Munich: September 1929
No doubt the artist is the child of his time;
but woe to him if he is also its disciple, or even its favourite.
The scruffy woman in her shabby coat nursing a whimpering baby. A snoozing drunk with vomit stains on his lapels. An old man in a greasy forage cap, puffing out clouds of pungent pipe smoke. The crammed tram rattled and rumbled along through the still bustling Munich twilight. Horse-drawn carriages clopped on by in both directions. Men ambled along in silk top hats, still a bourgeois favourite for those who could afford one, yet facing the expanding challenge of the more popular, debonair Homburg. Better off women in fancier, wide-brimmed headgear sauntered with their men, the old and poor in their headscarves. Who were these people? Where had they been and where were they going? On the pavements the poorer folk, the shabby, the artisans and the beggars were shuffling on to wherever their bed might be for that night. The hot Bavarian summer was over. Nights were drawing in. The Hallertau hops had been harvested, ready to be made into good Munich beer, that antidote to the dark economic misery of the impending winter. Everyone seemed so separate, so self-contained, like the scattered pieces of some huge jigsaw puzzle.
Looking around at the other passengers on the tram as it made its metallic, clanky progress along Friedrichstrasse, Albert Reisemann wondered if this sorry-looking cross section of Munich’s society had any inkling of how vibrant and important his racing inner thoughts might seem to them. Then there was a smart, upright man, probably in his 50s, sporting a severely waxed moustache. Had he fought for his country? And what about the lady in the large, ostentatious velvet hat with her arms around a basket of apples. Where did those apples come from? Where had they been picked, where was she taking them, and who would eat them? Why did she have apples when people were hungry? What was she prepared to do for Germany? As the tram stopped to pick up more passengers, two fresh-faced young men both wearing corduroy suits flopped onto a seat opposite. Albert could see that they’d been drinking. They had that bloated, florid look. One of them let out a loud belch as the other stared across at Albert, looking him up and down. He nudged his flatulent companion and then he too began to stare at Albert. Their look was sneering, disdainful. Albert was tempted to stand, to rise to his full height and slap them across their arrogant faces, but he knew that on this night, above any other, he must restrain himself. You’re sneering now, you bastards, he thought, but just you wait. You’ll be sneering on the other side of your faces. He looked away, and within a few minutes he was clambering from the tram at the corner of Schellingstrasse.
Smartly attired in his freshly washed and pressed Sturmabteilung uniform, it was after 9 pm and dark when Albert approached Theodor Dormer, who sat at a desk in the entrance hall outside the office at 50 Schellingstrasse. Theodor was a tough young man from Stuttgart, like Albert, tall, broad-shouldered, blonde and blue eyed, a look which seemed to be characteristic among all the recruits to the growing Schutzstaffel. Albert had met Theodor when he’d arrived in Munich a year before, and it was Dormer’s political zeal and enthusiasm which had convinced him to join the SA. However, since Theodor had entered this new and slightly mysterious order, known as the SS, they had lost touch.
“Albert. What brings you here at this time of night – don’t you have to be up early to make tables and chairs?”
Albert sensed a slight edge of derision here, but knew it was dangerous to rise to any bait.
“I’ve missed you out on the stump, Theodor,” he said, smiling, “we broke a few skulls together, eh?”
Dormer grinned and nodded.
“Well, its fine breaking skulls if there’s no brain inside, but there’s more to politics than smashing commies and Jews. I’m involved in something a bit more subtle and sophisticated these days.” To Albert, the words ‘subtle’ and ‘sophisticated’ seemed very odd coming from Theodor Dormer. Sure, he was generous, could be funny sometimes, and he had a way with the girls, but on the street with their platoon this dedicated political soldier was animalistic in his brutality. Other SA recruits called him ‘the sledgehammer’, and he was well known for putting a number of communists in hospital and for seriously injuring a hapless Rabbi they had come across who had been taking a walk through the Hofgarten. He used to brag of a battle in Dresden between the SA and 50 communists, some of whom he’d thrown out of windows to their deaths. So, the idea of this merciless party member and ferocious friend becoming subtle and sophisticated presented something of a conundrum.
“Is Herr Himmler in tonight?” asked Albert.
“Ah – try not to forget – he has a proper title now – we’re calling him the Reichsführer-SS. Wait here.”
Dormer knocked on the dark oak door and from within a voice sounded.
Dormer entered and re-emerged a few seconds later. The door remained half open and he gestured Albert to enter.
But for a pool of yellow light from a green-shaded lamp on his desk, Himmler’s office was almost in darkness. Albert glanced around. On the wall hung a framed photograph of Adolf Hitler, and alongside this a larger picture, a press photograph of Himmler at the head of an SA platoon, carrying the ‘blood banner’ of the failed 1923 putsch. Along one wall was a row of filing cabinets, and stacked on a table beneath the curtained window, piles of leaflets, booklets and posters.
Although only eight years older than Albert Reisemann, there was a mature air of inscrutability around the Reichsführer SS which made his real age seem indefinable. He bore no resemblance to the pure Aryan hero he often promoted in his pamphlets and speeches. With his sparse moustache and a faint hint of five-o-clock stubble, this slight man with his severe haircut and receding chin looked up from behind his rimless spectacles wearing a curious half smile. Albert knew that many of the older comrades in the brown-shirted ranks of the SA loathed and detested this peculiar little figure. Most of the SA commanders were openly jealous of his impregnable closeness to Adolf Hitler.
“Ah. The young craftsman from the Bluthner works. I think I know why you’re here. Perhaps you want to know about the furniture ordered for the Führer?” Albert, standing to attention, shifted his weight from one foot to the other and felt slightly ill at ease.
“Well, Herr Reichsführer, not so much myself, but for my employer, Herr Bluthner. He has expressed his concern. Things are difficult at work …”
Himmler sat back in his chair and the light from the lamp now only fell across the lower half of his face, yet Albert could still see two pinheads of light reflected above in his spectacles. The previous smile waned.
“Things are difficult all over Germany,” said Himmler. “But if we are prepared to make sacrifices, this can alter. Tell me about yourself. What is your name?”
“Reisemann. Albert Reisemann.”
“I hear from your accent you are not a Bavarian. Is this correct?”
“My home town is on the Mosel – Markenburg.”
“So. Your father is … let me guess – Viktor Reisemann, of the winemaking family?” Albert felt a chill pass up his spine.
“Er… yes … but how – “
Himmler leaned forward into the light again and his smile returned.
“I have friends in Koblenz. They had a stock of Reisemann wines from one of the good years. I am not a great one for wine myself, but they spoke well of your father’s product. And there is only one Reisemann family in Markenburg, according to your local SA members, so it was a fair guess that you were Viktor’s son. Knowledge, Albert. Knowledge and intelligence. This is what we need to make progress. We must know our enemies and our friends in full and equal measure. Tell me. How long have you been in the SA?”
“Eleven months next week.”
“And what do you think to the experience?”
“In what way?”
“Political battle. Have you been afraid, injured, ashamed, happy or sad? Have you gained any positive views – will you remain in the SA? What about the party – what are your thoughts – can we get someone into the Reichstag? Can we gain power?” Albert’s gaze wandered around the room as he struggled to form an answer.
“Herr Reichsführer, I have been happy to serve in the SA. I have been injured twice but not seriously; two broken ribs and some bruising. But I feel that the SA are the vanguard the country needs to drag us back to civilisation, and as long as we can carry the people along with us, we can indeed get someone from the party into power. And I would stay in the SA but, if we could ever get our army back onto a respectable footing, then I would prefer to bear arms for Germany.”
Like a snail slithering back into its shell, Himmler retreated into the shade as he sat back in his chair again.
“Are you fit and healthy?”
“Of course, Herr Reichsführer. Never a day’s illness, I’m a good swimmer and boxer and I play football.”
“How tall are you?” These questions began to seem bizarre to Albert.
“Five feet eleven and a half inches.”
“Do you smoke and drink?”
“I used to smoke, but I like a beer on warm days when I’m thirsty, but I also like to stay in control. Too many SA men, in my opinion, drink too much beer.”
Himmler’s fingers were drumming gently on his desk blotter.
“If you had the opportunity to serve our Führer in a more disciplined and special way, would you be interested?”
There was a pause as Himmler leaned forward and with a black fountain pen, wrote Albert’s name on a pad.
“Good. Tell Herr Bluthner that you can deliver the furniture next Wednesday at 2 pm to the Führer’s new residence at 16 Prinzregentenplatz. I will arrange to leave the payment for the invoice with the janitor there, Herr Schissler. In the meantime, I may have to carry out some research into your background. I presume there is no Jewish blood in your family tree?”
Himmler stood up and walked around the desk, taking Albert’s hand in his and shaking it. His heart pounded and he felt stunned as the soft, almost womanly fingers, dry and slightly warm, encircled his.
“You must realise that if I decide to make use of you in the manner I have described, that this will require a great sacrifice on your part. Family, work, other relationships will all take second place to everything in your life. Stern and unremitting demands will be placed upon you. Are you prepared to endure such a regime for the greater good of Germany and the Führer?”
Albert’s mind raced as he tried to take all this in. He took a deep breath.
“Whatever it takes, Herr Reichsführer – my heart and soul, if needs be.”
Himmler smiled and nodded.
“Good. We shall meet again, Albert Reisemann.”