Authors: James MacManus
There were strict identity checks. All staff were required to sign in and out in a large ledger placed on a desk in the hall. No one was allowed to leave during working hours. Two separate cafeterias provided morning coffee, lunch and afternoon tea for carefully timed staff breaks. All staff had to wear swastika armbands within the office but were forbidden to do so outside.
Around the corner, in Joseph Goebbels's Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, the doors opened at eight and everyone was expected to be at their desks fifteen minutes later.
All those who depended on, or worked with, the government â foreign businessmen, diplomats and journalists â were also at their desks early. The National Socialist government ceaselessly proclaimed itself to be a model of early-to-work efficiency and it demanded the same from everyone with whom it did business. On this particular January morning a group of Western correspondents had gathered grumbling at the Hotel Adlon, waiting for buses to take them to a Luftwaffe airbase for a demonstration of the new Messerschmitt 109 fighter plane.
The one exception to this early-morning activity was the German chancellor. The man who was head of the National Socialist Party, the government and the German state never got to his desk at a regular hour and sometimes didn't appear in his office until the early afternoon. Only when he did so were his three secretaries able to confirm his diary for the day. Usually the chancellor rose at ten o'clock, took breakfast of toast and his favourite brand of German marmalade at eleven, and only then walked through from his living quarters to the office.
Those who worked most closely with Adolf Hitler felt that he enjoyed the element of surprise that his refusal to conform to an arranged timetable gave him. He was a creature of habit, they said, especially when it came to his vegetarian diet, but not when it concerned the management of state affairs. In such matters he was deliberately unpredictable.
Hitler lived where he worked, in the Reich Chancellery on Wilhelmstrasse. From his office on the second floor he could look across the street to the Hotel Kaiserhof, preferred by senior Nazis to the Adlon. Here the chancellor would often take tea at four o'clock with his inner circle of advisers and such favoured foreign visitors as the British socialite Unity Mitford. For an hour or more, he would indulge his passion for cakes and regale his audience with long monologues about foreign affairs. The hotel made sure that the chancellor was presented with a different choice of cakes every day â all baked with care in their own kitchen.
The hotel was flanked by government ministries, which Hitler had personally sited on the street. Wilhelmstrasse was Hitler's powerbase in Berlin. Across the road from the Chancellery, he could almost look into Goebbels's office, while at a corner on the crossroads a few hundred yards away stood the Gestapo headquarters. This was important. Above all, the chancellor wanted Heinrich Himmler, head of state security, and Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo, the rising man he admired so much, close at hand. If there was a flaw in the urban geography of power, it was the presence of the British embassy a mere three hundred yards up the street. It was far too easy for the ambassador to visit him.
Sir Nevile Henderson called the twice-weekly meeting of senior staff his morning prayers. Shortly after nine o'clock this
January morning they gathered in the conference room next to his office, gratefully pouring coffee or tea from Thermos flasks placed on a side table. The first secretary, Kirkpatrick, sat to his left and the political attachÃ©, David Buckland, to his right. Very much feeling like the new boy at school, Macrae took a seat at the far end of the table. The commercial, naval, air and military attachÃ©s made up the meeting.
Roger Halliday was there that morning, but he only attended when he felt like it â a fact that irritated the ambassador. Halliday reported directly to the Secret Intelligence Service HQ in London. The ambassador had no control over the man â or his drinking, for that matter. He distrusted Halliday's information and disliked the methods by which it was obtained â bribery and blackmail, as far as Sir Nevile could gather. There was something else about Halliday the ambassador deeply disliked. The man was unmarried and made little secret of the reason why he never would marry. Henderson was surprised that the Secret Service employed such people. Apart from anything else, it left them wide open to blackmail.
The meeting began with the ambassador welcoming Colonel Noel Macrae to the embassy team. Heads turned and smiled and Macrae nodded back. Each member of staff then described their plans for the days ahead and reported any information of interest. At the end, Sir Nevile summed up with the same short address they had all heard before, although at every meeting he tried to deliver it with a different angle. The message was simple. They were all working to ensure that diplomacy would triumph, that the German question could be settled peacefully and war avoided. The German government, he said â and abruptly stopped.
Someone at the table had muttered, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Nazi regime.” The ambassador looked around to identify the miscreant.
The German government, he continued, was both brutal in its treatment of opponents and highly aggressive in its pursuit of lost territory. Neither fact needed to lead to a wider war if the Western powers, principally Britain and France, pursued their diplomacy of containment. Hitler was many things, but not stupid. He did not want a European war, he was not ready for a European war and there would be no reason for a European war once negotiations had satisfied his demands.
The ambassador looked round, seeking the usual nods of agreement, and prepared to end the meeting. Some people were staring at the ceiling, some down at the table. No one was looking at him. He closed his folder and got to his feet.
“Thank you, gentlemen,” he said.
“There is one thing you should know,” said Roger Halliday.
He was sitting at the back and, as usual on a Monday morning, he looked hung-over.
Sir Nevile sighed and sat down again.
“I hear reliably that Field Marshal Blomberg has married. The wedding took place at the War Ministry on Saturday. It was in secret.”
Halliday had the attention of the room. He rarely spoke at these meetings, indeed he hardly concealed his contempt for them, but when he did say something it was usually important.
“Well, we must congratulate him. Blomberg is a fine general and, as head of the army, I, of course, know him well,” said the ambassador.
“Hitler and GÃ¶ring were witnesses. There was no one else present except the general's five children.”
Sir Nevile picked up his folder and prepared to rise again. He would send a minute to London about Halliday. The man had been in Berlin too long.
“Really?” he said. “That just shows how important he is to us.”
“There is a problem, however,” said Halliday. “His bride is twenty-seven â thirty-two years younger than him.”
“The old goat,” said Buckland. “Jolly good for him.”
“Unfortunately, photographs of the woman of a pornographic nature have surfaced. They were taken when she was much younger. Worse still, the police have established that ten years ago she was working as a registered prostitute in Munich.”
There was a silence while the meeting digested this news.
“Are you sure?” said the ambassador. He was furious but determined to remain calm. This was typical of the man, waiting until the last minute to throw some scandalous piece of information into the meeting, as if it had any relevance.
“The Gestapo have the information and they are sure.”
Halliday sighed, shook his head and fished a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. Smoking was forbidden in the ambassador's meeting. He tapped a cigarette from the pack, put it in his mouth and said nothing.
The ambassador turned to Macrae.
“Did you know about this?”
“No. But Blomberg is Hitler's favourite general.”
“I know that. Can you check â find out what it means?”
“It means,” said Halliday, getting to his feet, “that Hitler is going to get rid of Blomberg and what follows will not be good news for the army â or for us.”
He left the room. Sir Nevile turned to Macrae again.
“I don't think we need to get too worried about this. Find out what you can and report to me later today.”
Like all military attachÃ©s, Noel Macrae had been reminded at the start of every posting that his role was not that of a spy.
The Foreign Office spelt out this policy in unmistakable detail with a note that read:
You should take the greatest care to avoid any action liable to create suspicion that you are attempting to acquire secret information by illicit means. You must have no relations or communications with persons acting, or professing to act, as spies or secret agents â¦
The note went on to state that information of interest to His Majesty's Government should be gathered through contact, either formally or socially, with military personnel of the host country or by observation: “Your status is the same as those of diplomats working within the embassy and you are expected to behave accordingly.”
Those were the rules laid down in a little book drawn up by the Foreign Office in London called
Practice and Etiquette for Service AttachÃ©s.
The trouble was that such gentlemanly behaviour did not work in the Berlin of 1938. The year was hardly a fortnight old and Macrae could see the beginnings of a crisis that might finally shake the complacency of those in London who thought the best way to deal with a ravening wolf was to keep feeding him.
He made one phone call from the embassy, took a taxi down the Unter den Linden avenue and got out at a bridge across the Spree. It was mid-morning and the streets were quiet. He walked over the river, turned left and marvelled as a magnificently domed renaissance building came into view through the leafless trees of the Lustgarten. The Berliner Dom called itself a cathedral but in fact lacked a resident bishop and thus had no claim on that title. It was simply a religious building designed to celebrate the Protestant faith in Germany. It was half past eleven. There would be a short prayer service at noon, as there was every day.
He killed time by climbing the 267 steps up to the gallery that ran round the interior of the domed roof. The view onto the nave below was dizzying. A lavish marble and onyx altar dominated one end of the church. The polished bronze pipes of a large organ rose over the choir stalls like the masts of a stately galleon at the other end. Gilded statues and royal sarcophagi gave the interior the extravagant appearance of an Egyptian temple rather than a German church.
He retraced his steps and went into the shop by the entrance. Amid books, reliquaries, candles and tourist guides he saw a large pile of prominently displayed copies of
He picked one up. It was the same edition he had bought in Vienna four years earlier. An incoherent, badly written book dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic when it first appeared in 1926. Twelve years later it remained a bestseller, or so the publishers in Berlin reported.
“You want to buy it?”
He turned to see an elderly woman with strands of grey hair falling over the folds of a face that had once been very beautiful. She had spoken in accented English. It had been silly of him to wear his cavalry twill overcoat and lace-up brogues.
“No. It seems strange to find such a book here in the church.”
The woman gave a low chuckle.
“Ah, you English. You think you know everything, don't you?” She took the book from him and replaced it on the stand. “Not for sale,” she said.
“Why do you display it?”
“Protection, young man. You want a candle?”
The service began promptly at noon with a full congregation of several hundred people. There were prayers, the choir sang the twenty-fourth psalm, the priest gave a brief address extolling Christian powers of endurance and fortitude in
times of stress. Twenty minutes later he was walking down the steps of the cathedral when a young officer in the uniform of a lieutenant and wearing a swastika armband detached himself from the worshippers and walked over.
said the officer loudly, and saluted with outraised arm and a click of his heels. Macrae saluted in return, his right hand rising to his head with palm facing outwards in a sharp gesture. It was against army rules to salute in civilian clothing and without military headgear, but Macrae was damned if he was going to offer a handshake to a young man who had just bellowed the FÃ¼hrer's name at him.
The Hitlergruss was the required social and professional greeting at all levels of society in Germany, and although at first the practice was widely ignored, it was now commonplace. Just another form of protection, political camouflage, as the lady in the bookshop had said.
“Since tomorrow is a public holiday, the colonel will be taking his children to the zoo.”
The young man saluted again and rejoined the departing worshippers.
Berlin's zoo was the largest in Europe, sprawling over thirty acres in the Tiergarten, west of the Brandenburg Gate. The city made much of the number of species on display and the way in which their cages and enclosures were carefully designed to recreate their natural habitat. The zoo was high on the list of Berlin's most popular tourist attractions, and visitors were urged to take at least half a day to explore it and advised to include on their itinerary lunch at the excellent restaurant adjacent to the penguin pool.
Macrae paid the entrance fee and stood inside the gates. Crowds milled around him, old people shuffling into groups,
parents marshalling children, all eager to begin the adventure of a visit to the zoo. A public holiday in midwinter Berlin was a good time to escape the new rules and regulations that governed everyday life and above all the watchful eyes of neighbours. Macrae wondered how he would find Florian Koenig and his family. The German was tall, well over six foot, but the zoo was crowded. He stamped his feet and blew into his hands. The biting cold seem to cut through his cavalry overcoat and the layers underneath. He thrust his hands into his coat pockets, making a mental note to buy a pair of thick woollen gloves, and examined a large map of the zoo.