I have endeavoured to ensure that this novel is set in a carefully researched and historically accurate environment. History is continually being revised and rewritten, and such amendments often reveal the opinions, sometimes biased, of their originators. In what I have written I have tried to reflect what is the now generally accepted version of the rise, actions, fall and consequences of Nazism. Context, however, is always important; thus opinions and comments made by my narrator are, I believe, valid for the times within which his story is set – up to, but not beyond, 1989. And my narrator, of course, has his own biases, most of which arise from his experience of Nazism and form the heart of this book.
I have deliberately included hyphens in place names such a ‘Braunau-am-Inn’ whereas German text would not include them. This is an anglicisation which I believe sits better in an English text.
There is a bridge over the River Inn that joins Austrian Braunau to German Simbach. But the construction that you can see now is not the one that is seared into my mind. What you would see is a benevolent, unremarkable structure of stone supported by three piers seated stolidly into the river bed; its roadway is flanked by footpaths on either side, edged by low and understated hand railings. Apart from some thin vertical lamp standards these railings are the highest part of the structure – there are no towers or arches framing it.
My bridge at Braunau-am-Inn is an iron construction which was destroyed on the first day of May 1945. It is fitting that the bridge was of iron because that hard, cold substance is what tanks and guns are made of – and those weapons are what whirl through my mind as I see my bridge: those weapons, the image of Adolf Hitler, and the citizens of Braunau greeting him on 12 March 1938 as he enters his birth town and visits Nazism on Austria. And it is fitting that it was destroyed that day – the day after Hitler had destroyed himself, his dog, and left his mistress with no choice but to kill herself.
But of course, he did not bring Nazism to Braunau or to Austria as a whole on that March day in 1938. It was there already, introduced insidiously to begin with then with increasing pressure – and violence – until the resistance of the Austrian Government was exhausted and the Anschluss declared just the day after Hitler drove across that iron bridge.
The ‘Anschluss’, the joining of Germany and Austria into one nation under Nazism for a thousand years, was all over just seven years later, with Germany in ruins and divided, a single nation no more, and Austria once again with its own sovereignty – albeit for another ten years under the control of the conquering Allies – and relatively unscathed physically or by reputation from its immoral affair with Nazism. An affair that many, probably most, of the Austrian populace had welcomed with – literally – open arms that day at the bridge at Braunau-am-Inn. Just three months later, prisoners from the German forced labour camp at Dachau were sent to the town of Mauthausen to begin the construction of Austria’s first such place of torment and death.
The proof of the Braunau enthusiasm for the return of their own son is in the photos taken at the bridge that day: a Roman emperor entering Rome through a triumphal arch, the arch of the iron framework of the bridge’s supporting towers bearing the double-headed golden eagle shield of Austria and the Hapsburgian empire, but now completely shrouded by the cruel swastika-adorned flag of Hitler and his Nazis, and of Germany, and now of Germany and Austria. Hitler, in an open car – Mercedes, of course – accompanied by a phalanx of men in uniform, stopped exactly under that flag, smiling benevolently, in uniform, in profile, the slant of the peak of his military hat exactly matching the tilt of his straight, thin, Aryan nose; bending over and shaking hands with a smiling, blonde woman. A man dressed in civilian working clothes with a flat cap giving an exemplary Nazi straight-arm salute; a man in uniform – Austrian police perhaps – beside him giving the same salute. More smiling women and men, and children – a girl, perhaps twelve years old with fair pigtailed hair, gazing radiantly at this man in his cap standing in the back of his big black car, and the market square of Braunau just visible in the corner of the photo.
And why were they there, these now Austro-Germans? Was it to taste again the glories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire so rudely dismantled at the 1918 end of the First World War just twenty years previously? The alliance of that empire with Prussian Germany had cost the Austrian people and their country dearly. Why on earth were they about to embark on another doomed adventure with the same ally? Regard the photo; the eagerness for this affair is evident on every Austrian face. And how did Austria essentially get away with this enormous immoral blunder with barely a stain on its reputation? ‘Poor little Austria’ was the spin, and the spin was believed by them and most of the outside world.
Chapter 1 (part sample)
Munich East Railway station, April 1989, and I’m travelling by train to the German border with Austria – the River Inn. Two-thirds of the way there and I’ll have to change trains at Mühldorf for the final leg of my journey to Simbach where the River Salzach flows into the Inn. The route is almost exactly due east and as I settle down into my seat, facing towards the front of the train so that I can see where I’m going, I recall my first journey to Simbach almost exactly 44 years previously.
Then I and two others were bouncing around in a jeep sheltering behind and beside American tanks, stopping and hiding as we took inaccurate and sporadic ground fire from small arms often operated by frightened and dishevelled Hitler Youth; they were all, it seemed, that was left of the German army in Bavaria as it attempted to regroup. Regroup, perhaps, in the forlorn hope of preventing the capture of Hitler in his Eagle’s Nest fortress near Berchtesgaden, which was probably less than 200 km from where I now sit. A simple map would indicate that the area surrounding Berchtesgaden ought to belong to Austria as its shape is that of an almost closed-off human appendix forming a German salient into Austrian territory. Topographical study might perhaps lead to a different conclusion because of the juxtaposition of the mountain ranges with the River Inn as it enters Germany from Innsbruck in Austria to join later with the Salzach River at Simbach. But Hitler wasn’t at his nest in those dying days of April 1945; he was in his Berlin bunker and dying himself on the last day of that month.
My route to Simbach those years ago had been almost directly south from the Danube at Plattenburg and despite the opposition we encountered – diminishing almost hour by hour – took only three days to cover the hundred miles or so.
I was twenty-two years old on that second day of May 1945 when I first laid eyes on the iron bridge of Braunau-am-Inn, or what remained of it. I was an intelligence officer in the United States Army attached to the 13th Armoured Division of the US Third Army. I had still been undergoing officer training in America when, coincident with the Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944, someone in the Directing Staff finally noticed that I was a fluent German speaker of European ancestry and might be useful once, as was confidently assumed, the US Army defeated the Germans in Europe and had to deal with many thousands of non-English-speaking prisoners-of-war. I was given an immediate temporary rank of Captain, put on a plane to England along with a number of other US Army German speakers, and arrived in France just as the Allies – I soon learned that we Americans were not the only nation seriously involved in driving the Germans out of Western Europe – were breaking out of Normandy.
By mid-August I was in France and exclusively performing preliminary interrogations of German soldiers captured by the General Patton’s Third Army. I followed our front-line troops as a member of the general’s headquarters staff and saw very little actual fighting either on the ground or in the air; the American and British air forces had by then virtually eliminated the German Luftwaffe as a fighting force outside of the bounds of its own country. Most of the enemy soldiers that were brought to me were completely exhausted and covered in dirt; some were wounded. Many still had defiance in their eyes, others the sadness of betrayal through lack of resources or reason to continue fighting. Most were hardened men, good soldiers and honourable, and knew little of the German order of battle. I learned not to waste much time on them; they were generally well treated by our men, fed, cleaned up and transported away from the battle fields to the safety of internment. There they would be re-interrogated and some who had slipped through my fingers through my inexperience would prove to have knowledge of value and would sometimes reveal terrible secrets.
Others – officers always – came my way with arrogance in their expressions, still unable to believe that the mighty Third Reich was facing defeat from the soft soldiers of a decadent American culture. They were harder to deal with and in my inexperienced hands gave little away, but there were others on my side who did extract items of intelligence – not by torture or other physical abuse (I saw none of that bar an occasional slap across the face in response to a particularly insulting remark to an interrogator) – but often through flattery.
Then there were the few for whom I could feel only contempt and against whom I twice drew my pistol, who perhaps I could have, would have, shot had it not been for the restraining hand of my older and wiser sergeant. These were the carbuncles of Nazism – the SS officers trying to escape disguised as common soldiers, and the Gestapo agents handed over, reluctantly, by French citizens sometimes after very rough treatment. I did my best to cope with these people but my efforts to interrogate were clouded with emotional disgust and were largely ineffective. I knew what they had done to civilians in France, and the news of the death camps within Germany and Eastern Europe was becoming common knowledge within the Allies’ intelligence communities.
The Third Army advanced steadily through Northern France, gaining in confidence, basking in the welcome given it by liberated populaces and perhaps becoming complacent. But on 16 December 1944 all hell broke loose not five miles from my comfortable billet at the rear of the combat battalions. The Germans counter-attacked us through the Ardennes and the so-called ‘Battle of the Bulge’ began; it was nearly lost by us not least because of the appalling weather that all but grounded the overwhelmingly superior British and US Army air forces. But we hung on, counter-attacked ourselves and aided by the disintegrating German logistics supply chain, defeated the opposing Germans after about six weeks. We lost a lot of men dead and injured but we held. A great many German soldiers gave up at that time and I was continually interrogating them and moving them back to the holding camps to the rear of the ever-moving front lines.
We pushed on towards the German hinterland and reached the mighty River Rhine before the end of January 1945. On the Russian front many more German soldiers were facing the wrath of the Red Army and were never going to experience anything other total destruction and surrender. Any hope of a German victory, or even a government-saving armistice with the three Western allied powers, effectively died over Christmas 1944.
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