Nine long years have passed in the life of Bernie Gunther when I meet him again in A German Requiem. He is now 49 years. Is he still the same courageous, irreverent, mutineer Berliner? Yes, but with a vulnerable edge to his demeanor brought on not only by the intervening war but by what followed it.
The year is 1947. Winter, in fact; the coldest winter on record in a city where the average Berliner is lucky to have a roof over his head. But to wish for warmth is sheer fantasy in a city whose landscape resembles ‘a colossal Acropolis of fallen masonry and ruined edifice’ – one of the most stunning consequences of the second Great War. Two years and almost two seasons have passed since the mighty army of the god Thor was brought to its knees with the capitulation of the Nazi government on 8 May 1945. Bernie Gunther’s beloved Berlin is being administered by the four occupying powers, two of which – the Amis and the Ivans – are sowing the seeds for the next pitched battle we would come to know as the Cold War.
Amidst the backdrop of the American and Russian posturing, and under the surface carnage, Berliners live daily with the unrelentingly scraping of their collective wound. As we follow Gunther’s musings, we recognize the real casualties of war. It was not so much the lack of water, electricity, public transportation, safe housing, and the rationing and starvation, as it was the slow return of the men from POW camps, the crime and murder, the survivor shame, the missing and presumed dead, the mass and on-going rape of women by the Red Army, the prostitution (or in today’s parlance, survival sex), and the venereal disease that wore Berliners down. ‘For now we live in fear,’ to quote Bernie Gunther. ‘Mostly it is fear of the Ivans, matched only by the almost universal dread of venereal disease,…although both afflictions are generally held to be synonymous.’
In the ruins of Berlin, Bernie Gunther finds himself at the center of one of the greatest paradoxes of his life, and one even more absurd than his recruitment by Hermann Goering or Reinhardt Heydrich. It starts with a knock on his apartment door; a door one needs to put a shoulder to to open because of the structural damage done to his apartment house. Colonel Poroshin of the Soviet secret political police is the polite and well-turned-out visitor. The arrival of an MVD officer sends a chill down Gunther’s spine. Poroshin steps in and in no time flat offers Bernie a well-paying job, one that would require him to travel to Vienna. Gunther declines for a number of practical reasons, but more so because he fears and distrusts the Russians.
Then again, Gunther is plagued by a deep disgrace visited upon him by the actions of his wife. After wondering long enough about the perfume, the food and cigarettes and chocolate that keep appearing on the breakfast table, or hidden in the dresser drawer; and after wondering long enough about the lack of intimacy between them, he follows Kirsten one night to discover the cold truth about the source of her care packages.
Me: Bernie Gunther, you say ‘I was in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp myself, Frau Becker. For less time than your husband, as it happens. It didn’t make me a spy. Lucky maybe, but not a spy….Shall I tell you what it did make me? With people like the police, with people like you, Frau Becker, with people like my own wife, who’s hardly let me touch her since I came home. Shall I tell you what it made me? It made me unwelcome.’
I want to get to Frau Becker in a moment, but first let us remember a few lines of James Fenton’s eulogy for Berlin. It reads in part:
It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.
What you must go on forgetting all your life.
Do you go on forgetting that night when you followed Kirsten into the ruins of yet another Berlin building to find her “frenching” an American service man?
BG: Now that is blunt, a bit too direct – are you sure you are not a Berliner?
Me: But it is a pivotal scene in the story, in your story, is it not?
BG: Yes, yes, and yes. Yes, I keep on forgetting that scene along with countless other ones. But you must remember … ah, forget that part. Yes, it was pivotal to the story, if that English word means decisive. And, yes, it was a significant factor in my accepting Poroshin’s offer.
Me: Enter Frau Becker – she was the author, as it were, of the second decisive encounter, allowing you to pack up and travel to Vienna. Who is she, and what did she say that riled you so?
BG: You must know that Poroshin wanted me to prove the innocence of a “mutual friend,” Emile Becker, the estranged husband of Frau Becker. She was a bitter old witch who hoped Emile would hang for his crime. You see, Emile Becker and I had a few things in common back then. We were both ex-Kripo, both ex-prisoners of war, both having wives who made us feel unwelcome. Three major differences prevailed: he was locked up on a Viennese goal and I was a free man; he was a major black market racketeer and I was legit; and his wife would have pulled the trap door while mine would have continued to give me the chocolate bars and coffee she “earned” at the loins of the Amis. All in all, I had the better end of the stick.
Me: Still, your better end of the stick was bitter, Bernie Gunther.
BG: Well, let’s put it this way. I figured that Emile Becker, not a man I would have called a friend, needed all the help he could get if he had a chance in hell of escaping the knot. As for me, I needed some time to think things over. I knew in my guts that Kirsten’s moon-lighting was a casualty of the times. If I were in the same spot as Becker she would have reacted quite differently than his Frau. Frau Becker would have held out a pitch fork, while Kirsten would have offered “chocolate.” He finished with air-quotes and a sad smile on his face.
Me: You say that ‘a dirty dog will eat a dirty pudding. But hunger doesn’t just affect your standards of hygiene. It also dulls the wits, blunts the memory – not to mention the sex-drive – and generally produces a feeling of listlessness.’ And with that realization, you headed for the Adlon to eat a decent meal, to reflect on your situation.
BG: Yes. Can you believe that the Adlon, once the most exquisite hotel in Berlin – in today’s ranking it would have been given 5 stars, maybe 6 – was no better than a hole in the ground with a functioning cafeteria in the basement and 15 rooms to rent? You took your life in your hands entering that rubble! And so when I “dined” at the Adlon, and when my belly was somewhat satisfied – the food there was nothing to brag about – do you know what I did?
Me: Yes, I do. But tell the rest of us.
GB: I called Poroshin to arrange a meeting. He instructed me to wait under the largest poster of Stalin you will ever see, and sent a driver to pick me up. In a matter of one hour I was signed up. In a matter of one day I had all the required legal travel documents to cross the Viennese border and a chunk of change in my pocket.
Me: If memory serves, you left Kirsten quite a bit of that chunk of change; in fact, it was half your fee.
BG: Along with a terse note to let her know I would be out of town for a number of weeks working on a case.
BG: Yes, yes. Christ, you did your homework, you. Later, on the train to Vienna ‘I cursed myself for not writing more, for failing to say that there was nothing I wouldn’t have done for her, no Herculean labour I would not have gladly performed on her behalf.’ That I still loved her, I should have added to my musings but did not because she knew it; she knew from the letters I had written her during the war, which she kept next to the bottle of Chanel in her drawer.
Me: You had no idea what awaited you in Vienna – from the mundane, like warm water, soap and food, to the extraordinary, like the political espionage surrounding the case you accepted. Emile Becker was not the most sympathetic character but you knew he was innocent. You also knew that it would take an act of God to clear him, and at one point you wondered if your efforts were worth it. What kept you poking around? Was it the fully stocked kitchens at the famous Viennese cafés?
BG: Ha! I did gain weight there, weight I sorely needed, that is for sure. And I have to admit that while the city ‘had been bombed about a bit,’ when I compared it to Berlin, ‘Vienna looked tidier than an undertaker’s shop window.’ For what it is worth, I believed Becker’s story, as you say, and to put it in his own words, Becker pointed out to me at our first meeting that I am ‘not the kind to let an innocent man hang.’
Me: What was he charged with?
BG: The murder of Captain Edward Linden, Crowcass Liaison Officer based in the BDC. Oh, Crawcass stands for the Central Registry of War Crimes and Security Suspects. BDC stands for the Berlin Document Centre.
As an aside, I knew that the Nazi power brokers were asinine, but it was not until I learned of the holdings of the BDC – great swaths of Nazi documentation ranging from the complete SS service records and the master Nazi membership files through to party correspondence – did I realize how stupid they were.
Me: Right. Still, as soon as your feet hit the ground, you were being tailed by not one but two American “agents” – one from Military Patrol, a guy named Roy Shields, and one from the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC), named John Belinsky. Ostensibly, both were involved in the case of Becker; Shields making it clear to you that they had their man, Becker, and advising you to go back to Berlin because there was nothing in Vienna for you; and Belinsky acknowledging Becker innocent of the charges. How strange it was that two American government enterprises worked at cross-purposes.
BG: And stranger still was the fact that Shields, a supreme pain in my ass, had no idea what I was talking about when I asked him to call off his tail because I was starting to feel a little crowded on the streets of Vienna. His plea of ignorance, one which I tended to believe, should have tipped me off. But I figured that the Amis were worse coordinators than the Nazis.
Me: Nonetheless, you teamed up with Belinsky, the American Jew of Russian extract.
BG: Ya, true. I suppose my gullibility and need to have someone in my corner drew me into his corner. He was easy to talk to, despite his insistence on calling me Kraut, which I guess could have been considered his nickname for me, and he was full of schemes I admired. He made me feel like I was back in the game – you know, doing real PI work after hanging on hooks for so long as a POW in Russia.
Me: To recap, you are hired by a Soviet secret police agent to prove the innocence of a former Kripo colleague, now German racketeer, charged with murdering an American army Captain in the Austrian capital. You travel to Vienna, a city you had never stepped foot in before, unhappily greeted by Becker’s lawyer and immediately tailed by two different branches of American intelligence. And all because you had to get away from your chocolady wife. Have I got that right?
BG: Hang on there, bucko, Kirsten was no chocolady.
Me: And the most intriguing aspect of the case, aside from the duplicity of the Americans and the clever analysis and actions of the Russians, is your own naiveté. But what I don’t understand is how The Org fits. Did it have something to do with Werewolf Underground? Was it actually connected to the CIA? And what about the ratline?
BG: Naïve I was. Who in Berlin would have known of such high stakes? Even a hardboiled PI like myself was just scraping by, depending on scrap-paper posts to drum up a little business.
Like you say in the intro to our third chat, it was the seeds of the Cold War. The Org was the brain child of Major General Reinhard Gehlan. It was his ticket out of the war crimes processes because he had what the Amis needed. Interesting how you can alter your fate when you have something the other needs, isn’t it? But, honestly, the entire affair was so cloaked in mystery that I never quite understood it myself until Poroshin filled in the details. Now that is irony for you: the American Shields was unable to tell the tale while the Russian could. In retrospect, we know that The Org was at first sanctioned by the CIC and only when the Amis government initiated the creation of the CIA to replace the OSS did The Org have an official/unofficial relationship with the CIA. There you go my friend, the architecture of the Cold War spy ring.
As for the Werewolf Underground, that was a fabrication of Goebbels in the dying days of the Reich. It is unfathomable that he tried to conceive of some sort of return when it was clear that Germany was being wiped off the map.
And the ratline is something you will have to wait for, my good Canadian friend. Can’t jump the canon, now can we?
Me: So in this complex web of espionage, where you did not really know who you were championing, you failed in one respect but succeeded brilliantly in another.
BG: That about sums it up.
Me: You know that Philip Kerr re-issued the three stories we have been discussing over our chats under one title called Berlin Noir.
BG: I did not know that. Kinda reminds me of the name of a film genre made famous in Hollywood but got its start in Germany. Hey, Bernie Gunther in the movies! Now wouldn’t that be something?
Me: Yes, it would.
BG: Ha! Now enough chatter; let’s eat and drink and talk of happier times. OK?
Me: Agreed. Just tell us about Kirsten first?
BG: Right. She penned a loving letter, really. My heart was put right.