The Pale Criminal – second chat with Bernie Gunther

The second time I met Bernie Gunther was in The Pale Criminal.  He is now 40 years old but still the same courageous, irreverent, mutineer Berliner.  While he remains confident in his opinions, he is a bit more introspective.  He admits to being depressed, but has learned an effective relaxation exercise to deal with it while working undercover on a case.

The year is 1938. The Nazis had annexed Austria in March and occupied the Sudetenland in preparation for their planned invasion of Czechoslovakia, an invasion which Neville Chamberlain sanctioned through the signing of the Munich Agreement in September.

Late that summer, one that was hotter than ‘a baker’s armpit,’ Bernie is warned by a former colleague at an under-the-cover-of-darkness meeting in the burned-out Reichstag that Reinhardt Heydrich will call him back to Kripo.  “I just wanted to warn you…so you don’t do anything stupid like tell him to go to hell,” says Arthur Nebe, now head of the Berlin Criminal Police.

But Gunther is still self-employed as a Private Investigator, now has a partner, Bruno Stahlecker – his one friend whom he saved from police department exile – and is as busy as he has ever been.   Nonetheless, Heydrich’s embarrassment over the incompetence of his own police force and Bernie’s own reputation as a brilliant criminal investigator prove to be an ironic twist of fate too much for the powers that be to ignore.

In The Pale Criminal, Bernie Gunther is introduced to a cast of characters, heretofore unknown to him in his professional career:  Dr. Otto Rahn, Karl Maria Weisthor, Himmler, Heydrich, all high ranking SS Officers, and Julius Streicher, the Gauleiter of Nuremberg.

Gunther also kills a man in cold blood who he may have held responsible for the death of a woman he loved two years ago, but in the last seconds of that man’s life, Gunther points out with equanimity that ‘for the murders of all those poor bloody girls, somebody has to’ pay.

Still, had I lived in Berlin during the Third Reich, I would have wanted Gunther in my corner.  He is the quintessential naysayer to group think; that posture was his strength and, ironically, his weakness.

Me:       Welcome back, Bernie Gunther.  We next meet you in The Pale Criminal, a title taken from a line in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  In part, it reads:

Much about your good people moves me to disgust, and it is not their evil I mean.  How I wish they possessed a madness through which they could perish, like this pale criminal. 

BG:        I’m not much of a reader and I don’t know Nietzsche.  I did, however, read two books over the course of that case.  One called The Sadist, by Herr Doctor Karl Berg; the other called Les Fleurs du mal by, if memory serves, Charles Baudelaire.  Les Fleurs du mal ‘left me feeling as comfortable in my soul as a bullock in an abattoir.’  But to get back to the quote, it could be re-written now, couldn’t it?  They did possess a madness through which they did perish. ‘Unadulterated cruelty’ is the worst kind of madness. And the worst of it was how the upper-ups undermined themselves by trumping each other’s insane actions.

Me:       Kind of like the right hand does not know what the left is doing.

BG:        No, not really like that.  Everyone knew what the others were up to. It was a kind of game; who had the biggest schwanz, who could get in and stay in favour with Hitler.

Me:       That is a good set-up to our chat.

Bernie Gunther, you are hired by a  Lange publishing house magnate, the owner to be exact, to investigate her being blackmailed by someone who holds a series of letters written by her son to his male lover. Despite her son, Reinhard, being a great disappointment to her, she wants to protect him from the unenlightened views of homosexuality of the time and save him from the threat of Paragraph 175.  In cracking that case, three events happen in rapid succession.  First, your partner is found murdered while staking out the blackmailer; second, you are all but accused of doing it, and….

BG:        And third, I am summoned, as I was warned, to Reinhard Heydrich’s office.  ‘The Reich’s crown prince of terror.’

Me:       That must have been quite a twenty-four-hour stretch for you.

BG:        The murder of my partner was hard for me to square, most especially because of the guilt I felt over my own less than “Christian” attitude toward him in the lasts days of his life.

Me:       So, true to form, you are pulled out of your sleep in the middle of the night by a Gestapo agent – there is a theme here, Bernie Gunther – and ordered to get dressed to make an appointment.   After you are interrogated about the murder of your business partner, Author Nebe, your Reichstag messenger appears.  He is to take you to identify the body and afterward, he admits, “I’m afraid you’ll have to see Heydrich.”   Is it Heydrich whom Hermann Goering refers to as “that little shit of a chicken farmer?”

BG:        He grins and says, “No, that would be Himmler.”

Me:       Here you are waiting in Gestapo Headquarters, formerly the Hotel Prinz Albrecht Strasse, and at the sound of Nebe’s clicking heels, you know that Heydrich has made an entrance.  You describe him as ‘tall, skeletally thin, pale face…like some plaster of Paris death-mask.’  He is a bit like Goering in his approach to business, skirting around the point in the fashion of cocktail chatter.  He begins to speak of gardening, the first Frederick Wilhelm, the King of Egypt, Ramsay MacDonald, croquet, and then about the things he hates, like ‘Freemasons, Catholics, homosexuals and Admiral Canaris,  and then about things that give him pleasure, such as ‘the piano and the cello, fencing, his favourite nightclubs and his family.’  And only then does he narrow the field.  The family is his entrée.  “The new Germany,” he says, “is all about arresting the decline of the family, you know, and establishing a national community of blood….So when something threatens the children… then we had better act quickly.”

BG:        It’s called small talk, but it is never casual.  These guys want to be liked, and thought of as cultured, but make it clear that they are bone fides as Nazis. It is only after all this shit is expressed do they get to the point.  So, after his meanderings, his entrée, as you put it, to the point of the “appointment” comes like a hammer.  He turns to me and states, “A maniac is loose on the Streets of Berlin, Herr Gunther.”

Me:       I am now laughing.  And you say, “Not so as you would notice.”  Heydrich is perturbed and quickly points out that he is not talking about “a stormtrooper beating up some old Jew. I am talking about a murderer.  He’s raped and killed and mutilated four young German girls in as many months.”

BG:        From the love of the piano and the family, in that order take note, he hits me with this.  I am bowled over, to say the least.  I had not heard or read anything about this situation, and trust me, in my line of work, tongues are flapping all the time.  Turns out that those good old boys have placed a press embargo on the story to, as Nebe pointed out, keep it from being blamed on the Jews.  “Thanks to Streicher and his anti-Semitic rag [Der Stürmer], it would only get blamed on the Jews.”

Me:       Why not blame it on the Jews?  I mean, we are talking 1938, when everything else gets blamed on them.

BG:        Quite.  But you see, Heydrich is an odd dog.  He told me that ‘anti-Jewish riots’ offend him and his sense of order.

Me:       Ironic, given how the case ends.  Well, not your part in it, but what you tried so hard to prevent.

BG:        Bloody hell was what it was.

Me:       Now comes the punch line:  He “wants” you back in Kripo.  And not above subtle threats to manipulate you, he answers all your questions about what would happen if you refused in the positive.  Yes, you would lose your licence to practice, your gun permit….

BG:        And my driver’s license.  He covered all the bases, he did.

Me:       Reminds me of what you said when we were chatting about one of the cases in March Violets:  “First, I did not have the right to refuse him.  Second, once you are caught in their sites, you are never left alone.”  But you are a crafty one, and managed to extort a promise so that you could run the investigation as you saw fit.

BG:        Ha!  I made him make me a Kriminalkommissar.   Much to Nebe’s chagrin, Heydrich agrees and admits he should have thought of it himself.

Me:       You went on a bit of a wild goose chase at the start, thinking that somehow Julius Streicher, the Gauleiter of Nuremberg and the publisher of Der Stürmer, was behind the murders.

BG:        Well, at the risk of sounding defensive, wouldn’t you have, given the circumstantial evidence stemming from his rag?  Not to mention the fact that he was a total spinner and hated by the central Nazi administration.  They called him the Bavarian pig.  It was well known that he wanted to stir trouble on the streets of Berlin, like he had in Nuremberg.

Me:       Well, you have me convinced, Bernie Gunther.  Still, the turning point came when you conjured up a scheme with the mother of a missing girl, involving a particular private investigator.  It seemed that certain clues led you to him, not to mention your own curiosity set in motion by your deceased partner who pointed out the PI’s ad in the newspaper the day before he died.

BG:        Yes, that bastard led us down a path of revelation I would sooner not have traveled.  Ignorance is bliss, someone said, but in my line of work you can’t use that one as a balm.

Me:       Bernie Gunther, you admitted to yourself once you worked it out that ‘for perhaps the first time since coming out of the trenches in 1918,’ you were afraid.

BG:        Yes, that is true.

Me:       Why so?

BG:        Look.  The Nazi Leadership were a bunch of spinners, ruling by brute violence, disenfranchising great swaths of its citizenry, namely the Jews, but the leaders of the Christian churches and publicly known religious did not escape their wrath either, all in the spirit of supreme rule.  But when the element of the occult crept into the equation, supported by some of the highest ranking Nazis, the SS Elite fashioned on some bizarre notion of the Teutonic Knights and charged with the purification of the race based on a pagan belief in god-men, how do ordinary mortals challenge that kind of madness?  What is left for a Kriminalkommissar to do?  I mean, how could I have brought any justice to bear on the crimes I was charged to investigate?  To whom did one appeal; the spinners waging war on a long-standing religious vendetta, or the spinners waging war on the un-Aryan elements of German society?  To solve a case that circumvents any more embarrassment to the criminal police department is one thing; to tell the SS leadership that the cause of those heinous crimes was supported by colleagues is quite another.  Realizing that the Nazi neurosis was deeper and more sinister than any stated public policy frightened the crap out of me.

Me:       Point taken.  But you would eventually join the ranks of the Teutonic Knights, would you not?

BG:        What?

Me:       The SS?

BG:        Right.  Yes I would, but not out of choice, I can assure you.

Me:       OK, let’s leave that discussion for a future encounter.

BG:        Lighting his umpteenth cigarette he looks me squarely in the face and says, “I need something stronger than a glass of Bock to conclude this little chat.  What will you have?  This one is on me, if you are still good for the meal.”


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