Newsweek International Senior Editor Andrew Nagorski’s first novel, “Last Stop Vienna” (Simon & Schuster, 269 pages, $25), takes place in Germany in the 1920s. It was the early days of Hilter and the Nazi party, and the country was plunging into darkness and violence. The following is an excerpt from Chapter 12 of the novel.
YOU’RE STUPID TO be thinking about her, I told myself. I felt foolish and excited about the way she teased me. She tantalized me. So did the life she led, the afternoons spent at elegant cafés, the rumors I had heard that Hitler took her to dinners and concerts. I knew it was crazy to think that way about Hitler’s niece, to believe that there could be more between us than an occasional flirtation, that I could somehow become part of her glamorous world. But what I knew and what I felt couldn’t have been further apart.
In early spring, as the weather improved I organized the Hitler Youth Movement’s first outing of the season. And I was quick to tell Emil of our plans so he could let Geli know. She was supposed to talk Hitler into seeing his young followers in action. I spent the night with my group beside a campfire I had located to be visible from the road. As we sang songs and roasted sausages, I kept glancing toward the road, hoping for the headlights of Hitler’s Mercedes.
A few days later, back in the city, I made sure I ran into Emil.
“Hey, what happened the other night?” I asked. “It was a great evening, but you never showed.”
“The boss was busy: He and Geli went to the opera.”
I feigned indifference. “In case he’s interested, I’ve scheduled different groups in the same place for the next three Friday nights.”
He promised to pass along the information. On the next outing, I was again disappointed. The following Friday I resisted the impulse to keep looking at the road. They’re not coming, I told myself.
The weather was perfect for our final outing, a warm, sunny day that sprouted fresh leaves from the trees and brought dandelions seemingly from nowhere. My teenage charges were bursting with energy as well, chasing one another around and between the trees and, I couldn’t help noting, disappearing in couples for a few moments, the girls often reappearing with flushed faces, the boys trying to both hide and trumpet their sense of triumph. When Monika, one of my favorites, emerged holding Klaus’s hand with a guiltily happy look, I called the group to order. We prepared the bonfire, with a few more couples slipping off as they supposedly gathered wood, but I kept Monika near me cutting up the sausages, and I assigned Klaus the job of collecting and sharpening the sticks we’d use for roasting. “Herr Naumann, can Monika help me with the sticks?” he asked. Monika blushed and looked at me expectantly. “No, she’s busy here,” I replied more gruffly than I intended.
I looked in the direction of the road a couple of times, without any real anticipation. “This isn’t how you hold the knife when you cut sausages, Monika,” I said, reaching around her and grasping her hand, supposedly to show her a different technique. She had a long blond braid that brushed against my face as I stood behind her, and she turned to shoot me a questioning look, knowing full well that she hadn’t done anything wrong. I stepped back, feeling silly, and retreated to the bonfire, where I issued orders to two boys to light it. I sat down, wondering why I was behaving so stupidly. I felt more awkward than the kids.
The bonfire sent up showers of sparks when a log slipped down through the large pile. As twilight set in, the teenagers settled into singing songs and roasting sausages with only minimal direction from me. I found myself watching as the couples, including Monika and Klaus, sidled closer together and leaned or pressed against each other. Monika cast one or two abashed looks my way, but when I didn’t react, she stopped paying attention and turned back to Klaus.
The dry logs burned quickly, and the bonfire diminished. The logs now emitted low flames that licked around their sides. Manfred, one of the most athletic boys in the group, grabbed a girl’s hand and yanked her up. “Let’s jump,” he said. It was a game we had played before, usually when the bonfire had burned down a bit more. When I didn’t object, Manfred and the girl backed up far enough to get a running start and leap over the flames; they made it but not by much. The others cheered, and Klaus jumped up with Monika. I considered stopping them but thought better of it. As the leaping began in earnest and the couples became more and more excited, I remained glumly perched on a log, wondering what I was doing there.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and bolted at the sight of Geli, in her simple plaid dress, brown shoes and white socks, her eyes alive with excitement. Behind her on the road, I could see the black Mercedes, with Emil standing beside it. He gave me a short wave. I waved back.
“You made it-I didn’t think you would.”
“I said I would, didn’t I?”
“And your uncle?” I asked, glancing at the car. It wasn’t dark yet, but I couldn’t see inside.
“Shouldn’t I go greet him?”
“Not yet. He said he wanted to watch and for everything to continue the way it is. Maybe he’ll come out later.” She paused, plopped down on the log where I had been sitting and swiftly pulled off her shoes and socks. She reached out her hand for me to pull her up. “Let’s go. I haven’t done this for I don’t know how long.”
“Jump over the fire?”
“What do you think I mean?”
The others must have been watching us, but I had been too absorbed to notice. As I stood hand in hand with Geli, the kids cheered us on. I saw Monika and Klaus laughing as they joined in.
A log tumbled, and a flame briefly shot up from the dying fire.
Geli broke into a run, pulling me forward with her. We didn’t have much running room, and I wasn’t sure we’d clear the fire, but she wasn’t about to stop. I accelerated as much as I could, and we flew through the air, feeling the heat of the low flames lick the bottom of our feet. Geli stumbled as we hit the ground on the other side, and I tightened my grip on her hand to prevent her from falling.
“My knight, my hero,” she said, offering a mock curtsy. The kids applauded.
“May I present Fräulein Raubal,” I said to the group with a sweeping gesture. “She’s a friend who wanted to see what kind of activities we have on these outings.”
The teenagers looked at one another uncertainly. Geli leaned over and whispered in my ear, “They think I’m your girlfriend.”
“This young lady is related to someone who is very important for all of us,” I said. “But I’ll explain this later. Let’s continue before it gets too dark out. So, more songs or a game?”
They wanted a game, and we decided on hide-and-seek with two teams. One team had to tag the members of the other team before they reached the bonfire, but they couldn’t guard it. Everyone was supposed to spread out and find hiding places.
Geli and I were on the team that had to hide. She took my hand again. “Let’s go,” she urged, and we ran to the nearby trees.
“This way,” I ordered, pulling her to the left, where I knew the trees and bushes were dense and provided good cover. We had to sprint across an open field before we reached the better hiding places, and we could be caught on our way. We crouched for a moment, and then I whispered that we had to run for it. I glimpsed one of the boys from the other team at the edge of the field, starting to run in our direction, but we sped up and plunged into the thicker woods on the other side before he came close.
“Farther, farther,” I said, pulling Geli on until we reached a line of trees with broad trunks. She was panting and laughing as we rushed behind one of them. I leaned against the tree, and she abruptly pinned me against it, putting her arms around my waist. “Shhh,” she whispered. “We have to be quiet. If you hold me tight, we’ll be invisible.”
My arms enveloped her, and I felt every part of her body pressing against me, her lips searching mine and her mouth opening with a hunger I couldn’t recall ever feeling from Sabine, even before we were married. I no longer cared who might be near and pulled her even tighter, so she couldn’t escape feeling the full force of my arousal.
She withdrew slightly and gave me a bemused look. “It’s all part of the game, Karl. You’re the group leader, we have to make sure you don’t get caught first. In anything.”
Her face was flushed as I stroked her cheek with my right hand and let it descend to her neck, wanting desperately to let it wander farther down, to where she had once pressed it. I encountered a gold swastika necklace.
“Where did you get that?”
“Uncle Alf gave it to me. Don’t you think it’s pretty?”
I pushed myself away, but Geli still had her arms around my waist and tightened them. “You don’t approve.”
“No, it’s none of my business.”
Geli dropped her arms, and we stood facing each other. “Maybe you’re right, Karl, maybe I shouldn’t accept his gifts.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But he’s nice to me, at least most of the time.”
“What about the other times?”
“It doesn’t matter. He’s good to me, he takes me to the opera, to concerts, to cafés. All the girls envy me.”
InsertArt(1844278)There was a rustling nearby and a shout: “There they are!”
“Come on, Karl,” Geli said, grabbing my hand again. “Let’s run for it.”
We sprinted, with our pursuers-two girls and two boys from the other team-right behind us. We nearly made it, but this time I stumbled and fell, dragging Geli down with me. We were tagged only a few steps from the bonfire.
We were both laughing as we struggled back to our feet, and it was then that we noticed the rest of my charges lined up at attention in front of Hitler. He was wearing lederhosen and holding a riding crop behind his back as he inspected the kids.
“Heil Hitler!” I saluted.
He nodded. “It’s not good for a leader to lose,” he said sternly. Then he smiled. “This time I’ll make an allowance for it, since I’m impressed with your young people here. They look healthy, physically strong.” Turning back to them, he added: “Strong bodies as well as sound views will be crucial for our movement in the struggle ahead.”
He paused and took his hands from behind his back. He hit his left open hand with the riding crop, making a stinging thwack. “We must be strong, always strong. Remember that. Carry on, all.”
I caught up with Hitler as he made for his car, where Emil was opening the door for him. “I really appreciate your visit, sir. I’m sure it means so much for these young people. And I apologize if all this looked a bit disorganized.”
“You’re doing very well, Naumann,” Hitler responded. “You can see it by the young people you’ve attracted. Good German stock, all. But I meant what I said about the games. You’re the leader, and you should win. I know it isn’t possible to win always, which is why I don’t play any sports or games. I can’t afford to lose, ever.” He got into the car. Emil was still holding the door open. “You can afford to lose once in a while.” He paused, then added: “But only once in a while. Don’t let it become a habit.”
“It’s time for Geli to come,” Emil ordered me.
I looked back across the field to the last embers of the bonfire. “I’ll get her.”
Geli was walking toward the car with her shoes and socks on again. We fell into step. “Karl, come visit me,” she said softly, still out of Emil’s hearing range. “Soon. I’m living on Thierschstrasse now, just two doors down from Uncle Alf.”
I looked at her.
“He wanted me closer to him,” she said. “Just come, please.”
Emil inspected Geli. “A little messy, I see, after playing with those children.”
“Bye, Karl. See you soon, I hope.” She settled into the backseat beside her uncle.
Emil closed the car door and sighed. “That’s one wonderful girl.”
“And you know what, Karl?”
“We’re getting married soon.”
I tried not to look startled. “You’ve asked her?”
He drew himself up, making sure the passengers couldn’t see us. “I have, and she’s agreed.”
It was as if a dense fog had seeped into my head. “Congratulations.”
“Don’t tell anyone else yet. The boss doesn’t know. We still have to tell him. As Geli said, see you soon-at the wedding.”
He slapped me lightly on the back and got into the car. I stood on the country road, watching until the Mercedes disappeared from view, and then turned slowly back to my young charges. The news I had heard lingered in my head, and the rich, pungent taste of Geli lingered in my mouth.
From LAST STOP VIENNA by Andrew Nagorski. Copyright © 2003 by Andrew Nagorski. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., N.Y.
© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.