Das Vorspiel xiii
The Man Behind the Curtain 3
P A R T I Into the Wood 7
P A R T I I House Hunting in the Third Reich 51
P A R T I I I Lucifer in the Garden 91
P A R T I V How the Skeleton Aches 155
P A R T V Disquiet 207
P A R T V I Berlin at Dusk 261
P A R T V I I When Everything Changed 301
E P I L O G U E The Queer Bird in Exile 357
C O D A “Table Talk” 365
Sources and Acknowledgments 367
Photo Credits 435
prelude; overture; prologue; preliminary match; foreplay; perfor-mance; practical (exam); audition; das ist erst das ~ that is just for starters
— Collins German Unabridged Dictionary (seventh edition, 2007)
Once, at the dawn of a very dark time, an American father and daughter found themselves suddenly transported from their snug home in Chicago to the heart of Hitler’s Berlin. They remained there for four and a half years, but it is their fi rst year that is the subject of the story to follow, for it coincided with Hitler’s ascent from chancellor to absolute tyrant, when everything hung in the balance and nothing was certain. That fi rst year formed a kind of prologue in which all the themes of the greater epic of war and murder soon to come were laid down.
I have always wondered what it would have been like for an outsider to have witnessed fi rsthand the gathering dark of Hitler’s rule.
How did the city look, what did one hear, see, and smell, and how did diplomats and other visitors interpret the events occurring around them? Hindsight tells us that during that fragile time the course of history could so easily have been changed. Why, then, did no one change it? Why did it take so long to recognize the real danger posed by Hitler and his regime?
Like most people, I acquired my initial sense of the era from books and photographs that left me with the impression that the world of then had no color, only gradients of gray and black. My two main protagonists, however, encountered the fl esh-and-blood reality, while also managing the routine obligations of daily life. Every morning they moved through a city hung with immense banners of red, white, and black; they sat at the same outdoor cafés as did the lean, black-suited members of Hitler’s SS, and now and then they caught sight of Hitler himself, a smallish man in a large, open Mer-cedes. But they also walked each day past homes with balconies lush with red geraniums; they shopped in the city’s vast department stores, held tea parties, and breathed deep the spring fragrances of the Tier-garten, Berlin’s main park. They knew Goebbels and Göring as social acquaintances with whom they dined, danced, and joked—until, as their fi rst year reached its end, an event occurred that proved to be one of the most signifi cant in revealing the true character of Hitler and that laid the keystone for the decade to come. For both father and daughter it changed everything.
This is a work of nonfi ction. As always, any material between quotation marks comes from a letter, diary, memoir, or other historical document. I made no effort in these pages to write another grand history of the age. My objective was more intimate: to reveal that past world through the experience and perceptions of my two primary subjects, father and daughter, who upon arrival in Berlin embarked on a journey of discovery, transformation, and, ultimately, deepest heartbreak.
There are no heroes here, at least not of the Schindler’s List vari-ety, but there are glimmers of heroism and people who behave with unexpected grace. Always there is nuance, albeit sometimes of a disturbing nature. That’s the trouble with nonfi ction. One has to put aside what we all know— now—to be true, and try instead to accom-pany my two innocents through the world as they experienced it.
These were complicated people moving through a complicated time, before the monsters declared their true nature.
The Man Behind the Curtain
It was common for American expatriates to visit the U.S. consulate in Berlin, but not in the condition exhibited by the man who arrived there on Thursday, June 29, 1933. He was Joseph Schachno, thirty- one years old, a physician from New York who until recently had been practicing medicine in a suburb of Berlin. Now he stood naked in one of the curtained examination rooms on the fi rst fl oor of the consulate where on more routine days a public- health surgeon would examine visa applicants seeking to immigrate to the United States. The skin had been fl ayed from much of his body.
Two consular offi cials arrived and entered the examination room.
One was George S. Messersmith, America’s consul general for Germany since 1930 (no relation to Wilhelm “Willy” Messerschmitt, the German aircraft engineer). As the senior Foreign Service man in Berlin, Messersmith oversaw the ten American consulates located in cities throughout Germany. Beside him stood his vice consul, Raymond Geist. As a rule Geist was cool and unfl appable, an ideal subaltern, but Messersmith registered the fact that Geist looked pale and deeply shaken.
Both men were appalled by Schachno’s condition. “From the neck down to his heels he was a mass of raw fl esh,” Messersmith saw. “He had been beaten with whips and in every possible way until his fl esh was literally raw and bleeding. I took one look and got as quickly as I could to one of the basins where the [public health surgeon] washed his hands.”
The beating, Messersmith learned, had occurred nine days earlier, yet the wounds were still vivid. “From the shoulder blades to his knees, after nine days there were still stripes showing that he had been beaten from both sides. His buttocks were practically raw and large areas thereof still without any skin over them. The fl esh had at places been practically reduced to a pulp.”
If this was nine days later, Messersmith wondered, what had the wounds been like immediately after the beating had been delivered?
The story emerged:
On the night of June 21, Schachno had been visited at his home by a squad of uniformed men responding to an anonymous denun-ciation of him as a potential enemy of the state. The men searched the place, and although they found nothing, they took him to their headquarters. Schachno was ordered to undress and immediately subjected to a severe and prolonged beating by two men with a whip.
Afterward, he was released. He somehow made his way to his home, and then he and his wife fl ed to central Berlin, to the residence of his wife’s mother. He lay in bed for a week. As soon as he felt able, he went to the consulate.
Messersmith ordered him taken to a hospital and that day issued him a new U.S. passport. Soon afterward, Schachno and his wife fl ed to Sweden and then to America.
There had been beatings and arrests of American citizens ever since Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in January, but nothing as severe as this—though thousands of native Germans had experienced equally severe treatment, and often far worse. For Messersmith it was yet another indicator of the reality of life under Hitler.
He understood that all this violence represented more than a passing spasm of atrocity. Something fundamental had changed in Germany.
He understood it, but he was convinced that few others in America did. He was growing increasingly disturbed by the diffi culty of persuading the world of the true magnitude of Hitler’s threat. It was utterly clear to him that Hitler was in fact secretly and aggressively girding Germany for a war of conquest. “I wish it were really possible to make our people at home understand,” he wrote in a June 1933 dispatch to the State Department, “for I feel that they should understand it, how defi nitely this martial spirit is being developed in Germany. If this Government remains in power for another year and carries on in the same measure in this direction, it will go far towards making Germany a danger to world peace for years to come.”
He added: “With few exceptions, the men who are running this Government are of a mentality that you and I cannot understand.
Some of them are psychopathic cases and would ordinarily be receiving treatment somewhere.”
But Germany still did not have a U.S. ambassador in residence.
The former ambassador, Frederic M. Sackett, had left in March, upon the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt as America’s new president. (Inauguration day in 1933 took place on March 4.) For nearly four months the post had been vacant, and the new appointee was not expected to arrive for another three weeks. Messersmith had no fi rsthand knowledge of the man, only what he had heard from his many contacts in the State Department. What he did know was that the new ambassador would be entering a cauldron of brutality, corruption, and zealotry and would need to be a man of forceful character capable of projecting American interest and power, for power was all that Hitler and his men understood.
And yet the new man was said to be an unassuming sort who had vowed to lead a modest life in Berlin as a gesture to his fellow Americans left destitute by the Depression. Incredibly, the new ambassador was even shipping his own car to Berlin—a beat- up old Chevrolet—to underscore his frugality. This in a city where Hitler’s men drove about town in giant black touring cars each nearly the size of a city bus.