to the rendezvous through adoring crowds.
For the second time, Rudi was frisked by SS guards near the entrance to the beer hall. They had him take off his jacket, rifled through his pockets, and, once again, dismissed him with a blunt “OK.” Carefully putting the jacket back on, he reached under the right coat sleeve and with his middle finger checked the detonator button. Everything was in place.
Inside the hall, the mob was whooping and hollering. As the Mercedes pulled up to the curb, Rudi was enveloped by veterans who had actually marched with the Führer that fateful day fourteen years ago, or had long since convinced themselves they were there.
Hitler emerged from the car, sweating from his two-hour speech, his hair ruffled, a scowl on his face, a practiced sign of his aloofness, the image of a messiah now condescending to mix with mere mortals. Then, reversing his image, he flung himself into the waiting crowd, much to the consternation of his bodyguards, shaking hands, in a few instances recalling specific names. He was now a hundred or so feet from Rudi. Too far. The bomb had a radius of half that distance; the closer he could get to Hitler the better.
But a solid wall of screaming partisans had blocked Rudi, some singing, others like children on a playground laughing uncontrollably out of sheer joy to be in the great man’s presence, booming out their “Heil”s with ugly voices, unconcerned as they sloshed beer on each other. One young man, his shirt covered with vomit, hurled a much older man to the ground who had tried to step in front of him. An armless veteran pushed in vain with his back to secure a place near his hero. There was no way Rudi could get closer and he began to curse himself: the message would go off if detonated; it was the messenger who was being kept from his task. Hitler was hermetically sealed in a crowd that now surged toward the inner entrance to the beer hall.
Suddenly Rudi felt a sharp pain in his left shoulder. An enormous man, wildly drunk, with massive, fleshly arms, a belly protruding like a battering ram, was clinging to him for support. Tears flowing down his cheeks, bellowing “My Führer! My Führer” like an aroused lover, he knocked fellow celebrants out of the way, clearing a path for himself, and for Rudi, as he approached Hitler, unaware of the jeers and protests around him. Just as this odd duo was within ten feet of their object, the drunk collapsed, his body striking the floor like a drum announcing the arrival of royalty. Startled, Hitler looked down, then smiled slightly at Rudi, as if their fallen comrade only confirmed his own contempt for alcohol as the crutch of weaker men.
“You’re so young looking. What is your secret, comrade?”
“No secret, my Führer. You make me, you make all loyal Germans feel young again.” Rudi cringed at his cliché.
“But you are wearing the uniform of an old man.”
“It’s my father’s uniform. He died in the Czech campaign.”
Hitler smiled, lightly pinched Rudi’s check. “Good boy, good boy” Then he started to pass through the crowd, which the SS had now parted like the Red Sea. Momentarily transfixed by the exchange with the Führer, as if everyone else had vanished and they were alone, Rudi realized he hadn’t pressed the detonator. There was still time. As Hitler moved toward the entrance, he reached under his sleeve and depressed the button. Nothing happened. Again. Nothing. Within seconds Hitler was safely in the hall. Rudi stood for a moment at the entrance, a failure. He had no idea why the explosives had failed to detonate.
Inside, the audience, now far gone in their drinking and stimulated by the blazing lights that converted the otherwise shabby auditorium into a Valhalla, were pounding on the tables with their steins, drowning out the band, and beating in rhythm to Hitler’s solemn, purposeful striding to the podium as if the Nordic gods themselves had descended for the occasion. In various discordant keys they broke into “Deutschland Über Alles,” the melody itself lost at times, the singers choked from an overdose of patriotism and booze. At this moment, Rudi had no thoughts of Germany, of that fatherland built from blood and soil that the Dove Society wanted to reclaim. The orator at the podium was not his object, but rather the perverted little man whose bed Gretchen was forced to share. At this moment Rudi wanted to kill him not to end German’s nightmare, but out of personal anger. Frustrated, he realized that there was no place to go where he might take off his shirt, check the detonator or the wire leading into the glass tubing. He had no choice but to go in, endure two hours or more of the madman’s ranting.
It was all that Rudi could do to keep down his nausea during Hitler’s two-hour harangue, at the very idea of this ugly man strutting and fretting on the stage, bathed in sweat, this most non-Aryan-looking man, with the bulbous nose, unruly hair, grating voice, the ungrammatical prose. The same man who lusted after Gretchen. The ultimate cause of the deaths of Dr. Weismantle and Stefan. Why hadn’t the bomb detonated? There would be one more chance when Hitler finished his speech, and hobnobbed outside the hall with the “Old Fighters,” those men, now balding and with paunches, who had been at his side in the first failed attempt to overthrow the Weimar Republic. As he did on past occasions, frustrating patriots who in the name of their beloved Fatherland had attempted to assassinate him, tonight Hitler had once more survived, was alive. For now.
Protected by some malignant providence, once again he would captivate men and women–no, more than captivate them, make the audience his own, draining them of every shred of reason. He would, in fact, violate them, rape them.
Hitler’s control was near perfect. Whenever he judged the crowd’s response inadequate, not frenzied or loud or passionate enough, he would stand there, arms folded, glaring at them like some tyrannical father waiting for an errant child to come to his senses, begging for his approval.
Unlike everyone around him, Rudi saw only a chubby man with that impossible mustache, the skin almost pale unto death, the vegetarian whose foul breath cried out for a diet like that of any normal citizen, the same man to whom Stefan’s Mitzie had given herself in order to advance her career. In contrast, the audience were rendered defenseless by what they saw as the epitome of German manhood, with his piercing blue eyes, graceful hands, the seductive voice, driving them to climax after climax, each moment of satisfaction begetting an even greater need.
“I do not insist that might makes right. Not I. It is God’s way, proclaimed in the natural world all about us. The lion kills the lamb because, in the divine scheme, the lion is superior and therefore more worthy of life.”
“We will teach the Slavs we have conquered to read road signs, nothing more, to be good and faithful servants to us. Nothing more. They do not want to understand our glorious Wagner or Goethe. They seek only an uneventful course through an uneventful life, a life that, in its meager way, is pleasing to them, though not to us. This is their place in the grand order. We simply restore them to what is rightfully theirs.”
“The Jews despise me. As they despised Christ. For I have found them out, see them for what they really are–a people who have no loyalty to country but only to themselves, their clan, their polluted race. Look at them! Look! The nose, that of a vulture’s. The dark shifty eyes darting about, like some beast eyeing a prey. The swarthy complexion no amount of cleansing can make as pure as the clear skin of the Aryan. I have exposed them and, like the skilled doctor, will burn out this cancer from the fair body of our Germany.”
For Rudi, Hitler was reduced to the mute speaker of a silent movie. Instead, he saw in his mind’s eye Dr. Fineman rise to address one of the meetings of the Dove Society, making a connection between the Nuremberg Laws prohibiting German families from employing Jewish woman of child-bearing age as servants and the rumor that Hitler’s own grandfather may have been the illegitimate child of a wealthy Jew. And here he was now cursing the Jews, making them the scapegoat for every misfortune besetting the fatherland, his hands sawing the air, the voice that of a beast howling at the moon,
Unlike Fineman, Rudi was no psychiatrist; he knew only the results. And those results were obvious to every member of the Dove Society–Hitler was coming unhinged and the war was being lost. But not so to the screaming, writhing patriots now fawning over the figure at the podium, crying out their “Sieg, Heil!”s at every phrase, interrupting his speech so often that Hitler, annoyed by the effusive response, constantly raised his hand not in greeting but to silence the drunken, adoring crowd, allowing him more time to speak.
“I am only a poor soldier, one of you. You cried out for me and I came. That was … no, that is my destiny. Our destiny. I live in you, through you, for you. And in me you find your own pure German soul. I do not lead you. No, we march together, as we did, arm in arm, in the old days. Arm in arm, our eyes fixed on German’s glorious star, on the future that belongs to us, and only to us.”
In a perverse way, Rudi envied the men pressing against him, their bodies foul in the overheated hall, their breaths reeking of cheap beer and greasy food. They saw before them what was buried deep in themselves, someone they could never be, their savior voyaging into the wilderness to redeem Germany, its honor stained by the defeat in the Great War, betrayed at home by Jews and Communists. But Rudi could see only the man who had leered at Gretchen. He imagined Hitler’s small, almost effeminate hands, no longer chopping the air like some demented forester, but fondling her breasts, pulling on her nipples, cupping them in his palms. The mere thought drove him wild. He touched the sides of his coat, taking a small comfort as he felt the tubing.
“And so, fellow Germans, old soldiers, tonight we are one. One! One people! One Germany!”
Having set the rhythm, Hitler was drowned out by “One Führer.” The cry, that of the bride before her groom as she reaches the long-sought climax of the wedding night.
On the “One Führer,” Rudi made his way quickly through the cheering crowd to be near the front doors when they were opened. The welcoming committee itself was now hurried by ushers to either side of the exit, so that Hitler could make his way down a pathway for the conquering hero unmolested through the throng. Once outside, he would shake hands, soak up the adulation, and make small talk with his official greeters before leaving.
Rudi was now one of them, indeed in the very center of the thirty or so Old Fighters who were quickly led outside the hall, and arranged on the sidewalk. The Mercedes waited obediently at the curb.
Sated, his face red with excitement, exhausted with his orgy of success, Hitler acknowledged the welcoming committee, his mood somber, his pose that of the sullen god at best bemused by the joyous faces of his disciples. Rudi had seen this expression before in photographs and newsreel films, Hitler’s eyes fixed not on the singular victory of the moment, but on that same glorious tomorrow he had invoked earlier tonight, a tomorrow only he could bring about. He recoiled at Hitler’s duplicity, the chameleon-like man masquerading as a messiah who, when his mission was accomplished, claimed he would revert to being “just a simple citizen” whose only ambition was to retire to Linz, there once more becoming the artist that, in his fantasies, he had never ceased to be, despite the judgment of those hide-bound judges at the Vienna Academy of Art.
As Rudi waited for his moment, he speculated that perhaps Hitler was so unsmiling because he knew that defeat was near. No amount of Goebbels’s publicity could deny the fact that German soldiers, whom he never allowed to retreat, were in fact retreating, or were being pushed back by the Russians, in some cases on the command of their officers who were themselves disobeying the latest Führer Order.
Ten, fifteen minutes passed as Hitler chatted with the Old Fighters, while the crowd inside the hall, sated with the speech, resumed their drinking. At last, as Hitler began to move toward the outside door, he brushed past Rudi, this time not acknowledging him as he had when entering the hall. This was the moment. Rudi pushed the detonator.
Again, nothing. Frantically, he pushed and pushed on the small button just underneath his cuff, so intent on what he was doing that for a few second the world outside himself, Hitler moving toward the car, the SS giving their “Sieg, Heil!”s, the chauffeur stooping to open the door, the crowd desperate to get outside the hall to catch one more glimpse of their savior, the guards making a futile attempt to control them, the smell of beer and human sweat and leather boots, even the occasional refreshing cool breeze–all this froze as if in a photograph. The only sound Rudi could hear was the light tap, tap, tap of his finger pressing the detonator and the rapid beat of his own heart. Nothing.
He had failed again. Hitler was alive. By luck. Or by that same divine providence this man who despised religion had claimed on earlier occasions. Or by the curse laid on the Dove Society, on all those who dared during wartime murder a leader, even a corrupt, immortal, sadistic leader. By Rudi’s own desperate, illogical reasoning, the detonator had not failed: he had failed. Failed, as did all other would-be patriots. His very existence was now a mockery. How could he compete with Hitler? A baker who wrote poetry matched against the leader of a triumphant Germany, cheating death this time, and all those times before tonight? Rudi feared he would lose Gretchen. He had lost Hitler. He had failed in the one deed that might have accomplished, in a split second, what the Dove Society had failed to do for eight years now, the one deed that would have rendered the Society gloriously irrelevant. He was worthless. Worse than worthless. He was nothing.
As the car drove off, with a triumphant Hitler there in the front seat, now alternately beaming and frowning at the mob on either side of the street, as if their well-wishes, their tears, their souls were nothing less than he deserved, or as if they could never repay him for all that he had done for them, Rudi made his way down the side street leading to his apartment. The uniform which he wore but could not safely remove until he was inside blasphemed his body. He was playing the very person he loathed, the loyal Old Fighters who, in those last terrible months of the war when, mole-like, the dictator would hide in his underground bunker, would be the only ones for whom the Führer expressed any friendship or on whom he would bestow even a modicum of favor.
Back in his apartment, Rudi discovered that the detonator wire had pulled from the contact at the end of the tubing, perhaps when he took off his jacket during the search by the SS. No wonder the bomb hadn’t gone off.
After drinking himself into near oblivion, he staged out onto the main street, and made his way to an alley where, five years ago, before he met Gretchen, he used to pick up prostitutes. Now deserted, the alley smelled of garbage thrown out the back door of a restaurant recently closed. Almost tripping on a stray bottle, he cursed the object, picked it up, and was about to hurl it against a wall when he saw a woman, well past middle-age, appear at the far end, her hideous make-up catching the moonlight that from a clear, innocent night sky streamed down into this sordid world of filth and assignations.
“You want me? I said, mister, you want me?”
When Rudi did not reply, she added, “Cheap. At this time of night. Cheap, Half price.” Then, exposing an expanse of rotting teeth, she chuckled, “Yeah, cheap, young man, at his time of night–and at my age!”
Pulling a sagging breast from underneath her blouse, once more she implored her silent, potential customer. “You need love. I can see that. We all need love. I’m Hilda. I’ve got lots of love to give. Come–let’s go to my room. Just around the corner. What’s your name, by the way?”
Fifteen minutes later Rudi, his head cradled by Hilda, lay on a bed without sheets, its mattress rank from sweat and other detritus.
“So, nothing happened, young man. This time. But next time for sure. You don’t have to worry. You’re young. You’ve got years. You’re crying. Nothing to cry about. You’ve still got a few minutes–you paid for it. I’ll hold you, just like this, like a little baby, until it’s time for you to go.”