Berlin, Germany, 1950
It was very quiet in the Reichstag bunker, deep under Berlin.
Karl Holliston kept his face impassive – and his mouth closed – as the uniformed flunky displayed photograph after photograph on the big screen. Four cities, all in blackened ruins; the charred remains of hundreds of thousands of bodies clearly visible towards the edge of the blast zone. The dead were the lucky ones, Karl told himself; the survivors, if they somehow managed to escape the Einsatzgruppen waiting outside the cities, were doomed to die lingering deaths as the radiation worked its dark magic on their bodies. No medical treatment could save their lives, even if the Reich cared to try.
And we wouldn’t, Karl thought. They’re Untermenschen.
But no one would have cared about his opinion, if he’d given voice to it. He was just Heinrich Himmler’s aide.
“Four cities,” Field Marshal Albert Kesselring said.
Himmler showed no emotion as he leaned forward. “Four cities that rose up against us,” he said, his voice utterly dispassionate. “I saw no reason to waste the lives of our soldiers in teaching them a lesson.”
“The Americans have already announced that they will cancel the trade deals,” Speer said, flatly. The civilian licked his lips, nervously. “They’re calling it mass murder.”
“Tell them to tell it to the Indians,” Himmler said. His face twisted into a sneer. “Or to the Japanese.”
Kesselring slapped the table, hard. “It was decided that nukes would not be used …”
“… Unless the Reich itself was at risk,” Himmler said. “I determined that the Reich was at risk.”
Speer looked incredulous. “You plan to argue that a bunch of religious fanatics in the desert could somehow threaten the Reich?”
Himmler gazed back at him, evenly.
“Untermenschen cannot be allowed to revolt,” he said. “It would give other Untermenschen ideas.”
He nodded towards the map. “Or do you believe that we can continue to hold the Lebensraum in Russia if the Russians think we can be beaten? That they can drive us out of the lands we won by the sword? Or that we can keep our access to oil if the Untermenschen tribes revolt against us? We needed to take strong action and I took that action.”
“You used nuclear weapons on four defenceless cities,” Speer said.
“I destroyed four cities that would have been destroyed anyway, in the fullness of time,” Himmler countered. “Were we going to leave the useless Untermenschen alive?”
No, Karl thought.
He smiled to himself. The Arabs had been foolish to side with the Reich. They might have chafed under British rule – they might have feared and hated the Jews as much as the Reich itself – but the Reich intended to enslave or exterminate all Untermenschen. And the Arabs were definitely Untermenschen. They had gleefully assisted the Reich to drive out the British and slaughter the Jews, only to discover that the Reich intended to slaughter them next.
“I did what I had to do,” Himmler said. “The Fuehrer’s death made us look weak. If I hadn’t taken action, who knows how far the revolt would have spread?”
Karl nodded in agreement. Adolf Hitler might have been declining in his later years – he flinched away from the thought hurriedly, knowing that expressing it meant death – but no one had doubted he ruled the Reich. And there had been no designated successor. The three men at the table – Himmler, Kesselring and Speer – were collectively the most powerful figures in the Reich, yet none of them had a strong claim to Hitler’s title. Who would take the throne?
Himmler should, Karl thought. But the other two fear him.
“Never again,” Speer said. “The decision to deploy nuclear weapons will not be left in your hands.”
“Oh?” Himmler asked. “And you intend to enforce it … how?”
“There will be a new division of the military specifically charged with handling nuclear weapons,” Kesselring said. “They will take their orders directly from the Reich Council, no one else. There will be no nuclear release without authority from the very highest levels.”
That’s not an answer, Karl thought.
He weighed up the odds in his head. There were a dozen crack SS units deployed near Berlin, but there were also a number of Wehrmacht infantry divisions … all on high alert since Adolf Hitler had died. If the power struggle over who should succeed Hitler turned violent, there was no way to know who would win. Karl had every faith in the Waffen-SS, but would Himmler order them to attack the Wehrmacht? Or to slaughter the other members of the Reich Council and present the Wehrmacht with a fait accompli?
“The revolution begun by the Fuhrer must be completed,” Himmler said. “If we have to deploy nuclear weapons to reach our goals, we will deploy them.”
Speer looked even paler than usual. “Even at the risk of war with America?”
Himmler snorted, rudely. “Do you really think the Americans would sacrifice New York or Washington for the sake of Untermenschen? Or the British? We could turn Britain into a radioactive slagheap and they know it.”
He cleared his throat. “The Americans will moan and whine because that is what Americans do,” he said. “They won’t risk war with us.”
“They crushed the Japanese,” Speer said.
“Little yellow men,” Himmler countered, dismissively. “We rule, directly or indirectly, a third of the world. We have millions of men under arms, hundreds of thousands of panzers, aircraft and u-boats; we are far stronger, far more formidable, than Imperial Japan. And we have nuclear weapons. We can destroy them.”
“They can destroy us,” Speer said.
“They will not risk their existence by waging war against us,” Himmler said.
Kesselring tapped the table, sharply. “We have a compromise in mind,” he said. “You – the SS – will be given Russia as your private domain. You’ll have complete freedom to reshape society any way you choose. In exchange for this, you will accept the position of the Reich Council and surrender the SS’s claim to nuclear weapons.”
Karl looked at Himmler, wondering how his ultimate superior would react. The SS already ruled much of Occupied Russia, enslaving or slaughtering the Russians while slowly establishing massive settlements on the soil. Himmler was being offered something he already had. And yet, the SS didn’t have an entirely free hand. They still had to contend with the Wehrmacht and Speer’s civilian bureaucracy. To be rid of that, to create a land where the Volk could live free and hold up its head with pride …
And we would grow strong, he thought, as our success attracted more and more Aryans into the Reich.
It wasn’t ideal, he knew. Germany itself would not be transformed so radically. The civilian bureaucrats were already objecting to some of the more important transformations – and their influence would only grow stronger if the SS concentrated on Russia. But the Reich Council’s control would not last. It would grow weaker and weaker until the true masters took their place at the head of society.
Himmler took a long moment to compose his reply. “You believe this will appease the Americans?”
“This is not about the Americans,” Kesselring said. “This is about preventing a civil war.”
Karl had to fight to keep his face impassive. He’d known what was at stake – everyone knew what was at stake – but he’d never heard it expressed so bluntly. There were just too many competing factions within the Reich, all held in check by Hitler. If the Reich Council couldn’t put together a compromise to stabilise the Reich, the entire edifice would go down into civil war. And that would utterly destroy the Reich.
“The Americans are not our greatest threat right now,” Speer added. “Our greatest threat is ourselves.”
Himmler barely moved for a long cold moment. “Very well,” he said, finally. “You’ll have your control over nuclear weapons.”
“You will still have a seat on the council,” Speer said.
Karl nodded, inwardly. Speer was the weakest member of the triumvirate. What was control over the economy, over the factories and farms, compared to control over the soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought to expand the Reich? Speer needed Himmler to keep Kesselring in line, just as much as he needed Kesselring to keep Himmler in line. No doubt Speer expected to slowly extend his influence eastwards, no matter what agreements were made. He’d assume the SS couldn’t handle its own economy.
He allowed himself to relax, just barely, as the three men discussed the practicalities of their agreement. It wasn’t what he wanted – what he knew Himmler wanted – but it was enough to keep the triumvirate happy. And, in the long run, the SS would reshape Russia into a paradise, a good example to the rest of the Reich. It might take decades – or more – but eventually the entire Reich would follow in their footsteps.
And as long as we never lose sight of our goals, he thought, we will prevail.
28 October 1985
The village was a blackened ruin.
Hauptsturmfuehrer Hennecke Schwerk barely noticed as he stumbled through the ruined streets, heading east. He’d lost contact with his unit – all that remained of his unit – two days ago, during the chaotic retreat from Berlin. Now, the handful of men surrounding him were the remnants of a dozen units that had been hammered so badly that they’d shattered, only a handful of troopers surviving long enough to escape the caldron and make their escape to the east. He walked over a body – male or female, it was impossible to say – barely registering its existence. There was no way to know if the dead person had been a loyalist, a traitor, or merely a poor innocent civilian caught up in the maelstrom washing over the Reich …
He shook his head, feeling a sudden surge of anger. There was no such thing as an innocent civilian, not now. The world was divided into loyalists, men and women who would give their all to preserve the Reich, and traitors, men and women who would tear it down and spit in the face of everything the Reich had achieved since Adolf Hitler had taken power in 1933 and reshaped the world. And the traitorous civilians had turned on the Waffen-SS and driven them from Berlin, driven them east …
They will pay, he promised himself. They will pay.
He shivered as a cold wind blew from the east. They’d been meant to take their winter clothing with them – the Waffen-SS had plenty of experience fighting in colder climes – but the offensive had been organised in such a tearing hurry that they’d ended up outrunning their logistics network. East Germany was nowhere near as cold as the Urals – or even the garrison towns near Germanica itself – but it was still cold now. He wrapped his arms around himself as he kept walking, somehow. They’d make it back to friendly lines and then …
The Waffen-SS was not supposed to lose. It had never lost, not until now. Hennecke had grown up on stories of the black-clad stormtroopers fighting the French, the British, the Russians and a dizzying series of subhuman opponents who couldn’t hope to stand up to the Reich. The Waffen-SS had always taken the lead in fighting, from the coldest realms of Germany East to the darkest depths of Africa. And it had never been bested, not until now.
At least we lost to fellow Germans, Hennecke thought.
The thought wasn’t reassuring. He’d been told, time and time again, that none of their opponents could hope to match them, man for man. Even the vaunted British SAS or the American Marines were no match for the SS. But they’d faced their fellow Germans – the softies of the west – in combat … and lost. Berlin had been held so strongly that thousands of blackshirts had died, even before the panzers had come to their rescue. Hennecke knew how close he had come to death, more than once. What sadistic god had deemed that he would survive long enough to flee Berlin and join the retreat?
I am strong, he told himself. I survived because I am strong.
He shivered, helplessly, as he heard a dull roar in the distance. An engine, he thought; he couldn’t tell if it was a panzer or a truck. Watching the panzers come at him had been a nightmare, leaving him with an odd flicker of sympathy for the bandit Untermenschen who’d faced the armoured vehicles on the steppes. For once, the panzers hadn’t been on his side … he didn’t want to look behind him, but there was no choice. And yet, there was nothing, save for plumes of smoke rising in the distance.
Perhaps they’ve given up the pursuit, he thought, numbly. Perhaps …
It was wishful thinking, he knew. German soldiers – the Wehrmacht as well as the Waffen-SS – were taught to take the offensive and keep taking the offensive. And if their opponents were in retreat, their formations scattered and their command networks a joke, the soldiers were taught to take advantage of it. How many Frenchmen had gone into the camps, back during the war, because they’d been caught in the open and captured? How many Russians had been mown down by the advancing panzers because their leadership refused to even consider the virtues of retreat? He’d thrilled to such tales, back in the past …
… They didn’t seem so funny now.
He glanced up, sharply, as he saw something flicker at the corner of his eye. The overcast skies were clear – thankfully, the enemy wouldn’t be able to peer down on them from orbit – but that could change in a hurry. He hadn’t seen a friendly plane ever since the Wehrmacht had broken the lines around Berlin. The Luftwaffe was full of traitors. Almost all of their surviving pilots had sided with the rebels, bombing and strafing the loyalists as they retreated eastwards. Perhaps a handful of soldiers, some wounded, wouldn’t be a tempting target, but he knew they couldn’t take it for granted. The hatred he’d seen unleashed over the past few months was terrifying.
“Don’t get caught by the loyalists,” his superiors had warned. “They’re not taking prisoners.”
They kept moving, driven onwards by the grim knowledge that the only way to survive was to reach friendly lines. But where were the friendly lines? Hennecke thought they were moving east – he’d lost his personal compass somewhere in the retreat – but what if he was wrong? They could be moving north or south … And yet, the devastation surrounding him – the destroyed villages, the shattered roads – suggested that they were on the right track.
But he hadn’t seen anyone outside his group for days.
Another farming village loomed up in front of him. Common sense suggested they should walk around it, but he was too tired to care. The village had been wrecked as thoroughly as the previous village, save for the church. It stood alone, surrounded by ruined buildings and piles of blackened debris; outside, a dozen men and women dangled from ropes, their decomposing bodies suggesting they’d been hanged weeks ago. He shuddered, even though he’d seen worse horrors during the advance westwards. Who knew why the villages had been hanged? And who knew who’d done it?
He didn’t bother to issue orders. In truth, he was unsure if any of his companions would follow them. Instead, he walked straight into the church and looked around. It felt oddly peaceful, despite the horrors outside; he had to fight the urge to just slump down in one of the pews and collapse. There were few churches in Germany East – he’d certainly never been in one – but, just for a moment, he could understand why the religious took comfort in them. And then he started to search the building, looking for food or drink or something they could use to survive.
“Nothing,” he said, twenty minutes later. “Nothing at all.”
He shook his head, bitterly, as they made their way back into the cold afternoon. Perhaps it was just his imagination, but the air felt colder, as if winter was coming early. German citizens were meant to keep emergency supplies somewhere within reach at all times – it was something the Nazi Party taught in schools – yet the church had been bare. But then, the coddled folk of Germany Prime felt safe. They had no reason to believe that they might have to fight for their lives at any moment, that they might be attacked … let alone that the entire country might be attacked. The risk of nuclear war had declined, hadn’t it?
And so they stopped building shelters and worrying about life after the blast, he thought, bitterly. And so they turned on the guardians of the Reich.
He swallowed, hard, as he heard an aircraft high overhead, but when he looked up he saw nothing. A friendly aircraft, perhaps? Hiding within the looming clouds? Or an enemy aircraft hunting for panzers to plink from the sky? He’d heard whispers about entire SS panzer divisions wiped out by enemy aircraft, whispers he’d studiously ignored. But now, all of a sudden, those whispers seemed all too plausible.
Gritting his teeth, he peered into one of the ruined buildings. Someone had already been through it, he realised; they’d torn through a shattered wardrobe, taking clothes and whatever else they could find in a desperate bid for survival. The only remaining clothes were clearly designed for a teenage girl. Normally, he would have been reluctant to wrap them around his body – there was no hope of actually putting them on – but now there was no choice. The laws against cross-dressing – cross-dressers were automatically sent to the camps – were no longer important. All that mattered was staying alive long enough to reach friendly lines.
“Bitch,” one of his companions muttered.
He held up a pair of blue jeans, clearly intended for someone a great deal slimmer than the average stormtrooper. Hennecke felt his lips thin in cold disapproval. There was no shortage of clothes from the textile combines in Germany East, but whoever had owned the jeans had preferred to buy American-made clothes off the black market. The single pair in the house – he pretended not to see his companion stuff the jeans into a bag – had probably cost more than everything else in the wardrobe put together. He knew precisely what his father would have said – and done – if he’d caught Hennecke or any of his siblings with American clothes, but their family lived in Germany East. They knew, all too well, just how cruel and uncaring the world could be.
And besides, buying American clothes helps them to fund wars against the Reich, he thought.
He took one last look at the remaining clothes, then led the way outside. There was no way to know what had happened to the original owner. She might have been evacuated by the rebels, she might have hidden somewhere in the countryside … or she might have been rounded up and shipped to the camps by the loyalists. Or she might have been raped and murdered by prowling stormtroopers. Rape was officially forbidden, but discipline had been breaking down even before the retreat from Berlin. The Waffen-SS hadn’t known what to do with a rebellion and a civil war, rather than yet another pacification campaign.
Let us hope she made it out safely, he thought.
He was too tired to be angry with her, really. No one had really expected a civil war, not when the Reich had held together since 1933. Everyone knew the Reich would last a thousand years. But now, old certainties were falling everywhere. No one knew their place any longer. Soldiers were turning on their officers, workers were turning on their managers, women were turning on their husbands, collaborator governments were starting to savour the taste of freedom … nothing was the same any longer. And, no matter who won the civil war, it was hard to imagine things going back to the way they were before the rebellion. The old certainties were gone.
Darkness was falling when they finally walked into friendly lines. A handful of stormtroopers, looking reassuringly competent rather than refugees; a couple of armoured vehicles, hiding under camouflage netting; an officer, looking as though he was definitely in command. Hennecke was relieved, even though he rather doubted the officer had experienced the maelstrom of Berlin. He had the supercilious air of a man who hadn’t had his confidence knocked out of him.
“Heil Holliston,” Hennecke managed. “Herr Sturmbannfuehrer.”
The Sturmbannfuehrer looked him up and down for a long moment. Hennecke realised, in a flash of sudden horror, just how awful he must look. He was a Hauptsturmfuehrer, yet he couldn’t be said to have taken command or done anything, really, apart from lead a handful of men to safety. But he’d lost touch with his unit during the retreat …
“Heil Holliston,” the Sturmbannfuehrer returned. His gaze moved to the other men. “Go to the tent, report to the officer there. You’ll be fed, watered and assigned to new units.”
Hennecke felt cold. The Sturmbannfuehrer spoke of stormtroopers as if they were animals …
He watched his men go, suddenly wishing he’d never been promoted. It had been a battlefield promotion, the kind of promotion he’d dreamed of before he’d discovered what it entailed. He’d led men into battle; he’d watched them die, even as he’d been spared himself … going back to the ranks would be a demotion, but he would almost welcome it. The war hadn’t been what he’d been promised. It had never been what he’d been promised.
“You should have taken command,” the Sturmbannfuehrer said, coldly.
Hennecke said nothing. He knew the Sturmbannfuehrer was correct. He’d outranked everyone else in the little group. He could have issued orders, he could have done … done what? There had been nothing he could have done, save for continuing the retreat until they reached friendly lines. But they’d shuffled into the lines like Untermenschen slaves doing their best to avoid a full day’s work. His men had looked pathetic …
… And so did he.
A pair of stormtroopers seemed to materialise out of nowhere. Hennecke had been so absorbed in himself that he hadn’t seen them coming. The two men looked absolutely perfect; their uniforms clean and tidy, their boots and buttons shined until they almost glowed, their faces utterly impassive. It was clear that they had never seen combat.
“Take this swinehund to the pen and hold him there,” the Sturmbannfuehrer ordered.
Hennecke had no time to protest before the two stormtroopers frisked him – removing his pistol, his knife and a handful of tools – and then frog-marched him through the concealed camp. It was larger than he realised, he saw; a dozen tents, all carefully hidden under netting and guarded by SS stormtroopers. One tent was clearly set aside for the wounded; he glanced inside, ignoring the grunt of complaint from his escorts, and winced as he saw thirty men lying on the hard ground. A pair of medics were doing what they could, assisted by five young women, but it was clear that they were badly overworked …
He stared in horror until his escorts yanked him forward. He was no stranger to blood and gore, but the sight before him was horrific. Men had lost arms and legs, their bodies hideously mutilated … even if they were somehow rushed to better medical facilities, their chances of ever living a normal life again were slim. It made him realise just how many men might have been killed by their own side – a mercy kill – or left to bleed out and die during the retreat. The medics had strict orders – standing orders – to concentrate on the soldiers who could be saved. There wouldn’t be anything, not even morphine, for the ones who had no hope of survival.
And some of the ones left to die could have lived, with proper treatment, he thought.
His escorts kept dragging him forward until they reached the pen, a small region fenced off and guarded by armed stormtroopers. It didn’t look very secure – Hennecke was sure he could escape, easily – but he knew better than to try. The stormtroopers guarding the fence wouldn’t hesitate to shoot him down if they caught him trying to escape – and no one, least of all their superiors, would give a damn. Hennecke was an embarrassment. It was quite possible that he’d be taken out and shot within the next hour. Or perhaps they’d just slit his throat.
There’s probably a shortage of bullets, he thought, morbidly.
He glanced at his fellow prisoners as his escorts thrust him into the pen, then marched off to torment someone else. A number of soldiers – he was still the highest-ranking, he noticed – a trio of older men in civilian clothes and a pair of young women. He wondered, as he found a space on the ground, why they were being detained. If they were insurgents – or whatever one called treacherous rebels – they would have been shot already. Maybe they were just hostages for someone’s good behaviour. Neither of them seemed inclined to talk to him or anyone else.
There was nothing to do inside the pen, so he lay down on the hard ground and closed his eyes. He’d long-since mastered the art of sleeping whenever he had a spare moment, even though the ground was uncomfortable and there was a very real prospect of being shot by his own side. But it still felt as if he hadn’t slept at all when he was woken by the guards, who escorted him and the other soldier prisoners out of the pen and down to where a grim-faced Brigadefuehrer was standing. He honestly wasn’t sure how long he’d slept.
“You cowards fled,” the Brigadefuehrer snapped. His gaze raked over the prisoners, cold and hard and utterly devoid of mercy. “You could have fought. You could have organised yourselves. You could have given the rebels a bloody nose. Instead, you fled.”
Hennecke resisted the urge to say something in his own defence. There was nothing he could say. The SS was looking for scapegoats. And if they’d chosen him …
“You should be dispatched to the camps,” the Brigadefuehrer added. “But we have need of you here. You’ll be assigned to a penal unit instead. If you survive …”
Hennecke barely heard the rest of the speech. He’d heard horror stories about penal units. A soldier who was assigned to one would be allowed to return to his unit – his record wiped – if he survived a month in the penal unit …
… But the odds of survival were very low.
It might not matter, he told himself. In the distance, he heard thunder – or shellfire. The odds of any of us surviving are very low.