Read the prologue of The Quadrant Conspiracy
Der Wolfsschanze, East Prussia: July 29, 1943
Joseph Goebbels hated mosquitoes. The Minister of Propaganda for the Third Reich despised the blood-sucking devils. The Wolf’s Lair, Adolf Hitler’s reinforced command headquarters in East Prussia, lay in a swamp. The Führer Escort Command (FBK), which supervised the forest complex, had tried everything to get rid of die verdammten Mücken, even spreading oil on the surrounding ponds. All they achieved was to kill the fish that fed on the pests.
As he slapped at the bugs this morning, Goebbels would have given anything to be at his summer home on the Berlin island of Schwanenwerder in the Wannsee rather than in this dank concrete fortress. Not that he dared share his preference with the men gathered around him in the anteroom as they awaited the Führer. They sat in cloth-covered wooden chairs around an oak table, eyeing each other without disclosing their thoughts. Five meters of reinforced concrete surrounded them, with more than eight meters above their heads, protection against what their leader was certain was an impending Allied bombing mission.
Goebbels wondered why Hitler had brought them together. When he had summoned them at midnight, each dropped whatever plans he had for the day to fly east. They might all resent being ordered to this forlorn hideaway, but none were imprudent enough to speak out.
As though on cue, party chief Martin Bormann asked, “Do you know why we’re here?” All professed ignorance, yet Goebbels trusted none of them.
He had pleaded with the Führer to leave this Prussian hideaway for months, but he refused, appearing in Berlin only twice that year. Goebbels missed the attention Hitler lavished on him during their private meetings, always building his confidence and assuring him he alone enjoyed the Führer’s trust. His continued absence left Goebbels in the dark as to the leader’s military and domestic plans and, consequently, unsure how to influence public perceptions. Moreover, Hitler’s self-isolation and quarrels with his generals were affecting his judgment.
When his pleas fell on deaf ears, Goebbels resigned himself to the situation, rousing the German Volk through his own speeches and his control of every means of communication—radio, films, books, and newspapers.
“What is the news from Sicily?” SS leader Heinrich Himmler asked.
Army Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel shrugged as though he had nothing new to report, but as usual, Hermann Göring, commander of the Luftwaffe, could not hold his tongue. “Lost,” he said. “The f**** Italians won’t fight.”
Goebbels let no reaction cross his ascetic features. Whatever his faults, Göring was correct in this appraisal. It had been a mistake to ally the Fatherland to this loose collection of fiefdoms the Italians called a nation. They weren’t fighters, didn’t believe in the cause, and refused to deal with the Jews.
An air of defeat permeated the room. As the nation neared the fourth anniversary of the war, nothing was going right. General Patton had just taken Palmero, forcing Hitler to cancel Operation Citadel, the summer offensive on the Eastern Front to transfer panzer divisions to Italy. General Erick von Manstein protested, insisting his army could break through the Russian lines at Kursk and seize the initiative. The Soviets had lost eight times as many tanks and four times the men in the battle. If forced to withdraw, van Manstein warned, his forces would begin a retreat that could take them back to Prussia and beyond.
But Hitler insisted. “We have no choice in the matter.”
And now our backs are to the wall, Goebbels thought. Two days before, US bombers attacked Hamburg, killing hundreds, leaving entire blocks in ruins. They returned the following day. There might be no end to it. To the south, five hundred American bombers dropped over a thousand tons of bombs on Rome, hitting the rail marshaling yard and dozens of plants manufacturing steel, textile products, and glass.
Goebbels’s bland expression concealed his deep misgivings. He had been one of Hitler’s earliest adherents, rising from an aide to Nazi leader Gregor Strasser in northern Germany to Gauleiter of Berlin, to minister for propaganda. While Göring’s office made him the nominal second-in-command, position and power within Hitler’s circle were not always synonymous. The Führer’s habit of playing his lieutenants against each other made it unclear who was ascendant on any given day. Goebbels had no doubt, however. He shaped public opinion, he had built Adolf Hitler into a national icon, and he maintained the people’s commitment to the war effort despite their growing deprivation. Since he had added civil defense to his long portfolio, his position was clear. He was the second most powerful man in the Third Reich.
At last, an officer of the FBK, the only armed soldiers allowed near the Führer, directed them into the bunker. Goebbels held back, allowing the others to precede him, a habitual effort to conceal the limp resulting from botched childhood surgery to correct his club foot.
“Heil Hitler!” A chorus of groveling greeted their leader as the entourage paraded into the map room. Goebbels flashed Hitler a rare smile and inclined his head in the semblance of a bow, hiding his shock at the man’s appearance. He looked older and frailer than just weeks before, when last Goebbels had visited him. His hands shook—his handwriting had become indecipherable—and his skin had assumed a yellowed pallor. Goebbels had once marveled at how this slight figure projected such a commanding presence before a crowd; it was an effort both men had practiced for years, observing themselves in mirrors as they roared and gesticulated. But as Hitler’s physical appearance had deteriorated during the past year, he refused to allow newsreels to carry his image, even clips showing him at a distance. His likeness and voice had been the most powerful propaganda tools Goebbels possessed, but he could no longer wield them.
As Hitler spoke, however, Goebbels sensed a return of his old self-confidence. “Today, I am announcing an action that will bring about the collapse of the Western Alliance.” A collective intake of breath greeted these words. Whatever most were expecting, it was not this. What was coming, a revelation or another harebrained scheme? Goebbels took the sense of the crowd and detected trepidation.
“At this moment, the future of the Reich turns on events in Italy. Traitors have arrested Il Duce and installed a puppet, Marshal Badoglio, in his place. Now, despite his personal assurances to me, this swine is negotiating with the Americans over terms of surrender.”
As his audience listened with unease, Hitler shouted, “Let them! The Italians lack national will. They are weaklings, lacking the resolve of the German Volk.”
He lowered his voice and pointed at the map of the Italian boot displayed before them. “The moment Badoglio surrenders, I will pour our reserves into the peninsula. When the British and Americans land, I will spring a trap. I am luring them into ein Sumpf,” a swamp.
“Wir kämpfen an allen Fronten …,” he said—we are fighting on all fronts, in the south and the east. “These efforts will keep the war away from the Reich, giving us time to develop our secret weapons.”
The Führer paused, displaying a triumphant, self-satisfied smile. “Churchill is now irrelevant. Our true enemy is Roosevelt, backed by his cabal of Jewish bankers and financiers.”
His voice rose. His face turned scarlet. Spittle formed around his lower lip, a bit of it clinging to the underside of his toothbrush mustache. As his hatred of the American president bubbled and frothed, his hands trembled. It was a familiar spectacle. Hitler railed against all enemies of the Reich, but in Roosevelt, he had a name, a face, and the same aristocratic background as those who had mocked him from the time he was a struggling painter in Vienna.
“Roosevelt is the true leader. Churchill is his mere pawn.”
Hitler looked toward Goebbels as he spoke, a silent accolade that made the propaganda minister feel inches taller than his five-and-a-half feet. In his closing remarks at the Casablanca Conference in January, Churchill had said of Roosevelt, “I have been his active lieutenant.” On hearing this news account, Goebbels wrote to Hitler that this was an about-face, a “humiliation unparalleled in British history.” Hitler had now reached the same conclusion and gave Goebbels credit for the insight.
“Without American tanks, planes, artillery, and personnel, the British are ein Mundtuch,” Hitler said. A mere napkin. “But the tissue is beginning to shred.”
He revealed to the five men what intelligence services had picked up over the past few days. For over a year, the Abwehr’s Technical Group had monitored conversations the two Allied leaders held via trans-Atlantic radio-telephone link. “The Americans are trying to force England to invade Europe through France next spring, but Churchill resists, insisting on moving against us through Italy, Turkey, and the Balkans. In this way, he intends to preserve the decadent British Empire.”
The Führer sniggered. “When they met in May, Roosevelt forced the British to agree to invade across the English Channel. We now know,” Hitler whispered, as though spies could infiltrate the three rings of security surrounding the Wolf’s Lair, “Churchill is reneging. He insists on concentrating their forces in the Mediterranean.”
Goebbels stood stony-faced as Hitler continued, fighting to conceal his thoughts. If only he had taken my advice and not declared war on the Americans. If only he had listened.
“They meet again three weeks from now in Québec, where Roosevelt will try to solidify the US position. But,” he hissed, “Americans are an impatient people. They see Japan as their true enemy. They are clamoring to withdraw forces from Europe and transfer them to the Pacific. If we remove Roosevelt, the Congress will force his successor, Henry Wallace, to focus on Japan. Churchill will get his way; there will be no cross-Channel invasion. But he will fight alone.”
He glanced around the room, commanding their attention, and slammed his fist on the map table. “We must eliminate Roosevelt before he meets again with Churchill. Herr Himmler has devised a plan to do just that.”
The head of the SS, who only a half hour before had professed to know nothing about the purpose of the meeting, stepped forward to stand alongside the Führer, a smug expression plastered across his face. “Roosevelt is going on a fishing trip to Canada before the conference,” he said. “We know where he will be and when. We have assigned an agent to intercept Roosevelt and assassinate him before he reaches Québec. We shall not fail.”
© 2022, James H Lewis