A gripping novel of historical espionage, about an eleventh-hour attempt by members of the German elite to unseat Adolf Hitler, and its endlessly complex consequences.
In late 1937, the young lieutenant Oskar Langweil is recruited to this cause while attending a party at the lavish home of a baroness. A high-ranking officer in Germany's counterintelligence agency brings Oskar into the fold because of their mutual involvement in a patriotic youth league, and soon dispatches him to Washington, D.C., on a perilous mission. Despite his best efforts, Oskar is compromised, and must immediately find a way to sneak back into Germany unnoticed. A childhood friend introduces him to Lena, a Socialist and fellow expat, and they hatch a plan to have Oskar pose as her husband as they cross the Atlantic on a cruise ship filled with Nazis and fellow travelers. But bad luck follows them at every turn, and they find themselves messily entangled with the son of a U.S. Senator, a White Russian princess, a disgraced journalist, an aging brigadier, and a gay SS officer as the novel races toward an explosive conclusion.
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RICHARD GRANT was born in Norfolk in 1952, attended the University of Virginia, and served in the U.S. Coast Guard. He lives in Rockport, Maine, where he has been a contributing editor of Down East magazine, chaired the literature panel of the Maine Arts Commission, and won a New England Journalism Award for his column in the Camden Herald.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
At Home with the Baroness von F——
Berlin, Fasanenstrasse: November 1937
The tall east-facing windows would have given a splendid view of sunrise over the Tiergarten were it not for a drapery of fringed and weighted damask, drawn over them one morning in the spring of 1933 and never opened since. The Baroness missed the sunrise. But not so much as she loathed the other lights that now regularly played there. Torches, borne in endless columns by grown men in short leather pants and foolish hats like drunken farmers on holiday. Bonfires, encircled by boys with their hair cropped as if they were little soldiers, voices raised in shrill völkisch anthems or pitched too low for their throats and impossibly solemn, chanting oaths to the Fatherland, to the Leader, to the “sacred brotherhood born of blood and soil.” Hand-held lanterns, bobbing and swaying in the sweaty grip of policemen. Or maybe not policemen; they sometimes wore long leather coats or uniforms the Baroness didn’t recognize—who knew what anybody was anymore? And once, before her own eyes, a light she could not have mistaken: the muzzle flash of a rifle, like the momentary striking of a match, burning a hole in her memory.
And so the Baroness had withdrawn behind her curtains, ceding to the ruling mob its claim on the streets and the Plätze. Shake your heads, believers in the magic of open views and the fortifying properties of sunlight. The Baroness in her long life had collected enough views to fill a vast private gallery. As for sunlight, well . . . it fades the chintz and causes wrinkles and—don’t you agree, mein Herr?—those things we can achieve without solar assistance.
A newcomer to the von F—— circle was advised, at such a moment, to neither demur nor agree but rather, in the old-fashioned style, to bow from the waist while holding the Baroness’s gaze—a token of mute admiration, as it were. One might smile. One might, if an officer in uniform or a bona fide member of the aristocracy, clap one’s heels. Above all, one would do well to hold one’s tongue. Conversation with the Baroness had been likened by an old brigadier to advancing into unmapped territory held by Cossacks or Tatars. You just didn’t know what sort of thing might come jumping out at you.
Fresh air was a different matter. The Baroness would not be denied her just portion of the famous Berliner Luft. And so each morning, even on a day like this when early snow threatened, an aged house “girl,” whose service to the von F—— family predated the doorbell, was sent tunneling through chinks in the damask to throw open the heavy sashes and so admit the sounds and smells of the great, ugly, beloved city. Drapery puffed in and out, as if the old apartment were laboring for breath. A wood fire swelled in its finely carved, Gothically arched marble surround. Fine ash floated everywhere, and the so-called girl gave chase with a molting feather duster.
The Baroness had grown accustomed to moping in her boudoir until midafternoon, calling for the newspapers and then throwing them angrily to the floor, soaking for an hour in a hideous bathtub her late husband had dragged back from some château where his staff had wintered in 1916. She permitted herself three cigarettes a day. If the first came earlier than three p.m., the girl took this as an ill harbinger and sought refuge among the linens on the upper story.
Pünktlich at six, Sundays and Thursdays, the Baroness would appear, her wraithlike body lent substance by several yards of Parisian couture, in the archway of a long, dark and tomblike chamber she alone called the Grand Salon, and ceremoniously declare, “Je suis à la maison,” as though she quite expected the door to burst open with the press of friends and admirers and social comers and unappreciated artists and doe-eyed ingénues and musicians lugging battered instrument cases and banned novelists making straight for the bar, along with the customary handful of handsome Wehrmacht officers and discreetly murmuring diplomats and perhaps a strange boy with a doomed, Young Werther look, clutching the balcony rail as though debating whether to hurl himself over or wait and see if the music would be any good.
The amazing thing was, the Baroness was right—that’s just what would happen, and soon. Exactly that sort of crowd flocked to her large, gloomy flat two evenings every week, come snow or rain or wrinkle-inducing sunshine. And the Baroness would breathe a deep sigh, nodding in the melancholy assurance that while that wretched Austrian cur might be dirtying the name of Germany among the nations of the world, he hadn’t succeeded—not yet—in destroying the Berlin she’d always known, nor in driving all the interesting people into exile. If anything, the parties were better than ever.
“Would you permit me, Baroness,” murmured a bent old gentleman at her elbow—he used to be something in the Bendlerstrasse, she thought—“to present my young friend . . .”
She would not remember the boy’s name five minutes hence. But she raised her gloved hand to be kissed; it was vital for the sake of old and young alike that the forms be preserved. Let the heathens rage, loose the dogs of war, set truth and beauty to the torch—ach, the world is full of horrors, always has it been so. But surrender one’s sense of decorum, forget the simple graces that set us apart from grunting beasts, and tell me, mein Herr, what is left?
The Baroness gave a slight shake of the head, willing such thoughts away. Her face felt oddly flushed, and she wondered for a moment if she’d actually spoken aloud. Perhaps not—the old gentleman was nodding happily at something his friend had said. Lowering her hand, she felt for a long, dizzy moment that she might burst into tears.
Naturally, she did no such thing. One didn’t. But really, it was too horrid, all of it. The incessant marching. The banners, the beer-hall songs, the screaming on the radio. So much anger. So little ordinary kindness. Couldn’t something—anything—be done? Wasn’t it about time? The Baroness cast an eye over the Grand Salon, wondering vaguely who all these people were. Not their names or their titles. Who they really were.
The people one knows! That angular young man over there, haunting the corner near the piano: hadn’t he given a recital at the Gedächtniskirche? She felt sure of it, though she retained no impression of the performance itself. Good or bad, it hardly recommended him for the grim requirements of the day. Nearby, gesturing theatrically with one hand while deftly balancing a plate of little sandwiches in the other, a White Russian princess, poor as a church mouse, essayed a canny imitation of her boss at the Foreign Ministry. Awfully impudent—yet the girl had that quality the British, God save them, call pluck. She might be good for something. Now, who was that frightful little man she was talking to? Short and dark, part Ottoman by the look of him, his naturally glum features twisted into a tortured smile at the Russian girl’s antics. A dwarf, the Baroness thought, a mountain dwarf from the Tyrol.
Her spirits were rising again as the evening wound itself up, spinning faster and faster like a child’s toy. She remembered the glass of aged cognac at her elbow and, turning for it, aimed a quip at the old fellow from the Bendlerstrasse—but he was gone, and his young friend with him. Yes, enjoy yourselves, my dears, she thought. Forget the ghastly world for a while. It will still be there tomorrow. And tomorrow and tomorrow, for the next thousand years.
Mendelssohn,” said the Colonel with a chuckle. “She’s got them playing Mendelssohn!”
Oskar, feeling stiff and graceless in his dinner-dress lieutenant’s uniform and far out of his depth in this company, smiled politely even though he didn’t see what the joke was. He peered around the library at the little crowd, a mixed lot—people from the ministries, soldiers like himself, Greimer the once-eminent journalist, a young count and an old one, a couple of drab-looking fellows whom Oskar suspected of being artists—while for several moments everyone listened dutifully to a trio for piano and strings that floated softly from the adjacent hall. The goings-on out there seemed far removed from this hushed, oak-paneled, high-ceilinged room, which he guessed had been the private sanctuary of the late Baron. We mustn’t disturb him, he’s in the library.
“Mendelssohn was a Jew,” explained a quiet voice at his side.
He turned to find himself the target of an opaque, passionless gaze—from a man some years older than himself dressed all in black, affecting a cape and a curled lip and the approximate skin tone of a vampire, achieved with a dusting of facial powder over a complexion scarred from some childhood illness. An actor, possibly? A cabaret singer? Probably just another character, one of millions, out of the Berlin night.
“A Jew,” he repeated, in a voice etched with sarcasm, “and thus forbidden in the New Order. Poisonous music, fatal to the German folk-soul!”
He made no effort to speak quietly and by now had attracted the notice of people nearby. The Colonel smiled, shaking his head, and the disheveled and startled-looking Greimer said, “Calm down, Stav, you’re alarming a trained warrior, which can lead only to sorrow.”
Oskar felt out of step, his reactions coming half a second late. A smile, signaling no offense taken. A nod, thanking the vampire for explaining what was funny about Mendelssohn. Though now he understood that it hadn’t been a joke after all—the Colonel had laughed not in amusement but in admiration for the old lady’s nerve. All these people . . . you had to expect a few of them would be having a chat later with the Gestapo, or the Ordnungspolizei, or the block warden, or some other defender of racial hygiene. At any rate, it was never safe to assume otherwise. To someone of Oskar’s age and background, the habits of extreme discretion came as second nature. But he guessed that people like the Baroness had never needed to learn such things, or maybe simply didn’t care to.
“Listen,” someone said. “They’ve switched to Schubert.”
Quiet again. An air of disappointment. Then a female voice, giggly with champagne, began trilling the Romantic lyrics of “Out of Old Fairy Tales.” Laughter, a smattering of applause. Out in the hall, a man’s voice shouted, “Brava, Cissy!”—then, in English, “Swing it, girl!”
“Heine,” Stav murmured helpfully at his side. “This is based on a poem by Heine—another Jew by birth. Evidently, this will be our theme tonight.”
Oskar found it odd that one was required, and again he felt, in this setting, self-conscious and stiff-backed, as though he’d just marched off the parade ground at Lichterfelde. Not for the first time, he wondered why the Colonel had invited him along—rather forcefully, in fact, as if it was a question of duty, one of those thousand subtle expectations, nowhere written down, that a German officer must satisfy. Especially an officer who, like Oskar, couldn’t count on a famous name or high-ranking connections to smooth his career. His own father, a captain of artillery, had fought for several months without distinction in the Great War before being sent off by an opposite number on the French side. That hadn’t kept Oskar from wanting to be a soldier; if anything, it made him feel obliged to carry on the family tradition, though more successfully this time. And so he stood now freshly commissioned in Berlin, the glittering Hauptstadt, in the fifth glorious year of the Millennial Reich, killing time as adjutant to a soon-to-retire operations specialist while awaiting his first real posting.
The song rambled a few stanzas further before losing itself among the clamor of other guests trying to sing along, until finally the tipsy diva lost her momentum. A violinist took up the melody, and things began to quiet down. Just then an elderly servant entered the library with a fresh tray of champagne, but something in the room—a charge in the atmosphere—caused her to reverse course and hastily shuffle back out. At which point the young count firmly shut the door. Oskar was able at last to eavesdrop on a conversation among a small group of men including his own Colonel who’d gathered beside a large, outdated globe mounted on a brass stand with complicated fittings like some arcane tool of augury.
“Didn’t anyone object?” the Colonel wanted to know. Clearly riled by something. Indignant.
“Does anyone dare, these days?” said an old brigadier, his hair razed to a white bristle. “Talk back to Hitler, I mean. They’ve got themselves in a golden vice. Keep their mouths shut, he’ll give them everything they’ve dreamed of. But raise so much as a whisper—”
“Not everything,” the Colonel objected. “And not exactly give them.”
The Brigadier smiled—benignant, patriarchal. His dinner-dress uniform had acquired a sheen from too many launderings but was resplendent with decorations, many dating from the previous century. “Naturally, they’re worried about their careers,” he said, with the detachment of someone for whom such worries were distant indeed. “Who are they, if they quit the army? What are they doing in this unholy mess?”
“What are any of us doing?” said a man in civilian clothes. Edgy, angular, leaning slightly forward as though prepared to make a dash for it, he flicked onyx eyes at those around him, catching Oskar too for just an instant. “Look at us—eating and drinking, listening to music, bantering with our pals as if everything’s perfectly normal.”
“What would you have us do, Hans-Bernd?” said the Brigadier, his tone still cordial, though now with a flinty edge. “Go around in sackcloth and ashes, moaning about the sorry state of the world? Hard times come and go. Rascals worm their way into high places but never last long there. Radical programs are self-defeating. Think of the Anabaptists in Münster.”
“There’s something to that,” said Hans-Bernd. “We’re seeing now the same level of fanaticism. And the same degree of wanton cruelty, masquerading as righteousness. But when you say ‘self-defeating,’ I’m afraid I can’t agree with you. The Anabaptists didn’t burn themselves out. They needed to be smashed to a bloody pulp.”
“All right, but still—they brought their doom on themselves, didn’t they? By their own excesses. The reaction was inevitable.”
“I take it then, Herr Brigadegeneral, had you been around at the time, you’d have rallied to the banner of Westphalia?”
“Without a moment’s hesitation.”
“Well, then . . .” Hans-Bernd made a sweeping gesture with one hand. Go right ahead, then. Or maybe: What the hell are you waiting for?
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