The Watch Thief – Chapter 23

October 4th, 1919.
Hotel Adlon, Unter den Linden, Berlin. 

Giant square marble columns flanked Hotel Adlon. Max Bauer was only there because of Wulle, who had the highest respect for the Hungarian. Max had his standards so was impressed to find Lincoln tidy, his boots shone and shirt pressed. He felt Lincoln’s scrawny hand wilt as he squeezed it. Reventlow walked by then. He greeted Max, who caught his sneer at Lincoln. It was warm in the Adlon: gas heat and electric lit. Coffee was poured and Trebitsch counted thirty-five marks from his wallet. Max’s stomach churned at the sight of it. The waiter said there was no charge for one of the great war heroes.

“Colonel, I sense you don’t trust me and I know why. It is because of my Jewish birth. You should know I turned my back on Judaism at thirteen. My wife is a German. You worked with Fritz Haber on chemical weapons. His wife was a Jew who became a Christian.”

“…you have an incredible memory,” said Max.

“I have left both Judaism and Christianity far behind me.”

Max was taken aback at his forthrightness though soon they talked of Amerongen. The Kaiser should have enforced mandatory war service before I advised him to step down. Could the Crown Prince take the throne? Max smiled. The son was a good man. He’d served with him at Verdun, bloody mistake of a battle. Trebitsch asked the Colonel if it was true he developed the Krupp mortar? Max laughed. He did so without approval and was nearly dismissed but that High Command saw how effective it was!

The nation needed a strong government. Yes, Lincoln, under one leader, preferably instituting siege law. Some suggested Ludendorff could take command, Trebitsch said. Maybe. Though he was not the same since the day the tanks smashed through their lines at Paris. The words came out hurt. Max wasn’t used to opening up. Poor Erich, it almost destroyed him. He gazed to the palm tree in the corner. Trebitsch sympathised, but reminded Max it was plausible. They had fought a war at home as well as overseas. Commander Falkenhayn, Chancellor Hollweg and other weak politicians fell because of your intervention, Colonel. How easy it would be to remove President Ebert, Minister Noske and their lackeys! Max said they were a fucking phantom government. Politicians were all apes who sat at home, blew their big mouths off and couldn’t care less. Trebitsch cursed Ebert and those who bent the knee at Versailles. Why should Germany be the only country to suffer, to be legally guilty? However, said Max, the existing government had made themselves into a lightning conductor, taking the blame for all the wrong choices. In some senses his military dictatorship was operating already, silently.

In days ahead they met to talk justice and revenge, and finished one another’s sentences. At the end of the second week Max brought Trebitsch to Hotel Eden. As palatial as the Adlon, the function room was loud with forty soldiers boldly in debate and song. Most were in uniform, decorated with an even barred gold Baltic Cross or crescent mooned emblems on the wings of a Silesian Eagle. Versailles plotters could think they decimated the Army, said Max, but the bastards had instead run a recruiting drive for our Freikorps. He introduced Commander Pabst, a jolly fellow with a toothbrush moustache and an air of mischief. His cavalry guards were all around the room. Pabst told them that on this very spot he had communists executed. I killed Luxemberg and Liebknecht myself! Canaris, of the military court, hung his head. Von Jagow, the ex-Berlin head of police, drank half a tankard. One of the soldiers said they were doing their duty. Ebert and Defence Minister Noske wanted us to put the Spartacists down. We put them down! To the President! Men laughed all around. Somebody slapped Trebitsch on the back and encouraged him to sing with them.

Max walked and young soldiers moving aside like quicksilver, saluting him too. Waiters carried silver dishes of sandwiches and wrapped figs. There were veterans in search of stability, some mercenaries too, but all he knew were patriots. Captain Ehrhardt and his men from Dobertitz were there that night. Ehrhardt’s unmistakeably expressive face and goatee strip chin popped up across the room. Before Max could get to him, he had to get around Reventlow.

“Colonel, it is good to see you. I hope tonight we will begin to fight back against the Jewish globalist conspiracy.”

Reventlow had short black hair on a fat face which sloped from his eyes. He’d served in the navy and as a journalist backed Max’s own calls for submarine warfare.

“Have you read the Protocols of the elders of Zion? It is the Jewish master plan to take over the world.”

“The socialists are to blame,” said Ehrhardt’s man, Runge. “How could we pay five trillion? Even the British thought it ludicrous.”

“Russia shows us where that road ends,” said Max. “A conspiracy of socialists and liberals and fucking intellectuals. And the women! They should have been conscripted too.”

“Well,” said Reventlow, “they’re all round here aren’t they? The orientals, the faggots, the homeless. Nürnbergerstrasse is full of the snails, ones with their countries on their backs. We need to stop the country going to the Bolsheviks,” he said.

He and Reventlow followed the spirits trolley to Ehrhardt and Wolfgang Kapp, an elderly activist whose face was like the eruption of a volcano around a pair of spectacles. They asked Max about his meeting with General Malcolm, the head of the British mission. It was a positive meeting. Malcolm appreciated their protection from the socialists; perhaps he would not challenge a coup.

Trebitsch found them then. The journalist who went to Amerongen. Max led the cheers. When they settled, Kapp said they would soon have a monarch again. Max casually suggested they didn’t need one, and Reventlow nodded in time.

“The Crown Prince should not be difficult,” said Ehrhardt. “We should ask. General Luttwitz says we should demand fresh elections.”

“We’re having elections already, we don’t need another!” thundered Max. “Democracy is the last resort the rule of capitalists and the demagogues and press whom they pay!”

“The Crown Prince could take over from his father and someone should secure his approval for any putsch,” said Trebitsch. “Something has to happen!”

The first grand hotel on Wilhelmplatz was the Kaiserhof: two hundred and sixty modern rooms with electric, bathrooms, telephone, pneumatic lifts, gas kitchens and steam heating. It was as big as a street. Max caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror: a balding, tired man with eyes that saw blood atop the body mass of a rhinoceros. Trebitsch met him and broached the subject of travelling to see the Crown Prince at his Wieringen sanctuary. Karl Weigand had interviewed the Prince and though Weigand found Trebitsch journalistic contacts he needed, his trip was not for that purpose. This would need a special introduction. I’ll provide it, Max said, but I can’t guarantee you will be seen. Colonel, please do not tell anyone, even my secretary, Mrs. Lenkiet, must not know. Max said a woman’s place was in the home, then gave a wink and laughed.

Max kept his medals with his clothing. They weren’t for hanging from the walls. His apartment was tidy and conservative. In the study he sat at the bureau desk reading the October 7th Deutsche Tageszeitung. There was a column by Reventlow, who said Mr. Trebitsch Lincoln represented no-one. His visit to Amerongen was a fairy tale, a Republican provocation designed to discredit the monarchists. Readers were warned to ignore him at all costs. Max was incensed. A few days later, Officer Kummer at Wieringen wrote of meeting Trebitsch. He had good intent but was too pushy and might easily compromise the Prince. Max wondered did Kummer not know that was the point? Was he too blind to see that action was called upon? The first letter from Trebitsch came a few days later. He was optimistic about meeting the Prince but was appalled at Reventlow’s actions. Would Max confront him and make clear they had known each other some time?

When Max went out it was never the same faces: industrialists, politicians, journalists and always the loyal men of the Reichswehr and Freikorps; the German Army. Their accents were from Wustermark and Potsdam, Leipzig and Kopenick and when they weren’t talking they were swigging beer and munching grub. Erich Luttwitz was there, without his usual unpredictable energy. Luttwitz was sixty, black eyebrows over white hair and wrinkles spread around his sickly skeletal face. Was it not enough, he moaned to Max, to reduced their army by seventy percent, now to half that? Anywhere in the room Max went that evening he heard defeatism: the confiscated territory in China and Africa; the Saar mines; hyper-inflation; the war guilt clause. The few men not in a dark night of the soul talked big plans for revolution made of hot air. Luttwitz and he were heroes. They knew it and knew men talked just to impress them. Max’s ears suddenly pricked at the droning sound of Ernst Reventlow.

“Trebitsch Lincoln? The man’s either dangerous or a buffoon. All his talk of propaganda and overseas support is quite worthless.”

Max charged forward and stabbed a finger at him.

“How dare you?” he guldered. “Trebitsch Lincoln has worked successfully and reliably in the direction that we desire!”

Silence crashed the room. All eyes scorned the journalist. Though three feet away Max could feel him shaking and smelled the gas in his pants.

“Right now Trebitsch is there talking to the Crown Prince about backing our action. And what are you doing, Reventlow? Any of you? Sitting here, moping. Or fantasising!”

Luttwitz wiped a serviette over his lips and smiled.

“I am sorry I have offended you, Colonel Bauer,” said Reventlow.

“Oh shut up you damn fool,” he said and then turned away.

November frost cut across the Spree as Trebitsch, Luttwitz and Bauer passed a soup kitchen line on Reichstagufer. They were lost souls, crippled by war or unemployment. The Americans at The Hague were sympathetic to their work there, Trebitsch said, and he’d brought home a new woman. You’ll get gonorrhoea or syphilis Max warned him sombrely. She worked with German prisoners of war, he said. Luttwitz joked he was definitely at risk. They passed the Reichstag and through Brandenburg Gate. The wind gathered like a mugging and along the hedges of the Tiergarten. Max had sworn Luttwitz to say nothing about the identity of ‘Herr Neumann’, the man they were visiting. When the Old Sinner answered the door he watched Trebitsch trying to place the mashed frown, looking back and forth between Neumann’s broad shoulders. His eyes popped wide open when he recognised Ludendorff. He shook the General’s hand again and was laughing giddily.

Upstairs, Max talked passionately of contributions, agreements and frontier rectifications. He means military dictatorship, said Luttwitz. The military would rise, Max told them, it was only a matter of time. They lost because politicians kept interfering with High Command, and now were fighting a war behind enemy lines. Total warfare, said Ludendorff. The foundation of human society, said Max. Trebitsch confessed he wasn’t admitted to the Prince at Wieringen. It was an island of mud, no place for a future King. Max wondered if they might just assassinate the Kaiser: clear the line of succession that way. Luttwitz was Supreme Commander since Ludendorff’s dismissal and said he would convey any order they saw fit but hoped it wouldn’t come to killing the Kaiser. They could tell people he was mad, Ludendorff said. Trebitsch could plant stories through his contacts in the papers. He even had plans for his own paper. Bauer said he would introduce him to the former vice chancellor. When the time comes, said Luttwitz, we can dissolve the Reichstag, outlaw strikes and abolish unemployment insurance. Our men will support us. Reichswehr does not fire on Reichswehr. Between them they would throw out the undesirable elements and make Germany great again.

Max and Trebitsch met every few days, for drinks or to plan with the others. Sometimes he had the brunette from The Hague, Elsa Von Nagelein, on his arm, or Margaret Lenkiet. His cousin from Budapest, a skinny lad named Krausz joined them and was awed by the company. Max was running late to the meeting at Pabst’s home the night Trebitsch walked out on them. Kapp said he had left half an hour before and didn’t seem quite himself. Ehrhardt was more forthcoming. The Hungarian announced their meetings were a waste of time and they should have overthrown the government already. They carried on without him but Max had a bad feeling. The next day he marched to Trebitsch’s flat on the Doblingerstrasse, near Wulle’s paper. Max found him with a half-packed suitcase laid on the bed, brimming with his friend’s new clothes. His voice was excited and mean.

“I’m going home to Budapest. I don’t know if I will return. I’m tired of politics here. I heard last night the Crown Prince’s adjutants were in Berlin! Did they not even call on you?”

“No, they did not, nor did they call on the General. It seems we were snubbed, however…”

“The Prince is making foolish remarks in the press and if you can’t bring him in line, if we are unable to organise a united action in his favour, well, it is damn pitiful!”

Max nodded. Trebitsch rolled another shirt into his case and said, “the men you surround yourself with? Max, they are just as foolish! The English have a saying: strike while the iron is hot. But for Ludendorff and yourself they’d give the iron away! It’s a miserable shame the lot of it!”

The winter sun passed the window passed and threw a cold shade thrown across Max’s face. “I respect your decision. I am not sure I agree entirely.”

“There is no point in me continuing to be involved in this charade. I must withdraw my services.”

Max heard little of him after that. A friend in the Foreign Office said he’d provided Trebitsch an introduction to the embassy in Berlin. Max’s thoughts were more concerned with the disillusionment among his soldiers as well as the enemies in his own government who kept close watch on him.

It was an early February morning air when insistent knocking came to his door. A brittle winter air slid into his bones as he opened it. Waldemar Pabst, normally in the habit of showing the Colonel due respect, invited himself in and pushed a newspaper into Max’s hands. He was shaking like a leaf. Max took a minute and scanned the lead story. The Allies had called for the arrest of nine hundred military men, including Ludendorff, Hindenburg, Luttwitz and himself.

“The shit has hit the fan,” said Pabst.


c. Andy Luke.
The Watch Thief runs one chapter a week. You can find more here.
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