Paris June 21, 1940
The next morning, when Walter returned to the front desk to give Madame Hortense his key, she eyed him bit warily. She probably thinks I’m up to new mischief. Smart woman.
“While I’m here,” he said casually, “I’ve been thinking about changing rooms.” When he had initially booked his room, he’d chosen a third-floor suite because of the fine balcony overlooking the quiet cul-de-sac of the Royer-Collard. After yesterday, he thought a different arrangement might be helpful. “I was wondering if the adjoining two rooms on the ground floor of the building next door, with their separate street entrance, would possibly be available?”
Madame Hortense seemed to be tiring of his game. They both knew the hotel was still nearly empty. “I know these rooms are not officially part of the hotel,” he said, “and so the rental must surely be higher. Suppose I were to pay in advance for the rooms for two months? I see that Phillipe seems to be elsewhere at the moment. I would happily move my own things.” He watched her quickly decide on an appropriately inflated room charge, and when she named it, he took out his wallet and counted out the required number of Francs. As an afterthought, he opened the closed compartment of his wallet and added an American $100 bill to the stack of Francs. “For your trouble,” he said, cheerfully. She swept up the Francs and put them in her cash drawer; the $100 went into the pocket of her sweater.
After moving his things to his new quarters, he came back to the reception and gave the key to Madame Hortense. He turned to leave, walked a few steps towards the door, then pivoted back toward the front desk, as if a sudden thought had crossed his mind. “I know it’s quite irregular, Madame, probably impossible, I’m sure, but might there be, by any chance, an extra key to the outside door of my new rooms …” he pointed to the cubby holes behind the concierge, “that is, in addition to the keys stored behind you?”
She considered this request for a moment, then pulled open the drawer in the reception desk in front of her, rummaged around through its contents, and came up with a key attached to a simple, unmarked block of wood rather than the hotel’s name tag. She slid it across the top of the desk towards him.
“Quand on dîne avec le diable, il faut se munir d’une longue cuiller. If you dine with the devil, it’s best to have a long spoon. I have no idea, of course, what this key is or where it may have come from, as I will happily tell anyone who asks.” Her face softened into what almost might have been affection. “Be careful, Monsieur. On ne tue pas le loup parce qu’il est gris, mais parce qu’il dévoré la brebis. One does not kill wolves because they are grey—but because they eat sheep.”
Walter was debating whether to relax in the Ruches in the Luxembourg Gardens, or cut down the Rue Corneille to the Odéon and visit Sylvia, when he heard a cheerful voice call his name.
“Hallo! Walter Hirsch! Setzen Sie doch zu uns!”
He turned to see Claus von Stauffenberg, one of the young officers from the other night, sitting at a sidewalk café with a different friend, beckoning him to join them. The SS creep wasn’t with them. They were sprawled comfortably in chairs around the wrought iron table drinking beer and enjoying the glorious Paris day. Like tourists he thought, then corrected himself. Like conquerors.
Walter walked up and greeted von Stauffenberg. “Have a beer with us,” von Stauffenberg said. Walter happily obliged and joined him and his companion, whom Claus introduced as Ewald von Schmenzin.
“It turns out I am familiar with you,” von Schmenzin offered after the waiter had brought Walter a beer. “I was at the Olympics in 1936. You competed for the Americans.”
“You’re too kind,” Walter laughed. “We had so many runners on that team who could flat out fly—I was fortunate to even be selected. “It was an amazing experience, however,” Walter continued. “I remember marching into the stadium with the American team. Coming out of the dark tunnel into that huge, packed stadium—well, actually, strolling—we Americans aren’t big on marching in order— it was a moment that will stay with me the rest of my life. As teams entered they sang their country’s national anthem. Not us,” he laughed. “Somebody, maybe our flag bearer, Alfred Joachim, the gymnast, started up,
Hail, hail, the gangs all here
What the heck do we care?
What the heck do we care?
Hail, hail, we’re full of cheer,
What the heck do we care, now?
“Not all of us sang ‘heck.’ When we got up to Hitler on the reviewing stand, lots of other teams returned the Nazi salute. We did an ‘eyes right’ to acknowledge him, but just removed our straw hats, held them over our hearts, and walked proudly past without saluting. Lots of the people in the crowd applauded politely. A lot more greeted us with whistles and stamping feet, the way you do with an opposing soccer team.”
“But you had reason to be proud,” von Schmenzin acknowledged. “And you did win your 800 meter heats in Berlin,” he added graciously.
“Sure, but that gold medal was all John Woodruff. I was happy to take sixth.”
“It was an amazing race,” Schmenzin said. “When Woodruff started passing all the other runners, the crowd went crazy.”
“Well, perhaps not everyone,” Walter said. He kept his voice polite and friendly. “One might imagine Herr Hitler was a bit discomfited—unglücklich—at all the medals won by our Negro athletes.”
“Well, he would be, wouldn’t he?” said von Stauffenberg. Walter could not read his tone of voice. “Unfortunately, not everything people do to please Hitler is worthy of them—or Germany,” von Stauffenberg said carefully. Walter shot a quick glance at von Stauffenberg’s friend. He looked as if he agreed. And Claus had not prefaced Hitler’s name with a title.
Von Stauffenberg gestured towards the German flags, “All this, the self-congratulatory parades and triumphalism, it’s quite repelling to professionals like us. This new regime we’re living under is like a spoiled child who gets too expensive and valuable a gift for Christmas and then shows it off all around the neighborhood until he breaks it. These days, the very worst sort of people, common criminals, rapists, murderers, sadists, and pederasts, who should have been kept in jail, put on fancy uniforms and strut around as if they were real soldiers.” There was no missing the disgust in von Stauffenberg’s voice now.
“But enough if that,” he said. “I did want to apologize for the other evening. Sommer’s rudeness would have been ridiculous had it not been so offensive. Then to accuse you of being a spy….Well it was all quite embarrassing. I know your family in Germany, of course. And I’m glad we ran into you,” von Stauffenberg continued. “ You know Ewald here is actually a second cousin on your mother’s side? Their family home is in Schmenzin.”
“Of course,” Walter replied. “Let me see. Schmenzin. Yes. Perhaps I was ten, my father and mother took me on a trip to visit family in Germany. I think I remember a magical castle surrounded by water, glistening white—my mother was terrified I’d fall off a cliff…”
“Exactly!” Exclaimed von Schmenzin excitedly. “Glücksberg. I spent several summers there visiting my aunt. And yes, you’re right about the cliff … and nervous parents,” he laughed. “May I ask if your parents are well?”
“Fortunately yes, although I suspect my father’s wounds from the war trouble him now, although he would never speak of it.”
What a bizarre conversation, Walter thought. Von Stauffenberg and von Schmenzin are aristocrats—and look it. They could walk through the doors of the Harvard or Yale Clubs, or for that matter Skull and Bones, without a question. Claus was dashingly good looking—black hair and finely-chiseled features. Von Schmenzin was less of a poster child. One could tell he would be bald by 40, and probably a good deal heavier, but he exuded calm self-confidence and intelligence. It’s the uniforms, Walter thought. It changes them.
On an impulse, he added, “They are not pleased I’m still here in France, now.”
“But why not?” asked von Schmenzin. “You’re an American, A neutral.”
“If Walter is right about America,” von Stauffenberg interjected, “that may not last much longer.”
“You really think American will enter the war on the side of the British?” von Schmenzin asked. “All we hear about in the papers is Lindberg and the American First movement. What did Lindberg say recently? ‘Germany has grown like a giant at the side of an aged, complacent England and a self-absorbed and feeble France.’ We are told Roosevelt is certain to be defeated by Senator Taft, who is determined to keep America out of a war that does not threaten America.”
“Well, the news one reads in Germany and America may not always be the same,” Walter said. “You’re probably right about many Americans not wanting war. We like to think we’re safe behind the protection of two huge oceans. Ask most Americans—I think you’d find they would rather be making money and enjoying their families than seeing their sons slaughtered on some god-forsaken European battlefield.”
Walter weighed his next statement before asking it. “May I speak my mind and conscience frankly without giving offense?”
Both Germans quickly said, Yes. Of course.” Walter studied their reaction. Von Schmenzin’s face betrayed no hostility, just attentive interest. Von Stauffenberg’s expression was something different. More intense, Perhaps expectation?
“When Chancellor Hitler first began speaking of lebensraum—room for Germany to restore its rightful possessions and give its people prosperity—those of us who understood the Allies’ cynical, hypocritical punishment of Germany after the World War could accept that. But now? France is part of Germany, and Holland, and Belgium, and Norway, and Poland, and Czechoslovakia, and soon, I suspect, all the Balkans and even Greece. England too, quite possibly. It’s safe to say America is not eager for war. But we aren’t any more comfortable with dictators than we were with a tyrannical King. I think it will finally come down to an irreparable clash of cultural values—and as you know, those generate the fiercest, bloodiest of wars.”
Walter had no idea what Claus and Ewald were looking for. So he chose his concluding remarks carefully. “I think that Americans will have a hard time with the idea of ‘dictatorship.’ We seem to have the same difficulty with the idea of ‘defeat.’ But,” he looked at his watch then rose to his feet, “I’m afraid I have another engagement I must get to. Thank you for the beer—and the conversation.”
Claus and Ewald ordered another round of beer after Walter left. “So what do you think?” Ewald asked. Von Stauffenberg looked around to ensure that they were, for the time being, talking in privacy.
“You know Operation Sea Lion is being scrapped. Es scheint, dass wir jetzt fahren nicht gegen Engeland. Fatso’s precious Luftwaffe is losing over 15% of its planes over England each month. Even in his usual morphine haze, Göring can’t stand the damage to his ego. So the English survive, and now we have the world’s largest aircraft carrier and troop ship right off the coast of France. And to top it all, you’ve seen the initial plans for Operation Barbarossa. I tell you, if we invade the Soviet Union, we are not attacking a country, we are attacking a continent. Stalin will have no qualms about sacrificing millions of men until he defeats us. Worse, the timetable to launch the offensive has been delayed over a month because we had to bail out the useless Italians in Greece. Guderian, von Bock and Halder made the case as strongly to Hitler as they could. He brushed their arguments and evidence aside. We are being led by a madman. Halder thinks the timing is wrong for a military coup. Too many people in Germany believe that in conquering France we actually defeated a real army.”
“So then we should make an effort to stay in touch with our friend Walter,” Ewald said. “It turns out he wasn’t as forthcoming to Sommer about his associations in Paris as he might have been. Walter von Hirschberg,” he used Walter’s family name without thinking, “met with the American charge d’affaires Murphy for some time in a restaurant. I don’t believe von Hirschberg is a spy; Murphy, however, most certainly is.”
“I agree,” said Claus. “It might be useful for the Americans to know that Hitler’s reign as Führer may be briefer than he thinks it will be.”