All That I Am
Author: Anna Funder
When Hitler came to power I was in the bath. Our apartment was on the Schiffbauerdamm near the river, right in the middle of Berlin. From its windows we could see the dome of the parliament building. The wireless in the living room was turned up loud so Hans could hear it in the kitchen, but all that drifted down to me were waves of happy cheering, like a football match. It was Monday afternoon.
Hans was juicing limes and making sugar syrup with the dedicated attention of a chemist, trying not to burn it to caramel. He'd bought a special Latin American cocktail pestle that morning from the KaDeWe department store. The shopgirl had lips pencilled into a purple bow. I'd laughed at us, embarrassed at buying such frippery, this wooden shaft with its rounded head that probably cost what the girl earnt in a day.
'It's crazy,' I said, 'to have an implement solely for mojitos!'
Hans put his arm around my shoulders and kissed me on the forehead. 'It's not crazy.' He winked at the girl, who was folding the thing carefully into gold tissue, listening close. 'It's called ci-vi-li-sation.'
For an instant I saw him through her eyes: a magnificent man with hair slicked back off his forehead, Prussian-blue eyes and the straightest of straight noses. A man who had probably fought in the trenches for his country and who deserved, now, any small luxuries life might offer. The girl was breathing through her mouth. Such a man could make your life beautiful in every detail, right down to a Latin American lime pestle.
We'd gone to bed that afternoon and were getting up for the night when the broadcast began. Between the cheers, I could hear Hans pounding the lime skins, a rhythm like the beat of his blood. My body floated, loose from spent pleasure.
He appeared at the bathroom door, a lock of hair in his face and his hands wet by his sides. 'Hindenburg's done it. They've got a coalition together and sworn him in over the lot of them. Hitler's Chancellor!' He dashed back down the corridor to hear more.
It seemed so improbable. I grabbed my robe and trailed water into the living room. The announcer's voice teetered with excitement. 'We're told the new Chancellor will be making an appearance this very afternoon, that he is inside the building as we speak! The crowd is waiting. It is beginning to snow lightly, but people here show no signs of leaving . . .' I could hear the pulse of the chanting on the streets outside our building and the words of it from the wireless behind me. 'We – want – the Chancellor! We – want – the Chancellor!' The announcer went on: '. . . the door on the balcony is opening – no – it's only an attendant – but yes! He's bringing a microphone to the railing . . . just listen to that crowd . . .'
I moved to the windows. The whole south side of the apartment was a curved wall of double casements facing in the direction of the river. I opened a set of windows. Air rushed in – sharp with cold and full of roaring. I looked at the dome of the Reichstag. The din was coming from the Chancellery, behind it.
'Ruth?' Hans said from the middle of the room. 'It is snowing.'
'I want to hear this for myself.'
He moved in behind me and I drew his hands, clammy and acidic, across my stomach. An advance party of snowflakes whirled in front of us, revealing unseen eddies in the air. Searchlights stroked the underbelly of clouds. Footsteps, below us. Four men were racing down our street, holding high their torches and trailing fire. I smelt kerosene.
'We – want – the Chancellor!' The mass out there, chanting to be saved. Behind us on the sideboard the response echoed from the box, tinny and tamed and on a three-second delay.
Then a huge cheer. It was the voice of their leader, bellowing. 'The task which faces us. Is the hardest which has fallen. To German statesmen within the memory of man. Every class and every individual must help us. To form. The new Reich. Germany must not, Germany will not, go under in the chaos of communism.'
'No,' I said, my cheek to Hans's shoulder. 'We'll go under with a healthy folk mentality and in an orderly manner instead.'
'We won't go under, Ruthie,' he said in my ear. 'Hitler won't be able to do a thing. The nationalists and the cabinet will keep a tight rein. They just want him as a figurehead.'
Young men were pooling in the streets below, many of them uniformed: brown for the party's own troops, the SA, black for Hitler's personal guard, the SS. Others were lay enthusiasts, in street clothes with black armbands. A couple of boys had homemade ones, with the swastika back to front. They were carrying flags, singing, 'Deutschland, Deutschland über alles'. I heard the cry, 'The Republic is shit,' and made out from its intonation the old schoolyard taunt – 'Rip the Jew's skirt in two/the skirt is ripped/the Jew did a shit.' Kerosene fumes buckled the air. Across the street they were setting up a stand where the young men could exchange their guttering torches for new-lit ones.
Hans returned to the kitchen, but I couldn't tear myself away.
After half an hour I saw the wonky homemade armbands back at the stand.
'They're sending them around in circles!' I cried. 'To make their number look bigger.'
'Come inside,' Hans called over his shoulder from the kitchen.
'Can you believe that?'
'Honestly, Ruthie.' He leant on the doorjamb, smiling. 'An audience only encourages them.'
'In a minute.' I went to the closet in the hall, which I'd converted into a darkroom. It still had some brooms and other long things – skis, a university banner – in one corner. I took out the red flag of the left movement and walked back.
'You're not serious?' Hans put his hands to his face in mock horror as I unfurled it.
I hung it out the window. It was only a small one.