"The Boy Who Wanted to Be Hitler"
Greg started his act the moment he got up at noon for our last day in Berlin. He jacked himself up straight, thin face beaming, red forelock dangling over one eye. We'd eaten continental breakfasts all week, but today he insisted on an apparent Fuehrer favorite, plain spaghetti and a raisin salad.
When we saw the Brandenburg Gate, he told me how Hanna Reitsch barely cleared it in her airplane when taking off from the Tiergarten through a hail of Russian bullets. When we reached Gertrud-Kolmar Strasse, he called it by its old name "Hermann Goering Strasse." And when the line to see the bunker came into view, I almost expected him to goose-step.
He didn't. Hitler himself never goose-stepped, so far as Greg knew, and Greg knew a lot.
The line was like the one in DC to see the White House--it came into sight long before the actual place. It wound from Wilhelmstrasse around the restored Chancellery gardens and up a good three blocks north toward us. We stopped behind people in shorts and tee shirts and sunglasses, everyone holding smartphones or wearing cameras slung around their necks. Two girls got in line behind us, one of them chattering on her phone in a language I didn't recognize.
Now I thought of something and laughed.
Greg, wearing black slacks and a gray suit jacket, glared at me. He'd worn the same glare two weeks ago at our graduation along with his cap and gown. There was a Hitler-scowl he practiced in front of the mirror, checking it against an open book in his hand, face tilted slightly down, mouth set and determined. But sometimes he forgot about it and just flushed red. "What?"
"You know how Speer made all those designs for the new Berlin? The dome, the arch and everything had to be a jillion times bigger than anywhere else. Well at least you can say, Hey, the line to get into the bunker is longer than the one for the White House." Though I didn't know if this was really true or not.
Now he remembered the scowl. "Very funny."
I examined Greg in the meantime. What on earth got him so hung up on Hitler, of all people? He had red hair, grey eyes--if he were an actor, he'd never get cast as the dictator. Stop trying to look like him! I'd said this, and so had everyone in our high school back in Columbus, Ohio where he fixed steely eyes on us and made some remark about "the Jews" at least once a day. And now, here where the man himself had ruled for a thousand years minus nine hundred and eighty-eight, Greg looked no more at home than in the school where people laughed at him behind his back, and where the football teamed mocked him with Sieg Heil salutes.
No matter--he was here. In Berlin. At the Bunker.
"We'll be walking the same rooms where he walked," Greg said. "The room he ate in, the bedroom he slept in. And we'll be going into his study, right where he left his mark on history." He watched the way I fidgeted, my eyes darting about. "If you don't want to..."
I shook my head. I'd come all this way to see this piece of history that East Germany had been glad to forget, building a second Berlin Wall around it and leaving it that way until reunification, when the government considered, debated and finally opened it to the public.
"It could be worse," Greg said. "We could be seeing Dachau."
My stomach twisted, both at the idea and how flippantly he'd voiced it. "Maybe we should visit there instead. You know what they did there."
"What they allegedly did."
I kept mum, knowing he wouldn't hesitate to start an argument even here, even about that. It was one of many things about the dictator he emulated. I wondered sometimes what kind of person Greg would be, and what views he would have--about Jews, the Holocaust, eating meat or even sleeping late--if Hitler hadn't somehow gotten ahold of him.
We rounded the corner onto Wilhemstrasse and into the new Reich Chancellery. Bombed out, facade ragged, it was now just a gateway to the main attraction. The tourists around us went on with their conversations, the girl behind me keeping up her cell phone marathon.
"Nobody seems to recognize you, mein Fuehrer," I said with a sneer.
The instant I said it, I wished I could snatch it back. Greg's eyes flared. He'd cut his hair with the forelock, he had the barest little peach-fuzz mustache under his nose--you had to look close to see it--here, too, nature refused to cooperate. But wait till we're in Germany! he'd chortled all through our senior year, as if it was the blamed promised land. We graduated, withdrew the money we'd saved, and took off.
He turned his steely gaze on full. "You'll see," he said. "Everyone will."
And with that, we passed through the open doorway beneath a sign announcing VORBUNKER.
My first thought was, a claustrophobe wouldn't like this place. It hadn't been designed as an underground palace, only an air raid shelter, and even when they added the lower level in 1944, aside from the fine furniture and paintings it was a concrete honeycomb of cramped compartments. Old Scramblebrains was never much one for luxury anyway.
The route took us through the dining room, a long narrow space with a long table in the center, a chair on each end and four chairs on each side. Two open doorways stood on our right. The nearer one had a chain drawn across it, and a view of ancient rusted machinery beyond; the restoration was still in progress. We filed past the table to where we could peer into the other room, a smaller table and a chair--it had been a guard lounge--and another door past that. Knowing what had happened there, I felt a sudden heaviness.
"That," said Greg, "is where Magda Goebbels poisoned her kids."
The girl behind us finally stopped her phone-chatter.
I knew my history as well as Greg did. Joseph and Magda Goebbels, as the Red Army closed in, followed their leader's example, but went one better by killing their six children first. Better death, they reasoned, than life without National Socialism. Hitler's doctor passed out cyanide capsules like they were candy. Hitler gave his secretaries one each, but they didn't use them. Bormann evidently used his after failing to escape Berlin; he was found and DNA-identified years later. It was like the Nazis had summoned the demon of death, thinking they could control it, regulate it, keep it confined to the camps outside their populated areas. But as the war worsened it got loose, rampaging through their capital with patrols hanging "cowards" in droves, and following them down here where Greg and I now stood, claiming the Goebbels children, generals and officials, and even the leader himself.
Thinking of this, I went numb. Why am I here?
Greg grabbed my arm. "Come on."
He tugged me to the chain and swung one leg over it, then the other, hurrying across the lounge to a doorway that suddenly resembled, to me, the gate to a place you never come back from. I followed, clambering over the chain myself, feeling everyone's eyes on me. He grabbed me and pushed me before him, hands on my shoulders, till I balanced on the threshold.
It was an empty room with a smell of wet concrete, a puddle in one corner and mold on the walls.
"Do you see anything?" Greg hissed.
"What are you talking about?"
"Like the Carvers."
I opened my mouth. That was more than a year ago, and he hadn't been there. The deserted house I snuck into with friends one night, just for kicks, and my sudden vision of men screaming in flames. I researched afterwards and confirmed that three brothers had died in a fire there in 1958.
The guys with me saw me losing it, my shouts and my shrieks and my babbling what I'd seen. They wasted no time spreading it around in school. Every day for the next three weeks, guys passed me in the halls saying "boo" or "wooo-oh!" or "see any more ghosts?" or some such crap. And the laughter--laughter in the halls, laughter in the cafeteria, people smirking at me from across the classroom. Julie, the blond Aryan cheerleader who'd finally agreed to go out with me, turned to ice and retreated. I sat alone now for lunch. Everyone seemed to think I was some sort of freak...except Greg.
He came to my table in the cafeteria, set down his tray and lowered himself into the seat next to mine. "Now you know how I feel," he said. And he bit into his apple and didn't say another word.
I looked at him, this Mr. Hitler who everyone made fun of including me. He'd seen me making fun of him, raising my arm in mock Nazi salutes. "Heil Greg!" But he made no mention of that. He just sat beside me and ate.
And he never mentioned the Carvers, not once, until this moment in the bunker. "Wait a second," I whispered, his iron grip on my shoulders. I didn't struggle, didn't move, and after a moment I realized why. The Carvers--did they scream because of how they'd died, or because of what came after that, or both? But these children were different. They passed peacefully in a morphine-induced sleep, Magda crushing cyanide capsules between each set of teeth. They never screamed, never felt pain. And if their spirits still lingered here, maybe they would give me a sense of something better than what befell those three brothers, perhaps even hopeful. For the day would come when I'd have to go that way myself.
Maybe that was why I was here.
Footsteps rushed up behind us. Greg was already talking, turning on the bravado like he really was the man this place had been built for. "We came all the way from Ohio, and we wanted to see--"
"Entschuldige uns," I apologized, turning toward two grim men in suits with name tags. I knew a little German; strangely Greg knew none. "Es tut mir leid."
I led him back to the dining room where we rejoined the line. Everyone was looking at us, but Greg, being Greg, didn't seem to notice.
"Did you see anything?" he asked.
I waited a few seconds before answering. "No, nothing. I think maybe I sensed someone there besides us, before the security guys showed up. Not sure..."
He locked his eyes on me. Greg didn't look at you, he locked onto you like radar. I've seen people squirm under his gaze. "It's like I told you back then, Jon. Your mind was playing tricks." He looked straight ahead now, above the crowd, toward the stairs leading down. "There's no shame in that. You're not crazy. I'm the crazy one, right? People have always said that, but it doesn't bother me. What matters is, death is what he believed it was: just eternal peace."
We reached a landing with a desk and a second flight of stairs. Greg flowed down out of sight with the others, and I allowed the crowd to carry me after him. The Fuehrerbunker waited at the bottom, eight meters beneath the gardens with the framed paintings and fine furniture hauled down from the Chancellery, the map room where Hitler had his nervous breakdown and finally admitted all was lost, and the study where...
I cleared the last step, passed through a vestibule, and got my first look at the corridor with the furniture and art. It ran nearly the length of the lower level. Some generals had slept in those chairs, bottles of Schnapps handy. All was quiet now save for the milling of the queue, and I tried to imagine the humming of the generator, the rattling of pumps always expelling water that leaked in, the smell of the generator fumes. We passed another chained-off doorway showing showers and toilets. I read somewhere once that a sewage line broke and the whole place stank of urine.
"The next door on our left," said Greg, "will be his receiving room." His voice had fallen to a whisper. "And then, the study."
It was far too small for a dictator, little more than a closet with a desk, grandfather clock, and upholstered furniture crammed into it. Above the desk hung the portrait of Frederick the Great, sheathed in glass, not a replica but the very one Hitler often gazed upon, the tourism website claimed.
Greg stopped in the middle of the room. Suddenly I was struck by how tall he seemed. Myself at six foot two, I was supposed to be the tall one, but my next realization was how weak I felt somehow, as if this place had ebbed my strength. Greg stood resolute, immoveable, the steel in his eyes impossible to ignore. He finally resembled his terrible hero.
"Adolf Hitler saw life for what it was. He recognized that 'he who doesn't wish to fight in this world, where permanent struggle is the law of life, has not the right to exist.' He wasn't afraid to take the initiative in that struggle." Greg was addressing all of us now. He had assumed command, and his gaze held us in place.
"'My spirit will rise from the grave," he thundered, "and the world will see that I was right.'"
He thrust his hand underneath his jacket.
A woman behind me gasped. Others cried out.
Greg's eyes grew wide to match ours. His triumphant expression collapsed. His hands flew, patting himself all over, until I lunged forward and seized him by the arms. "Greg, stop it!"
He was ashen now. He hugged himself, hung his head. The great moment had passed. He was just Greg again.
I placed an arm around his shoulder. "It's all right, buddy. Everything's okay. Let's just--"
Blow out of here through the nearest exit was what I was thinking, but that would be the stairs Hitler's men used to carry what was left of him and his new bride out to splash petrol over them and burn them in an artillery shell crater, and I didn't want to think of that. Greg, damn him, was muttering nonstop now. "What happened to it? It was a real Walther PPK, it took me a year online to find it, where is it?"
A Walther pistol, like the one Hitler used to shatter his own temple. It figured. Yesterday Greg went to see a "collector" while I visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I'd thought nothing of it.
Another man in a suit and name tag appeared and spoke to everyone in German. Whoever hadn't whitened in alarm before, did so now, and one woman put a hand to her mouth. Everyone followed the man's motioning arm back out of the study, into the corridor and up those stairs. We emerged into a day turning overcast, storm clouds erasing the sunshine, me holding onto Greg's arm. He'd stopped muttering, but still hugged himself.
Tugging Greg behind me--I didn't trust him out of my sight--I looked for an employee. Sighting one among the tourists, I called out to him. "Entschuldigung? Was ist es?"
Politely he replied: "A handgun was found in the Goebbels children's room, sir."
So that was it. Greg, hustling me to that room, caused his intended suicide weapon to fall out. Somehow we didn't hear it clatter to the floor, but it all happened so fast and we were bound to miss something. Yes, that was it.
Greg shook me off and thrust his face at the employee's. "In the room where?"
The man, taller than me and built like a prizefighter, didn't flinch. "It was lying against the outer wall, opposite the doorway."
Greg's hair was disheveled, his eyes wild, like a caricature of his idol. "No, no. It was right by the doorway, right?"
Still the guard remained unruffled. "I saw it myself, sir, before security picked it up. It was leaning against the outer wall. Someone had placed it there. They're determining now if it was a handgun converted into some kind of explosive, or possibly a simple statement."
Greg tried to assume his well-practiced frown, but it didn't work out. His mouth twitched, his eyes faded from anger to confusion and then to an unreadable dullness.
Thanking the man in German, I tugged Greg away and across the gardens toward Gertrud-Kolmar Strasse.
He raised his eyes to mine. "I planned it all year, Jon. I had the Walther under my jacket with one shot in it. Just one." He wore a face that, if despairing and distraught, might have been the first genuine Greg face I ever saw. "This past year, it was all I thought of. Every night, lying in bed, I rehearsed it in my mind."
We headed back up the Strasse. Time to go home. I took a last look over my shoulder toward the Chancellery gardens and the guard tower now receding with every step. As they vanished, I sent out a thought.
Vielen dank, Kinder Goebbels. Thank you.
I like to think they heard me.
Douglas Kolacki began writing while stationed with the Navy in Naples, Italy. Since then he has placed fiction in such publications as Weird Tales, Dreams & Visions, The Lorelei Signal, and Aurora Wolf. He now haunts Providence, Rhode Island.