Exceptional Times

You, block leader and block warden, you cell leader and cell warden, you may say: "I too was there! I too helped." You, citizen from the firm, you can say: "I too lived during that time, I too believed in Adolf Hitler." And you, and you, and every one of you! Isn't that wonderful?" -- Robert Ley

"Herr Choltitz." a broad smile greeted the squat Prussian stepping out of his compartment into the corridor of the sleeping car. "Congratulations on your assignment. I assume I am not the first." The tall, graying man leaned against the open window, framed by a cloud of cigar smoke. On his lapel gleamed the enamel swastika of an SS Reichsleiter. Generallieutenant Dietrich von Choltitz recognized the other man's face and his clipped, Hanover accent from the earlier luncheon at Wolfsschanze. Robert Ley was the Führer's labor man, and the Party's organizational leader. His apparently excellent mood contrasted markedly with the unsettling gloom that had begun to settle over the Prussian; perhaps just the distraction Choltitz required. "Can I offer a light?"

"Please." Choltitz gratefully raised his own cigar to his mouth while the other man lit it with a plain, silver lighter. "Danke, Herr Ley."


The two men smoked together in silence for a moment, watching the Rastenburg forest fold away swiftly as they rumbled towards Berlin.

"Congratulations," repeated Ley softly, "I have been to Paris myself many times, many times. A pleasant city; or was, until most recently. Such a pity she should be a fighting front. It seems like holding a battle in a flower garden."

"Yes." Choltitz barely seemed to be listening, his eyes fixed firmly on the scenery and his thoughts far away.

"Ah well." Ley regarded his companion's dour expression curiously. "These are exceptional times, after all. A nursery or a nunnery may be our next front. Who can say?"

"The Führer." Replied Choltitz, exhaling heavy smoke.

"Of course." Grinned Ley.

"Herr Ley, can I confide in you?"

"Of course, Herr Choltitz."

"I had an interview with the Führer this morning."


Choltitz nodded. "He has named me Befehlshaber in Gross Paris."

"Ahh." Ley looked again into the thick stands of trees passing them by in the darkness. "So. The city of light becomes a fortress besieged, with a fortress commander." He nodded, "It is a very different Paris, alas, the Paris that awaits you. She is in need of a good, staunch commander. Stulpnagel is a traitor; Boineburg is a dissipate twit. In Paris, even the SS has grown used to luxury. They live like rabbits grown fat by living next to a garden with a lax farmer. And they scare like rabbits, at the first sign of troubles, hiding."

He tsked, shaking his head. Choltitz nodded, saying nothing. The other man sighed and placed a hand on Choltitz's shoulder.

"Friend Commander, you do not seem well. I will tell you what. I've a bottle, in my compartment, of prewar Bordeaux. It would be a most appropriate delight and privilege to share it with the nouveau commander of Gross Paris." He grinned once more. The little Prussian general looked up at him with mixed gratitude.

"Most appropriate, Herr Reichsleiter."

"Wonderful! One moment." Ley disappeared momentarily, then returned with a chilled bottle and a warmer smile. Even in his uneasy spirit, Choltitz found his mood lightened a bit by the other officer's gaiety, and it was with a smile of his own he ushered Ley into his compartment.

Once Ley was seated, Choltitz procured two glasses, into which the Reichsleiter poured the strong red wine.

"A toast," he suggested blithely, "to your success in Paris, Herr Commandant, and to the Führer."

"salut." Said Choltitz with a wry grin, and drank. Ley chuckled sardonically, sipping from his own glass.

"Befehlshaber, eh? The Führer demonstrates tremendous faith in you. No Party general has ever received such powers over a Reich city."

"I am aware of it, Herr Ley." Choltitz mused over his glass. "It is an honor I was not expecting."

"Indeed not? Your reputation, and-- even more remarkable-- your record speak volumes for you."

"Perhaps. I am to 'stamp out without pity' any manner of intracity uprising, which is fine. If I am to be a... a governor, it is my duty to police the rabble. I suspect, however, that it is more than mere riots I shall be expected to put out. Can one confuse Paris with Sebastopol, or Rotterdam? Paris is a... a prize of the Reich, as it stands. Why spoil it?"

"Sebastopol..." Murmured Ley, "...the siege that won you your General's rank, nien? They say that you leveled Russian homes with cannon loaded by Russian prisoners."

Choltitz could not stifle a dark chuckle as he refilled his glass.

"It is true." He admitted, sipping slowly to match Ley's more leisurely drinking pace, interrupted by liberal puffs on his cigar. "The Russians, like the Netherlanders, understand nothing but destruction. But that was destruction of land-- or buildings. When we leave a place, we leave nothing but wreckage and burned, useless earth."

"A technique invented by the Russians, and perfected by the Wehrmacht." Ley grinned, then regarded his comrade curiously. "And what is the difference in Paris?"

"In Paris? What is the difference between an all but abandoned town and a city of yet three million? I don't know why it is that I am being assigned there. I am far more accustomed to invading the beleaguered fortress than defending a palace. And it seems ridiculous to me to defend a fortress or palace either through it's destruction. This isn't a Russian farm, and I'm a general, not a petulant peasant. Were my orders to cover our army's retreat from the city-- well, that is one thing."

"You have doubts, Herr Choltitz?" Ley regarded him coolly, holding his glass between his steepled hands.

"I have a headache, if you want the truth." replied Choltitz with a sigh, trading his glass for his cigar, momentarily. "It is a desperate business, and it worries me, that our forces-- summarily, our Reich-- should be so desperate. I do not expect an easy time of it."

"A great sadness indeed, some of our recent troubles" Ley agreed. "You are correct, Herr general, not to expect... to coin a phrase... a cakewalk. It is this very dissipation that is the trouble in Paris now. It is why Boineberg, the dupe of July 20th, is being replaced, and with a Soldier." He smiled and raised his glass at Choltitz.

"We must refresh in the minds of our men the warrior spirit, the unswerving devotion that has got us this far. They must be made to remember that they are German Soldiers, not Parisian dilettantes. In or out of Paris, Herr Choltitz. It is in address to this unhappy flux of slackers and traitors among our officers that I, too, had a meeting with the Führer to-day."

Choltitz regarded the tall Reichsleiter as the SS officer drank--almost deeply for once--with something like astonishment. Arguably, Ley was the sort of loyalist that defied all notion of reality. He was, after all, the man who said, 'The Führer is always right'. In ordinary times Choltitz, in his unquestioning, Prussian way, would most certainly have agreed. But the Hitler he had seen this morning-- sunken, thin, shaking as if with palsy, whispering and weak, then suddenly, shrieking as if mad-- he had a very hard time reconciling that creature and his Führer. He wondered if Ley were blind, or perhaps he, in his faith, saw something still in that man that Choltitz himself had overlooked.

"Did you?" Was all he said, however.

Ley nodded, with a self-satisfied air. "Yes. We discussed a new law, of my own design, which the Führer has graciously agreed to ratify. With some small amendments, but really, I would say rather, improvements. It should be released from Berlin in the next few days."

"Well then, congratulations to you, also, on your success." Choltitz raised his glass; Ley returned the salute and modestly drank. "What does this new law of yours do?"

"It is called the Sippenhaft."

Ley drank again, observing Choltitz's startled, blank reaction.

"Sippenhaft," Choltitz echoed. "Clan liability?"

"It speaks for itself, does it not?" Ley cocked his head to one side and smiled. "A very harsh sounding measure I know. Perhaps even extreme. But sadly necessary. For you will grant that in these exceptional times, where knots of generals plot against the life of our Leader, where generals surrender to the enemy, or prove incompetent... well, exceptional measures must be adopted."

Almost voicelessly, Choltitz asked for the exact terms of this law.

"Well." Ley sucked deeply on his cigar, defining the particulars in tobacco smoke. "Essentially, the Sippenhaft holds the families of generals responsible for those generals' failures. Where an officer performs poorly, I am afraid that we must punish his family. Separate prisons shall be established for the purpose, et cetera... Unhappily, for the law to be effective, it must also be strict-- cruelly so. In fact, I am not sure barbaric would be an inappropriate term. No, not inappropriate at all." He gave Choltitz an almost embarrassed smile, swishing the wine in the cup. "In cases where the perpetrator cannot be himself punished, due to enemy capture or some such circumstance, the family shall be put to death."

He grimaced slightly over his glass, then rinsed his mouth with the last of the wine. Choltitz felt himself growing suddenly ill, as Ley continued. "Such circumstances, however, are happily rare. Very very rare. Under this law, I am most certain that these sad occurrences should cease entirely."

Choltitz stared into his wine glass, searching for a word, or, perhaps, a sign, while Ley smoked his cigar in the silence.

"Mien Gott." He spluttered, finally, jerking his head up from the last of the Bordeaux. "If... if this is what Germany has to resort to to ensure the loyalty of her own people, she has returned to the dark ages!"

"As I said-- barbaric. Perhaps." Ley sighed, stubbing out the butt of his cigar in the ashtray, and rising. "But these are exceptional times, Herr Befehlshaber."

A silence fell, save for the rhythmic rumbling of the night train slithering interminably through the darkness of Rastenburg. Finally, Choltitz stood, picking up the remaining half-bottle or so of the Bordeaux and holding it out to Ley.

"Danke for the wine, Herr Ley."

The SS man smiled and shook his head.

"It was my pleasure, my friend. Keep the rest: a gift." He inclined his head, and strode for the door. "Goodnight, Dietrich. Say hello to your wife and children from me, when you reach Baden-Baden?"

"Goodnight." Choltitz could only manage the one word. He watched Ley's retreating back, all the way down the corridor, as if he would never see the man again. Perhaps he wouldn't. Not that he could bring himself to feel too upset about the idea. The officer's parting comment aside, there seemed to him something decidedly... fatal, in his encounter with the Reichsleiter on this evening.

Shuddering slightly at his mental choice of words, he closed the door to his compartment and locked it. Outside the window, the treeline suddenly gave birth to the dark, flat landscape that ran directly into Berlin. And from Berlin to Baden-Baden, and his family...

He thought fleetingly of his wife, Umberta, their two daughters, and the miracle: his son, Timo. He was not a young man, and yet, the boy-- the son!-- was only four months old; more precious than any cross or star his Reich could bestow upon him.

Sippenhaft. The word, uttered in Robert Ley's insinuating voice, floated back to him, and he shook his head to dismiss it. It was a word for another officer, perhaps. Not a man who had never in his life questioned an order, let alone disobeyed one. Not a Prussian soldier, trained almost from the cradle to serve and obey his leader, whomever that may be. And, even if what had become of the Führer had... disconcerted him, even if he would be posted in a city from which the Normandy line could be measured in mere miles-- well, what was that to his duty? Or, ultimately, to the Reich?

Choltitz placed the remainder of the Bordeaux on the table. Perhaps later. For now... he undressed and climbed into bed, repeating to himself how pleasant it would be to see his family tomorrow, and taste one of Frau Gerber's big, famous pretzels, and then to Paris. No worries, save the usual headaches that came with command. No reason to doubt himself, anyway.

But a trembling hand it was that took the little tube of sleeping pills from the nightstand, and shook not one, but three, into his open mouth.