The psychopathology of the masses is rooted in the psychology of the individual. Carl Jung
On March 16, 1939, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and Hitler baptized this spoil of aggression and diplomatic duplicity as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Hitler’s 97% Sudetenland Germans support for his Nazi party proved to be a real force for his ambitious plan to appropriate the Czech military, steel and chemical industrial base. The Munich Agreement, signed on September 30, 1938, remembered by Chamberlain’s claim of “peace for our time”, paved Hitler’s path.
Fast forward to 1941, the beginning of autumn to be exact, and we see a number of chinks in the plan. The German fighting machine on the Eastern front is in trouble; the once ambivalent British state is supporting the exiled Czechoslovakian government out of London, and with the help of the British, that same exiled government is running a resistance network and wreaking havoc in their former capital and Berlin; and the SS actions toward the Jews in the East is causing the young and impressionable troops severe psychological distress. Enter General Reinhard Heydrich, the newly ordained Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, home to the largest Jewish community in Europe.
In August, 1941, Bernie Gunther returns from the front, Belorussia to be exact, with the blessing of Arthur Nebe, his former Berlin Police Commissioner and soon-to-be boss once again. Gunther says he was sent back in “disgrace”.
He is somewhat resettled in a deprived Berlin, cracking cases back at the Alex, and thinking of suicide every other day. Gunther finds himself reinvigorated by a trifecta: a murder investigation of a foreign worker; a chance encounter with a joy lady who has a certain way about her; and the Gestapo’s discovery of the body of a Czech resistance agent. While on the surface all three events seemed independent of each other, they are somehow bewilderingly related. But, as Gunther begins to investigate that relationship, he is ordered to Prague by Heydrich and, despite his best efforts to decline the invitation, he knew he had to leave Berlin for Prague.
Me: In Prague we see you, Bernie Gunther, at your investigative best, and your most outspoken and vulnerable.
BG: If you mean my frank monologue with Heydrich upon my arrival to Jungfern-Breschan’s lower castle, that certainly was my finest moment and by deducing the murderer of his fourth adjutant, yes, I grant you that as well. But, most vulnerable – what do you have in mind?
Me: Allow me to go back a few months? You served on the Eastern front as a SD officer. By the way, what is the difference between SD and SS?
BG: Yes, the Reich acronyms. The SD is the “intelligence” gathering arm of the SS – same group, different levels of criminality.
Me: “Different levels of criminality” makes a good segue. Bernie Gunther, the total dehumanization of the civilian population in Belorussia caused you to request a reassignment at great personal risk — imprisonment or worse.
Belorussia, the site of what some say was the first Jewish Holocaust, with 90% of the community being murdered by pistol, became infamous for the brutality visited on the population by the SS. These officers lined up the Jews in front of ditches dug by the victims themselves, and shot row upon row of them at point-blank range.
BG: Yes. And what kind of intelligence could I ever have gathered to justify the mass slaughter of civilians? The many levels of the war effort were never clearer to me. Or, to put it another way, the war effort masked a deeper, more sinister plan. I quickly became deeply ashamed to be German. My entire good-cop career was diminished. Now, I was working side-by-side criminals who were exempted from prosecution because they were “following orders.” And, yes, that was the start of my own psychological demise, or my vulnerability as you put it. It is interesting how the human mind works. Some things are better left forgotten, aren’t they?
Me: Nonetheless, you were dogged by self-loathing to the point of preparing to knock yourself off. You are quoted as saying “the thought of suicide is a real comfort to me: sometimes it’s the only way I can get through a sleepless night…Once or twice I even laid a couple of folded bath towels under the pillow on my bed and lay down with the firm intent of actually going through with it…I would lie there and stare at the suicide note written on my best paper – bought in Paris… After a while, sometimes I would go to sleep. Once I awoke from such a terrible, vivid, heart-stopping dream…..”
BG: Ha-ha. I bolted up in bed, fired my pistol and, well, “my mother’s walnut Vienna wall clock was never the same.” She would have rolled over in her grave at my Belorussian experiences, my state of mind at the time, and the ricocheted-off-her-clock bullet. I can hear her voice now: ‘Bernhard, smarten-up.’
Me: It even got to the point where your own co-workers at the Alex were telling you to smarten-up.
BG: Um. I was a “real bat in the balls,” as was pointed out by good old Wilhelm Ludtke. He ordered me to pull myself together. I guess my state of mind was obvious to those around me. Christ, you couldn’t even get a decent beer in Berlin in those days. I would have taken real beer over an order from another Commissioner any day.
Me: Still, what I like about you at that time is your empathy for yourself and others. I am thinking of the Fridmann sisters.
BG: Of course. I, like many Berliners, had admired the resilience of the Jews. “To survive as a Jew in Berlin in the autumn of 1941 was to be a person of courage and strength.” If they could be persons of courage and strength, I hear my mother’s voice again, so could I. Do you want me to tell the story?
Me: Yes, I do.
BG: Food was a real luxury in Berlin at the time. And securing enough food for the Jews was almost impossible. I had squirreled away a bag of real coffee I bought in Paris. Real coffee was like gold in 1941 Berlin. I made an agreement with the Adlon maître d’ to swap the coffee for a sack of canned goods. To possess canned goods in those days was illegal as all canned food was earmarked for the soldiers at the front.
Me: And the maître d’ asked a favour of you, did he not?
BG: Yes, he did. I would meet with a certain American journalist who wanted to know what really was going on in the East. I did meet with him, told my story, felt the shame like bile in my gut while doing so, and encouraged him to tell it to the Americans. He noted that that story would never pass the Nazi censors, nor would the Americans believe it. What did one say to that?
Me: OK. Leaving the Adlon on your way home, the sack of contraband slung over your shoulder, you stumbled on a situation that held the roots of both an elixir to your fragile mental state and maybe one of the most disturbing accounts of your professional life. Would you agree?
BG: Elixir, yes, and real beer to boot, but the most disturbing account of my work, I am not sure. Working for Goering and Heydrich is up there with meeting Eichmann in post-war Germany. Still, Arianne held her backstory close to her chest for sure.
Arianne Tauber was the “situation”, as you put it, I stumbled on as I hauled the Fridmann sisters’ loot home.
Me: And real beer? Explain that bit, will you?
BG: Arianne worked at a local club frequented by Americans and Nazi minions. Everything was on offer there at extortionist prices. But, really, the beer was not the point of the Arianne situation, is it?
Me: Ha-ha! The interviewee turning interviewer; I like it, Bernie Gunther. Tell us about Fraulin Tauber?
BG: Blacked-out Berlin nights were treacherous for everyone but mostly women, many of whom were raped, which is what I thought was happening to her on that dark night. I intervened and Arienne was grateful. She added comfort to my life, however briefly. I liked her way with words. She called me Parsifal; why, I cannot say. I called her “angel” and knew why I did so. She warmed my bed at night, brought me back to life, and smartened me up in a way. It had been a long time since I felt a non-political kind of feeling. That is, something other than rage or despair.
Me: So, she took your mind of your gun. But, every once and a while, you did wonder about her as a cop would wonder about a suspect. Is that not right?
BG: Well, you got me there. I must admit to having my doubts about her story, but buried them for my own sake. Am I telling this clearly enough for you?
Me: Yes, but, your buried suspicions were exhumed in Prague, were they not? And, to be clear, not the ones you initially held, a point I alluded to earlier in our chat when I suggested that Arianne was one of the most disturbing accounts of your career. Still, let’s leave that one for the readers to decide, shall we?
Me: So, somewhat calmed by the presence of Arianne and the distractions of a murder case, you are all-of-a-sudden summoned to Prague by your favourite Nazi, Reinhardt Heydrich. I believe you once referred to him as the crown prince of terror.
BG: Ha-ha, more than once, I want you to know, did I refer to him as the crown prince of terror and more morbid monikers besides.
Me: You and Arianne packed up, boarded the train, and headed off to Prague like a happily married couple. Tell us, why did the General summons you?
BG: He needed a personal body guard. Being in the heart of hostile territory – the Czechs were not happy having their country rolled over by the Nazis – and despite having four adjutants and a full-time driver, Heydrich did not have personal protection and believed his life to be in danger. I was not surprised and told him that “any number of Czechos must want” him dead. But, it was not the Czechos who worried him. He had reason to believe that an attempt on his life would be an inside job. “I want someone around me who understands murder and murderers, and who can handle himself to boot,” he explained. When I pointed out that the task could be carried out by the Gestapo, he responded “I want someone who is usefully suspicious as opposed to officious.”
Me: And you stated with full aplomb: “You know that most bodyguards are supposed to care about what happens to their employers, don’t you?”
BG: Yes, I did. But it did not dissuade him in the least. He barreled on like some school master making his point and not really caring if you agreed with him or not. “You I’ve known for five years. I know you’re not Himmler’s man….Of course, in many ways you’re a fool…But I have to admit, you’re a clever and resourceful fool.”
Me: Once again, Bernie Gunther, your talents trapped you. Did you ever wish you had become a plumber?
BG: A plumber? No. But often I wondered what would have happened had I not caught Gormann back in the day.
Me: Perhaps your reputation kept you somewhat safe in those precarious assignments. Did you ever think of it that way? Working for the top brass and not having to join the club?
BG: Ah, got it. Heydrich, nonetheless, was convinced he could make a Nazi of me. If I ever had a smidgeon of doubt about my “stupid republican opinions”, as the General stated it, that first weekend at his country home solidified a deep commitment in me to hold true to the Weimar ideal.
Me: Before we shade-in a bit of the intrigue of that first weekend of your new assignment, I do want to remind you of your “price”, as you put it to the General. Really, when one thinks of it, it was not a price in the true sense of a transaction as you were in no position to barter with Heydrich.
BG: True, you are spot-on there. But I did have my five minutes of glory, five minutes granted by the General in which I told him exactly what I thought of his government, its politics and its racial policy. I was equal parts pleased and shit-scared afterward. Still, I had his ear without interruption. As you put it, I was at my most outspoken, and, after the fact, at my most vulnerable.
Me: However, in smart order you did get over your timorous state, and I dare say, the night luxuriating in Arianne’s arms at the posh Imperial Hotel in the center of Prague had something to do with your recovery! Early the next morning you were summoned back to Jungfern-Breschan. There had been a homicide and your presence was requested immediately. Did you have a fleeting wish that it might have been the “crown prince” himself?
BG: Oh, yes, I did, but knew immediately after I replaced the telephone in the cradle that he was still very much alive. It turns out that the deceased was Heydrich’s fourth, and I believe, his youngest adjutant, Captain Albert Kuttner.
Me: You had already developed a soft spot for him, did you not?
BG: Very early in the chain of interactions on my first day, Kuttner and I talked. He admitted to not sleeping well, and instantly I knew the reason why. A heart wrenching tale he then told of his Eastern front experiences, one that would have caused me more than sleepless nights.
Me: A heart-wrenching tale?
BG: The Eastern Jews were not the only ones terrorized and murdered at the whim of the SS. This was the way of it as he told me: “We had been burning down Pollack villages for no real reason I could see. Certainly there was no military necessity in it. We were just throwing our weight around like brutes. Some of my men were drunk and nearly all of them were animals. Anyway, we came across a troop of Polish boy scouts. The oldest of them couldn’t have been more than sixteen and the youngest perhaps as young as twelve. And my commanding officer ordered me to put all of them up against a wall and shoot them… Orders are orders, he said, get on with it.”
Me: And he followed the order?
Me: Kuttner being homosexual certainly would not have made him feel safe in the present company of SS brass.
BG: His being warm, in and of itself, would have put him in imminent danger given his position and the professional company he had to keep. Poor bastard, guilt over following orders and fear of being found out. What mid-twenties man could have lived with that?
Me: Did you wonder, then, how many other German Officers, youngsters really, were going through the same ordeal?
BG: Those who did not turn themselves into killing machines probably went mad in any number of ways. How many youngsters were subjected to those orders I could not say; most, probably. But one thing is for sure, the top brass took note of the low morale. It was where the tire hit the autobahn, as they say; where the shit about the Jews being inferior, their not being really human, fell flat. It would not be much of a leap to see a row of fathers and sons being mowed down from the bullets in the gun in one’s hand to imagine the humanity of those victims, to imagine your own male family members staring back at you, to imagine the inhumanity of it all.
Me: The top brass took note of the low morale. How do you mean?
BG: Think of the smoke over Birkenau.
Me: Right. Sixteen SS top brass were at the Castle that weekend. Heydrich locked down the estate to facilitate your investigation. Mystery is the operative word here. Kuttner’s body was found in his locked-from-the-inside room. The scene and characters are a bit reminiscent of a Christie Poirot novel.
BG: “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” to quote the fat man from Britain. A triple threat, a trifecta, as you noted above. From Heydrich’s bodyguard to his detective, this event, its location, and the potential perpetrators demanded me to be at my best. The entire scene opened a window on a people’s resistance and the psychopathologies of the SS Elite and its leaders.
Me: And you were brilliant, if I may say so. You were at your deductive best, despite the huge deceptions.
BG: The clever crown prince played me like a Stradivarius.
Me: Do you know that the original meaning of Parsifal is “pure fool”?
BG: Ah, I did not know that, but it makes perfect sense all round. Bernie Gunther, the perfect fool, and still alive. OK, enough meandering down memory lane. Let’s wrap this up and share a meal.
Me: Agreed, Bernie Gunther. Thank you.