Currents of War – excerpt 4


Berlin, Germany – 1932-1933

The country began to hemorrhage. Over the next month, looting, murders, and gunfights ripped through every city and town. The Brownshirts and Communists went at each other’s throats. A brazen shootout claimed 19 lives and almost 300 wounded. The Nazi papers, which Dempsey had now begun to read, claimed the communists were also part of the Jewish conspiracy. No one was prosecuted for the crimes of vandalism, thuggery, and murder that engulfed the nation on a scale never before seen in the country. Berlin was put under martial law, and the entire Prussian state, one-half of Germany, was under emergency decree. The government was immediately purged of all Catholics, Jews, and socialists.

After the July 31 elections that saw the Nazi party double its electorate, it was as if a faucet had been shut off. Months streamed by with hardly any physical antagonism. What was reported was only word-of-mouth hearsay, as nothing ever appeared in the newspapers. A false sense of security fell over Christians and Jews alike, even as the papers continued their anti-Semitic rhetoric. For Dempsey, daily life settled back to seductive normalcy at work and play.

On a frigid Monday, January 30, 1933, the telephone rang in Dempsey’s tiny office. He jumped from the sudden clanging vibrato. He couldn’t imagine who’d be calling on the day Adolf Hitler was to be sworn in as Reichskanzler, German Chancellor, under the ‘Old Gentleman’, President Paul von Hindenburg. Every shop in the country was closed for this horrendous occasion. A blaze of fear swept through him as if the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, National Socialist German Workers Party might be calling to see why he wasn’t at the ceremony chanting in the freezing streets along with tens of thousands of ardent Nazi loyalists.

Hallo? Niedermannhuas.

“Dempsey, it’s Mordche. Germany is fucked. The ‘Little Corporal’ has been sworn in.”

“Well, yes, of course. What do you think I can do about it?”

“Dempsey, my parents have left Berlin. They cleaned out their bank accounts and made for England. They wanted me to go, but, you know, I couldn’t leave Gretchen.”

Scheiße. How Can I help?”

“Just stay inside today. I think every Stormtrooper and SS man in the nation is in Berlin. They’re staging a massive celebration at Brandenburg Gate this evening. It’s not a place to be if you’re a Jew.”

“Thanks for the warning, cousin. I was just about to go down to claim a front row seat.”

Mordche was silent a few seconds. “I know you, Dempsey. You’re impetuous. It’s in your blood to do stupid things.”

And Mordche was right. Late afternoon, Dempsey donned several layers of underwear and picked from the rack a brown double breasted suit with cuffless trousers, a pale orange shirt, and a green tie. He overlaid the ensemble with a brown 8×4 topcoat, dogtooth checked wool scarf and tan chamois gloves. The dark gray Homburg hat made him an imposing figure over six feet six inches tall. He had the appearance of a man much older than his almost nineteen years.

At dusk, Dempsey squeezed onto a bus crammed with people of good cheer. Everyone was exceptionally courteous to one another, smiling and chatting away as if the whole of Berlin were family relations. Fleeting phrases vied with exultant, blaring car, truck, and bus horns.

Günstige Zeiten, prosperous times!”

Glänzende Zukunft, bright future!”

Err ist ein engel, he’s a godsend!”

Nie wieder Judan, no more Jews!”

The human current of ecstatic celebrants stopped the bus a mile from Brandenburg Gate. Dempsey flowed along with all the joyful faces, mostly men and women, but a few children as well. Everyone exchanged pleasantries along with their Sieg Heil, and Heil Hitler. Even the local police patrols, who gave Jews some measure of safety from the Brownshirts, now wore swastika armbands and had broad smiles for the former agitators.

After the very first frown came his way from his failed raised arm response to an energetic Hitlergruss, a stiff, straight arm salute, Dempsey’s arm began jerking up automatically at every face that turned in his direction. The overwhelming crowd noise precluded him from actually having to utter Sieg Heil, but he mouthed it just the same.

Mordche was accurate in his assessment of the turnout. Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people had converged on Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the new Führer-Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. The frigid air, steamed with the breath-fog of the multitudes, glowed yellow with torchlight carried by countless rows of marchers. Flag banners with the ubiquitous black Hakenkreuz, broken cross, on a white circle against a crimson background, seemed to float by above the spectator’s heads. The Hörst Wessel song rose in waves from strong male voices, blending eerily with the legions of cheering well-wishers, drums, and blaring martial parade music.

To acquire a better view, Dempsey offered an exuberant young couple a supreme vantage point for their child upon his shoulders, then took the child’s place on the storefront windowsill. The whole of Wilhelmstrasse pulsed with the rhythmic pounding goosestep of thousands upon thousands of booted Br0wnshirt Stormtroopers and black-clad Schutzstaffel, SS, as they passed in perfect formation beneath the Brandenburg Gate on their way to the Reich Chancellery two kilometers away. Dempsey was mesmerized by the overwhelming spectacle and the vibrant energy that electrified the air. For long moments he stared, as did so many others, caught up in the mystical allure.

With apologies, he returned the child to its grateful parents, and received three simultaneous Sieg Heils and matching Heil Hitlers. As if pulled along by a magical towline, Dempsey followed the procession to the Chancellery. His formidable bearing, thanks to his height and bulk of added undergarments, allowed him to work his way to within fifty meters of the large open window where the ‘old Gentleman’ himself stood stern, yet elegant. Paul von Hindenburg was an imposing figure, at least equal in height to Dempsey, but double the weight. He seemed to Dempsey like a massive, foreboding statue in his immaculate military uniform decorated with a pastiche-like array of colorful medals emblazoned across his chest. His 84 years had no effect upon his impressive stature.

As the endless stream of troops passing in review below reached the viewing window, they swiveled their upper bodies in unison while projecting the arms in the Hitler salute. Hindenburg returned no such salute, but stood rigid, his rugged features set with an indecipherable bearing.

When the last of the parade had marched by, Hitler was still absent from his own office window. The crowd now made up of civilians, brownshirts, and SS, filled all breathable space in front of the Chancellery along Wilhelmstrasse. Music that had accompanied the review in such glaring military beats, was now reduced to a methodical thumping of drums. The hundreds of handheld torches seemed to flicker in sync with the slow pounding cadence and the flapping gold and red Nazi banners.

Anticipation of seeing the Führer galvanized every living soul, their eager faces turned to the empty second story window. Men, women, and children along with the SA and SS waited. The tension was palpable and focused by the drum beat. Slowly at first, then increasing in volume, voices joined together in fevered pitch, chanting over and over and over: Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!

As if a deity descending from the heavens, Hitler appeared at the window in the beam of a spotlight. This diminutive man in a drab suit, with a severe, side-swept haircut and toothbrush mustache stepped into a maniacal outpouring of worshipful adulation. Screams and shouts and chants roiled through the crowd, echoing off the buildings. Thousands of arms shot out in salute.

“Heil! Sieg Heil!” Hail! Hail Victory!

The rapture of the unified voices blasted Dempsey like a cannonade from the depths of hell. True fear solidified in his throat and spread out across his chest. It took all his willpower to take a breath. With an effort he’d never exercised before, Dempsey saluted his way out of the crush of people until he was free of the human assembly that would most certainly want to see him dead. He ran until his breath seared his throat and his legs wobbled with fright. He stopped, trembling in both body and mind. His ears buzzed with drums and chants. His eyes burned with the afterglow of raging torches. No coherent thought came to him. Only revulsion and fear.

Dempsey glanced around and saw nothing. He sat on the curb in an empty street and cried.

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