Herman Fegelein: Getting Out of Dodge

According to the poet Gottfried Benn, to delve deep into yourself entitles you to something called “the domestic form of emigration.”You go abroad without leaving home. So, then, being shot by the Führer’s armed guards surely entitles you to the same exemption. He who has been bad may thus become good. To have been shot, deep into the pulpiest part of your chest, frees you of all liability.

Why, then, did the bookish Fegelein not believe it? Because, he told himself, this was one of those family jokes that came from being married to Eva Braun’s sister, Gretl. Fat lot of good it had done Fegelein: no more than Reinhard Heydrich’s passion for classical music played with Admiral Canaris, as impure a Nazi as you could find. The assassin’s bomb had sent bits of horsehair from the car’s cushions into Heydrich’s blood. If Borges were doing this reprise at so late a date, his tone, as in “Deutsches Requiem,” would be snappier, more like a tennis match, a smash more Teutonic.

So he told his captors the usual things. Look at these fencing slashes in my cheeks. Behold my Iron Cross, whelps. The joke is over. Let me go. I do, of course, back our leader to the hilt, to the very last. Free my wrists now. No more yak about the bunker courtyard, if you please. I am Fegelein, SS general, their bonny boy.

Those writing about someone’s death should write as if their own lives depended on it: sobersides in flagrante. Thus Fegelein the romantic gambler, eager for all light to be as Arizonan as when, after a blast of trombones has ceased, you dumbfoundedly regain your senses. He had long ago wearied of those who were too busy being Goebbels even to say hello. He, Fegelein, even talked to dolls, confided to dogs, whispered huskily into the hairy pouches of hussies.Truth told, he doted on those teeny, palpable exchanges that made up the social history of any political system. How one behaved around others struck him as some private pornographic sect amid a genteel club, with its own warmed toilet rolls and its gruesome soap.

He stared down the Hitler youths guarding him, their steel-solid look, their self-righteous leers of newly appointed headsmen who had never expected so lucky an assignment. Why, they did not even shave and would be better employed perfecting their algebra and Goethe. All the same, fatally welded to their trumped-up roles, they resumed their triumphant iron stares and thought of Gretl the widow and Eva the widow’s sister. That he was notorious—an eager joiner; a company man, dammit; a black sheep to some, sacrificial lamb to others—never entered their heads. I am a horseman, he wanted to tell them, illiterate but always a bookman.

In the heydey of the Reich, I used to hear and answer the vocal tear sheets of passing carts. Sideband splash was my opera. I am no perfidious betrayer like Himmler, the boss. How had that high heroic conversation gone?

“Himmler’s a traitor,” he told Hitler.

“I’ll have that bastard’s neck,” the Führer said.

“Good,” Fegelein had responded, full of radiant excoriation.

“And then yours,” Hitler added. “The poisonous tree, Fegelein. The poisonous tree.”

That had been the end of career climbing, some time after the Matterhorn of the Knight’s Cross. Look into the abyss, Fegelein told himself, and the abyss stares back at you. Never blab. Never inform. Never be mediocre. Feel for the stirrups and go.

Well, he had, finagling his way out of the bunker on some pretext or other, to resume a life in silk pajamas with what’s-her-name, leaving the Führer with his blood-sucking cronies in the foul underground that reeked of beets and thrice-cooked greens. But it did not smell half as bad as Berlin above ground, and he knew he would have to go, no doubt alone, him flounder and wobble, choke and dribble, none of them at this instant (four minutes already gone) thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I.” None of that empathy, none of that humbled self- concern. He is poisoned already with his what’s-her-name, leaving the Führer with his blood-sucking cronies in the foul underground that reeked of beets and thrice-cooked greens. But it did not smell half as bad as Berlin above ground, and he knew he would have to go, no doubt alone, but on foot (Hanna Reitsch had arrived in the only available Storch). Were his tango dancer’s feet equal to such a walk?

He felt the odds against his treacherous mission increasing, but something vaster than mere inconvenience was boiling in his blood. He was an after-dinner speaker who, as he began, was informed that right after his peroration, he would be shot or frogmarched out to be trussed up in a cave and left for rats. Such a fate induced speaker’s quinsy, not only sapping any desire to utter the choice and glib, but removing him for all time from the vale of language. Was this not always the dictator’s way? Invisibly, he waved goodbye to those who, inventive beyond belief, had ignored home and duty for parallel pleasures, and the Fegeleins lost out, too headlong to be adroit, too greedy to bend the knee often enough. So he begins, coughing, flecks of blood already on the white enamel gloss of his decorations: “Accustomed as I am to public speaking. As I was.” And he cannot go on because they all know, and they want to find out how it feels to have your audience in your feeble grip as your last five minutes tick away, and their smiles get wider, their chops wolfier, as they watch him flounder and wobble, choke and dribble, none of them at this instant (four minutes already gone) thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I.” None of that empathy, none of that humbled self- concern. He is poisoned already with his aperitif, his lungs already flaccid.

Thus Fegelein imagines le mal des héros. Some stories, especially those based on real life, spring away into the present tense—as if to bring to more than mere life the goings-on of persons. This leap of the brain, detected by the scribe, fits neatly into our insistence on watching the instant rather than the durée, and our cry is thus afflicted by the monadic way, as old Leibniz would have it: “We cannot see out or beyond!” This talcum-powder torment is why we read lives and pseudo-lives: to get the full chafing, rudderless effect that governs instances in all our untotted days, not so much the ax-stroke of the destroyer of delight who chops willy-nilly as the full measure of a canary’s chirp in a miner’s cage.

Poor old Fegelein, we say, at last ridding himself of all romantic notions, which, to be sure, were both naive and cynical. A Stendhal with syphilis, so to speak, though at his last he was disease-free, they say, apart from a touch of hob-nail liver, the “American” disease. To be detained by Hitler youths for mature pranks was insulting, and to be shot for using his brain was unspeakable. How, one goes on wondering, did he cope with insult and what was beyond words?

In time, if he could be said to have had any time at all at his disposal, this late, he would learn whether the answer to the volley came with or before the volley. Was it some instantaneous self-accommodation or a thing reasoned out beforehand? Either way, how would one know it? Did the bullets have an arriving fragrance that, through some trick of synesthesia, led you to an impromptu stoicism pitched somewhere between chomping celery and tolerating a malodorous back fire? In a word, he was tuned up, though resentful and blurred. All of him was pounding. His blood was up, to no purpose. His hands shook, although, he persuaded himself, with the yearning to hold his own Luger and have the drop on his boyish captors. One theory, hyper-fine, especially for him, made him wonder if receiving the volley was like overhearing assonance or alliteration, too fast to scan, but characteristics he’d heard about, whatever the tense was. The agony was in the waiting, not knowing how to prepare and then realizing the event was too swift. The impact swallowed its antidote, thus rendering the condemned passive through and through, guilty of a last feral shout amputated by loss of blood and nerve.

Ah, he breathed, the whole point of this soldier’s penalty is that you don’t know it’s happened to you, apart from the first surprise (as if you thought it would never happen to you, nor to anyone). All bluff, and then the kindly Führer invites you to tea with a movie star while you grovel your thanks. You don’t know it has happened to you. He lingered on this thought, wondering just how many human events belonged with it. Birth, certainly.

Now he was saying, “I’ll confess.”

“No need,” the youths told him. “You’re guilty.”

“Then I’ll confess again,” he said with bouncing levity.

“Shitlicker,” some tyro told him. “Just you come with us and show how brave a general can be.” Eva and Gretl have peeled him away from themselves like some onionskin, to be sentimentally lionized: “He was so brave when giving up the ghost. Good husbands usually are.”

“Time to go,” the boys are saying. “A cigarette.”

“Outside, General.”

“I must collect myself.”

“On the way upstairs then.”

“No need to rush me.” He felt time reverse itself after slowing down, now speeding him up, and he slightly ahead even of time itself. Behold the pompatus of revenge: The solemn procession as the ancient, boys grouped around him, mounts step by step to his reward. They actually have, he thinks, the authority to do this even to me. So much for generals. Blauäugig means “naive”; it’s not “blue-eyed.”

The pipe dream did not return to him unscathed but, rather, in demolished fragments appropriate to what he was going through, contrasted with the miscellany of old sources. He had always dreamed of Thailand or Siam, inspired as he remained by the gratuitous finesse of brochures, bogus fliers from retired maître d’s and the reminiscences of well-to-do travelers like Raymond Roussel, whose way had always been to sail to the fabled coast, look it up and down as if it were something bridal, then sail back home. Fegelein was anima naturaliter Thai, a devotee of captions that read, “Our courteous, adept, manner is the very essence of Thai hospitality.” He loved the placing of that second comma, just as he doted on the English “u” in honoured guest. Talk of Thai marble and the Champa flower gladdened him with visions he might otherwise have lit upon in Conrad; the flower was one of special tribute. Addressed in one brochure issued by Onkel-Fnonch and Windsor- Cook on the Kurfürstendamm as the modern Marco Polo (neotype of novelty tourism), he saw himself quite naturally amid suety opulence “cleverly designed for comfort” even after a delayed flight or an early steamer, port outward, starboard home. A lipsticked coffee cup was his grail and indigenous artifacts were his disassembled museum. He would become that potentate of old invoked by the best brochures, lounging in a sumptuous flower-strewn tub or behind closed shutter, inhaling, “carrying the day” even as the first flutters of undetected diabetes caressed the skin of his leg.Vat 69 and Courvoisier VSOP had done him in early, but he would still qualify as a business captain once he joined the earnest SS. Entranced by the majestic central pillar he had never seen, the angel guardians of Krung Thep soaring over forest or fabled seas, he felt destiny coaxing him, not alone, to Vimarm Siam Theme Suites and others named for Ratanakosin, all on Wireless Road, Bangkok, the cost a mere landscape of dollar-deep embassies amid such foreign- flavored names as Ruamrudee and Klong Toey. In truth, was he any more pretentious than some taupe Minnesota elections guru aspiring to an ambassadorship in Liechtenstein? Poor Fegelein, swamped for daring to be suave and lavish, opting out of the eternal Second Reich for private, selfish reasons, doing the dirty on his Führer.

Many a time, consulting the buff map in one brochure, he walked the walk, nodding as he passed the various embassies, vowing to take the Skytrain, call in at the Lumpini Police Station and pause even longer on the Thai-Belgium Bridge. This was to be the embassy suburb, so he was living in the gorgeous future, his brain filled with the noble slogan: “The heritage of our land is royal. On this site, we were granted the right to establish a hotel.” He winced. It was now to become his grave.

Could anything be less German? Well, it could, from Hopi Indians apologizing to a plant before tearing it out by the root or juggling with snakes up on their mesas. Or a tree frog in South America making a glass harp of its home, varying the timbre of its call according to the depth of rainwater in the tree cavities. He had long ago noted that the German Embassy was excluded from the beauteous enclave, demoted to beyond the Thai-Belgium Bridge, on the Rama 4 Road to Klong Toey. Beyond the pale? He doubted it, but young suspicion had always been his strong point, and it was clear now that he was going to have kept it so for all of his life.

A pipe dream lasts only so long, perhaps no longer than a walk with kids up one flight of steps, down which rain or lymph was already dribbling, not mopped up, as slowly the standard of cleanliness in the bunker declined. If they all intended to die, they would do so in a sewer, a place vile and unkempt, wet and stinky. At least, Fegelein thought, I won’t be down there but up in the fresh urban air of the greatest city, where the dusty, putrid aroma of spilled blood grows commoner every day. Hypothetical conundrums had begun to replace the tinctured tune of opium, including the old chestnut about launching a thought toward the first bullet to arrive, only to have it become a non-starter as the bullet thuds home, having jumped the gun. Ah, Gretl, he sighed, I’d have settled for Switzerland, I really would.

What now began in his brain, perhaps not so much in the individual cells as in the glia, the spaces in between them, the acme of the surreptitious, was something hoisted from the stock market and an adult game so clever it must have bled in from the future. As if cause and effect no longer mattered, effect being denied causative power, he envisioned how he might purchase this or that embassy, Lumpini Park, the Bank of Ayudhya, or Ploenchit BTS Station, and then sell them again, the comparative prices of places wafting in and out of his head like microscope slides. His life, what remained of it, attuned itself to a grim tattoo in which an imaginary drumroll partnered with a few mumbled final words uttered by greenhorns with guns.


—drum, drum

—market value…

—drum, drum

—a loan…

—drum, drum.

He realized he had only a few moments left in which to pull off his gallant metamorphosis, transforming the bleak event into the past without its ever having been in the present, like the prices soaring free from identifiable chunks of real estate. Fegelein thought he saw how it could be: to pass from one stage of his being to another without carnally registering or undergoing the repugnant stage in between even though, as qualifying virtue went, he was only an ambitious and lustful hooligan, over-promoted through sheer force of character and callous connections. He heard orders being barked but paid no attention, silent and cynical on a peak in Darien, as lost in mythology as an elf peering into the shipping news. He winced. It had not happened yet. It was happening now. It still did not happen.Visible twitching now. Greenhorns bungling it, watched by a couple of sardonic SS junior officers. Ah, the cigarette, proffered but spurned, lips too wobbly to trap the cork tip.They were not even taking aim but intended to spray him from a distance as if he were some kind of crop.

Now, in reverse order, the interrogation and the bleat that follows. No credit, he mused, for being so nice to Hitler’s youngest secretary when her husband was killed in action. Put an arm around her and held her hands while producing my most military murmur: “Oh, child, I am so sorry. He was such a fine fellow. Stay on here to help us. I will always be here to see to you.” Splinters. What must she have thought when my admittedly debauched- looking face hovered close to her, chubbily lascivious? Did I hear that Eva’s eyes were red from weeping, refusing to intervene with her Adolf on account of certain jewels in my suitcase, supposedly hers, and I was doing a bunk from the bunker with the wife of a certain Hungarian diplomat? That was why they ripped away my Knight’s Cross, my epaulets, and locked me away, an animal for the abattoir. It was hard to believe my beloved parents told the American press that, contrary to rumor, the Führer and I were now ensconced in Argentina, “safe and well.” More drum roll. More formulas. Someone reading aloud. Eva first pleaded on the grounds that Gretl was pregnant, then changed her mind when told about the heaps of Swiss francs in my pockets. Quelle marionette. Here now a touch of the old Wild West, brown naked with all hair brushed back and sleek.

About the Author

Paul West

Paul West was educated at Oxford and Columbia and has taught at many universities, including Cornell, Brown and the University of Arizona. His novels total 23, and he has written 20 works of nonfiction.

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