Tuesday, 17 September 2013

"Go on, Putzi - do Himmler!" and other great Nazi stories from thriller-writer Philip Kerr

Last Friday evening, Philip Kerr, the author of the great Bernie Gunther series of novels about a Nazi-era Berlin  private eye, did a session at the Chiswick Book Festival in our local church. He was accompanied by his journalist wife, Jane Thynne, whose first novel, Black Roses, is also set in pre-war Berlin and features Magda Goebells, wife of Hitler’s testicularly-challenged  propaganda chief. They talked for an hour, and it was mesmerising. Dr Adrian Stevens, senior lecturer in German, Arts and Humanities, who was asking the questions, said he’d learned more about the Nazis from Kerr’s books that he had from any history book. Here are some of the stories we heard (there were many more, but I wasn’t taking notes – these are just the ones that stuck in my head, and any mistakes are entirely my own):

Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo (among other things) and one of the chief architects of the Final Solution, was kicked out of the German Navy in 1931 for sexual philandering (or “knocking up an admiral’s daughter”, as Kerr put it). His wife noticed an advert in the paper for an intelligence job with the SS, and, having no other career prospects, Heydrich went for it. His interviewer inferred that the young man was an experienced Naval Intelligence officer – but Heydrich had had nothing to do with intelligence work. What he had done was read lots of crime and spy thrillers, so he busked his way through the interview based on “knowledge” gleaned from fiction, and within months was setting up the counterintelligence unit of the SS. Unfortunately, “the man with the iron heart” as Hitler described him, took to his new role with gusto.

Hermann Goering used to pay people he liked for coming up with good jokes about him – but if he didn’t like the jokesmith, or was in a bad mood that day, he’d have them arrested.

Hitler’s Harvard-educated businessman pal “Putzi” Hanfstaengl was an accomplished pianist who used to extemporise mocking musical portraits of top Nazis. When in a relaxed mood, Hitler used to shout, “Go on, Putzi – do Himmler” (or sim’lar) and Hanfstaengl would play creepy music, much to Hitler’s amusement. Hanfstaengl subsequently fell out with Goebells and was denounced by Unity Mitford. After finding himself the butt of a hilarious jape concocted by Hitler and Goering in 1937 designed to convince him that he was about to be assassinated by being pushed out of a plane on its way to Spain (it was in fact circling over Germany), Hanfstaengl’s humour deserted him, and he defected.

Goebells’  wife, Magda,  a skinny worshipper of Parisian couture, was put in charge of the Nazi Fashion Bureau, tasked with designing approved clothes for true German women – i.e. dirndls, bodices, Tyrolean jackets and suchlike. Hitler insisted that the clothes accommodate wide child-bearing hips, as he was obsessed with upping the Aryan birth-rate.

Heinrich Müller, the head of the Gestapo who may or may not have perished in Hitler’s Berlin bunker in 1945, never joined the Nazi Party. Not only that, an internal party memorandum stated that he had called Hitler “an immigrant unemployed house-painter” and “an Austrian draft-dodger”.

On 21st March, 1943, Hitler, Himmler and Goering were scheduled to spend 30 minutes visiting a display of captured Russian flags at a military museum in Berlin. Working with other military plotters, Colonel Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff volunteered to act as a suicide bomber. Just before Hitler’s arrival, he broke the caps on two land-mines with ten-minute fuses, and placed them in his pockets. Unfortunately, Hitler (who Kerr described as a lazy lie-abed) whizzed through the exhibition in under two minutes, and departed before the devices had exploded. Colonel von Gersdorff had to rush to the lavatory, and only just managed to disarm the bombs in time.

Hitler loathed Northern Germany and only visited Hamburg once. He suspected everyone there of looking down on him - which they did, reserving particular contempt for his execrable German accent.

If you gert a chance to hear Philip Kerr and Jane Thynne speaking in public - grab it!

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