The assassins were twenty minutes late. Uncharacteristically, so too was Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau, their intended victim. Exhaust puffed from his idling limousine a block and a half away, as his chauffeur paced before the opulent entrance to Rathenau’s home.
Ernst Werner Techow monitored the chauffeur from under the bonnet of the assassins’ Mercedes, an open six seater. “Damn this pig,” he muttered as he fine-tuned the oil feed. The idle smoothed to velvet. Rathenau’s driver still paced. Ernst secured the bonnet. Kern and Fischer, immobile in the back seat, watched Rathenau’s man check his pocket watch.
If Ernst’s mother had known of their plan, she would have asked: whom did he think he was to do this? Did he not think of the shame this would bring on his father’s memory? But the past no longer mattered. Today, June 24th, was St. John’s Day, a day of anti-Semitic actions, a day Jews stayed in their homes. He remembered Pastor Namann explaining to his Sunday school class that according to St. John’s Gospel, all Jews in all generations are guilty of the death of Jesus. It was a day to hear frightening stories of Jews using the blood of murdered Christian children to make Matzoh for Passover. Three years earlier, Germany had surrendered to the dictates of the Versailles Treaty. Today was the day the Weimar Republic began to crumble and fall. After today, they would all know that it was not only a man he was about to kill, but the Weimar obscenity. It would only take longer to die.
He released the handbrake and adjusted his goggles. Ready.
His older brother, Leo, would damn Ernst under his breath, then try to save him like the repulsive Bolshevik missionary Leo was – the only one of the three brothers who had turned out that way. He was the same Leo who had shared his bedroom when they still lived in a mansion on Wannseestrasse behind a wrought iron gate; the same brother he almost shot two years earlier when the red flag flew over the Royal Palace.
It was best that his father was no longer alive. When Ernst offended as a child, which he did considerably more often than Leo, his father would pinch his neck, pull the hairs behind his ear, and sentence him, like the magistrate he was, to write something corrective one hundred times. I must not kill pigeons in Mariakirche Park. I must not be disrespectful to Headmaster, Herr Strauss. And after today: I must not kill for the Vaterland.
But this was the “justice of the Volk.” Organization C (OC) had chosen him for this moment. Planning Rathenau’s assassination and anticipating its consequences had become exhilarating, electrifying – even erotic – like waiting for Lisa at Günther’s deserted apartment before an afternoon of lovemaking.
The sudden burst of flapping wings startled them all. Something scattered the pigeons at the corner of Königsallee. One by one, the birds returned, anxiously cocking their heads and pecking at crumbs. Ernst first killed pigeons when he was ten; it was after the fight with the Jew, Rothstein. Ernst had walked through the park across from St. Mary’s Church to the Franco-Prussian War memorial with his new slingshot, the one he had just paid Heinrich Schliefen his last marks for. With its polished wood handle so smooth, it was the finest instrument he had ever held. The first time he used it, anticipation had caused his heart to shudder, as it did now; his arm strained to pull the elastic strap and trembled until he released the stone. It flew like a bullet into the flock, which suddenly rose into the air, clucking, flapping, dust and crumbs flying – all but one bird, lying on its side, one wing flapping feebly, turning in a slow circle. One dying bird – his clearest recollection – as provocative now as it was disturbing then.
Rathenau’s auto idled, still unattended. After today, Organization C would quietly submerge again like a sated shark, and vanish until the next assassination, and the next, until Weimar was dead and the Nationalists, the true German patriots, seized power.
In the rear view mirror Ernst saw Kern, square built and fit, his fixed gaze animated only by wisps of blond hair. The murder weapon, a machine pistol, lay at his feet. Beside Kern, Hermann Fischer, tallest of the three, skeletal, smoked another cigarette. To hear Kern rant about Rathenau – the traitor, the highest ranking Jew in the Weimar Republic, the guarantor of the Versailles Treaty, the ‘stab in the back’ – Ernst wondered that he hadn’t been murdered before now.
It was 10:25.
He tried to distract himself with Saturday’s Berliner Tageblatt, resting on the steering wheel, but the vibrations blurred the words. Ernst eased in the choke and the print re-focused, but he could not make sense of it – could not read the words. Sweat from his palms smudged the newsprint and stained his fingers. Earlier that morning, at Schütt’s Garage, the oil leak had worsened and Ernst had patched it again with heavy tape. The delay cost half an hour. For now, the convertible idled smoothly, the only life in a line of parked automobiles a half block from the main thoroughfare, Königsallee.
The chauffeur came to attention and pulled on his driving gloves. He settled behind the wheel and waited.
Assassinating Rathenau was more than killing a man, something Ernst had done before. The ‘Deed of Deeds’ was the murder of a traitor. Too many Germans had been seduced by his betrayal and revered him.
Ernst’s chest tightened, a familiar acid tension he’d experienced before in a mutiny, in a revolution, in chaos when the bullet could strike at any moment. He calmed himself stroking the Mercedes’ rich wood-grained paneling, fondling the mahogany ball of the shift lever. He recalled his father’s Mercedes, purchased in 1910. A year later, when Ernst was ten, Eric, the Techow chauffeur, let Ernst ‘drive’ on his lap and he delighted in the other kind of fear, the carnival fright. It was the last time he’d felt the kindly embrace of a man.
“You mustn’t tell your mother,” Eric had said, his arms guiding Ernst’s on the steering wheel.
“Can we tell Father?”
“I will mention it, but only when I am alone with him. Say nothing until then. Look out! Here come the bumps!”
Ernst had laughed out loud as the hard rubber wheels jarred and jostled over the trolley tracks crossing Königsallee at the intersection with Wallotstrasse and Erdenerstrasse – the same intersection where Rathenau would die today. He could still hear Eric singing:
Bump, bump the horsey-rider!
When he falls down he will cry.
If he falls into the ditch,
then the ravens will devour him.
If he falls into a swamp
then the horsey-rider goes kerplunk!
As they shouted “kerplunk!” in unison, Eric bumped him from his lap into the air. Ernst’s nanny, Maria, also played Bump, bump the horsey-rider! and let him fall between her legs, into the sling of her pinafore. A playmate once told Ernst about how his father had played the game carrying him on his shoulders. He could only wonder at such affection.
If Lisa could see him now she would say he wore his ‘frightful expression,’ with sunken slitted eyes, flushed cheeks, lips drawn thin. She said his eyes turned from blue sky to steel, and his blond hair darkened. He had sworn to Lisa that after today he was finished with OC – begged her to believe that this was his final mission.
Gradually, the words blurred again; he toggled the choke, watched the oil gauge tremble like a dragonfly’s tail and slowly fall. Ernst leapt from the car and threw open the bonnet. Oil spit from the taped junction, spraying his face and soiling the full-length leather coat Kern had presented to him that morning at Schütt’s Garage, before anything had gone wrong.
Kern sprung from the back seat, over the car’s doors, and in a moment was beside him. Ernst reached blindly for the oil feed and sealed the leak with more tape. The engine purred again.
“Do you know what you’re doing, boy?”
“I’m twenty-one,” Ernst said to the flathead engine, his fingers still working the tape. “You’ve only a few years on me.”
“A few years perhaps,” Kern said, “but one war.”
Ernst straightened, tall and thin, challenging Kern’s granite density. “I’ve killed more Communists than…”
“Relax, Techow.” Kern fixed Ernst with an uncommon expression of concern. “It’s your first time, isn’t it?”
“No. No, I’m fine.” His shoulders slumped. He took a step back. “It’s just this… this car…”
He avoided Kern’s cobra eyes. “It’s a piece of shit,” Ernst muttered. “Küchenmeister must have run it into the ground. One would think OC could afford a fleet of Mercedes.”
“Enough!” Kern bared his teeth, breathing hard. His neck muscles contracted, a red blush flushed his puffy cheeks. “If it’s shit, it’s high quality shit – and untraceable.” He glanced at his watch then at Fischer. “Make it run!”
Ernst worked the heavy tape. He hated for Kern to be angry with him. “I’m sorry, Sir,” he said. “It will run for a short time – probably long enough – no guarantees.”
“Make it work, Techow,” Kern said. “The Fat Man said it has to be today.” He brushed light blond hairs from his smooth forehead and tucked them under his new leather driving cap. “It’s time!” Kern backed away. Fischer threw his cigarette into the street and flashed two fingers forming a ‘V’.
Ernst slammed the bonnet and wiped his hands on the rag. It was difficult to take in a breath. Clouds hung low and immobile over Berlin; overnight rain had left puddles in the deserted street. Only a few bush roses and Kern’s cheeks glowed pink. Kern plucked Ernst’s newspaper from the front seat and let himself into the back, once more remote.
“Arrangements have been made for the boat to Sweden,” he said without looking up from the Tageblatt. “We leave from Warnemünde.” Kern looked up into the gray overcast. “Even the rain has cooperated. Rathenau’s car is open.”
“Sweden?” Ernst said. “What are you talking about? I’m not going to Sweden.”
“Just for awhile. OC’s orders. Your trial would not be attractive.”
Ernst was about to protest, but then Fischer sat forward, his eyes electric with excitement, but still bloodshot from last night’s drinking. “Here he comes. Let’s kill the son of a bitch.”
As much as Ernst knew about Kern, that was how little he knew about Hermann Fischer. Even when drunk, he spoke little. Like Kern, his wispy hair was of the fine variety that almost disappeared in sunlight. He seemed not to have eyebrows, unless one looked from the side in just the right light. Fischer’s gently curved, aquiline nose and small pointed mouth gave the mistaken impression of a man deep in thought.
Ernst gripped the shift as Rathenau strode down the walk toward his automobile.
There had never been any mention of Sweden – of exile. Weimar was to fall – he was to be a hero, not a fugitive.
Though Ernst was a block away and could not make out details, he remembered how tall and handsome Rathenau had been when the minister had visited his father six years earlier.
What if Weimar did not ‘collapse’ as Kern assured? Ernst might be in Sweden for years; Lisa would be left in Berlin with Fritz.
Rathenau exchanged a few words with a manservant, positioned his black fedora on his head, and folded a walking stick under his arm. Ernst thought he took a deep, refreshing breath, as if pleased with the world and himself.
The Foreign Minister glanced up and down the street, then let himself into the back seat of his automobile. He opened his newspaper and appeared to exchange pleasantries with his chauffeur. Once moving, the car passed close enough for Ernst to hear the Foreign Minister laugh aloud.
“Follow a block behind,” Kern ordered.
Ernst’s senses sharpened. The overcast light brightened. He thought he could hear the trill of a Zaunkönig, one of the tiny yellow ‘fence kings’ who sang outside his window as a child. The Mercedes growled. From behind him came the sharp metallic locking of the machine pistol’s magazine. Though it was Saturday, the tree-lined Königsallee, redolent of roses and opulence, was not empty. They passed a trolley and a double line of Kindergarteners in white blouses and blue pinafores following their Mother Superior’s fluttering blue habit.
He remembered the story of his favorite poet Heinrich Heine, on his deathbed. The priest told him that God would forgive him his sins. “Why, of course he will forgive me,” Heine said. “That’s his business.” Ernst wondered if it was God’s business to forgive these next few moments.
Kern leaned forward and touched his shoulder. “Now!”
Ernst floored the accelerator, hoping the oil feed would hold. The roadster surged and gained on Rathenau. They were coming up on the tram lines. Rathenau’s car slowed to navigate the double bend in Königsallee. Ernst felt his heart race and misfire, the wind roaring in his ears. Hunched over the wheel, he chanted from a Free Corps marching song:
Shoot down Walther Rathenau.
He’s a goddamn dirty Jew.
Over and over he repeated the two lines for courage.
One car length ahead and to the right, Rathenau turned to the sound of their acceleration, perhaps concerned about a collision. Ernst wished not to see his face, but could not help himself. He recognized Rathenau immediately – his expression whimsical, curious. Their eyes met for a moment, and Ernst remembered his father and Rathenau in the Techow parlor, sipping liquor from fine crystal.
They passed a street cleaner’s dust heap. Rathenau smiled at Ernst and touched the handle of his cane to the brim of his black felt hat. His goatee suggested the face of Lenin. Ernst looked forward again, leaned into the steering wheel, accelerator on the floor. He could not stop from turning again and met the chauffeur’s uneasy glance. Over his shoulder Ernst saw Kern stand and turn toward Rathenau.
Ernst jerked with each rapid pop-pop-pop of Kern’s machine pistol. In his rearview mirror he glimpsed Fischer tossing the hand grenade almost into Rathenau’s lap. Brakes screeched. Rathenau’s car disappeared. At the intersection where Königsallee turns sharply to the right, over the trolley tracks that had bounced him as a boy, Ernst proceeded straight through onto Wallotstrasse.
“Faster!” Kern commanded.
The hand grenade detonated; the blast bruised his ears. Ernst heard one high pitched scream. A woman pointed at him, and then the intersection was behind them.
The street cleaner would later testify how Rathenau’s body lifted off the seat, how his car lurched briefly forward, then stopped.
At the trial four months later, Helene Kaiser, a middle-aged nurse who had been on her way to work at the tuberculosis ward of Friedrich Wilhelm Hospital, recalled how traffic from all five streets converging on the intersection had stopped. An eerie, hushed space opened around the smoking car, “like a bubble under water,” she said. Blue-gray smoke churning from the back seat dissipated so everyone could see the rounded back of a man slumped forward. She walked, then ran toward the car. Except for the smoke, the black limousine seemed strangely undamaged. She eased herself beside the toppled minister and maneuvered his head onto her lap. Rathenau’s chauffeur, miraculously unhurt, pulled off his driving goggles, and Frau Kaiser remembered his face smudged black from the explosion except for twin ellipses of pink skin around his eyes. Blood flowed freely from wounds in Rathenau’s jaw and neck, staining her uniform, but she stroked his forehead, murmuring reassurance as his face paled and mottled. He looked into her eyes, she testified, and held her gaze for a long moment before he died.
Ernst drove automatically, looking at everything, seeing nothing. The steering wheel felt cold and wet. His fists ached. Two blocks beyond the intersection, the engine’s hum abruptly coarsened and rattled – the exhaust thickened. The Mercedes jerked and bucked, screeched a metallic whine, and died.
Kern jumped out of the car. “Shit, Techow! There’s a police station not two blocks from here!”
“You saw the oil feed!” Ernst slammed the door behind him, plucked off his driving cap and hurled it onto the seat.
He threw open the smoking bonnet, but before he could look inside, Kern spun him around and grasped his shirt up short beneath his chin. “It’s a fucking Mercedes, Techow. A ten-year-old could make this run.”
In the years he had known Kern, Ernst had never seen his steely eyes as they were now, wild and distressed. He managed to whisper, “The Fat Man – we mustn’t be apprehended.”
Kern’s tremulous fist slackened. There was something smooth, momentarily graceful, as Kern’s body sagged for a moment, then firmed up again. He released Ernst. In that instant before he turned away, Ernst unexpectedly saw terror in his eyes.
“Take off your coat,” Kern ordered. “You too, Fischer. Push the car to the curb. Techow – under the bonnet as if you’re working on the engine. Hermann, disappear under the car.”
Kern threw the Mauser machine pistol over a wall into a private garden. Minutes later the first police car drove by on Wallotstrasse. Three policemen ran by, uninterested in two young men working on their car.
A crowd swelled at the intersection of Königsallee and Erdenerstrasse. Police officers had already cordoned off half the thoroughfare, creating a hopelessly tangled congestion of automobiles and horse carts. Ernst, Kern, and Fischer abandoned the car and filtered through the stunned crowd at Königsallee.
Three hours later they strode through the Tiergarten, then to the Brandenburg Gate, where massed marchers, already thousands, paraded in silent witness, dolefully, under the red banners of Socialism and the black-red-gold flag of the Weimar Republic. All of Berlin knew; a church bell tolled ceaselessly. Workers who had left their factories and warehouses marched, solemn and silent, in the city center.
Ernst clasped the straps of his knapsack, bulging with clothes and food for three days – the same pack he had carried as a boy, as a Wandervogel scout in the Black Forest with Fritz and Lisa before the Great War, before Organization C, before Kern assured him the Republic would collapse after Rathenau’s assassination. The Nationalists would seize power, the officer corps would back them, and, before the first snow, Ernst would be a hero of the Deutsches Reich, the German Empire.
But the crowd was funereal – a somber parade of working men and women, their heads bare. “This isn’t what you said would happen,” Ernst said to Kern.
Kern continued to lead them along the margin of the crowd. “It’s only been a few hours. Patience.”
“I don’t like this,” Ernst said.
Kern suddenly turned on Ernst and pushed him into a recessed doorway. Again his hot breath warmed Ernst’s face. “Don’t lose your nerve.” He gripped Ernst’s arms. “Just remember this. Never implicate OC – that’s all you need to remember. The courts are ours.” He released Ernst. “But there will be no problem. We’ll all be safe in Sweden.”
Ernst cleared his throat. “I’m not going to Sweden,” he said. “I’ll take my chances.”
Kern looked at his watch and turned to Fischer. “We’ll be late for the train, Hermann.” He turned again to Ernst. “You’re not staying for that girl, are you?”
Ernst stared back at Kern, bewildered. In that moment, he didn’t care a fig for OC or Kern, or Ludendorf or the new Reich – any of it. He wanted Lisa and to hell with the rest. He backed away from his co-conspirators, into the mob.
Kern pulled him back. “The Fat Man will be most upset.”
Ernst squirmed away.
Fischer pointed at his watch. “Time to go!”
“Fool!” Kern said. He and Fischer sprinted across the plaza. Ernst, clutching his knapsack, was jostled into the flow of the proletarian crowd, carried along by the current of mourners. A red banner slapped his face, and two burly men bumped him on either side. He stumbled, tripped by too many legs, lost the sky, and fell onto his knees, rolled to his side and strained to get back up again, gasping for air – for balance. He had unleashed a deluge, altered history, shamed his family. There was no undoing, no repairing the rent he had created in the world.
Undoubtedly, Lisa already knew. One had only to look out the window to know that something dreadful had occurred, something so memorable that people would recollect for the rest of their lives what they were doing at the moment when they learned Rathenau had been assassinated.
Ernst had to return to Schütt and Diestel’s Garage in the Schmargendorf suburb to pay off Schütt and retrieve his tools. Likely as not the fat garage owner was still drunk from last night.
Trams stood idle on the main lines. Conductors left their vehicles in the street to join the mourners. Such an odd feeling, snaking through the interstices of the dazed crowd in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate. He thought he must be the only person in this hypnotized city who had someplace to go. Every bump and jostle multiplied as if nerves reached out from his body like cat’s whiskers.
At Lisa’s dormitory, students milled on the green, clinking beer steins and exchanging gossip about the murder. Just below her window, on a table set up on the grass, a crudely lettered sign appealed for new members for the GNYO, the German National Youth Organization.
“Techow,” a young Nationalist called to him. “Happy St. John’s Day! Come have a beer!”
Ernst tried to smile and shook his head.
The young man caught up with Ernst. “If you’re looking for Lisa, she’s with Fritz. Emergency meeting of the national party. What a day, eh? The Deed of Deeds!”
Ernst wondered if they could tell by looking at him – surely a policeman could. “Yes. A great day.” He hurried into Lisa’s dormitory parlor where he scribbled a note and dropped it into her mailbox.
Going out of town for a few days. I’ll tell you all about this when
I return. I want you, more than anything.
If anyone asks, you haven’t heard from me.
I love you. Ernst
The instant he dropped the note into Lisa’s box, he saw the stern housemother squinting suspiciously at him from across the parlor, and he felt hunted. It was the terror he felt fighting Spartakists in the streets of Berlin a few short years ago and again during the Kapp Putsch – the feeling that he was in the crosshairs of some sniper’s Mauser 78. He wished for invisibility, but everyone seemed to be scrutinizing him with unusual attention.
For the next few days at least, he would be safe at his Uncle Erwin’s estate in Jacobsdorf. Uncle Erwin neither knew nor cared about the world beyond his estate – and Ernst was his favorite nephew.
Schütt’s Garage was deserted when he finally arrived late in the afternoon. A generator whirred in the far corner, churning and blending the penetrating scents of gasoline and oil, but the mechanics had abandoned their tools to join the mourning masses, leaving two cars with their bonnets raised.
He walked through the bays, across a small courtyard, and climbed the shadowed stairwell to Schütt’s apartment. As he turned the corner atop the stairs he was suddenly face to face with Schütt, and the shock set loose a flood of adrenaline, his heart banging hard and fast. They both backed away, startled. Ernst, almost a head taller, recognized Schütt’s bulging abdomen, barely contained by a grease-stained undershirt. Two days’ beard stubbled his hanging jowls. Soured cognac and wine, the Schweden punch that smelled so sweet last night, fouled his breath. His yellow teeth clenched the butt of a cold cigar.
Schütt squinted at him. “It was you, wasn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ernst said.
“I saw the machine pistol last night.”
“You saw nothing last night.” Ernst’s nostrils flared. He dug deeply into his pocket for the roll of money. “One thousand marks, Herr Schütt. I believe we’re settled.”
Schütt counted the bills. “You’re not going to rescue any goddamn Nationalists from a goddamn French prison, are you?”
“Herr Schütt, it would be better for you not to pursue this.”
“Rathenau – an important man.” Schütt’s eyes jumped from window to stairwell to Ernst.
“Herr Schütt, you are dealing with dangerous people. Forget this, or risk everything.”
Schütt laughed, spraying saliva. Ernst fingered the Free Corps dagger in his pocket.
“You rookie!” Schütt pulled the cigar stump from between his teeth. “You think I’d turn you in? I’d give you a fucking medal if I had one.” Then he laughed and escorted Ernst into his disordered apartment. “Just one question. Why now?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Schütt laughed again. It was stifling in the apartment, and flies lazily buzzed about a pitcher of Schweden punch and turned-over glasses. Ernst found the box of paint and brushes he had used to alter the license plate. His temples throbbed.
Schütt sank into his sagging couch, and more flies flew up like fat dust motes. He rested his feet on a low table littered with crushed cigarettes and empty glasses. “Whoever is behind this, they surely got everyone’s attention. Even my mechanics, not a Communist among them, left their jobs to join the march. They liked… no, they loved Rathenau. Stood up to the goddamn French.” He broke into fits of laughter again, then belched. “How’s Küchenmeister’s car?”
“Where’s my tool kit? It has my name on it.”
“Have some punch, Techow. You’ve earned it. Don’t worry about your tool kit. I’ll find it and keep it safe for you.”
Ernst circled behind Schütt and pressed the point of his dagger against his throat. Schütt’s cigar fell onto his lap.
“Don’t tempt me,” Ernst breathed. The blade trembled. “You… you are involved in this… this endeavor, up to your asshole. You and Diestel will be part of any prosecution. There can be no mistakes. My tools!”
Schütt laughed, nervously this time, and his stubbled jowls shook like soiled gelatin. “Under the kitchen sink, behind the soap powder.”
Ernst released him. “I only did this for Kern,” Schütt said. “He’s the only true soldier among you. It’s pathetic using boys to do a man’s job.”
Ernst stuffed the toolbox into a canvas sack and thundered down the stairs. As the garage door closed and the generator whir was suddenly muffled, he inhaled deeply, cleansed his lungs and felt light-headed; fear of snipers gave way to a peculiar sense that he was creating something mythic – something meant to be – something beyond substance. He felt invincible. He was going to get away with it; he felt an exhilaration not unlike the night he first undressed Lisa and their naked bodies touched.
Daylight had faded, tenement shadows grown long by the time he arrived at his mother’s apartment on Heydenstrasse. Through the wood panel apartment door he heard his younger brother, Hans Gerd, shouting at her and then her scolding retort. Ernst stood at the door listening, his hand unwilling to turn the knob. There was something reassuring about his mother’s tirade.
Ernst held the doorknob for a long moment, summoning his courage. His pulse started its bumblebee rhythm again. He opened the door in time to see Hans Gerd storm off to his room, leaving their mother standing by the kitchen, her hands perched hard on her hips as if they pinched them thin. Ernst thought right away that she knew.
“You’re late, Ernst,” she said, and turned back to her stove so he could only imagine her expression. “We’ll eat now. You need a haircut.”
Perhaps it was the hot, flat light of sunset that made her lips and cheeks so vibrant. When she was angry, color returned to her skin, and Ernst remembered how elegant she once had been, when his father was still alive and the house had thirty rooms, and there were parties. He and Leo would sit on the first floor landing, by the man-sized Chinese vase, watching the guests and eating sweet cakes and marzipan. His mother glittered in expensive but modest gowns, tall and thin, her long face delicately poised, her hair perfectly pinned, a vision floating from one guest to another. By her mockingbird laughter, delicate and unique, he knew exactly which room she was in when he closed his eyes. Then his father died and the dream evaporated.
“Hans Gerd! Come to the table immediately!”
Hans Gerd sulked out of his bedroom, his hair wild from inattention, and sat at a small kitchen table set for three. He nodded at Ernst then turned to steady a piece of black-bread with the stump where his right hand should have been, and buttered it with his left. Ernst could feel his mother’s glare, and he struggled to avoid eye contact.
“You heard what happened today.” His mother’s hair was badly brushed.
He studied the beans on his plate and speared three at once.
“You were in the city today, weren’t you?”
“Hmm. Yes, I was.” Even without looking up he could feel the chill in her eyes – the accusation in her tone.
Her serving spoon clacked a Delft Bowl, her eyes avoided his. She cleared her throat but still her voice rasped. “Were you involved in Dr. Rathenau’s murder?”
Ernst noticed her hands – red and chapped. “I hear it was an assassination – not really a murder.”
“Don’t be stupid!” she hissed and now looked at him. “I must know if you were involved.”
Ernst looked down. “Others did this!” A pigeon cooed on the windowsill. “I won’t be home tonight, Mother. Hans Gerd and I are going out. I may be away a few days on a job.”
“Your father…” She rummaged for exact words. “Your father would not have wanted you to break the law.”
He banged the table and locked eyes with her. “Father and his law! What about Grandfather? What about 1848?”
“I’m sorry to say – your grandfather would have been a Socialist,” she said, “like Leo, out there with the mob.”
Almost certainly his older brother Leo was parading in the street right now with the Reds and his detestable fiancée, Katherine.
Hans Gerd began to cough until his face turned red. His mother asked, “Did you take your medicine?”
“Yes…” His lips puckered, and he coughed again.
She stared at him through the mist over her soup. “The bottle is empty. I know when you lie to me.”
“I brought a new bottle from the Apothecary. Take some now. You are to be home by eleven.”
Ernst felt the all too familiar gravity of her condemnation. She served his father and became the magistrate of their mansion. She saw into his heart, exposed his lies, and meted out justice, sometimes with a wooden spoon. With his father’s death, there was a sudden vacuum she could not fill – no paid help, no galas, no receptions – and year by year she slowly collapsed. The breach of faith between them was almost too old to remember, and too large to endure. It was easier – a relief – for both of them to be angry.
The Corps Teutonia Pub, on Englischestrasse, a watering hole for Nationalist and monarchist students, occupied a huge basement across the Landwehr Canal from the University. By the glow of the Charlottenburg Bridge, Ernst and Hans Gerd cleared a path through the brush to the canal’s edge, and Ernst threw the sack from Schütt’s Garage into the inky water.
Max Guderjahn, proprietor of the Pub, watched over the entrance, his huge arms folded across his chest, taking the evening air. He smiled broadly when he recognized Ernst. “Ernst and Little Brother Techow. Always a pleasant surprise! The first beer is on me, in honor of today’s glorious events. You do know about Rathenau?”
“Of course,” Ernst said as Max led them down the cellar steps.
“Most remarkable,” Max said. “A deed among deeds. If I knew who the heroes were I would give them my Iron Cross and free beer for six months.”
“I might know who did it,” Hans Gerd said.
Max froze on the last step then turned to face them, his walrus mustache twitching.
Ernst dug his knuckle into Hans Gerd’s back, and he winced. “I mean, Herr Max, any number of organizations… It was obviously a professional job. I heard it was a machine gun and a hand grenade. Not much chance of failure.”
“No, I don’t suppose so.” Max’s forehead wrinkled quizzically, suspicious. He turned and led them into the subterranean hall teeming with students celebrating the assassination and St. John’s Day. Their gaiety, a welcome relief from his mother’s silent accusation and the somber procession of workers on the streets above, allowed Ernst’s anxiety to recede. His first beer quenched a deep thirst for amnesia, and each draught that followed calmed the cacophony of voices in his head – Kern, Lisa, his mother, Headmaster Strauss, Pastor Namann, and, most strident of all, his father. Three beers later, Hans Gerd sang along with the rest of the patrons, and his deformed right hand, free from its usual asylum in his jacket pocket, pounded the table in time to the music. Neither he nor Ernst had mentioned the murder.
During a lull in the singing Hans Gerd dragged Ernst to an empty table. “Well? Tell me about it?”
They leaned forward until their foreheads almost touched. Ernst felt lighter than he had in months – giddy with unexpected love for his brother. “The actual moment – the thing itself – was so simple. Worst of it was the shitting car. Fucking thing broke down two blocks away.”
“I need to disappear for a while.”
Hans Gerd leaned his head against the stump that was his right hand, a birth defect. “Will I see you again?”
“Of course you will.”
“You’ll need a good watch, Ernst.” He unstrapped the Krug-Bauman from his wrist and pushed it across the table.
Ernst turned the gold watch over in his hands, remembering when he had slipped it from the wrist of a dead Spartakist, after the Vorwärts battle, just after he had killed his first man. It bore the inscription, To My Angel.
“I’m glad you wear my watch,” Ernst said, “instead of the one Leo gave you. Keep it. It was your birthday present.”
“I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.” Hans Gerd blinked away tears. “You’re the only one who really understands me.”
Ernst wondered what proportion of his brother’s sentimentality was love and what proportion was beer. He puzzled over how his own bond to Hans Gerd was apportioned between filial love and pity.
Regardless of how exasperating he was, Ernst felt almost paternal and Hans Gerd reciprocated with admiration, almost worship for his older brother. How many times had he saved his life? From almost being hit by a tram after running into the street as a toddler, to helping him resign from Organization C this year. It was remarkable that he was still alive. OC’s leaders saw great promise in Hans Gerd – “eager, daring, great potential – just too young,” was how Hoffmann and Tillessen spoke of ‘the younger Techow.’ At fifteen, Hans Gerd had been the youngest member of OC, and now, the only person ever allowed to resign. OC’s leadership must have taken pity on him because of his age, or his deformity, or more likely, his brother Ernst. Anyone else would have been executed.
“Gimme a cigarette,” Hans Gerd said.
“Bad for your asthma.”
“Fuck my asthma. I’m drunk and I want a cigarette.”
“I will have to tell mother.” They laughed. Ernst raised his voice to falsetto. “I know when you’re lying to me, Hans Gerd.”
He leaned forward for Ernst to light his smoke. “Where will you go?”
“I don’t suppose I should tell you, but I may stay with Uncle Erwin until the heat is off. He’s always liked me. He once asked if I would consider taking over the estate from him when he retires. Imagine that.”
“He’s so peculiar. It’s no wonder he never married.”
“All the same, I like him. Sometimes I wonder what would have become of us if he were our father.” Ernst emptied another glass. “You look worried, Hans Gerd. Relax. Who would betray me? With the exception of you, OC kills traitors and informers. I’m not worried worth a fig.”
“And there’s always Lisa,” Hans Gerd said.
“Yes, there is always Lisa.”
Ernst planned to leave the next afternoon for Jacobsdorf on the 2:15 train from Anhalter Bahnhof. Better to sleep at the Pub tonight than to indulge his mother’s suspicions, or worse, succumb to her interrogation.
Within minutes of lying down in one of the dormitory rooms Max kept for special visitors, and in spite of a dull headache, Ernst fell into a sleep of dreams both disturbing and ephemeral. All he could recall when he sat bolt upright at dawn, chilled with sweat, was claustrophobia and contamination. After a few moments he recognized the room and remembered that Rathenau had been dead less than a day, that his deed would be the headline of every newspaper, on the lips of every person in the civilized world.
As he climbed the stairs out of the Corps Teutonia basement, the rising sun reignited his headache. White posters with red lettering had sprouted overnight on Englischestrasse lampposts and walls.
“MASSES!! HOLD YOURSELVES IN READINESS!!”
Maybe Kern’s prediction, Organization C’s dream, was correct, and, for a blessed moment, Ernst felt light – optimistic. Weimar would fall in a raucous revolution. He would be a hero. Lisa would marry him. Fritz, brilliant Fritz, would rise meteorically in the new Reich.
But then he crossed Charlottenburg Bridge and could see into the Tiergarten where silent demonstrators pressed together for a second day, all because of him and Kern and Fischer – three nobodies who had altered history. The city seemed to hold its breath, the streets so quiet he imagined he could hear the tumult in the Reichstag. He felt naked, villainous, and he was sure everyone in this silent mob damned him to hell.
It was necessary, he told himself over and over. Rathenau had to die.
Even the vaulted Anhalter Bahnhof train station was ghostly and silent. Children seemed to intuit the gravity of the day and clung to their parents’ hands or dresses. There was a palpable air of sadness in the station, and for a moment he felt the prick of shame, but he confused it with remorse and rejected it out of hand.
Ernst left Berlin on the D-Zug train first to Jena to visit friends in the Corps Thüringen, where he stayed overnight, and then on to Jacobsdorf, near Frankfurt-on-the-Oder, where Uncle Erwin met him at the station with an enthusiastic bear hug.
Erwin Behrens was the perfect antidote to Ernst’s mother – short and cherubically plump, perennially cheerful and more than a bit eccentric. The gap between his two front teeth gave him a slight lisp. Strawberry blond hair curled so tightly on his overlarge head as to resemble miniature shrimp, and his prized muttonchop sideburns bushed out too far. A long time ago Ernst’s heart had opened to Uncle Erwin – the one person in the family who Ernst thought valued him as fundamentally and unconditionally good.
“Oh, how wonderful to see you, Ernst! How wonderful!” Erwin shook his hand and clapped his back. “Always welcome, any time, any time.” He signaled an estate worker to carry Ernst’s knapsack.
“No, no, Uncle Erwin. I can carry it myself. Really…”
“Nonsense, boy. Come to the car. We have much to discuss. Day before yesterday – quite the day, eh? And now the ragtag unemployed in the streets. Filthy Communists! Oh, sorry, Ernst. I don’t usually involve myself with such things, but assassinating Rathenau – that’s something quite extraordinary.” He paused a moment in thought, then brightened and turned to Ernst. “Quick ride? So much more pleasant than it used to be. Ninety kilometers. Why, when I was a boy it would have taken all day. Mark my words boy, the railroad will be remembered as the single most important invention of the last thousand years.”
Uncle Erwin’s almost mystical trust and championing of Ernst had something to do with the ghost in the photograph.
When Ernst was much younger, before Hans Gerd was born, he was fascinated by what he called ‘the magical picture’ in Uncle Erwin’s parlor, which came to life whenever Ernst looked askance at it, with the same peripheral vision he used to sight faint stars. In the sepia photograph, a young Uncle Erwin, a trim cavalry officer with his emblematic, gap-toothed smile, sported a pencil mustache, one hand on his horse’s saddle, the other on his sword hilt. Sometimes his horse seemed to shake its mane. More regularly Ernst saw the ghostly outline of a woman hiding in the tapestry backdrop. According to Maria, Ernst’s nanny, she was Erwin’s fiancée‚ and it was either typhoid or Typhus that had taken her a week before their marriage.
“You must never ask your mother or your uncle!” Maria warned.
Of course, Ernst felt compelled to provoke his mother, so he told her about the ghost he saw. She said to stop talking stupidly. When he summoned the courage to ask Uncle Erwin, the old man looked wistfully at the photo and sighed, “Beatus.” Neither Hans Gerd nor Leo could see the “ghost lady,” as they called her, and Ernst could only conclude that was why Uncle Erwin favored him.
In the gloom of his uncle’s living room Ernst saw the giant headline in the day old Jena newspaper. He picked it up gingerly, as if it might be electrified, and sank into a wingback chair. His heart churned as he read accounts of the assassination and the paralysis of a nation. Even the Stock Market closed for the day.
Socialists and Independent Socialists massed in Berlin and every other city in Germany – orderly demonstrations of working people mourning the loss of their unlikely champion, this aristocrat, this intellectual, this Jew.
In the Reichstag, the Independent Socialist Herr Crispien demanded that all former officers be dismissed from the Reichswehr and the police, and that the property of former ruling houses be confiscated for the purpose of reparations.
If the government fails to do this, the workers would be obliged to act in self-defense and violence will be answered with violence.
The Wirth government issued a Presidential decree creating a Special Law for the Protection of the Republic and a special court with broad powers to “suppress threats and organizations espousing the destruction of the Republic.” Influential deputies are predicting the coming war to the death between democrats and those who follow the Kaiser. Cries of ‘Revenge!’ filled the Reichstag.
He laughed nervously when he read that the reward for the assassins was one million marks. Ernst fantasized himself an old man showing these yellowed pages to an adoring grandson on his lap.
His uncle bustled in, his head in a cloud of cigar smoke. “They’ve arrested this Tillessen fellow in Flensburg.” Erwin poured Ernst a cognac. “Member of that murder organization – Organization Consul. Organization C. Heard of it?”
Ernst felt gooseflesh prickling his arms. “Just what I read in the newspaper.” Tillessen? How could the police have acted so quickly? How could Uncle Erwin know? He drank half the snifter and let the burn distract him. Until now, Erwin was his unconditionally loving, old bumbling uncle. If he knew the truth, what would Erwin think – what he would do? Ernst wondered just how safe he was at Uncle Erwin’s.
“All mixed up in this Rathenau mess, sine dubio. Nasty business.” He raised his glass. “Prost, Ernst.”
Uncle Erwin dropped onto his easy chair and it groaned. He eyed his nephew and pulled on his cigar. “I know you and Hans Gerd have been involved with that patriotic student group – and bully for you – what’s that name…”
“German National Youth Organization?”
“That’s it – GNYO. Good people. But this murder organization, this Organization Consul – another thing altogether. Despicable. Can’t be running around murdering anyone you don’t like. It’s not like it’s war.”
Ernst emptied his glass. “This Organization C probably does think it’s war.” His legs trembled. “Would that make a difference, Uncle?”
“Damn right it would – but it’s not… war, I mean. Bunch of silly radicals.” Erwin sighed and wiped his face. “Rathenau wasn’t all bad, you know. Gave those French blood-suckers a run for their money at Genoa. Even if he was a Jew. Carpe Diem I always say.”
“But Versailles, and the Rapallo Treaty,” Ernst said. “With the Bolsheviks, no less. Betrayal! It’s a wonder he wasn’t murdered before now.”
“Calm yourself, dear boy. You’re too young to understand the subtlety of politics. Can’t be so pure – or so hot-blooded.”
“He’s a blood-sucking Jew, Uncle.”
He flapped one hand at Ernst. “There, there – must be calm – civilized. Even your father, no friend of the Versailles ‘stab-in-the-back,’ invited Rathenau to your home. If I’m not mistaken, you’ve met him.” Erwin re-lit his cigar. “My brother, your Uncle Peter, was chief architect for Rathenau’s father, Emil – funny little man. Your father advised him about legal matters for his electric company. Everything is complicated. But, dixi, enough politics and murder. What about you, boy?”
“Uncle.” Ernst felt lightheaded as he poured himself another cognac. He steadied his voice with effort. “In two years I graduate, and I wonder if your offer to work here on your estate is still good?”
Erwin’s face brightened. “Wonderful, dear boy. Wonderful! I’d like nothing better. I could show you the books – that’s really the heart of the business. Handling the workers, now that’s another kettle of fish altogether – lazy bunch – Communists and peasants. Have to be tough with them. Respect a strong boss. Don’t like me, but they respect me. And I pay decent wages. Nothing to complain about. Anyone who does… complain I mean, gets the boot – thrown right out.”
“The Communists – they may take advantage of the turmoil to overthrow the government.” Ernst searched his face for affirmation of Kern’s prediction.
“Communists will riot over anything – anytime. Not a few of my workers, no doubt.”
“Do you have guns?”
“Of course. Everybody has guns – and a few loyal overseers who are not afraid to use them. If things get out of hand, I know who to call in Jena.”
“Yes, of course. Can’t call on those Weimar buffoons. Take them a month to send troops. By then we’d be a Bolshevik republic. You know all about the Free Corps. You were at the Royal Palace, weren’t you?”
Ernst flushed with pride. “Yes, Uncle.”
“Bit of unpleasantness that was, what with your brother and all. Leo’s a good boy, just confused, like so many. Your mother – she’s the one I feel sorry for. Ever since your father died, she’s beside herself with worry – about both of you. And Hans Gerd with that deformed hand. Dies Irae – such tragedy – breaks my heart every time I think of it. I try to help her all I can, but she’s a proud woman – too proud, if you ask me. Proud but not very strong, your mother. Does as well as she can.”
“What if because of Rathenau’s assassination, Weimar were to fall to the Free Corps?”
He shook his head decisively. “Never happen. Too many Socialists and Communists.”
“But if some miracle were to occur – wouldn’t you be glad for it?”
Erwin drank his cognac and seemed lost in thought. “I’m too old for revolutions. And it’s bad for business. Sometimes, I just want to shut the gates to keep the world out.”
“Aren’t you a member of the National Socialist Party?”
“Yes, of course. Damned stupid name, if you ask me. Ridiculous. Who thought of that?”
“I think it was this Hitler fellow.”
“Ever meet him?”
“As a matter of fact I have – about two years ago. A small man – very intense.”
“Never can tell about people. Don’t trust small men, I always say. Tend to be Napoleons. Can’t trust them. That Organization Consul is named after Napoleon. Called himself Consul. See what I mean? Do you like it here?”
“Yes, I do, Uncle. Berlin is just too busy and noisy.”
“Quality of life, my boy. Can’t beat it. Halle and even Leipzig are not that far away. And Jena – a very respectable little city. Decent place to live, not like Berlin with those nasty cabarets and sexual perversions. O tempora! O mores! I live well here. You would like it. Can always use a good man with a university education. What are you studying?”
Uncle Erwin asked the same question every time they met. “Literature – European Literature.”
“Hmm.” He stroked his chin. “No matter. You’ll learn what you need to.”
Three days later Ernst woke to a rough hand jostling his shoulders. In his dream he had been riding a swan, like Lohengrin, and had beckoned Lisa to join him. She was undecided, but now came towards him. He reached out a hand for her, but the swan began to buck and shake until he woke to the barrel of a pistol.
“There are two ways you can die today.” Uncle Erwin’s voice was taut, his face red-hot. “I can give you over to the workers. They will tear you limb from limb. Or I can send you into the woods with this pistol to do the honorable thing yourself.”
Ernst sat up slowly, backing away from this red-eyed caricature of his Uncle who threw the morning paper into his lap.
“Ernst Werner Techow, Edwin Kern, and Hermann Fischer,” he recited from memory, “have been identified as the three assassins of Foreign Minister Rathenau. Ernst Werner Techow, 21 years old, an ex-officer and active member of the secret ‘Organization C’ is said to have been the driver of the murder car.”
Ernst shivered. “I had no choice, Uncle. You’ve got to believe me. They would have killed me – and Hans Gerd. How did they find out?”
“Ten conspirators arrested. One of your own comrades made a deal with the prosecutors. Fellow named Günther. Some friend.”
“It had to be done.”
“Be still!” The pistol barrel quivered. “I don’t want to hear your rationalizations.”
“They would have killed me.”
Uncle Erwin’s eyes grew large. “Your mother called from the police station. Do you care what’s happened to her? Your mother and Hans Gerd were picked up early this morning. Like common criminals. Your mother knew nothing and she was allowed to call me for help.”
Ernst felt lightheaded. A fine sweat broke above his lip, his heart a convulsing knot. Why had he not considered catastrophe? Was he so smug, so impulsive he could not conceive of disaster? There would be no failure, Kern had promised; everything had been carefully planned. And Ernst had believed him. But three days – only three days – and the conspiracy was breached. What a fool he’d been. How stupid. “What are you going to do with me?” Ernst asked.
“I’ve already called the police. I suggest you cooperate and your prison term may be shortened.” He paced the small room, arms crossed over his chest. “Don’t protect these murderers; they only do our cause harm.”
Ernst’s heart beat fast and regular again, but he felt like a child about to be severely disciplined – a child whose protestations only added to his shame. “Kern and Fischer are heroes. Rathenau is the traitor.” He threw off the covers. “The reward is one million marks, Uncle. Do you have to share that with Günther? At least I can hold my head up knowing I served the Vaterland honorably. What about you?”
Erwin’s lips trembled. His brow furrowed sadly. The barrel of the pistol tremored and slowly sank. “It isn’t loaded, Ernst. I would not have wanted you to shoot yourself.” His voice was husky with emotion. “I’m sorry…” His throat closed and he turned to leave. He pulled the door softly behind him and Ernst heard his fumbling key, the tumblers falling. Police sirens wailed in the distance; through the bedroom window Ernst watched a dust cloud advancing from the Jacobsdorf Road.
He could hardly think. Maybe he would be better off dead; the pain and shame would be erased in an instant.
He heard boots on the stairs, Uncle Erwin’s key unlocking and, suddenly, four policemen burst into his bedroom, pistols drawn. An Inspector, black spectacled, stood at the door. His overlarge blue uniform hung from bony shoulders
Uncle Erwin mumbled explanations that Ernst barely understood. There were ‘special circumstances,’ Erwin explained; more than once Ernst heard his father’s name. The word ‘shackles’ roused him as if from a stupor.
“…he’s a good boy, just confused. He’ll go with you on his own accord. His father was a magistrate.”
Inspector Fluth, Chief of the National Police for Internal Security sighed and settled a bony finger against his gaunt jaw. He removed his police helmet and passed a handkerchief over his short-cropped black hairs. Ernst could almost hear them bristle. After a thoughtful pause, Fluth pursed his lips and nodded to the policemen.
The kitchen staff and chambermaids watched as the entourage shuffled down the broad staircase. In the courtyard, stable boys leaned on their pitchforks. When they reached the side of the police car, a six-seater Mercedes, one policeman applied the irons to Ernst’s wrists.
“Back to work!” Erwin yelled at the boys, but his voice broke.
On the police sedan’s back seat, flanked by two officers, Ernst sank into the leather upholstery.
After an hour of travel, Inspector Fluth half-turned to study him. Without his spectacles Fluth seemed more forgiving, even empathetic. Ernst noticed late afternoon beard stubble.
“We picked up Günther right away – within twelve hours. He confused us – bragged about doing it! Then he cut a deal. As far as OC is concerned, Günther’s a dead man. Your buddies, Kern and Fischer, are still at large. We’ll get them.”
The Chief Inspector wiped the past few days’ exhaustion from his eyes. “If you ask most of the men in my squad, they’d say get rid of all the Jews. But you can’t kill just one. You have to think big; then it’s a service to the Vaterland. But you,” he shook his head, “you’re a sucker – someone’s fool. You’ll get the book thrown at you. We have to – for appearances.”