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Fort IX, Ingolstadt
Fort IX, Ingolstadt, Bavaria
Guards Captain Daniil Edvardovich Kostyshakov, late of His Imperial Majesty’s Kexholm Guards Regiment, shivered uncontrollably in a slight depression on Fort IX’s forward glacis. It was a fine thing that the depression was slight, because Kostyshakov, himself, was fairly short.
And this is one of those rare occasions when I wish I were shorter still.
The walls of the cells were wet and slimy, with mold growing in the corners. As with many places where large numbers of men are held against their will, the place had an aura of misery and despair about it, greater than the mold and the slime, alone, could account for.
Fort IX was the prison camp for the hardest of cases, the worst of the repeat escapees. As such, since determination and courage know no nationality, it was at the moment, or had been in recent memory, stuffed with Brits and French, Russians and Italians, the odd Belgian from time to time, and whosoever else had found themselves the unwilling guests of the Kaiser and had tried repeatedly to remedy that situation.
Sitting south of the city of Ingolstadt, and just about five hundred meters southwest of the small town of Oberstimm, Fort IX, a polygonal fort, was an old outwork of the defenses of the town, which were also, in practice, the defenses of the Bavarian capital of Munich. It was built of a mix of concrete and granite, with no small amount or wood and iron where called for, the whole overladen with about ten meters of damp earth and surrounded by a massive, water-filled moat to the south, east, and west, and a much narrower one to the north.
It wasn’t the sort of place anyone would want to spend the holidays. That said, if it was hell for a Briton or Frenchman or Russian, in 1917, it had been home to generations of German soldiers in the decades before that.
The cells for the prisoners were tunnel-shaped, with curved roofs, and measuring about twenty-six feet by fifteen. The tunnel shape, an almost perfect half circle, made it impossible for anyone of normal height to stand upright except toward the center where the roof was highest. The normal complement of a room was six officers, and normally it would contain six beds, a table, plus a few chairs. Sometimes numbers within a cell fluctuated. In these cases, the guards were careful to remove the wooden beds, or any chairs excess to need. Failure to do so was a guarantee of the excess furniture being turned into firewood to warm the otherwise damp and miserable cells.
Because Fort IX had not been designed as a prison, but as a defense, the cells were connected, each to the two to either side of it, by narrow passageways. These the guards had long since boarded up. The board barriers had, too, long since been compromised by the prisoners, with enough boards being made detachable to allow a man to squeeze through, and the job being done precisely enough to allow the boards to be replaced again, quickly, with nothing seeming amiss.
The German guard known to the prisoners as “Blue Boy” quickly counted heads in Room Forty-three. He knew all the prisoners’ faces by sight, in the open air, but in the dim light available at night in the prison cell, the best he could do was by size and shape.
“Blue Boy” called off the names of this cell, “Le Long?” “Here.” “La Croix?” “Here.” “De Robierre?” “Here.” “Moretti?” “Here.” “De Gaulle?” “Here.” “Desseaux?” “Here.”
Then “Blue Boy” reported to his chief, whom the prisoners referred to as “Abel,” “All present, Herr Feldwebel.”
The cell was then locked and the two Germans moved on to the next.
The prisoners had had much time to practice for this. It never took less than six seconds for the Germans to get to the next cell, and never longer than eight.
Thus, in order of event:
Second one: Le Long ripped the coats hanging in front of the wooden block to the passageway and moved them to one of the beds.
Seconds two, three and four, De Robiere, with an expertise born of much rehearsal, pulled off the cut-out section of the wooden barrier. Moretti, who trended rather short, used the first four seconds to position himself while pulling on a dark green coat—it was originally in what was called “horizon blue,” but had been dyed—the next two seconds to launch himself through the gap revealed by the removal of the boards, and the last to get in position with the occupants of the other room, Room Forty-four. There were five men in the room, and six beds. Moretti made the sixth. He just stood to as the door opened.
Again “Blue Boy” made his roll call. “Lustianseff?”
“Here,” answered Lustianseff.
“Here,” answered Kotcheskoff.
“Here,” answered Moretti . . .
“All present, Herr Feldwebel.”
Before crawling out into the glacis, Daniil had waited in a basket full of dirty clothes, sitting in one corner of the fort’s eastern half, waiting to be taken to laundry. It was fortunate he was short, there, too, as, in the first place, the basket was already pretty full, and in the second, six or more hours in a not very large basket can give terrible cramps to the legs.
Indeed, it had been both a blessing and a horrible agony to finally emerge from the basket, with agonizing shooting pains overwhelming his legs as feeling returned to them.
From the basket, once Daniil was able to move his legs without wanting to scream, he’d moved to and then crawled up a ramp and then, after waiting for a sentry to pass, into the battlements atop the fort. Daniil had begun his mental count, once the guard passed, one . . . two . . . three . . . four. . . . Then he crossed and waited in the lee of the battlements for the guard to return and move off again. Five . . . six . . . forty-two . . . seventy-five . . . ninety . . .
At least, though, it had been tolerably warm there in the basket, thought Kostyshakov, with another spasm of shivering. I wish the moon would hurry up and go down, though I’d settle for a large bank of thick clouds.
Daniil didn’t have a huge amount in the way of escape equipment and supplies. He mentally inventoried his small stash. I’ve about three days’ worth of food, most of it anywhere from a little past to well past its prime. Along with the food there is a quantity of pepper. Since home has apparently collapsed, well, thank God for the generosity and largesse of the British and French prisoners, who have little enough of their own at the moment. But however little they’ve had, they’ve been generous, even so. He felt for the compass one of the British prisoners had managed to make him. Yes, it’s a crude compass, but crude is better than nothing.
All the prisoners shared any information they had—thin though it was—about the surrounding area; he also had a crude map derived from that limited information, plus a more general one of the way to Switzerland.
His coat had been modified by one of the French officers—he’d had a background in fashion—for rapid transformation into a German officer’s heavy wool coat. To his boots were glued pieces of cloth, to deaden the sound of walking. He likewise had a hat that might not pass close and careful scrutiny, as well as good, lined gloves of his own. He’d taken a double sewn blanket, light-colored, washed out gray on one side, green on the other. The blanket was now slung across his chest and over his shoulder. With two sides, it was for two purposes.
A knife, fork, metal cup, and wire cutters fashioned by hand from a nicked pair of pliers completed his assembly, though he had one other item on his person. This was a billfold, which contained, besides some money, a folded postcard of two tall and elegantly dressed, to say nothing of quite beautiful, young women. He’d have given up his food before giving up the postcard; food just fed the body; the image of one of the young women fed his soul.
Though Daniil might have mourned his scant assets, he had this much going for him, Who travels light, travels fast.
The on-duty sentry passed, none too quietly, walking the rampart surmounting the fort’s earthwork. At the same time clouds, thick and pregnant with snow, closed in over the fort, barring the moon, and dropping everything into something approaching pitch blackness.
If I don’t get moving soon, I won’t have to be caught; the Germans will simply come out in the morning and pry me off the dirt, then use me as an ice supplement to preserve food in their mess.
He had the sentry’s timing down already. Once the man had passed Daniil slithered down the glacis, finally settling into the slight depression he’d found by earlier study, while planning his break.
And now we wait for the guard to make his rounds again.
There was wire at the base of the glacis. With the next passing of the guard, Daniil low crawled to it, snakelike. Then he took the blanket and, putting the dark side out, covered himself with it. The sharpened pliers came out next. He selected a place as near the upright pole as possible, gripped just past that with his glove, put the snippers around the wire and squeezed. It made a noise but, Much quieter than I feared. We didn’t have to cut much wire in the east, but the British and French told me how it was done.
It took several more cuts, two of them much delayed by the return of the sentry, before Daniil had cleared a path through. It must be understood, too, that the barbed wire of the Great War was not much like cattle fencing. It was stouter, the barbs were longer, there were a lot more of them, and hence they were much closer together. More than once Daniil had to bite back a curse as the prongs pierced his skin.
Mentally crossing himself, he pulled the blanket in closer to his body—No time to roll it properly—then finished passing through the wire. The moat was right there, on the other side.
Daniil hesitated at the moat, afraid of what could happen when he crossed it. If they’d let some children skate or play on the ice I’d have more confidence in this . . . ah, but stop sniveling, you chose this way because the Germans don’t look as carefully here, probably figuring no one is dumb enough to try.
Slowly and carefully, he reversed the blanket. Now the light gray—interestingly enough, ice gray—side was up. Covering himself with this, he eased himself out onto the ice. Since I can’t be sure how strong it is, I must spread my weight out. Helps that I’m not very big, too. And, fortunately, I’ve lost a bit of weight here. The Germans are usually better with prisoners than that, nutrition-wise, too. Things must be hard if they’re feeding us as poorly as they are. Indeed, I think they’ve lost more weight than I have.
The ice was smooth as glass, as he’d expected. Now his mess knife and fork came to the fore. Taking one piece in each hand, he used them to dig ever so slightly into the ice, creating a grip, the sound mostly muffled by the blanket. He was a little surprised that he picked up a degree of speed; the more he travelled the faster he went.
Braking is going to be . . . uh, oh.
Unable to slow down on the nearly frictionless ice, Daniil crossed his arms overhead and waited for the worst.
The blanket helped again, here, deadening the sound of his arms smashing against the opposite bank, itself frozen as hard as any ice.
Didn’t do much to soften the pain, but I’m not complaining.
And, finally, here I am, at the far side of the moat, and pretty much out of the guard’s area of responsibility.
Speaking of which . . . Still keeping the gray side up, and putting his knife and fork away, he rolled over onto his back and looked. Yes, there the old Hun is, marching to and fro and with no clue I’m gone.
Daniil moved as the clouds covered the moon, in little fits and starts. Finally, with the moon down at six minutes after five, he felt he could move with a little less care and a lot more speed. He headed to the southwest, skirting the towns of Baar-Ebenhausen, Reichertshofen, and Langenbruech. He lost some time by doffing trousers, stockings, and boots, trying to disguise his scent in the Paar River. He also left a goodly sprinkling of his little store of pepper to upset the inevitable dogs. By the time he’d done all that, he thought he could see the first faint glimmer of morning, off in the east. Spying some haystacks, he ran to one of them. Then, after excavating an area for himself, he fed himself feet first into the hole he’d created, pulling the rest of the hay carefully in after himself.
And now we wait for night, for the search to reach this area and hopefully pass me by. Assuming, of course . . .
* * *
There are some problems that can certainly be foreseen but still not be provided against. One of these, in Daniil’s case, was morning roll call, conducted in the bailey of Fort IX. There’d be no dim light, here and now, to mask Moretti’s impersonation, no shadows to blend and mask faces. There’d be no hasty passageway to allow a prisoner to move from one place to another. Instead, there was:
“Here,” answered the tall, ungainly, big-nosed French officer.
“Here,” said De Robiere.
“Here,” agreed Desseaux, adding, “Unfortunately.”
“Here,” answered Kotcheskoff.
“Here,” answered Moretti, still wearing his assumed coat.
“Here,” answered Lustianseff.
“Here,” answered Moretti.
“Blue Boy” looked up and glanced quickly at the spot from which he thought he’d heard two answers.
“Kostyshakov?” he repeated.
“Here,” answered Moretti, slouching low so as not be seen and with an attempt at a more convincing Russian accent.
“Moretti?” called “Blue Boy.”
“Here,” answered Moretti.
German soldiers with bayonetted rifles, most of the soldiers older and some sporting limps and scars, walked around the hayfield stuffing their bayonets into the loosely piled, beehive shaped, haystacks.
“Come out! Come out, Captain Kostyshakov!” shouted the leader of the Germans, the small and rather intelligent noncom whom the prisoners called “Abel.”
“We know you’re somewhere in this area! Why don’t you save us all some trouble and just give yourself up? You’ve made a fine attempt; there no shame in failure when the odds are stacked so badly against you.”
Meanwhile, Kostyshakov thought, You’re bluffing, Hun. If you knew I was here you’d just drag me out.
But the Germans, in their methodical way, kept prodding the haystacks. Perhaps inevitably, one bayonet thrust took Daniil in the backside, digging into flesh about half an inch deep. He managed to stifle his own scream. This wasn’t quite enough.
The searcher, keyed perhaps by a degree of resistance not normally to be expected in a haystack, noticed an area of blood on the end of his bayonet. Drawing the rifle back and examining the point of that bayonet, he was quite sure it hadn’t been there before. “Herr Feldwebel!”
Northern Gate, Citadel of Brest-Litovsk, Belarus
He had the face of a butcher, that man, an impression only strengthened by the six-foot, four-inch, and very heavyset, frame above which that face rested. Mind, if he had the face of a butcher it was also the face of a highly astute, well-cultured, and remarkably intelligent butcher. He was fat, to some considerable extent, but the fat didn’t extend to his brain.
Butcher-faced, he may have been. Fat? Yes, that too. but Major General Max Hoffmann was not a butcher of men or, at least, not of his own men. Aged forty-eight now, and having served his country, in peace and in war, for thirty years, Hoffmann stood at the pinnacle of his profession. A mere major general? At the pinnacle of the warrior’s profession?
Even so; Hoffmann was the chief of staff—a position very unlike that of the chief of staff of any other army of that day or any other—of Ober Ost, the German high command in the east. Moreover, not only did the German Army follow the orders and plans he crafted, so did both the Austro-Hungarian and the Bulgarian armies. This was because, under the system prevailing in the German Army at the time, the Chief of Staff was the brains of an army. A man with character could command—and Hoffmann was most fortunate in that his nominal chief, Prince Leopold of Bavaria, could command—but thinking deep, hard, and above all, well was a different matter entirely.
An evening walk was normal enough, when time permitted. Tonight, though, upset and annoyed with the Bolsheviks, Hoffmann felt the urge for a longer walk.
“I think, Brinkmann,” said Hoffmann to the major—also of the general staff—accompanying him on his walk, “that I could not have taken another minute of that Bolshevik peasant eating with his fingers and using his fork as a toothpick . . . or, come to think of it, another second of that murderous Bitsenko bitch regaling Prince Leopold about her murder of Sakharov.”
The other man, Brinkmann, pulled cold air through his nostrils, contenting himself with, “Indeed, and I don’t mind you inviting me, sir; Admiral Altfater, with whom I was sitting in the anteroom, is a fine gentlemen, but everything he says about the disintegration of the Russian Imperial Army is depressing. It could have been us. If we’re not both careful and lucky, it could still be us.”
“I know, Friedrich; I’ve spoken to Altfater myself. It’s depressing because, as you say, there but for the grace of God, go we. It’s a damned thin line we hold, and that across a long border, between our people and the Reds.”
Stepping through the brick gate of the town’s citadel— which was also the site of the peace negotiations with the Bolsheviks now ruling Russia— Hoffmann led the major into the town or, rather, what remained of it after the Russian Army, in its retreat, burnt it to prevent its use by the German Army. Beside him, Brinkmann’s cane echoed louder than his footsteps.
A more sensitive man might have bemoaned the destruction of the town and the hardship inflicted on its people. Hoffmann, however astute, was not sensitive.
Even so, the town was starting to come back to life a bit, too, as some of its former citizens returned to recreate their old homes and businesses. There hadn’t been a huge improvement yet, even so.
“We’re being foolish, Brinkmann,” said Max, “and in more ways than one. We shouldn’t be making peace with the Bolsheviks; we should be marching on Moscow to restore some kind of civilized government.”
“It wasn’t so long ago,” Brinkmann reminded him, “that you were all in favor of letting the Bolsheviks rule Russia . . . and ruin it, that Germany needed a break from the Russian threat. What’s changed?”
Hoffmann didn’t answer immediately but continued walking, in silence. Finally, turning right to take up Masharova Prospect, he answered, “I didn’t know everything then that I know now. I didn’t know about the terrorism, the murders, the oppression and persecution of faith. I’m not ashamed; who could have predicted such a thing from a people as faithful to God as the Russians? Primitive in many ways they may be, but faithful they have always been, too.”
They reached a point where, normally, Hoffmann would have turned around. This night, however, he could not. Snowflakes began to fall as the pair continued plodding to the east.
“You served there, didn’t you?” asked Brinkmann. “In Russia? Before the war?”
“Yes, for a while, six months, to learn the language, and then, too, I was for a number of years, five, actually, in the Russian Department of the General Staff.”
“Ah, that would explain your faculty with the language then.”
“That, yes, but . . . did you hear something?” Hoffman rotated his head in the direction from which the sound—an odd and strange sound—had come.
“No,” the major shook his head; “I was listening to you.”
“There it is again.” The cry was faint, but it sounded liked, “Nie, nie, nie; Adpusci mianie!”
“Now that,” said Brinkmann, “I heard. A woman, I think. Or a girl. She seems upset.”
Keeping his head and eyes fixed on the direction from which the woman’s—or girl’s—cry had come, without another word, Hoffmann undid the retaining strap of the holster on his belt. Without any particular notion of what his chief had in mind, Brinkmann followed suit. It wasn’t necessary for Hoffmann to say, “Follow me.” He led off and Brinkmann followed as surely as a rainbow follows the rainstorm.
The sounds—the cries—ended. Even so, Hoffmann followed the heading he had set for himself. The pair crossed a space distinguished only by charred timbers before coming to a cobblestone road.
“There will be four of them,” Hoffmann whispered. “Well, at least four.”
“Four of what?” asked Brinkmann. To that Hoffmann didn’t give an answer. There was no need to because shortly they came to a waist-high stone wall, against which also lay four rifles, outlined in the quarter moon’s worth of light. They both could see someone holding down a woman’s arms with one hand, and another covering her mouth, another two forcing her legs apart, and a fourth holding something in front of his crotch, dropping to his knees between the spreading legs.
I suppose it’s only logical, thought Brinkmann; there has to be four for efficiency’s sake. This is something I’d just as soon not have known.
Hoffmann, for all his undoubted military skills, was considered to be one of the worst horsemen and—literally and absolutely—the worst fencer in the entire German Army. There was nothing wrong, however, with his hand-eye coordination when a pistol was involved. Besides, at this range I can hardly miss.
The pistol barked.
So much for Herr Schwanz-im-Hand.
The second shot released the woman’s—or girl’s— hands and mouth, allowing her to release an instant ear-splitting shriek. If the shooting upset her at all it was tolerably hard to tell.
Brinkmann, having transferred his cane to his left hand, took aim. His shot then did for the right leg holder, as Hoffmann finished off the left.
Hoffmann then, and much to the horror of both the major and the woman, walked forward and proceeded to put another bullet into the brain of each of the assailants. After that he bent to offer the woman a hand up. The act of lifting also allowed her dress to fall back into place.
Only then did he realize that the “woman” was actually quite a young girl, perhaps fourteen years old or, if she’d been well fed recently, maybe even thirteen.
“Dziakuj,” said the girl, leaning against the mountain in the form of a man. “Dziakuj,” she repeated, throwing her arms around him. Hoffmann let her stand like that for a few minutes, The poor thing is shaking so badly. Don’t think I blame her.
“I recognize at least one of these,” Brinkmann said, using his cane to ease himself down to one knee. He twisted by the chin the bloody, shattered, brain-leaking head of one of the corpses. “I’ve seen him standing guard on one of the Bolshevik diplomat’s huts.”
Hoffmann holstered his pistol, then put hands on both the girl’s shoulders and eased her gently away. He had his first real view of her face. Pretty thing, he thought. Or she’ll grow up pretty, anyway. If she grows up.
“Do you speak Russian?” he asked the girl. “German?”
“Leetle Russian,” she answered. “Leetle. Speak Belarus better.”
“Who were these?”
“Dunno. Me walk home from Papa’s store. Grab me. Next, you see what they do. Try do.”
“Did they speak Russian, at least.”
“Not to me. Not understand they speak, anyway.”
“Okay, girl. What is your name?”
“Maryja,” she answered. “Maryja Pieliski, sir.”
“Are you all right, Maryja?” Hoffmann asked. “Will you be fine going home now?”
“Yes. Think so, sir. You save me before they . . .”
She doesn’t need to describe this, or think about it, Hoffmann thought. “Okay. Go home then and tell nobody what happened here. Bad for all of us if you do.”
“I go. I say nothing.” Before she turned though, she threw her arms, at least as far as they’d go, once more around Hoffmann’s more than ample waist and repeated, “Thank you. Thank you! Thank you!”
As she scampered off, footsteps clattering on cobblestones, Brinkmann searched through the pockets of the corpse he’d been inspecting. “Here’s the . . . well . . . paybook, I suppose, for this one.”
Hoffmann took the proffered booklet and thumbed it open. “It’s written in Russian,” he said, “but it says he’s a Latvian.”
“Makes sense; they’re the most reliable troops the Reds have.”
“Animals,” Hoffmann pronounced. “Just animals. And we’ve turned them into our neighbors for the foreseeable future.”
“It reminds me of when we took Riga, last September,” Hoffmann continued. He led off once again, rescued girl and Bolshevik corpses for the nonce forgotten. “There, the Russian Army had so badly disintegrated into a rabble that none of the people felt safe until we drove them out.”
“Well . . . Russians, after all,” Brinkmann said.
Hoffmann stopped for a moment, somewhat incredulous. “What, you think Russians are invariably rabble? It is not so, Brinkmann; I assure you it is not so. Whether with Suvarov in Italy, or at Eylau under Bennigsen, at Poltava facing the Swedes or Borodino versus Napoleon, the Russian soldier has always been well disciplined. I saw him fighting the Japanese, around Port Arthur. The Russian soldier is docile, quiet, and unassuming; he is also innately brave. It’s not him, not the Russian soldier; it’s the Bolsheviks, who have ruined him, at least for the nonce.”
“The Cossacks?” Brinkmann countered. In many circles, the Germans not least, the Cossacks had a reputation for pillage and rapine, along with the other usual battlefield atrocities.
“Different role, different culture,” Hoffmann explained.
Brinkmann accepted this without demur, though he retained his private doubts. “They’ll be trying to infect us, too, with their propaganda.”
“They already are,” Hoffmann said. “I refused them their demand to be allowed to send it to our soldiers. They’ve officially accepted my refusal for now . . . but in the long run? We have to do something about them.”
“What can we do?” asked Brinkmann. “I note that our own newspapers, and the Austrians’, too, are in high dudgeon over your refusal to let the Reds spread their propaganda.”
“Indeed,” said Hoffmann. “One would almost wonder whose side the papers are on, except we’ve known for years they’re on the enemy’s side. On the plus side, the British, French, and American papers are largely on ours. Seems a universal problem.
“As to what we can do . . . maybe nothing,” Hoffmann admitted. “But I am recalled to see Ludendorff in Berlin in about two weeks’ time. I’m going to try to make them see reason.”
He said the next sentence without conviction, “Someone has to see reason . . .”
Later that evening, in his quarters, under a dim lamp, Max Hoffmann put his own reason to work, sketching out a possibility with a few branches and arrows, with the overall grand object of getting rid of the Bolsheviks.
But how? But how? We can’t do the work for any number of reasons, and even if we did, we’d get no thanks from it and do no good, even if we succeeded. But maybe . . .
At one point Hoffmann shouted out to his aide, “Find me the report from Jambol, Bulgaria . . . no, I don’t remember the date, only that it was marked ‘Naval’ and was a little over a month ago.”
Hoffmann entered Ludendorff’s office fully intending to brief him on a particular idea he had. Faced with the quartermaster general’s cold anger over a certain diplomatic faux pas, however, that ambition quickly died.
“How could you let such a note pass, Hoffmann?” Ludendorff demanded angrily. “You should have stopped it before the Russians were misled and then stomped off in a huff. You speak Russian, for God’s sake; you should have made sure there were no such misunderstandings. Moreover, why didn’t you inform me of its contents?”
With someone of Ludendorff’s sheer force of character, coupled to the sudden and unexpected absence of the warmth and cordiality that had existed between them even since before the war, Hoffmann was almost flabbergasted. He kept his cool enough to explain that he had assumed, and had every right and reason to assume, that Ludendorff had been fully briefed by the Foreign Office.
“Moreover, the problem was not one of translation but of sheer understanding. The Russians had simply blithely assumed that no forcible annexations meant no self-determination, even though self-determination was one of their principles, when they entered into the negotiations. How is one to prevent that? Didn’t you all, after all, discuss this at the meeting on the eighteenth?”
“We did not,” Ludendorff admitted. “As to whether you were justified in assuming so . . . well . . . I supposed so. My apologies then. I am under a good deal of strain of late.”
“I understand,” Hoffmann said.
“So lay out for me, then, both the status of the negotiations and of the front. You may consider this a dress rehearsal, because His Majesty wishes you to come to the Bellevue Palace for lunch, where he is certain to want the very same things.”
Bellevue Palace, Berlin
Hoffmann had stepped out into the cold air. He was aware that the deeper problem in Russia, and his possible solution, had not been discussed with Ludendorff’s.
And how could they have been, given how angry he was? Add to that his dominance and inquisitiveness over the dress rehearsal. And then there was the lack of time, given where I have to be and when.
About ready to turn around and return to brief Ludendorff, Hoffmann realized there was a car waiting for him outside the Generalstabs Gebaeude. A one-armed captain of the guards—there were a great many one-armed captains floating around Germany by this point in the war—guided him to it, while the driver held the door for him. Berlin traffic was not notably heavy at any but the worst of times. Now, at this stage of the war, civilian ownership of motor vehicles had declined by over eighty percent. Oh, there were still some private cars, but most had been pressed into military service. This car, a Daimler Mercedes, took Hoffmann swiftly—albeit coldly, given the open top—south through empty streets to the equally bare Zeltenallee, thence westward to deposit him at the Palace.
Kaiser Wilhelm already knew that watching Hoffmann eat his way through an entire lunch was not something for the faint of heart. He consoled himself at the carnage with the thought, Perhaps he eats enough for four, but he thinks enough for four thousand. He’s a bargain.
Meanwhile, between chomps, Hoffmann thought upon his kaiser. I must be careful here. What was it Bismarck said of him, before he was dismissed? Oh, yes, he wants every day to be his birthday. He is unsure of himself and arrogant at the same time. Intelligent, but without much in the way of self-discipline to make use of that intelligence. He craves the new and detests monotony. Well . . . perhaps I’ll have something new for him, since I couldn’t mention it to Ludendorff.
Hoffmann, still seated at the table and without recourse to notes or maps, gave the kaiser the same information he had given Ludendorff, right up until Wilhelm asked his opinion on what was coming to be called, “The Polish Question.” His concern was where the new border was to be drawn in the east, and the presumptive expense of the new German-sponsored state of Poland, which was to be ripped from the hands of the Russians.
Hoffmann demurred, or tried to, knowing that Ludendorff and Hindenburg, both, had fanciful notions of new divisions and corps of Poles, marching to shore up the western front at the stamp of a teutonic foot. He also knew, Ludendorff has forbidden us telling the kaiser anything without his approval. That was half of what this morning’s dress rehearsal was about.
The kaiser, in any case, was having none of it. “When your supreme war chief demands your opinions on any subject, it is your duty to communicate them to him quite irrespective of their coinciding with the opinions of the General Headquarters or not.”
I see no end of trouble for me from this. Nonetheless, he is right; it is my duty.
“There’s another matter I’d like to discuss, too, but to answer your question, I think we’d be fools, Majesty, to take any more of Poland and of Poles than we absolutely had to. We’ve had substantial numbers of them since your multi-great grand uncle partitioned Poland, one hundred and forty-five years ago. They’ve never really become reconciled to it.
“Yes, fine, we could use two strips, one to shield the Silesian coalfields and another on the Malwa Heights; one hundred thousand Poles, no more. Let the rest be Poles, allies if at all possible, but happy to be themselves and not ersatz, pseudo, and deeply unhappy Germans.”
Hoffmann didn’t know if the kaiser spoke truth when he said, “I’ve been thinking along the same lines, frankly; we don’t need them; we can’t use them; so why should we want them?”
“And what was that other matter?” the kaiser asked.
“It has to do with your cousins, in Russia.”
“What about them?” the kaiser asked. Wilhelm retained a good deal of annoyance toward both his cousin, Nicky, and Nicky’s wife’s beautiful sister, Ella, who had flat refused Wilhelm’s proposal of marriage decades before.
“You know they’re going to be killed, of course, Your Majesty. That’s the logic of revolution. All of them, your cousin, his wife, their beautiful daughters, and their only son.”
“I’ve tried not to think about it,” the kaiser admitted.
“We can’t avoid thinking about it any longer, Your Majesty,” Hoffmann insisted.
“What can we do then?”
Hoffmann smiled, his eyes wandering to the Christmas tree standing in one corner. “Oh, I have a couple of ideas on the subject . . .”
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