The Watch Thief – Chapter 26

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Hotel Fürstenhof, Berlin.
Sunday 14 March, 1920.

The dining room was almost empty: just the French, and the reporters. Daniels greeted Hardinge and Gumble and pulled out a chair.

“I heard Gustav von Kahr’s people took the ministry in Bavaria,” said Hardinge.

“Not that you’d know, dear. There’s no papers getting in or out,” said Gumble. “Bloody Trebitsch,” he added

“My editor’s trying to get a statement from his wife,” said Daniels. “Oh, a cooked breakfast please. Thank you. Yes, there’s something Olympian about this scoundrel. Arguing sentence by sentence! I’ve had plenty of experience with political censorship, and this is by and far the worst.”

“We’ve told Kilmarnock,” said Gumble. “Though what will he do? I’ll tell you: he’ll register a complaint with Kapp and poof! Nothing!”

“There he is,” whispered Hardinge.

Two tables away, Trebitsch pulled a chair out and jumped into it. A waiter sighed.

“What sort of backward children would put Trebitsch Lincoln in as their press secretary?” asked Gumble.

“The Cold meat platter,” said Trebitsch.

“We have none,” said the waiter. “No meat left.”

“Kilmarnock is already furious at the suggestion Lloyd George supports the coup,” said Gumble.

“Oh, he didn’t say that!” exclaimed Hardinge.

She took a deep breath, while Daniels re-arranged the cutlery. A second waiter carried an English fry past Trebitsch and set it down in front of Daniels.

“But he has bacon and eggs!” said Trebitsch.

“I can do them cold for you,” said the waiter.

Hardinge dived her laughs into her napkin and Gumble had to turn his head completely.

Trebitsch scowled. “Do you know who I am?”

“Yes,” said the waiter.

Trebitsch pointed at the Frenchmen. “Those people there have ham, chicken!”

“We keep food aside for members of the Entente missions,” said the waiter.

The French, who he’d mocked the morning before, waved to him, and laughed among themselves. Trebitsch, enraged, whipped his head back round. The waiter was gone. He spied the reporters and went to their table.

“Lady and gentlemen, I’d like to invite you to a press conference.”

“That ham smells great, Mrs. Hardinge,” said Gumble, avoiding Trebitsch’s gaze.

“Oh, it’s very good,” she said, cutting across the side, while Daniels chewed gleefully.

“It’ll be outside the Chancellery at ten,” said Trebitsch.

“Mmmmm! This bacon is just right,” said Daniels.

A troop marches over empty tram lines on Unter den Linden and Bauer can hear flutes. There are people in the streets, but no synchronicity as they pass one another. No shops are open, there are no newspaper sellers. Stephani leans against a lamp-post spitting out tobacco smoke.

“Major. Shouldn’t you be at your post?” asked Bauer

The muscular soldier straightens up and salutes. “Colonel.”

“Well?”

He lowers his cigarette. His skin is reptilian cold and eyes gleam like knife points. “I’ve been at it all morning: moving on strikers; trying to get the power back online…my men still haven’t seen a mark.”

“Stephani, isn’t it? I thought Ehrhardt was getting your wages.”

“We found the Reichswehr man. He refused to even look at the cheque.”

Bauer rolled his eyes and looked away. It is just after noon and everywhere are unhappy faces, disinterested faces, with scarves wrapped tightly and hands kept in pockets. Oblivious, a young boy tosses a rubber ball, and a tantrum is thrown by his parents. A face in a window disappears quickly. Stephani drops his cigarette and stubs it with finality.

“Good lord,” said Bauer. “It makes one almost sympathise with the strikers.”

“What? No. We should shoot the lot of them.” Stephani shook his head and pulled a cigarette tin from his jacket and offered one to Bauer one.

“No. I don’t smoke. Did you hear Kapp’s speech this morning? It was terrible. Trebitsch translated, but couldn’t save it.”

“Trebitsch Lincoln. Who is this man?” asked Stephani.

“He is a Ehrenarier, an honourary Aryan like you.”

“I didn’t ask if he was a Jew, Colonel! Do you trust him?”

Suddenly, Trebitsch appeared beside them with a spasmodic waving of arms, flinches of the face, bearing his teeth. “It’s a mess! It’s a mess! It’s all gone to hell.”

Bauer began to speak.

Trebitsch continued. “I just saw Schiffer walk down Unter den Linden! Kapp’s released him. He’s walking around unguarded!”

“What?” said Stephani.

“I’m sure that’s not the case,” said Bauer.

“Kapp is a disaster. Ebert has escaped and is giving orders from Stuttgart, and Ludendorff… Ludendorff!! He said he would remain in the background, and he’s walking around in full uniform.”

Stephani tightened his face and evil-eyed Trebitsch.

“He said he would remain in the background and he’s walking around in full uniform, giving orders!! Sorry, you know I have the highest respect for him. But this is not his time yet!! WE…WE took Berlin. WE took Germany without firing a shot!!”

“You haven’t heard about Leipzig?” asked Bauer.

Silence. Neither Trebitsch or Stephani knew what he meant.

“The Bolsheviks took up arms. There are fifty dead, a hundred wounded,” said Bauer.

“I knew it!!” said Trebitsch. “I told Kapp not to let the Reds march!!”

“They’re fighting in the Ruhr too,” said Stephani. “I hear you have weight, Lincoln. Any chance I might get paid?”

“WHAT?” Trebitsch’s fingers gripped palms, shoulders arched, head hunched as he tightened into himself, with heels burning off the ground. He let loose an almighty scream. “Can this get any worse?”

Suddenly Unter den Linden was immersed in darkness and thunder. They instinctively ran for cover as it roared low over the city. Then they chased the craft, pistols un-holstered, as it’s cargo fell: leaflets gliding out like a blizzard. Tens of thousands of papers whited out the street. Trebitsch bent down to pick one up. Everywhere soldiers and strikers did the same.

A Call To A National Strike! By Decree of President Ebert, supported by the National Union of Workers.’

Trebitsch’s hands shook as he held it, and he growled.

Monday

Trebitsch saw the bus over the horizon, and walked back a few paces to wait for it at the stop. It would take him the rest of the way to his office. Absent was the breeze that always blew on Unter den Linden. It was due to arrive and so he stepped out to the roadside. The bus didn’t move. He wondered if the engine had stalled, and walked towards it. As he drew closer, it remained still. He drew his pistol. A minute later Trebitsch peered into the empty cab.

Wilhelmstrasse was neatly organised geometric shapes, hundreds of square windows in white brick. He reached Wilhelmplatz Press Office, out of breath. There was not a soul. It was cold and dark, too dark to sit at his desk so after a minute he retired.

Outside, he waved to Captain Ehrhardt. Unmistakeable, with his managed goatee strip that ran like a long black tongue to his sharp chin.

“Ehrhardt! This is a joke! The offices are completely empty and without power. It is useless!”

“Some of the new order meet in the Chancellery, though many have relocated to the Adlon.”

Trebitsch clapped his hands. “I shall go there. I am keen to put some hot food in my belly.”

“The Adlon will be of no use,” said Ehrhardt.

“The finest hotel in Europe cannot get me a meal?” asked Trebitsch.

“No trains are running to bring in food.”

“A word then with our friend, Mr. Stinnes.”

“Bauer’s already seen him. Stinnes can’t help. Most of his staff didn’t turn up,” said Ehrhardt.

“But he’s one of the richest men in Germany!!!” Trebitsch sighed, and after a moment asked, “Who is in the Chancellery building?”

“Kapp… Luttwitz. Ludendorff. They’re in negotiations with Schiffer.”

“SCHIFFER?? NEGOTIATIONS???”

The captain was not pleased either. “He’s representing Ebert.”

“WHY MUST WE NEGOTIATE? We’re the government. Not Schiffer or Ebert!! This is a disgrace!!”

“I agree.”

“Luttwitz has got complacent and Kapp is just incompetent. Captain Ehrhardt, if you wish Germany to get through this Red paralysis, you need a real man who will get things done. You need Bauer in that meeting! He will get the gas on and the water flowing. Make that clear to Chancellor Kapp whatever it takes.”

Ehrhardt nodded swiftly, then gestured Trebitsch to follow. He left him behind in a lightning march, to the soldier at the Chancellery door.

“You there. Tell the Chancellor that Captain Ehrhardt must speak to him at once.”

They walked through the open door to the foyer watching the guard depart. Floor tiles, wall tiles, the columns and ceiling, all were squared, except the crystal chandelier and sprouting palm tree. They sat on the wicker chairs at the edge and waited.

“I’m glad you share my opinion,” said Ehrhardt.

“What is taking him?” asked Trebitsch.

The soldier returned with a salute. “I relayed your message. His Excellency is in a meeting and does not wish to be disturbed.”

If looks were actions, Ehrhardt might have stripped the flesh off the soldier. “Tell Kapp if he doesn’t come out, I’ll come in and fetch him.”

“Yes, sir, right away, sir.”

Ten minutes later, Chancellor Kapp wobbled into the hall. He was overweight and perspiring, cleaning his brow with a rag from his pocket. His face arched over his spectacles and he had the looks of a startled shopkeeper. “What is it? What is wrong?” he asked.

“What is wrong you say?” said Ehrhardt. “The trains are not moving. Every shop is shut. The police are about ready to come off the fence. Look at me when I’m talking to you! God knows how long you have the Reichswehr for. You’re dawdling and what’s more, Noske and Ebert could be in chains and you’re, you swine, negotiating with his representative?”

Kapp was shaken. “We must establish connections if we wish to–“

“Establish connections?” asked Trebitsch. “With a government you have stigmatised as sunk in corruption?”

“I did not bring my men from Doberitz to put nincompoops in charge!”

“Bring Bauer into the government. There are things that need done,” said Trebitsch.

“You heard the minister,” said Ehrhardt.

“Yes, yes, of course. I will find a post for him by all means if you consider he can do the work”

Ehrhardt said, “There is no shortage of work, is there Kapp? End this strike. I have much to do. Good day.”

He and Trebitsch left.

Tuesday

In the corner of the Adlon, were Pabst and Trebitsch sat, Neo-Baroque carvings of faces looked down. Plaster rosettes and pattern paper layered the walls, and roped curtains. Commander Pabst’s whole demeanour was casual. He appeared to sink into the deep upholstery if not for the boot rested on his knee. His hair was black and deep and his eyes were like uncharted waters. The chief features of his face were joined by the contorted angles of his twisted smile. He spread his arms in the air.

“Kapp is not the right man, but so what? We stood up to those Versailles bastards. The whole country is out on strike: but they are angry at the betrayal of Ebert and the November 18th criminals. In that sense we are united.”

Trebitsch put his hand over his lip and considered the idea, which made him sad. “When will socialists and conservatives work together?” he asked.

Reinhold Wulle and Kuno von Westarp appeared behind them. Trebitsch arched his head back and flashed a smile at his editors.

“Trebitsch,” said Wulle. “We would like a word if you have time?”

“Mr. Wulle, Mr. Westarp, I always have time. However I cannot tell you when the ban on the press will end.”

Oh come. The government surely needs a loyal press,” said Westarp.

I am doing the best I can. Who knows when though?”

It’s not like we’re going to present the siege of Leipzig in any unfavourable light,” said Wulle.

Or put the march on Dortmund on the front page,” said Westarp.

Dortmund? What’s happening in Dortmund?” asked Pabst.

The Red Army have fifty thousand men on their way,” said Westarp.

How did we not hear about it?” asked Pabst.

Because all the power’s out!” cried Trebitsch. “No phones, no telegraph! Every military transmission has been hand couriered for forty-eight hours!!”

It was the British who told us,” said Westarp.

Then Ludendorff was there and the editors instinctively stepped aside to let the towering General through before he even said, “Gentlemen. I need a word with these men.”

Absolutely, General,” said Wulle.

Westarp saluted them. Pabst gestured to Ludendorff to join them on the seats. He didn’t. His legs were astride as if anchored to the world and if he should move it might move with him. When the editors were out of earshot, he spoke. “I’ve just come from the Chancellery. Schiffer had a deal on the table. He wanted Kapp and Ludendorff to resign.”

Why is he offering deals?” asked Trebitsch.

We don’t need him!” said Pabst, and added, “Of course, Kapp can resign, no harm done.” He nudged Trebitsch; both men laughed.

We are taking deals,” said Ludendorff, gruffly, “because we have lost the security police – nine thousand men, seventy five percent of our forces! Now. I’ve come to inform you Kapp has taken the offer and is packing for Sweden at this very moment.”

The deal?” asked Pabst. He was now deadly serious; both of them, thrust into an unfamiliar situation.

Schiffer wants resignations rather than forceful removals. Marinebrigade Ehrhardt would withdraw to Doberitz and Ebert’s government would return. The strike would end and a full amnesty given.”

Trebitsch was enraged. “We’re not taking it surely?”

Pabst protested. “The army will still have to disband. The French will still ruin our economy!”

If Luttwitz resigns, Schiffer promised his replacement will be our General Seeckt. Seeckt is willing.”

We do not want this,” warned Trebitsch. “We have done the unthinkable and we need to stand firm!”

We have much to discuss,” said Ludendorff, gruffly. “Tomorrow morning, the Chancellery,” He nodded his head, and departed.

It’s true then,” said Pabst. “He doesn’t do small talk, does he?”

Wednesday

Oil paintings of the masters hung on brown board, illuminated by mounted candles. Waistcoat rebels and pressed officers looked at Luttwitz, faltering. The bronze German eagle was perched at table’s end, the flag behind like wings. Over the table smoke hung in the air, cigarettes burning long at the end for no man moved. Not even Trebitsch.

I started this…” said Luttwitz.

He held a long finger to his lip. The cold reminded Luttwittz he was already more civil servant than senior officer. He side eyed the figures around the table from under the shadow of his cap. The bag under his eyes took over all his frame.

We…”

Ludendorff rested his hand in front of his chin and stroked the underside with his thumb.

…must keep calm…” said Luttwitz.

Ludendorff’s face had frozen over. He stared at Trebitsch, a ball of suppressed energy scrutinising the predicament.

Which company mutinied?” asked Pabst.

Bauer is looking into it,” said Ludendorff. “General?”

I can’t…” said Luttwitz. “I won’t.”

Suddenly he was decisive, flicked like a switch and looked right at Ludendorff. “You said I should continue.”

For God’s sake,” said Trebitsch. “There is violence in the Saxony, the Ruhr…”

Luttwitz took his hat off and set it on the table. His fingers brushed away the centre parting on his old white hair.

Nothing is coming in or out,” said Ehrhardt. “What did Seeckt say?”

Luttwitz replied. “If we all just lay low, for a few months…”

Suddenly both doors opened and Bauer entered. All heads turned He took the seat opposite Ludendorff. They stared at one another, neither speaking.

Luttwitz tried to catch Ludendorff’s eye. “General, if you are with us –”

Ludendorff took his eyes off Bauer and put his hand in his pocket. He pulled out keys.

Trebitsch, fetch my things from the Adlon.”

Luttwitz slammed his fist down on the table.

What’s going on?” asked Pabst.

How bad is it, Colonel?” asked Trebitsch.

All is lost. Of the commanding officers, only six remain loyal to us,” said Bauer.

Ludendorff’s head sunk, for the longest time.

Trebitsch stood and took the keys from the table.

Pabst’s head was in his hands.

Bauer, we are the richer for a bitter experience,” said Ludendorff.

Dietrich Eckart had flown from Munich into Berlin on Tuesday. The playwright, and his passenger, had hoped for a great revolution. Seeing the capital brought to a stand-still left them cold. Trebitsch cut across them in the foyer of the Adlon, and bounded up the curling stairs.

Eckart’s friend knew Trebitsch, from somewhere.

You’re one of the leaders?” he called out. “Where’s Ludendorff?”

Trebitsch momentarily startled, turned. “Disappeared!”

And Kapp?” the man called out.

Fled to Stockholm. They are not to be found. It is all over! Spectacles and beards for all!!” Trebitsch carried on springing up to the landing.

That man is a stinking Jew,” said Eckart. He put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Come on Adolf, we have no further business here.”

Corporal Adolf Hitler shook his head. He and Eckart turned, and walked back outside.

#

c. Andy Luke.
Image source: The Kapp Putsch on Wikiwand. Plundered soldiers with banner “Stop! Anyone who goes on is shot dead”,  on Wilhelmplatz in front of the sealed-off government district
The Watch Thief runs one chapter a week. You can find more here.
To read advance chapters, PDFs, and access a big bundle of awesome extras come spend a few bob on Patreon.
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