Construction of the Arch of Triumph was commenced in 1946 and work was completed in time for the Day of National Reawakening in 1950. The inspiration for the design came from the Fuhrer and is based upon original drawings made by him during the Years of Struggle.”
The passengers on the tour bus — at least those who could understand — digested this information. They raised themselves out of their seats or leaned into the aisle to get a better view. Xavier March, half-way down the bus, lifted his son on to his lap. Their guide, a middle-aged woman clad in the dark green of the Reich Tourist Ministry, stood at the front, feet planted wide apart, back to the windscreen. Her voice over the address system was thick with cold.
The Arch is constructed of granite and has a capacity of two million, three hundred and sixty-five thousand, six hundred and eighty-five cubic metres.” She sneezed. “The Arc de Triomphe in Paris will fit into it forty-nine times.”
For a moment, the Arch loomed over them. Then, suddenly, they were passing through it — an immense, stone-ribbed tunnel, longer than a football pitch, higher than a fifteen-storey building, with the vaulted, shadowed roof of a cathedral. The headlights and tail-lights of eight lanes of traffic danced in the afternoon gloom.
The Arch has a height of one hundred and eighteen metres. It is one hundred and sixty-eight metres wide and has a depth of one hundred and nineteen metres. On the inner walls are carved the names of the three million soldiers who fell in defence of the Fatherland in the wars of 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1946.”
She sneezed again. The passengers dutifully craned their necks to peer at the Roll of the Fallen. They were a mixed party. A group of Japanese, draped with cameras; an American couple with a little girl Pili’s age; some German settlers, from Ostland or the Ukraine, in Berlin for the Fuhrertag. March looked away as they passed the Roll of the Fallen. Somewhere on it were the names of his father and both his grandfathers. He kept his eyes on the guide. When she thought no one was looking, she turned away and quickly wiped her nose on her sleeve. The coach re-emerged into the drizzle.
“Leaving the Arch we enter the central section of the Avenue of Victory. The Avenue was designed by Reich Minister Albert Speer and was completed in 1957. It is one hundred and twenty-three metres wide and five-point-six kilometres in length. It is both wider, and two and a half times longer, than the Champs Elysees in Paris.”
Higher, longer, bigger, wider, more expensive… Even in victory, thought March, Germany has a parvenu’s inferiority complex. Nothing stands on its own. Everything has to be compared with what the foreigners have…
The view from this point northwards along the Avenue of Victory is considered one of the wonders of the world.”
“One of the wonders of the world,” repeated Pili in a whisper.
And it was, even on a day like this. Dense with traffic, the Avenue stretched before them, flanked on either side by the glass and granite walls of Speer’s new buildings: ministries, offices, big stores, cinemas, apartment blocks. At the far end of this river of light, rising as grey as a battleship through the spray, was the Great Hall of the Reich, its dome half hidden in the low cloud.
There were appreciative murmurs from the settlers. “It’s like a mountain,” said the woman sitting behind March. She was with her husband and four boys. They had probably been planning this trip all winter. A Tourist Ministry brochure and a dream of April in Berlin: comforts to warm them in the snowbound, moonless nights of Minsk or Kiev, a thousand kilometres from home. How had they got here? A package tour organised by Strength-Through-Joy, perhaps: two hours in a Junkers jet with a stop-off in Warsaw. Or a three-day drive in the family Volkswagen on the Berlin-Moscow Autobahn.
Pili wriggled out of his father’s grasp and walked unsteadily to the front of the coach. March pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, a nervous habit he had picked up — when? — in the U-boat service, he supposed, when the screws of the British warships sounded so close the hull shook and you never knew if their next depth charge would be your last. He had been invalided out of the navy in 1948 with suspected TB and spent a year convalescing. Then, for want of anything better to do, he had joined the Marine-Kustenpolizei, the Coastal Police, in Wilhelmshaven as a lieutenant. That year he had married Klara Eckart, a nurse he had met at the TB clinic. In 1952, he had joined the Hamburg Kripo. In 1954, with Klara pregnant and the marriage already failing, he had been promoted to Berlin. Paul — Pili — had been born exactly ten years and one month ago.
What had gone wrong? He did not blame Klara. She had not changed. She had always been a strong woman who wanted certain simple things from life: home, family, friends, acceptance. But March: he had changed. After ten years in the navy and twelve months in virtual isolation, he had stepped ashore into a world he barely recognised. As he went to work, watched television, ate with friends, even -God help him — slept beside his wife, he sometimes imagined himself aboard a U-boat still: cruising beneath the surface of everyday life; solitary, watchful.
He had picked Pili up at noon from Klara’s place — a bungalow on a dreary post-war housing estate in Lichtenrade, in the southern suburbs. Park in the street, sound the horn twice, watch for the twitch in the parlour curtain. This was the routine which had evolved, unspoken, since their divorce five years ago — a means of avoiding embarrassing encounters; a ritual to be endured one Sunday in four, work permitting, under the strict provisions of the Reich Marriages Act. It was rare for him to see his son on a Tuesday, but this was a school vacation: since 1959, children had been given a week off for the Fuhrer’s birthday, rather than for Easter.
The door had opened and Pili had appeared, like a shy child-actor being pushed out on stage against his will. Wearing his new Pimpf uniform — crisp black shirt and dark blue shorts — he had climbed wordlessly into the car. March had given him an awkward hug.
“You look smart. How’s school?”
“And your mother?”
The boy shrugged.
“What would you like to do?”
He shrugged again.
They had lunch in Budapester Strasse, opposite the Zoo, in a modern place with vinyl seats and a plastic-topped table: father and son, one with beer and sausages, the other with apple juice and a hamburger. They talked about the Pimpf and Pili brightened. Until you were a Pimpf you were nothing, “a non-uniformed creature who has never participated in a group meeting or a route march”. You were allowed to join when you were ten, and stayed until you were fourteen, when you passed into the full Hitler Youth.
“I was top in the initiation test.”
“You have to run sixty metres in twelve seconds,” said Pili. “Do the long jump and the shot-put. There’s a route march — a day and a half. Written stuff. Party philosophy. And you have to recite the Horst Wessel Lied.”
For a moment, March thought he was about to break into song. He cut in hurriedly: “And your dagger?”
Pili fumbled in his pocket, a crease of concentration on his forehead. How like his mother he is, thought March. The same wide cheekbones and full mouth, the same serious brown eyes, set far apart. Pili laid the dagger carefully on the table before him. He picked it up. It reminded him of the day he got his own — when was it? ’34? The excitement of a boy who believes he’s been admitted to the company of men. He turned it over and the swastika on the hilt glinted in the light. He felt the weight of it in his hand, then gave it back.
“I’m proud of you,” he lied. “What do you want to do? We can go to the cinema. Or the zoo.”
“I want to go on the bus.” — “But we did that last time. And the time before.”
“Don’t care. I want to go on the bus.”
“The Great Hall of the Reich is the largest building in the world. It rises to a height of more than a quarter of a kilometre, and on certain days — observe today — the top of its dome is lost from view. The dome itself is one hundred and forty metres in diameter and St Peter’s in Rome will fit into it sixteen times.”
They had reached the top of the Avenue of Victory, and were entering Adolf Hitler Platz. To the left, the square was bounded by the headquarters of the Wehrmacht High Command, to the right by the new Reich Chancellery and Palace of the Fuhrer. Ahead was the hall. Its greyness had dissolved as their distance from it had diminished. Now they could see what the guide was telling them: that the pillars supporting the frontage were of red granite, mined in Sweden, flanked at either end by golden statues of Atlas and Tellus, bearing on their shoulders spheres depicting the heavens and the earth.
The building was as crystal-white as a wedding cake, its dome of beaten copper a dull green. Pili was still at the front of the coach.
The Great Hall is used only for the most solemn ceremonies of the German Reich and has a capacity of one hundred and eighty thousand people. One interesting and unforeseen phenomenon: the breath from this number of humans rises into the cupola and forms clouds, which condense and fall as light rain. The Great Hall is the only building in the world which generates its own climate…”
March had heard it all before. He looked out of the window and saw the body in the mud. Swimming trunks! What had the old man been thinking of, swimming on Monday night? Berlin had been blanketed by black clouds from late afternoon. When the storm finally broke the rain had descended in steel rods, drilling the streets and roofs, drowning the thunder. Suicide, perhaps? Think of it. Wade into the cold lake, strike out for the centre, tread water in the darkness, watch the lightning over the trees, wait for tiredness to do the rest…
Pili had returned to his seat and was bouncing up and down in excitement.
“Are we going to see the Fuhrer, papa?”
The vision evaporated and March felt guilty. This daydreaming was what Klara used to complain of: “Even when you’re here, you’re not really here…”
He said: “I don’t think so.”
The guide again: “On the right is the Reich Chancellery and Residence of the Fuhrer. Its total facade measures exactly seven hundred metres, exceeding by one hundred metres the facade of Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles.”
The Chancellery slowly uncoiled as the bus drove by marble pillars and red mosaics, bronze lions, gilded silhouettes, gothic script- a Chinese dragon of a building, asleep at the side of the square. A four-man SS honour guard stood at attention beneath a billowing swastika banner. There were no windows, but set into the wall, five storeys above the ground, was the balcony on which the Fuhrer showed himself on those occasions when a million I people gathered in the Platz. There were a few dozen i sightseers even now, gazing up at the tightly drawn shutters, ! faces pale with expectation, hoping …
March glanced at his son. Pili was transfixed, his little dagger clutched tightly in his hand like a crucifix.
The coach dropped them back at its pick-up point outside the Berlin-Gotenland railway station. It was after five as they descended from the bus, and the last vestiges of natural light were fading. The day was giving up on itself in disgust.
The entrance to the station was disgorging people — soldiers with kitbags walking with girlfriends and wives, foreign workers with cardboard suitcases and shabby bundles tied with string, settlers emerging after two days’ travelling from the Steppes, staring in shock at the lights and the crowds. Uniforms were everywhere. Dark blue, green, brown, black, grey, khaki. It was like a factory at the end of a shift. There was a factory sound of shunting metal and shrill whistles, and a factory smell of heat and oil, stale air and steel-dust. Exclamation marks clamoured from the walls. “Be vigilant at all times!” “Attention! Report suspicious packages at once!” “Terrorist alert!”
From here, trains as high as houses, with a gauge of four metres, left for the outposts of the German Empire — for Gotenland (formerly the Crimea) and Theoderichshafen (formerly Sevastopol); for the Generalkommissariat of Taurida and its capital, Melitopol; for Volhynia-Podolia, Zhitomir, Kiev, Nikolaev, Dnepropetrovsk, Karkov, Rostov, Saratov … It was the terminus of a new world. Announcements of arrivals and departures punctuated the “Coriolan Overture” on the public address system. March tried to take Pili’s hand as they wove through the crowd, but the boy shook him away.
It took fifteen minutes to retrieve the car from the underground car park, and another fifteen to get clear of the clogged streets around the station. They drove in silence. It was not until they were almost back at Lichtenrade that Pili suddenly blurted out: “You’re an asocial, aren’t you?”
It was such an odd word to hear on the lips of a ten-year-old, and so carefully pronounced, that March almost laughed out loud. An asocial: one step down from traitor in the Party’s lexicon of crime. A non-contributor to Winter Relief. A non-joiner of the endless National Socialist associations. The NS Skung Federation. The Association of NS Ramblers. The Greater German NS-Motoring Club. The NS Criminal Police Officers Society. He had even one afternoon come across a parade in the Lustgarten organised by the NS-League of Wearers of the Life-Saving Medal.
“Uncle Erich says it’s true.”
Erich Helfferich. So he had become “Uncle” Erich now, had he? A zealot of the worst sort, a full-time bureaucrat at the Party’s Berlin headquarters. An officious, bespectacled scout master… March felt his hands tightening on the steering wheel. Helfferich had started seeing Klara a year ago.
“He says you don’t give the Fuhrer-salute and you make jokes about the Party.”
“And how does he know all this?”
“He says there’s a file on you at Party Headquarters and it’s only a matter of time before you’re picked up.” The boy was almost in tears with the shame of it. “I think he’s right.”
They were drawing up outside the house.
“I hate you.” This was delivered in a calm, flat voice. He got out of the car. March opened his door, ran round and followed him up the path. He could hear a dog barking inside the house.
Pili!” he shouted once more.
The door opened. Klara stood there in the uniform of the NS-Frauenschaft. Lurking behind her, March glimpsed the brown-clad figure of Helfrerich. The dog, a young German shepherd, came running out and leapt up at Pili, who pushed his way past his mother and disappeared into the house. March wanted to follow him, but Klara blocked his path.
“Leave the boy alone. Get out of here. Leave us all alone.”
She caught the dog and dragged it back by its collar. The door slammed on its yelping.
Later, as he drove back towards the centre of Berlin, March kept thinking about that dog. It was the only living creature in the house, he realised, which was not wearing a uniform.
Had he not felt so miserable, he would have laughed.