The Watch Thief – Chapter 25


13 March, 1920. 6:15 a.m.

President Ebert, Defence Minister Noske, Foreign Minister Muller and most of Germany’s cabinet ran; feet echoing across empty Wilhelmstrasse. Trebitsch passed by at the other end of the road and heard their motor cars spark like thunder in the dawn air. It had begun.

Pabst was met at Brandenburg Gate, the Athenian Propylaea. Sunrise beams starred off its columns, lighting the path to troops in the distance; catching nearer balconied windows of the Reichstag.

Trebitsch sang. “Good morning, sir. Oh what a beautiful morning, what a way to start the day!”

Pabst had been awake for some hours. “Yes it is. Do you see them? They set out from Doberitz at ten. However, listen. Late last night…oh, hello, Bauer.”

Bauer raised himself as if to the size of a column.

“Late last night,” said Pabst, “Ebert ordered General Seeckt to open fire on any armed force: be they Marinebrigade Ehrhardt, Freikorps or Reichswehr.”

They looked to the road where five minutes away thousands of soldiers marched.

“And Seeckt told him to go fuck himself,” said Ludendorff.

Atop broad shoulders, a rare smile flashed across the Old Sinner’s face. Chief von Jagow had arrived with him. They grinned back at Ludendorff, and then looked ahead.

Pabst continued. “The officer corps will not be wiped out by turning against one another.”

“Marinebrigade Ehrhardt!” It was Luttwitz, his wrinkles lit up as if renewed by primordial heat. His golem ears were practically luminescent. “That’s an incredible sight”

The army band played and they sang and Trebitsch caught himself mouthing along: Heil dir im Siegerkranz, Herrscher des Vaterlands! Heil, Kaiser, dir! They walked in double file and by now the horizon was a mass of jeeps and horses and six thousand men in military dress, helmets with swastikas.

“Where’s Kapp?” asked Bauer. “He’s not slept in?”

They were still chuckling at that when Kapp came running up from behind. He had a shirt tail out of place and a scrap of paper in his hand. “I had to borrow my wife’s typewriter for the proclamation.”

“About time!” said Trebitsch, and took the carbon copy from his hand.

The army were upon them then. Captain Ehrhardt stepped forward, and saluted them. Kapp read the proclamation and they cheered.

“Position men to secure the Reichstag!” shouted Luttwitz. “The rest of us will proceed to the Chancellery.”

Kapp nodded. Trebitsch looked at the six thousand soldiers and turned laughing as he led them through the arch, swinging the proclamation in the breeze.

Kapp caught up to him. “I’ll need you to deliver that to the presses,” he said.

“Yes, I know what to do. Give me both copies. I will guard them.”

They crossed Pariser Platz and marched toward Hotel Adlon. Bauer and Pabst were laughing too, moreso when Trebitsch pointed out the French delegation on a balcony in their pyjamas.

“Colonel, I have a matter to attend to. I shall meet you on Wilhelmstrasse,” said Trebitsch

Bauer nodded, and Trebitsch fell out. Residents crowded at the Adlon’s entrance but split to form a path for him. One or two clapped. Most were frightened. He bounced up the curving stairs and skipped along the hall until he got to Karl Weigand’s room whereupon he rapped the door three times. Weigand was in his robe and his thin hair stuck out sharply. Trebitsch thrust the proclamation into his hand.

“Mr. Weigand, you will want to get outside. You have a story you can sell to Mr. Hearst, presuming no one can bid higher!”

Bauer exited the Wilhelmstrasse Chancellery, and saw Trebitsch walking his way. His news burst out of him like a bull exploding methane. “Ebert and most of the cabinet have fled to Stuttgart!”

“I’m not surprised,” said Trebitsch, and flapped the newspaper he’d taken from the Adlon. “Reporters heard about the march last night. We’re on every front page already!”

“Well,” Bauer said, “Kapp and Luttwitz are in there. They’ll probably be in there all day, phoning every barracks from Hamburg to Dresden.”

“Keep in line, traitor!” shouted Pabst. He and Ehrhardt were marching officials from the building.

Bauer explained, “Vice-Chancellor Schiffer and some of the others refused to leave. They’ll be taken to the jail. He told us Ebert plans to mobilise the unions for a General strike.”

Trebitsch laughed. “And what? Stop the whole country in it’s tracks? Germany has never been stopped by a strike! Do you know what we should do, Max?”

“What, Trebitsch?” he asked.

“It’s nearly half seven and we can’t rule on an empty stomach!”

Seven minutes away, crispbread and toast permeated the Excelsior’s dining room. Waiters brought out steaming filter coffee and poured tea while diners unfolded napkins and snacked on fruit and cereal. They dabbed their lips and between bites talked of family and business as waitresses gracefully curled round one another, carrying plates with poached eggs or kippers and fresh bread. There was the slamming of wooden frames out in the hall and the blue curtain was swung aside. Flanked by Bauer and Chief von Jagow, Trebitsch entered waving a revolver. A woman screamed.

“Power is in our hands!” he announced.

It was a full breakfast and served promptly.

After, they found a printers. Von Jagow threatened to shoot the man if the proclamation wasn’t his immediate priority. Soon after they found Captain Ehrhardt. He was about to go to the telegraph office, Haupttelegrafenamt, and asked Trebitsch to join him.

Ehrhardt drove across Berlin in a shining black Ford and they greeted the soldiers who lined every roads, setting up barbed wire and other barricades. Every so often they would stop to hand the proclamations to the officers.

“My men were promised special wages today but the Reichsbank are being difficult,” said Ehrhardt.

“If they refuse, seize the bank,” said Trebitsch. “They would pay up with a gun to their heads.”

“True. Listen, Kapp asked me to request that you serve as our Minister for Press and Propaganda.”

“It would be an honour, an honour!”

Trebitsch excitedly stood up, raised his arms and shouted. “People of Berlin, order is restored!”

A half hour later they arrived at Oranienburger Strasse. Captain Lieutenant Lensch, a wireless expert, was enlisted to help bring the new government nationwide reports. Realising Lensch and Ehrhardt would be a while and he could do little meantime, Trebitsch demanded keys for a jeep.

He crossed the River Spree twice, saluting at men along the way, driving whatever twists and turns he liked before finding his way back to Wilhelmstrasse. The Press Office was in the Ordenspalais, next door to the Chancellery and the jeep bumped hard upon the kerb.

He claimed a double office with a varnished oak desk, typewriter, telephone, antique grandfather clock and filing cabinets. A call was put through to Kapp telling him the Ministerial role was filled and a call was made to Ehrhardt requesting the use of Lensch when he was done. Every so often a civil servant would enter, confused by Trebitsch’s appearance there.

“Never you mind who was here before!” he yelled. “I’m in charge now and I mean to handle the flow of information. Any journalist wishing to correspond with their paper must go through me. Particularly the British! Now do you understand??”

Several hours later, Lensch arrived amid chaos. It was a Saturday, and therefore most clerks were soldiers ill-suited to managing bureaucratic dilemmas. He recognised the actual civil servants as those most frightened. Lensch called for help but his words were lost to ringing phones, panicked voices grappling with the changing circumstances.

“Yes, Mr. Westarp. We are aware of your paper’s support. I’ll pass your complaint along.”

“I’m looking for Trebitsch Lincoln,” said Lensch.

“No, Mr. Wulle,” said another operator. “Arrangements have been made to have all newspaper buildings occupied.” He looked to Lensch, and thumbed toward the back.

Lensch made his way through the crowd. The stocky Hungarian stood aside a desk, talking down the telephone with a mouth of menacing glee.

“Hello, Mr. Reventlow. Oh, von Jagow is with you now? That’s right. Yes, your poxy rag will not be printed this week. Perhaps not ever. Look for a new line of work, Mr. Reventlow.” Trebitsch gave a boisterous laugh and hung up.

“Mr. Lincoln?”

“Ah! Captain!”

“Chancellor Kapp ordered me to work directly under you. I’ll tell you what I told Kapp. I will serve but as an official of the wireless office I am not the right man for the job.”

Trebitsch looked him up and down. Ironed shirt and jacket: he prized discipline. Spectacles: a studious approach. Forty years: some experience, about the same age as himself. “I asked for you specifically, Lensch, so I completely disagree. Walk with me.”

Trebitsch led him onwards, through the many soldiers still shocked at Kapp’s choice of Press Minister. “The police, as you know, have forbidden the papers to appear, presumably to stop provocation. Von Jagow has made a mistake of course. In the meantime there is one respect in which our job is easier.” Trebitsch opened the door into his office, and kept walking toward the door on the other side. “We shall concentrate on dealing with the foreign press! Now, you will occupy this room or this roo – huh!”

The handle would not turn. “Who has the key to this door?” he shouted. “Achtung! Who has the key?”

A soldier was quick there. “That’s Councillor Elksop’s office.”

“And where is he?” asked Trebitsch. “Open it!”

“I don’t have the key,” said the soldier.

“Then kick it in! Shoot the lock! Your government is giving you an order!”

At 2pm, Trebitsch stepped out for a cigarette and bumped into General Luttwitz.

“War Minister Luttwitz, how are things progressing?”

“Little resistance across the North and East. Some trouble in Thuringia. Ebert arrived in Dresden, but General Maercker is loyal to us. A warrant is out for their arrest.”

Trebitsch rubbed his hands together as if witnessing the re-invention of fire. Luttwitz cautioned him. Strikes were breaking out and even in safe areas like Leipzig and Saxony, the unions were supported by weaponry. He was particularly worried by the Ruhr district, were a Red Army had begun to mobilise in great number. Trebitsch said he would see to that, and they parted.

He was feeling heavy and intended to go to the bathroom, but was distracted by shouting coming from his office.

“Who opened the door or had it opened? I must protest strongly!”

Then Lensch’s voice, firm and cutting. “You will speak in a more moderate tone.”

Trebitsch opened the door to their rooms and found Councillor Elksop on the offensive.

“I cannot find another tone for people who break open other people’s doors!”

“I had the door opened,” said Trebitsch. “What is more, quite a lot of other things are going to be happening to you.”

Elksop stepped close to Trebitsch’s face. “By what right do you address me in this manner?”

“Chancellor Kapp and General Luttwitz have entrusted me with responsibility for foreign propaganda,” he said, not flinching.

Elksop took a casual step back. “Really? Aren’t you a foreigner? I hardly believe German official functions would be assigned to a foreigner.”

“Ho ho! That is where you are wrong!” Trebitsch clapped his hands twice. “Until now foreign propaganda has been conducted on false principles. I will demonstrate how it is to be done properly. Guard, get this man out of there!”

Tact is not among the qualities of the new German government. The truth about the latest coup d’etat in Germany begins and ends with what they have to say about it. Communications offices in Berlin have rebelled against the restrictions, hoping the rule of a clique of soldiers and officers will soon come to an end.

Not. And ends with what. Have to. Rebelled against. A clique of. To an end.

Trebitsch had these words on the press report covered with blue lines. He looked up at the man from The Telegraph. “There,” he said, and handed it back.

“But there’s nothing left to it!”

“Then I suggest you stick to the facts in future,” said Trebitsch.

“These are the facts!”

“Not my idea of them. Biased personal opinion, speculation…” Trebitsch let out a fart and was rather pleased with his timing.

“This sentence here…”

“Does not convey proper respect.”

“There are legitimate concerns among the working class. They’ve already begun to strike in great numbers! The people who light and heat the city, the people of Berlin who –“

“The people of Berlin welcome regime change! And I wouldn’t call a few Communists a nationwide strike! I suggest you re-write it.” Trebitsch sent him from the room.

A call came from the adjoining office. “H. G. Daniels of The Times!” announced Lensch.

Daniels entered and handed Trebitsch his sheet. “Let me see…no…no…” The pen went through every line. “No.” He shook his head. “No.”

“What in good heavens?” asked Daniels.

“Bring it back when you do not take such damning liberties!”

“I will not!” said Daniels and planted the page back on Trebitsch’s desk. “There is nothing offensive there!”

Trebitsch smiled cordially and further inspected the report. “Then, allow me to re-draft it for you, Mr. Daniels,” he said, and ripped the paper from top to bottom, and threw it in the bin. “You can tell Viscount Northcliffe that’s an official statement.”

Daniels left and was replaced by another. Trebitsch stood up, and pointed to the clock. “Five o’ clock on a Saturday,” he said. He packed his papers into his black leather brief case and walked from the room. “I have been working on behalf of Germany’s Foreign Press since before you even knew of my existence.”

Lensch and the Chronicle man followed him into the hall where the reporters waited.

“You would be hard pressed to find any government minister with an open door on a Saturday,” he told them. “Which I had!” He closed the door and brought out the keys. “Let alone on a Sunday!” he remarked jubilantly.

“How are we supposed to file for the Sunday editions?”

“This is an outrage! Lord Kilmarnock will hear of this!”

Trebitsch laughed at that one. He left through them quickly and made his way to the bathroom. He was already sat down when he realised there was no toilet roll. Then the lights went out.



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