Dr Globke’s laws - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)

Chapter 2. Dr Globke's laws

Bloody Bonn was what we young British diplomats called the place in the early sixties, not out of any particular disrespect for the sleepy Rhineland spa, seat of the prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire and birthplace of Ludwig van Beethoven, but as a sceptical doffing of the cap to our hosts’ absurd dreams of moving the German capital up the road to Berlin, which we happily shared with them in the certainty it would never happen.

In 1961 the British Embassy, a sprawling industrial eyesore on the dual carriageway between Bonn and Bad Godesberg, boasted three hundred souls, the majority of them home-based rather than locally engaged. To this day I can’t imagine what the rest of us got up to in the fuggy Rhineland air. Yet for me the three years in Bonn contain such seismic shifts in my life that today I think of it as the place where my past life entered its unstoppable demise, and my writing life began.

True, back in London I had had my first novel accepted by a publisher. But it wasn’t till I’d been in Bonn several months that it made its modest appearance. I remember driving to Cologne airport on a damp Sunday afternoon, buying copies of the British newspapers, then parking the car and sitting down on a sheltered garden bench in Bonn and reading them alone. Reviewers were benign, if not quite as ecstatic as I had hoped. They approved of George Smiley. And suddenly that was all there was.

Probably all writers, at any stage in their lives, tend to feel that way: the weeks and months of anguish and wrong turnings; the precious finished typescript; the ritual enthusiasm of agent and publisher; the proof editing; the great expectations; the angst as the Big Day approaches; the reviews, and suddenly it’s over. You wrote the book a year ago, so what are you sitting around for, instead of writing something new?

Well, in fact, I was writing something new.

I had begun a novel set in a public school. For background I was using Sherborne, where I had been a pupil, and Eton, where I had been a schoolmaster. There is a suggestion that I started preparing the novel while I was still teaching at Eton, but I have no memory of doing so. Rising at an unearthly hour before setting off for the Embassy, I completed the novel in short order, and sent it in. So once again, job done - except that next time round I was determined to do something grittier. I would write about the world on my doorstep.

By the time I had been en poste for a year, my remit covered all of West Germany and gave me unlimited freedom of movement and access. As one of the Embassy’s travelling evangelists for Britain’s entry into the Common Market, I could invite myself to town halls, political societies and mayoral parlours anywhere in West Germany. In the young West Germany’s determination to appear an open, democratic society, all doors were open to the inquisitive young diplomat. I could sit all day in the Bundestag’s diplomatic gallery, lunch with parliamentary journalists and advisers. I could knock on ministerial doors, attend protest rallies and lofty weekend seminars on culture and the German soul, all the while trying to fathom, fifteen years after the collapse of the Third Reich, where the old Germany ended and the new one began. In 1961 this wasn’t at all easy. Or it wasn’t to me.

A dictum attributed to Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, nicknamed ‘The Old Man’, who held the post from West Germany’s foundation in 1949 until 1963, neatly summed up the problem: ‘You don’t throw away dirty water for as long as you haven’t got any clean.’ It is widely assumed that this was a veiled reference to Dr Hans Josef Maria Globke, his grey eminence on matters of national security and much else. Globke’s record was impressive even by Nazi standards. Even before Hitler’s rise to power, he had distinguished himself by drafting anti-Semitic laws for the Prussian government.

Two years later under his new Führer he drafted the Nuremberg Law, revoking German citizenship for all Jews and, for purposes of identification, requiring them to insert the word Sara or Israel into their names. Non-Jews who were married to Jews were ordered to get rid of their spouses. Serving under Adolf Eichmann in the Nazi Office of Jewish Affairs, he drafted a new law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour, which sounded the signal for the Holocaust.

Simultaneously, I presume by virtue of his ardent Catholicism, Globke contrived to reinsure himself with right-wing anti-Nazi resistance groups: so much so that he was earmarked for high office should the plotters succeed in getting rid of Hitler. And perhaps this was how, when the war ended, he eluded half-hearted Allied attempts to prosecute him. Adenauer was determined to have his Globke at his side. The British did not stand in Globke’s way.

Thus it happened that in 1951, a mere six years after the end of the war, and two years after the creation of West Germany as a state, Dr Hans Globke achieved a stroke of legislation on behalf of his former and present Nazi colleagues that today remains barely conceivable. Under Globke’s New Law, as I shall call it, civil servants of the Hitler regime whose careers had been curtailed by circumstances beyond their control would henceforth receive full restitution of such pay, back-pay and pension rights as they would have enjoyed if the Second World War hadn’t taken place, or if Germany had won it. In a word, they would be entitled to whatever promotion would have come their way had their careers proceeded without the inconvenience of an Allied victory.

The effect was immediate. The old Nazi guard clung to the plum jobs. A younger, less tarnished generation was consigned to life below stairs.

Now enter Dr Johannes Ullrich, scholar, archivist and lover of Bach, good red burgundy and Prussian military history. In April 1945, a few days before Berlin’s military commander unconditionally surrendered to the Russians, Ullrich was doing what he had been doing for the last ten years: beavering away as curator and junior archivist of the Prussian Imperial Archive at the German Foreign Office in the Wilhelmstrasse. As the Kingdom of Prussia was dissolved in 1918, no document that passed through his hands was less than twenty-seven years old.

I have seen no pictures of Johannes, as I came to know him, in his youth, but I imagine him a quite athletic fellow, sternly dressed in the suits and stiff collars of the bygone age that was his spiritual habitat. With Hitler’s rise to power he was three times urged by his superiors to join the Nazi Party, and three times he refused. Junior archivist was therefore what he remained when, in the spring of 1945, General Zhukov’s Red Army advanced on the Wilhelmstrasse. Soviet troops entering Berlin had little interest in taking prisoners, but the German Foreign Office promised prisoners of high value, as well as incriminating Nazi documents.

What Johannes now did with the Russians at his door is today the stuff of legend. Wrapping the Imperial Archive in swathes of oilcloth, he loaded it on to a handcart and, disregarding a torrent of small-arms fire, mortar bombs and grenades, trundled it to a patch of soft ground, buried it and returned to his post in time to be taken prisoner.

The case against him was, by the standards of Soviet military justice, irrefutable. As a keeper of Nazi files, he was by definition an agent of fascist aggression. Of his subsequent ten years in Siberian jails, he served six in solitary and the rest in a communal cell for criminal lunatics, whose mannerisms he learned to mimic in order to survive.

In 1955, he was released under a prisoner-repatriation deal. His first act on arriving in Berlin was to lead a search party to the spot where he had buried the archive and supervise its exhumation. After which, he withdrew to recuperate.

Now back to Globke’s New Law.

What entitlements were not due to this loyal civil servant from the Nazi era, this victim of Bolshevik brutality? Never mind his three-times refusal to join the Party. Never mind that his detestation of all things Nazi had driven him ever deeper into Prussia’s imperial past. Rather ask yourself to what heights a young archivist with glowing academic credentials might not have ascended, had the Third Reich prevailed.

Johannes Ullrich, who for ten years had seen nothing of the world beyond the walls of a Siberian cell, was deemed to have spent the entire period of his incarceration as an aspirational diplomat. He was therefore entitled to the pay rises commensurate with the promotion he would have enjoyed, including back-pay, allowances, pension rights and - surely in any civil service that most desirable of perks - office space of a size appropriate to his status. Oh, and a year’s paid leave, at least.

Recuperating, Johannes reads deeply in Prussian history. He rediscovers his love of red burgundy and marries a delightfully humorous Belgian interpreter who worships him. Finally the day comes when he can no longer resist the call of duty that is such an integral part of his Prussian soul. He puts on his new suit, his wife helps him tie his tie and drives him to the Foreign Office that is no longer in Berlin’s Wilhelmstrasse, but in Bonn. A janitor escorts him to his room. Not room, he protests, but a state apartment, with a 3-acre desk that he swears was designed by Albert Speer. Herr Dr Johannes Ullrich, whether he likes it or not, is henceforth a senior representative of the West German Foreign Service.

To see Johannes in full flood, which was my good fortune on several occasions, you must picture a hunched, vigorous man in his fifties, so restlessly on the move that you could imagine him still pacing out his Siberian cell. Now he darts a quizzical glance at you over his shoulder in case he is being too much. Now he rolls his troubled eyes in horror at his own behaviour, lets out a hoot of laughter and takes another spin around the room, arms waving. But he isn’t mad, like the poor prisoners he was chained up with in Siberia. He is brilliantly, unbearably sane, and once more the madness isn’t in him, but around him.

First, every detail of his state apartment must be minutely described for the benefit of the spellbound dinner guests gathered at my diplomatic hiring in Königswinter beside the Rhine: the imaginary Bundesadler, the black eagle with its turned head and red claws scowling down on him from the wall - he mimes for us its disdainful sneer over its right shoulder - the ambassadorial cutlery set with its silver inkwell and penholder.

Then, pulling open an imaginary drawer of the Albert Speer 3-acre desk, he extracts for us the West German Foreign Office’s own confidential internal telephone directory, bound, he tells us, in finest calf. He is holding it out to us in his empty hands, head devoutly bowed over it as he scents the leather, rolls his eyes at its quality.

Now he opens it. Very slowly. Each re-enacting is an exorcism for him, a choreographed purging of whatever came into his head the first time he saw the list of names staring at him. They are the same aristocratic names and the same owners who earned their diplomatic spurs under the ludicrous Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s Foreign Minister, who from his death cell in Nuremberg continued to proclaim his love of Adolf Hitler.

They may be better diplomats now, these noble names. They may be reformed champions of the democratic way. They may, like Globke, have struck their deals with some anti-Nazi group against the day when Hitler fell. But Johannes is not of a mood to see his colleagues in this kindly light. Still watched by our small audience, he slumps into an armchair and takes a pull of the good red burgundy I have bought in his honour from the Economat where we diplomats do our privileged shopping. He is showing us that this is what he did that morning in his state apartment after he had taken a first look at the calf-bound, confidential West German Foreign Office internal telephone directory: how he flopped into a deep leather armchair with the directory open in his hands, silently reading one grand name after another, left to right in slow motion, every von and zu. We watch his eyes widen and his lips move. He stares at my wall. This is how I stared at the wall in my state apartment, he is telling us. This is how I stared at the wall of my Siberian prison.

He bounces out of my chair, or better the chair in his state apartment. He is back at Albert Speer’s 3-acre desk, even if it’s only a rickety mahogany sideboard next to the glass door leading to my garden. He flattens the directory on the desk with his palms. There is no telephone on my rickety sideboard but he has picked up an imaginary receiver and with the help of the forefinger of his other hand he is reading off the first extension number in the directory. We hear the zup-zup of an internal phone ringing out. This is Johannes, zup-zupping through his nose. We see his broad back arch and stiffen and hear his heels snap together in approved Prussian style. We hear the military bark, loud enough to wake my sleeping children upstairs:

‘Heil Hitler, Herr Baron! Hier Ullrich! Ich möchte mich zurückmelden!’ - Heil Hitler! This is Ullrich! I wish to report myself back for duty!

I wouldn’t want to give the idea that I spent my three years as a diplomat in Germany fulminating about old Nazis in high places at a time when my Service’s energies were devoted to promoting British trade and fighting communism. If I did fulminate about old Nazis - who weren’t actually that old, given that in 1960 we were only half a generation away from Hitler - then I did so because I identified with the Germans my age who, in order to get on in their chosen walks of life, had to make nice to people who had participated in the ruin of their country.

What must it be like, I used to ask myself, for an aspiring young politician to know that the upper ranks of his party were adorned by such luminaries as Ernst Achenbach, who, as a senior German Embassy official in Paris during the Occupation, had personally supervised the mass deportation of French Jews to Auschwitz? Both the French and the Americans tried to put him on trial, but Achenbach was a lawyer by trade, and had secured some kind of mysterious dispensation for himself. So instead of being hauled before the courts in Nuremberg, he set up his own lucrative law firm, defending people accused of crimes identical to those he had committed. How did my aspiring young German politician respond to having an Achenbach watch over his career? I wondered. Did he just swallow and smile?

Amid all the other preoccupations of my time in Bonn and later Hamburg, Germany’s unconquered past refused to let me go. Inwardly, I never succumbed to the political correctness of the day, even if outwardly I conformed. In that sense, I suppose I behaved as many Germans must have done during the 1939-45 war.

But after I had left Germany, the subject refused to let me go. With The Spy Who Came in from the Cold long behind me, I went back to Hamburg and sought out a German paediatrician accused of taking part in a Nazi euthanasia programme to rid the Aryan nation of useless mouths. It turned out that the case against him had been cooked up by a jealous academic rival and was baseless. I was duly chastened. In the same year, 1964, I visited the town of Ludwigsburg to talk to Erwin Schüle, Director of Baden-Württemberg’s Centre for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes. I was looking for the kind of story that later became A Small Town in Germany, but I hadn’t yet got round to using the British Embassy in Bonn as its background. I was still too close to the experience.

Erwin Schüle turned out to be exactly as billed: decent, frank, committed to his work. And his staff of half-a-dozen or so pale young lawyers, no less. Each to his separate cubbyhole, they spent long days poring over horrific evidence gleaned from Nazi files and the skimpy testimony of witnesses. Their aim was to award atrocities to individuals who could be brought to trial, rather than military units that could not. Kneeling before children’s sandpits they set out toy figures, each marked with a number. In one row, toy soldiers in uniform with guns. In the other, toy men, women and children in daily clothes. And running between them in the sand, a small trench to indicate the mass grave waiting to be filled.

Come evening, Schüle and his wife entertained me to dinner on the balcony of their house set on a forested hillside. Schüle spoke passionately of his work. It was a vocation, he said. It was an historical necessity. We agreed to meet again soon, but we didn’t. In February of the following year Schüle stepped off a plane in Warsaw. He had been invited to inspect some recently discovered Nazi files. Instead, he was greeted by an enlarged facsimile of his Nazi Party membership card. Simultaneously, the Soviet government launched its own string of charges against him, including an allegation that while serving as a soldier on the Russian front he had shot dead two Russian civilians with his pistol and raped a Russian woman. Once again the charges were found to be baseless.

The lesson? The harder you looked for absolutes, the less likely you were to find them. I believe that Schüle, by the time I met him, was a decent man. But he had to live with his past and, whatever it amounted to, deal with it. How Germans of his generation did that has been one of my abiding interests. When the Baader-Meinhof era broke upon Germany, I for one was not surprised. For many young Germans, their parents’ past had been buried, or denied, or simply lied out of existence. One day something was sure to boil over, and something did. And it wasn’t just a few ‘rowdy elements’ who boiled over. It was a whole angry generation of frustrated middle-class sons and daughters who tiptoed into the fray and provided the front-line terrorists with logistical and moral support.

Could such a thing ever happen in Britain? We have long ceased to compare ourselves with Germany. Perhaps we no longer dare. Modern Germany’s emergence as a self-confident, non-aggressive, democratic power - not to speak of the humanitarian example it has set - is a pill too bitter for many of us Brits to swallow. That is a sadness that I have regretted for far too long.