Germania: A Novel of Nazi Berlin by Harald Gilbers: New Excerpt

From international bestselling author Harald Gilbers, Germania is the heart-pounding story of Jewish detective Richard Oppenheimer as he hunts for a serial killer through war-torn Nazi Berlin.

Read on for an exclusive first look!

Prologue 

EARLY SUMMER, 1939

The light was positioned to simulate ten in the morning. The urban canyons of the capital of the German Empire shimmered blindingly white. But nothing moved, everything seemed suspended, frozen solid in an eternal winter.

It would be a while until the daily chaos of Berlin reached those corners. At this moment, the streets still radiated symmetry and order in their abandonment. There were no vehicles parked on the curb, nobody strolling along the tree-lined streets. The only disruption of this orderly impression was the remnants of dried glue that, despite the architect’s diligence, had welled out onto the street from under the building blocks.

The wide road axis ran straight as a die toward a mighty dome that would be visible on the horizon from several kilometers at some point in the distant future. What now dominated the horizon in white splendor was one day to outshine the entire city in its green gown of copper patina. The Große Volkshalle, a hall providing seats for 180,000 people, was a site for unprecedented victory celebrations. 

A whisper sounded high above the roofs: “Magnificent, Speer.”

The voice was not the distant rasp with the rolling R that every member of the German nation knew from the radio or the newsreel, nor was it the hoarse bark the dictator called forth from his repertoire when he needed to whip up the crowds. In front of the thirty-meter-long model of what would soon be the street of glory, the voice, utterly private in its natural baritone, seemed lost in thought, almost gentle. His backside poking out, a pose he usually avoided, the dictator bent forward to assume a near-ground perspective.

It could not be denied that in Albert Speer he had found an architect who occasionally managed to surpass even his principal’s bold ideas in size and scale. Paradestraße, a road running at a length of more than five kilometers; the triumphal arch with its shady colonnades, which would be almost fifty times as large as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris; the vast Große Volkshalle, planned as the world’s largest building, whose dome arched to a height of more than 220 meters on the inside. The entire city planned to compete with other metropolises, a display set in stone of deeply hurt national pride that now wanted to show its superiority with all its might. 

The center of the Reich’s capital would be transformed into a huge stage for military deployments and parades. The question of whether anyone could actually live in this city only rarely occurred to the dictator. The surrounding housing blocks were little more than uniform quadrangles that could easily be divided up yet again if traffic planning required this.

There was no room in this monumental vision for the old Berlin with its contradictions, for the brash, sometimes deeply provincial metropolis. For some time now, the dictator had been thinking about making this quite clear from the start. Berlin sounded too disdainful in his ears. A new name was required, one worthy of a capital of world renown. A name like Germania, perhaps.

Time and again, the dictator’s gaze was drawn to the dome of the Große Volkshalle. Eventually, he cast a critical gaze across the structure on its spire, where the imperial eagle was enthroned on the swastika. Then, gripped by a sudden realization, he shook his head. “We have to change that, Speer. It’s better if the eagle doesn’t preside over the swastika anymore. The crowning glory of this building must be the eagle atop the globe.”

When Hitler had left, Chief Architect Speer turned back in the doorway once more. Only the arrangement of lamps, which enabled him to give a realistic simulation of daylight atmosphere, lit up the academy’s exhibition room. The model of the city rested in the otherwise dark room, a bright mark in the black infinity, a promise for the future. A lot remained to be done until then. Speer switched off the light.

Night descended upon Germania. 

 

1

SUNDAY, MAY 7, 1944

Oppenheimer had drowsily placed his arm around his wife when suddenly he felt Lisa’s body grow tense. But everything was quiet outside. Because of the blackout, not the slightest glimmer of light came in. No siren wailed through the night, no bomber droned in the air, no antiaircraft fire drummed in the distance. So it couldn’t be a bomb alarm that had frightened Lisa. At first, Oppenheimer had turned toward her, but then he, too, perceived the stranger standing very close by.

They’ve come to fetch me, Oppenheimer thought. Instinctively, he pulled the covers around himself.

The shadowy figure kept still, his breathing calm and regular. A spark danced in the darkness, moved upward, and transformed itself into a flaming point when the intruder inhaled. The smell of tobacco was blown toward Oppenheimer.

The stranger had to be a Gestapo man. Through Oppenheimer’s knowledge of Berlin’s criminal community, he knew that no normal burglar would stray into a designated “Jewish House” only to then nonchalantly smoke a cigarette and wait for his victims to wake up and notice him. Oppenheimer knows his crowd, had been the much-quoted quip among his colleagues during his years with the police force. No burglar would risk getting on to the Gestapo’s radar for a few lousy coins, and the Gestapo men considered it their very own privilege to seek out and rob the Jewish residents of these houses. Even though there hadn’t been any more raids in the last few months, Oppenheimer could recall them all perfectly. On these occasions, the Gestapo arrived in bulk. It was considered normal for them to beat the residents around the head, spit at them, and call out obscenities. But this man had come alone, covertly. This was a particularly bad sign. When the Gestapo people rabbled, you knew where you stood. However, if they were silent, anything could happen.

Oppenheimer and Lisa remained in their positions for a seemingly endless moment, him motionless in his bed, her next to him, and the stranger leaning against the doorway. Then the man’s voice rang out. “I know you’re awake, Oppenheimer. Sicherheitsdienst. Don’t you want to get dressed and come along?”

This was posed as a question, but the tone was unmistakable. The speaker would not tolerate a refusal.

Oppenheimer did not dare switch on the bedside lamp. Shaking inside, he got up and fished his clothes from the back of the chair. He didn’t have time to ask himself what a man from the National Socialists’ so called Security Protection Service, the Sicherheitsdienst, or SD, was doing here. Mechanically, he walked through the kitchen they shared with the other residents of the Jewish House. It always surprised Oppenheimer how readily he obeyed when he was scared, when he knew that his fate lay in someone else’s hands. He briefly thought of Lisa, whom he had to leave behind without protection. But as an attested Aryan, she would be better off anyway if they killed him. Afterward, she would be free and no longer excluded from the community of the German people because she had married a Jew. Although he acutely feared for his own life, this thought gave him a certain comfort.

The light was on in the hallway, and Oppenheimer saw the stranger for the first time. It was a sobering sight. The man wore glasses and was quite small. But the hand in the baggy coat pocket betrayed the fact that he was carrying a firearm. Oppenheimer was surprised that none of the other residents were up and about. Not even the Schlesingers were creeping down the corridor, curious to see what was going on. It seemed that he was the only target tonight.

The SD man looked at the suitcase his prisoner was carrying and frowned. It had been a reflex. Oppenheimer had picked up his air raid suitcase on his way out. All his important belongings were stowed inside so he always had them with him when he had to go down into the cellar during an air raid. There were a lot of such suitcases in Berlin. 

“You won’t be needing that,” the SD man said and waved him back. Oppenheimer turned and placed the suitcase in the dark kitchen.

Two SS men were waiting outside the building with guns in their hands. As soon as the SD man had pushed Oppenheimer out onto the pavement, they got moving. Clouds obscured the night sky. The moon behind them was nothing more than a diffused light that refracted dully off the SS men’s steel helmets. Anxious, Oppenheimer stared at the gray backs, moving in unison, and heard the metallic clatter of their carbines. What could he do? Was there any way to escape? Oppenheimer instantly discarded the thought. As long as the SD man’s gun was pointed at the back of his neck, there was nothing he could do.

They reached a car discreetly parked in a nearby side street. The back door opened, and Oppenheimer was engulfed by darkness.

It had been uncommonly quiet in Berlin during the last few days, and there wasn’t an air raid alarm tonight either. But everyone knew the silence was deceptive. The airplanes would return at some point. Myriads of bombs had destroyed buildings and laid waste to the capital of the Reich. New gaps in the rows of houses testified to the latest attacks. The inhabitants had long gotten used to the constant change. Life in Berlin had always been hectic, but even by these standards, after Hitler seized power, the construction mania was remarkable. The scars could be seen everywhere. The National Socialist rulers had the most beautiful squares in the city center flattened into parade grounds, while fountains and statues were moved. They had even relocated the Victory Column from the Reichstag, the parliament building, to the star-shaped central square known as Großer Stern right in the middle of the municipal park called Tiergarten.

As they drove along, Oppenheimer looked out of the window and started with fright. For a brief moment, he thought he saw a scared face staring at him. But when he looked more closely, it turned out that the moonlight had played a trick on him. The sunken cheeks and deep-set eyes were Oppenheimer’s own. The realization that he had been frightened of his own reflection made him feel stupid.

Outside, the plinth of the Victory Column, in itself high as a house, slid past them. The SS man at the wheel turned left, heading straight for the city center on the east-west axis. After a while, they drove through the Brandenburg Gate. Despite the darkness, Oppenheimer had no trouble finding his bearings. He knew every corner here and didn’t need to look up to know that wings of stone swooped past them above their heads, reaching far into the night.

The street they were driving along was called Unter den Linden, but Hitler’s architects had made a mockery of this description many years ago. For lack of anything better to do, they had chopped down all the old linden trees that gave this street its name to make space for countless marble pillars, which now served as thrones for a formation of imperial eagles and dwarfed the newly planted replacement trees.

When areas controlled by the League of Nations were returned to the Reich, jubilant cheering filled the street. Even-greater euphoria roared when the first successes from the front line were announced and the German Wehrmacht rushed through all of Europe from victory to victory. 

But when the bombs fell, the resounding approval began to wane. Then came Stalingrad. 

The military debacle in the remote Russian steppe had marred the taste of success and had undermined the trust in Germany’s well-oiled war machinery.

During the day, Hitler’s blindingly white marble pillars continued to outshine the city center, but night transformed them into a sinister forest of shadows in the midst of a gravel desert, through which the car now laboriously carved its way.

The driver swerved around a barely repaired crater in the road. Startled by the headlights, gray shadows with gleaming red eyes hastened to find cover. Rats. Myriads of them housed in the ruins. Despite all the destruction, they regained their terrain, inch by inch, mile by mile.

The SD man opened the door for Oppenheimer as he became vaguely aware of another car parked nearby. Men holding flashlights stood farther back in the darkness.

“Get out,” the SD man said. Oppenheimer hesitantly clambered out of the seat. The drive had taken unexpectedly long. At some point, he had finally lost his sense of direction in the darkness. The panic that had initially seized him had increasingly turned into astonishment. When they crossed the Spree River and he recognized the mighty AEG factory buildings, Oppenheimer knew that they were in the suburbs of Oberschöneweide. Every inhabitant of Berlin knew the imposing industrial buildings that lined the northern banks of the Spree, but he couldn’t fathom what had induced the SD to drive him here in the middle of the night.

Oppenheimer’s escort pointed in the direction of the dancing light. He pulled his gun from his coat pocket and directed it toward Oppenheimer, who reluctantly started moving.

Security led Oppenheimer to a green area with a block of stone, three to four meters high, with granite steps leading up to it. The stone did not seem to fulfill any recognizable purpose in its crudeness. It was probably the meager remains of a memorial. There were countless numbers of these in Berlin. Most of them were quite recent, reminders of the horrors of the last war. Now that the world wars had been numbered, it had become known as the First World War, but in common parlance, it was simply known as Anno Scheiße. Given that any sort of metal was scarce in these heroic times, these sizable reservoirs of metal pieces were being melted down as soon as the new, even bigger war had started. Where a sculpture once had towered, there was now nothing but a gaping void.

But on this morning, something else disrupted the site of a memorial.

Someone had laid a large square of cloth over something directly behind the stump. Oppenheimer immediately recognized its outline: a human body.

In the dim glow of the flashlight, Oppenheimer also better recognized the faces of the two men. Both wore the gray battle dress of the SS. A large building that had to be a church loomed up behind them.

Snippets of conversation drifted through the cold morning air. “Right bloody mess, this is,” one of them whispered to the other and stared grumpily at the covered body at his feet. “Do you really think it’s a good idea to consult a Jew, of all people?”

“I’ve got my reasons, Graeter,” the second man said and lit a cigarette.

“Say what you like, Vogler. I think it’s a mistake.” When the speaker realized that Oppenheimer was approaching with his escorts, he fell into an embarrassed silence.

The other man turned to the new arrival. “There you are, Oppenheimer.”

The SS man called Vogler pointed his flashlight toward them both. The beam of light rested briefly on Oppenheimer’s yellow Star of David. An expression of uncertainty flitted across Vogler’s face, but it quickly disappeared behind the forced self-confidence that was so typical of Hitler’s elite.

“I’m Hauptsturmführer Vogler. This body was discovered two hours ago.”

Vogler went over to the body. Although the expression of the other man in uniform—Graeter—was deliberately blank, he sighed meaningfully before the cloth was folded back.

When Oppenheimer saw the dead woman, he felt the familiar stab in the pit of his stomach. He had dealt with numerous deaths during the run of his police career, but he was not so jaded that the sight of a murder victim left him completely cold. At the same time, he also felt the reflex of a homicide detective kick in. He felt his brain get into gear in the old familiar way and told his reluctant eyes to take a closer look.

“Tell us what you see,” Hauptsturmführer Vogler commanded.

There was no doubt that this woman’s body had been destroyed. When Oppenheimer noticed the steel marker posts that had been rammed into the ground alongside the body, he realized that the forensics team had arrived with the special vehicle they used in murder investigations to carry out the examination. Oppenheimer instinctively wanted to look for additional evidence that the specialists might have missed, but he paused.

The question of what he was actually doing here occurred to him. He had been suspended for a long time now. Following Hitler’s rise to power, Oppenheimer had been removed from public service, like all Jews. Officially, he was not allowed to set foot in the crime squad offices, and yet here he was, standing before a new victim. He looked at those around him, panic creeping up inside him. Did they want to frame him for the murder? He wouldn’t have considered the SD to be that imaginative. A simple open grave and a bullet to his head would have sufficed to get rid of him. Why go to all this trouble?

“Are you not able to give us any indications?” Vogler asked. “You disappoint me. I had placed a certain degree of hope in you.” He handed Oppenheimer his flashlight.

Hesitating, he took it. So they wanted pointers from him. He had no choice but to go along with it. 

Thoughtfully, he turned to the corpse, beginning to speak, his voice raw. “I’d put her at around twenty-five. There are strangulation marks on her neck. That is probably the cause of death.”

Was that what the men wanted to hear from him? Their gloomy expressions showed indifference. Only Hauptsturmführer Vogler tried to follow his deliberations. Oppenheimer wanted to touch the body, but he stopped and turned to the Hauptsturmführer.

“Can I touch her?”

“Do whatever you consider necessary,” Vogler answered.

Oppenheimer carefully manipulated the jaw. It barely moved. However, the muscles of the hands were relatively loose.

“Rigor mortis is not very pronounced. It has only set in partially in the lower half of the body. The murder is therefore probably quite recent; I am guessing around six hours ago. But I could be wrong, as the cold slows down the rigor. The doctors will be able to determine this more precisely. Her wrists are chafed, so she was probably tied up.”

Oppenheimer stood and looked at the body in its entirety. The young woman’s lower body was precisely aligned with the stone stump of the monument, her legs spread as if in the act of love. The position of the body appeared to have been specifically selected. The perpetrator had spent a lot of time arranging the dead body in this obscene way in front of the monument.

Oppenheimer suddenly noticed a small, crusted smudge of blood on the inside of one of her legs. He bent down next to the body to see where the blood had come from. The SD man who had brought him here turned away with a shudder. Did he not want to watch a Jew looking up a murder victim’s skirt? Oppenheimer knew that the dead were not sensitive, and he lifted the hem.

 The sight he was faced with instinctively made him jerk back. He instantly understood the SD man’s reaction.

“Is something wrong?”

Oppenheimer tried not to vomit. He drew a sharp breath and then reacted as he had used to in similar situations. He pushed his revulsion aside and concentrated on approaching the matter methodically.

The woman was not wearing any underwear. Her pelvic area was a single massive wound. 

“There is a large injury here. Her genitals have been mutilated, maybe even removed.”

When Oppenheimer felt he had seen enough, he got up, aware of his surroundings again. Leaves rustled somewhere over his head. While he could just see the outline of the surrounding houses, the body was still enveloped by darkness. Oppenheimer’s mind sorted the facts, while life slowly began to awaken around him.

Although he couldn’t see any of this through the darkened windows, Oppenheimer sensed some of the residents getting up at this early hour as usual, although they didn’t need to go to work today, shuffling to the bathroom or getting breakfast ready. Others, unaware that something terrible had happened nearby, were still in a blissful slumber, which for once had not been disturbed by an air raid. It was like any other Sunday. The first vehicle clattered past nearby, but the noise faded between the houses’ façades. Not much longer and the churchgoers would arrive for morning prayers. To get to church, they would be heading straight for this square.

“And what is your conclusion?”

Vogler’s voice tore Oppenheimer from his thoughts. Two more men had appeared with a stretcher to remove the body. The others shuffled their feet restlessly. Only Vogler stood quite still, staring at Oppenheimer, who cleared his throat in embarrassment. His years of experience helped him to not make a complete fool of himself and to outline his observations in a few brief words.

“At first glance, I would say that she wasn’t killed here. There is hardly any blood. There are a few little spots underneath her skirt, and some close to the wound, but that’s it. No blood on the ground, no traces of blood in the surrounding area; no, she was killed somewhere else and then brought here. I have never seen a body presented this way. I consider it unlikely that this is a coincidence. This is a public square. The danger of being caught is high. No, gentlemen, the man responsible for this planned it in advance. And he carried out that plan to the letter. Successfully so—otherwise, someone would have noticed him. The only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that we are dealing with an incredibly cold-blooded person here. Only someone with a bestial disposition can mutilate a body as brutally as that and then go on to present it. I don’t hold out much hope of catching the perpetrator. It won’t be easy.”

 ■

The siren sounded its protracted howl. That meant full alarm. Oppenheimer automatically started moving, but he was not really bothered by the enemy bombers flying toward the city.

After he had given his evaluation of the murder case in Oberschöneweide, he was driven back to the city center. Nobody had made the slightest effort to explain the situation he had suddenly found himself in. As soon as the pre-alarm had gone off, the SD man had dropped him off at the Hansa Bridge and had raced off in the car. That didn’t matter, as the Jewish House was just a few hundred meters away.

Oppenheimer should have been tired after this long night, but his mind was in overdrive. The impressions wouldn’t leave his head.

As he approached his current dwelling place, he tried to assess the men who had been waiting for him at the site where the body was found. The SS men had worn identical uniforms, so it could be assumed that they were both Hauptsturmführer. But Oppenheimer was unable to say what SS men had to do with a murder case like this.

In contrast to the two Hauptsturmführer, his SD escorts had more of a reason to be present at a murder site. Officers from the Sicherheitsdienst were quick to arrive at the scene in the case of a serious legal offense, even though this particular organization initially had nothing to do with the criminal police. Early on, the Sicherheitsdienst of the Reich Leader SS were nothing more than the NSDAP party-internal intelligence agency, but when Hitler came to power, the borders between the German state and the National Socialist party apparatus had gotten increasingly blurred. The various NSDAP organizations received ever more responsibilities, so it was just a question of time until the security services, Gestapo, and crime squad were integrated into the newly founded Reichssicherheitshauptamt, the Reich Security Main Office. Regular crime officers no longer had any say. They were lackeys, permitted to act independently only in the case of minor offenses. Serious crimes had to be handled by party members. It was unclear what decided whether a case ended up with the SD or with the Gestapo, due to the general wrangling for responsibilities between the individual party organizations.

Oppenheimer was so lost in thought that he didn’t even notice the ghostly silence that had settled heavily on his surroundings. He had undergone a decisive change this morning; for the first time in ages, he had felt in control again. For a brief moment, he had once again been Inspector Oppenheimer and not the former civil servant, dismissed from public service because of his Jewish lineage. Suddenly, he wasn’t a victim of Hitler’s despotism but a hunter. And so he didn’t slink through the streets with his head and gaze lowered but instead entered the Jewish House as if it were the most normal thing in the world that he lived here.

As an air raid sounded, Oppenheimer went downstairs. The residents had converted the cellar into a makeshift bunker. There had been no alternative, as Jews were not allowed into the big high-rise shelters with their meter-thick concrete walls. On account of the head-high wooden beams that had subsequently been wedged into the cellar rooms, Oppenheimer thought it looked like a mining tunnel. Despite all the precautions that had been taken, the measly wooden ceiling would hardly have offered any resistance to an actual bomb hit. Strictly speaking, it would have made more sense to seek shelter out in the open, as there was less danger of being buried by rubble there. As potential public enemies, the Jews had not been allocated any gas masks, nor were they permitted to have a radio in the cellar, not even a wireless one, to monitor what was going on outside.

When Oppenheimer entered the cellar bunker, the other residents of the Jewish House were already seated: the Bergmanns, the Schlesingers, and Dr. Klein, who was guarding the medicine chest as usual and had his medical bag within reach for emergencies. Old Mr. Schlesinger squinted at Oppenheimer from beneath his steel helmet, a souvenir from the First World War.

“Is your wife in the factory today?” the old man inquired.

“She didn’t come down with us.” Oppenheimer was surprised.

“That’s news to me. She didn’t mention anything.”

“I told you to check, Schlesinger,” Dr. Klein grumbled from his corner. Clumsily, he pushed his massive body up.

“Don’t worry, Doctor,” Oppenheimer said. “I’ll take care of it.”

Oppenheimer was just taking the last few steps up to his flat when he froze. Gas! 

Something was not right. He ran up the remaining steps and flung open the kitchen door.

He was hit by the stench of gas. Stunned, he took a step back. Inexplicably, the kitchen window was closed. Normally, Lisa made sure it was wide open during air raids so the glass didn’t break from the blast of a detonation.

Oppenheimer took a deep breath and dived across the room. His efforts to open the window were futile. He was too agitated. Without hesitation, he picked up a bucket of sand from the floor and used it to smash the window.

Oppenheimer gasped for air at the opening. He had just managed to refill his lungs with oxygen when he saw that the gas was lit on the stove. The kettle was on one of the burners, but someone must have forgotten to turn the gas off underneath.

In two strides, he reached the stove and switched off the gas. He had barely opened the door to his bedroom when he spotted Lisa. She was lying on the bed, unconscious, fully dressed. Oppenheimer rushed over to the window and wrenched it open.

Cool air wafted across his face. At the same moment, he heard heavy engines roaring over their house and the shrill whistle of falling bombs.

It was as if they were caught beneath a freight train. Outside, a deafening inferno was raging. Detonation after detonation. Oppenheimer could clearly see the contours of airplanes pushing themselves in front of the gray clouds. When they were flying this low, not even the antiaircraft guns had any effect. But he had no time to worry about such things. He grabbed Lisa underneath her arms and dragged her to the window. Panicked, he slapped her cheeks.

Suddenly, she opened her eyes and took a deep breath. Oppenheimer held her tightly, felt her body spasm as she coughed the gas out.

 

Copyright © 2020 Harald Gilbers. All rights reserved.


About Germania by Harald Gilbers:

Berlin 1944: a serial killer stalks the bombed-out capital of the Reich, preying on women and laying their mutilated bodies in front of war memorials. All of the victims are linked to the Nazi party. But according to one eyewitness account, the perpetrator is not an opponent of Hitler’s regime, but rather a loyal Nazi.

Jewish detective Richard Oppenheimer, once a successful investigator for the Berlin police, is reactivated by the Gestapo and forced onto the case. Oppenheimer is not just concerned with catching the killer and helping others survive, but also his own survival. Worst of all, solving this case is what will certainly put him in the most jeopardy. With no other choice but to futher his investigation, he feverishly searches for answers, and a way out of this dangerous game.

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