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Tales from the back of the eyelids

War

It was one of the last days of the Second World War. The Allied troops, led by the Soviets in the East and the Americans in the West, were closing in. They had already joined forces in many places. The Third Reich was on the verge of being extinguished. All that remained of the Thousand Year Empire were a few isolated pockets of resistance. And here the only rule was chaos and confusion.

Around midday, Henrich Himmler - Hitler's despised henchman and odious pipsqueak - arrived at a derelict chateau close to the town of Rokycany in western Bohemia. The past ten days had been difficult for him and his loyal band of SS bodyguards.

They had been travelling from Ravensbruck in north east Germany. At first they went by truck, but it had to be abandoned when it broke down. Later they stole a horse and carriage from a farmer and this carried them for four days. Then the horse died from exhaustion and lack of food. Himmler and his men, who were short on supplies, ate the horse. For the past three days they had been walking, day and night, only taking a few minutes of rest every twenty kilometres or so.

The soldiers forced their way into the chateau and bivouacked inside. Lying on the ground on a blanket amongst the dust and rubble, using his knapsack as a pillow, Himmler could hear the guns of the enemy blasting from all sides. The noise seemed to be getting louder and closer all the time. He and his escort would soon have to move on.

Himmler knew that his best chances lay in trying to escape to the West. In disguise he might be able to get to Spain, or alternatively he might be able to sail to South America from a port in France. The American front line was perhaps fifty kilometres away, on the other side of the forests of Brdy, which began at the end of the chateau's park. All he had to do was to get through the forests to the Western lines without getting caught by the Russians or the merciless groups of roving partisans.

Himmler and his men, carrying the few provisions they had on their backs, set out when night fell. The chief of the SS wore an ordinary solidier's uniform, to hide his identity in case they were caught. The men, with Himmler in the middle, walked in single file between the trees. They kept silent and used only hand signals to communicate. Sometimes the firing of shots could be heard near by. Twice they saw enemy campfires through the trees. Once they got so close that they could hear the laughter of men and their shadows dancing on the canvasses of the tents. To reduce the risk of encounters they made wide detours. This meant on occasion even trudging through bog and shrub.

As day broke they climbed up a bank to a rocky crag. This was a dangerous moment: up here, out of the trees, they were visible from afar. For twenty minutes they crept along the base of the cliffs. Then they disappeared into a concealed gap in the rocks. They headed down a narrow passage which led into a spacious cavern.

Once inside the men visibly relaxed. Everyone sat down, some took out dry biscuits from their packs, others cigarettes. Someone cracked a joke and everyone laughed. It had been an exhausting night, following ten exhausting days.

Half an hour later a dispute broke out. Himmler was on one side of the disagreement and the rest of the men on the other. He wanted to press on, to get to the American side before the opportunity closed on them. The soldiers' natural leader, who spoke for the men, wanted to camp where they were until nightfall and only then move on. Himmler, though, was impatient. It wasn't far now, he insisted and every hour counted. If they waited it could be too late.

But the soldier remained unconvinced. No one with military experience would dream of moving about under these conditions in daylight, he said. (Himmler winced at this remark, because he had little direct military experience.) It would be the height of folly to leave now: they would be caught in no time. Besides which, the officer added, the men needed to rest so they had the strength and the stamina to complete the journey.

At this point a careful observer would have noticed that Himmler's face was twitching. Those who knew him well would know that this was a dangerous sign. For the rest, the eruption that followed would come as a surprise. It began with a deep gurgling noise coming from somewhere inside the throat. In itself this didn't sound terrifying, but it was only a short prelude. Next, quite suddenly, followed a huge, reverberating splutter. "You will obey my orders!" he hollered at the top of his voice.

He turned his back on the officer and stomped along the length of the cave, kicking at extended legs, shouting: "Get up! Get up!"

The men slowly and reluctantly got to their feet.

"Stand to attention! Fall in!" Himmler screamed.  "Anyone who disobeys orders will be shot immediately!"

Himmler strutted along the rank, glowering at the row of eyes. At the end, standing to attention somewhat too stiffly, was a rookie, an eighteen year old boy who had joined the unit only a month before.

An idea occurred to Himmler. This boy didn't intimidate him as did some of the older men. Indeed, he had seen how the others teased and played pranks on him. Inspired by the role of the sergeant major in Hollywood films, he put his face close to the boy's and started yelling. According to Himmler, the lad was a slob and a pathetic weakling, a disgrace not only to himself and his mother, but to the SS, the whole Germany Army and indeed to the Fatherland.

Despite the tirade, the boy did not flinch. He stared intently at some point at the top of Himmler's forehead. His passivity made things worse. Himmler, I suppose, wanted to provoke a reaction that the soldier would come to regret and which Himmler hoped could be exploited. Instead he found the boy's immobile expression enfuriating. He raged on with a stream of increasingly vicious insults.

Just as Himmler's screaming reached a pitch close to the edge of the audible range, someone squirted water from his plastic water bottle. The jet hit Himmler on the side of his face. This shut him up - for a bit anyway. Astonished and seething, with water dripping from his nose and down his neck, he turned around slowly.

"Who did that?" he screamed. Snarling, he walked back down the line. Not being sure who was responsible, he picked out a soldier at random.

"It was you! Shoot him!" he squeaked hysterically, pointing at the man and then at the others. "Shoot him, the rest of you! Shoot him now!"

Everyone froze. Everyone, that is, except for the group's natural leader. He stepped out of the ranks and calmly walked up to Himmler. In his hand he had something. It was a cream cake from his provisions. He raised his arm and squashed it into Henrich Himmler's face.

At this point Himmler, not being accustomed to defiance, must have gone into a state of shock. I say this because he said and did nothing as the other man rubbed the cake around his face. In fact for quite a long time afterwards he continued to say and do nothing, arms rigid at his sides. When the crust eventually fell away, all that could be seen in the cream below his crew cut was the tip of the nose pointing out in the middle, and two bewildered piggy eyes blinking on either side.*



* This dream illustrates the precariousness of authority and the fickleness of deference in society. In times of crises (which of the Third Reich at the end of the War could be said to be the epitome) all our preconceived notions of hierarchy collapse like a house of cards. In this case what was remarkable was the speed of the change. Ten days before and for a whole twelve year period before that, no one would ever have dared to rub a cream cake into Heinrich Himmler's face, even though the man was almost universally hated. Now even a common soldier could do it with impunity, regardless of Himmler's official rank.

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