The Man who Feeds The Swans is a novel, a chapter loaded onto this blog every 2 days.
Munich: September 1929
“They hurry toward their destiny as though it would not wait.
They push the rolling world along with their shoulders.”
John Steinbeck: The Moon Is Down
Pieter Bluthner was confused and nervous. He was beginning to regret pushing his furniture business so hard in such difficult times. Yet in the Summer of 1929 the chance to have a stand and exhibit his products in the Munich Arts and Crafts exhibition, a costly exercise, as it turned out, seemed a last ditch idea to pick up some much-needed orders. His new Volkskunst (People’s Art) rustic range was at least different to some of the more outlandish modernity on display. But the exhibition had been over for a month and although he had received a few small orders, he was becoming worried about the big one, a special commission, which had been placed by a curious, slightly reserved gentleman from the headquarters of the National Socialist Worker’s Party Headquarters on Schellingstrasse. This was for a large ornamental carved cabinet and a long dining table with twelve specially designed chairs.
Bluthner had no interest in politics. With his workshop on Briennerstrasse being so close to the city centre, like many other locals he’d witnessed most of the violent demonstrations and marches which had taken place since the war, right back to Hitler’s ridiculous, failed putsch in 1923. Pieter Bluthner was simply a craftsman with a head for business, a hard worker with a reputation for good work. He paid his taxes and kept his nose clean. He’d seen them all; liberals, democrats, communists and socialists, and he voted for none of them. If he had any sympathies at all they rested in the old days when the Kaiser ruled and everyone respected law and order. Since losing his wife to tuberculosis in 1926, he had dedicated himself to keeping the business afloat, yet the constant pressure of the devastated economy had reduced his staff from nine men to just three, and now he was faced with sacking at least one more. The lad from Markenburg on the Mosel, Albert, was talented, resilient and fit, and he had a natural talent for working in wood. He was top of the list for redundancy. After all, he was a single man, impressively tall, handsome and strong, so Bluthner felt that in time, given his skill, he would find another position.
However, there was an additional deciding factor in Albert’s case which made his boss feel the need to dispose of his services. Albert Reisemann had become one of those brown shirted political street fighters, regarded by Pieter Bluthner as little more than uniformed thugs and vandals, and in the close confines of the Bluthner workshop he had become a disturbing, argumentative element. His two fellow workers, the elderly Giessen brothers, Johann and Ulrich, had started to complain about their talented underling. After weekend exercises with the SA, the youngster was often late for work. He had become belligerent, always armed with a sheaf of inflammatory political leaflets. Yet Bluthner had no choice but to keep him on a little longer because it was through Albert’s connections that they had received the big order. Once it was delivered and paid for, the lad would have to go.
Johann and Ulrich had worked at their trade for almost 30 years, with only Ulrich’s employment broken by a spell in the Bavarian Infantry during the war, whilst his brother’s twisted leg, the result of a logging accident in the Black Forest, had exempted him from service. Pieter Bluthner felt trapped in a spiral of pessimism. He imagined that things could never improve, and that like the Giessen brothers, he was facing the end of an era.
It was raining on the Monday morning when Bluthner opened up the workshop at 6 am. The first noisy trams whirred and cranked resolutely by as Munich awoke. Along the wet streets and sidewalks the city’s working population was on the move. Stooped workmen with their heads bent, the laden carts of optimistic market traders rattling over the glistening cobbles.
Ulrich and Johann turned up, as punctual as ever, at 7. But there was no sign of young Albert. Johann puffed on his pipe as Ulrich stirred a foul, bubbling pot of unpleasant-smelling animal glue.
“You know, Herr Bluthner,” he said, “that lad’s one hell of a worker, but only when he’s here.”
Bluthner removed his spectacles and polished them on his apron.
“Look, lads, I’m as disappointed in the way he behaves as we all are, but once that big order’s been delivered, I can give him his marching orders. He’s our contact with that chap from Schellingstrasse – what was his name again?”
“Himmler,” replied Ulrich. “My cousin’s family knew his family, but I didn’t say anything when he came in. I don’t like the look of him, to be honest. Reminds me of some kind of chinless oriental … a bit Chinese. Anyway, I’d heard he’s supposed to be a chicken farmer. Now I hear he’s running some kind of security or bodyguard outfit for that loud-mouthed little Austrian corporal. We’d all be better off if he just produced eggs.”
It was 7.45 am when Albert burst breathlessly into the workshop. The Giessen brothers didn’t look up, but carried on with their work. Bluthner watched him take off his coat, don his apron and pick up his chisels. The old man felt exasperated as he stood there with his hands on his hips like some irate wife preparing to welcome a late-night drunken husband. Why didn’t this damned youth say something? Did he think he could simply start work without an apology?
“What time do you call this?” asked Bluthner.
Albert threw his coat onto a hook on the door and walked over to his bench.
“I apologise, Herr Bluthner, but we had a very important rally yesterday over at Landsberg. I arrived home very late and I’m sorry – I slept in. I’ll make up the time.”
Bluthner shook his head and sighed.
“Oh! Wonder of wonders. An apology, even. You’re damn right you will. You’re as good as two men missing. I could understand it, a fine young chap like you, if you’d been out with a girl, but to be wandering around with that pack of brutish louts?”
Albert slammed a chisel down loudly on the bench. Ulrich and Johann stopped work and stared at him.
“And I, Herr Bluthner, could understand it if a man of your age took more of an interest in his country – and the SA are not brutes or louts – we’re political soldiers, and we’re going to pull the fatherland up by its bootstraps!”
Johann re-kindled his pipe and looked disdainfully at Albert.
“Huh. Landsberg, eh?” mused Johann. “Wasn’t that where your loud-mouthed little Führer spent his time – in jail?”
Albert cast a withering glance at the old man, and then looked back at Bluthner, but his boss’s angry expression convinced him that he had better work rather than continue the argument. Bluthner left the workshop and slammed the door after him.
The men worked away diligently, almost in silence apart from the whirring of a wood-turning machine, for over two hours until Ulrich poured three cups of coffee from a battered and sooty enamel pot on the stove. As they paused to drink, Bluthner re-entered.
“Albert. I appreciate that you brought that fellow Himmler in to see us, but now we’ve made his order up what the hell do we do with it? It’s clogging up the timber store and needs delivering – especially if you all expect to be paid next week. So, where is the stuff going? When? How’s he going to pay us?”
“I spoke to someone in his office about it,” said Albert, “and he wants it to be kept quiet as the order is a special gift.”
“Fine,” said Bluthner, “Who for? His wife? What are we waiting for – their wedding anniversary or something? And before we organise any transport I want to see the colour of his money!”
Albert sipped his coffee and gave a crooked smile as he looked at each of his three colleagues in turn. Bluthner found this young man’s arrogant lack of respect outrageous. Yet in a perverse way, Albert was enjoying all this. He had a feeling he was certainly on the way out, but his meeting with Himmler had buoyed him up. He felt he had a future far more important and way beyond glue, chisels and wood shavings.
“Look at you all. You don’t realise what a big change is coming, do you? And you don’t realise how significant that cabinet and those chairs and table are. Important people will sit on them in the future – you mark my words. It might interest you to know that the man you call ‘a loud mouthed little Führer’ – my brilliant leader, Adolf Hitler, has bought a luxury second floor apartment on Prinzregentenplatz. People have so much faith in the party that he’s been able to buy his new home just from the donations well-wishers have given us. The stuff we’ve made is a house warming gift from Himmler. So, stop fretting about it. I’ve been to see Herr Himmler and we have to deliver the order next Wednesday at 2 pm to the Führer’s new residence at 16 Prinzregentenplatz.”
“The ‘Führer’?” sneered Ulrich, “that jumped-up little creep? Listen at you – you’re just the same as the bloody communists – with them it’s all ‘commissar this’ and ‘commissar that’, and with you lot it’s ‘the Führer’.”
“Have some respect!” bellowed Albert, brandishing a chisel, “at least Herr Himmler is a paying customer, not like some of the Jews we’ve dealt with!”
“That’s enough, Albert!” shouted Bluthner. “My customers are my business and it is not for you to pass judgment. In any case, how do we know this Himmler fellow is going to pay us – because if he doesn’t, all your wages are down the pan for this next week!”
“He’s already arranged it. We send the invoice with the delivery and the janitor will have the money ready for us.”
As a member of the SA’s rank and file, Albert had listened carefully to the grumbling undercurrent of his leaders, such men as Ernst Röhm. Albert found the merciless, bull-necked Röhm quite frightening, yet Hitler seemed to admire the man who set the standard for courage in street fighting. The unusual meeting Albert had experienced with Himmler almost made him feel like a traitor to the brown shirts, because he was fully aware that the SA saw the formation of some elite interior body, the so-called ‘protection squad’ for the Führer – the Schutzstaffel – as some kind of unnecessary competition. Yet he also knew that, unlike the brown shirts, the SS tended to avoid controversy and kept their noses clean. Visually, at least, they presented some kind of dignity, albeit with a sinister edge. Röhm always complained that whilst the SA did ‘the dirty work’ – the street fighting, the breaking up of the opposition parties, and, rumour had it, much worse, Himmler’s ‘gang’ were strutting around with their silver skull and cross bone badges and black ties like some elite political order of Jesuits. Yet to Albert, there was something mysteriously attractive about the SS. Earlier in the year, when Hitler had given Himmler the responsibility of building this Praetorian guard, it had just 200 members compared to the SA’s 170,000. Now he realised that this elite was growing, and he had heard from reliable sources in the ranks of the NSDAP that to be an SS man was something rather special, and as such, this appealed to his youthful vanity.
His meeting with the Reichsfuher-SS Himmler had been a strange, almost mystical experience. Albert still wondered what Himmler had meant when he had asked if he would like to serve the Führer ‘in a more disciplined and special way’. If he was to believe some of his SA comrades, then it seemed likely that this SS organisation was simply what they claimed it to be – nothing more than an ill-timed challenge to the SA’s huge, nation-wide fighting spirit, but led by Hitler’s most loyal and most toadying supporter, a man whose odd visage and impenetrable character were hardly likely to make him a poster boy for the planned muscular and masculine Aryan fatherland. Yet Albert had listened to many speeches during his time in the SA, and read all the literature. He was intelligent enough to realise that it would take more than brutal physical coercion to win over the people of Germany. If it did, then those methods were available, tried and tested. But Himmler’s words kept coming back to him. Knowledge. Intelligence. Albert liked the idea of being something more than a courageous thug. It needed thought, cunning, planning, indeed, inscrutability – all of which political assets Heinrich Himmler possessed in abundance.