Christopher exited the library and hurtled down the corridor, towards the lecture room. He reached the door just as Frankie, a fellow student, pushed it open. For once, Christopher wasn’t late.
The audience for the fifth Hitler, My Hero session was the same as the preceding four sessions; it included almost everyone on campus. In another imitation of the preceding sessions, Alex and George had saved Christopher a seat. He bounded over and dropped into the chair.
“Anything?” asked Christopher.
Alex rolled her eyes. George replied without looking up from his phone.
“Still nothing,” he said.
Since learning about the Hand of the Silent last week, Christopher had gained no further information. George revealed little—though Christopher suspected he knew a lot—and Alex’s own research into the Hand had yielded nothing.
Alex had, however, declared that the operation was obviously going to happen one week from now, during the last Hitler, My Hero lecture. Christopher agreed with her. So did George. Less obvious was what was going to happen.
Christopher had hoped that if they knew what was going to happen they could mitigate its worst aspects in some way, if necessary. However, George, as a part of his ongoing campaign of obscuration, claimed he didn’t know what the Hand were up to. Such meek excuses didn’t dampen Christopher’s determination, though.
“Come on,” said Christopher, “You must’ve found something out.”
Still George didn’t look up. Like a robot, he repeated the phrase he’d been using all week.
“Compartmentalisation is basic operational hygiene.”
Christopher released a dramatic, elongated groan.
Now, George looked up.
“Barriers and borders within the org prevent the Hand from being infiltrated, and preempted,” said George.
Christopher scowled in response and opened up the lecture folder on his tablet.
“Exactly,” said Alex. “Think how easy—”
“Today’s focus,” said James, his voice smothering Alex’s, “is operations. Plus a bit of logistics. I promise it will be less mundane than it sounds.”
James paused, unleashing a benevolent smile on the room. Christopher ignored it, trying to see past the facade.
A week from now—when the Hand’s operation was supposedly due to unfold—would James still exude the same serenity? A week from now, would his masterful sprezzaturian demeanour remain intact?
“We’ll cover how Hitler retained supremacy over the NSDAP while imprisoned, over Germany whilst Chancellor, and over the Reich whilst ultimate commander of the Armed Forces. We’ll examine the good and the bad of the organisations that the Nazis created, with a particular focus on their intelligence network and their education-propaganda system. We’ll also look at the accompanying logistical feats—and failures—that presented themselves from the time Hitler took military power to the time he lost possession of Berlin, and thus the war.”
Christopher straightened in his seat.
“But before we do that, you have an opportunity to flex the muscles of your mind. If you check the session folder now—”
Christopher looked down at his tablet and watched the folder update with an additional item.
“—you’ll see a document that details the state of affairs at the time that Hitler decided to turn against Russia. To commence Operation Barbarossa. It lists much of the information available to him at the time.”
Christopher opened the referenced document and scrolled through. To say it was dense would be an understatement.
“You are to play the general staff,” said James. “Come up with a back-of-the-napkin plan for invading Russia, keeping the given details in mind and trying not to meta-game. Remember, the Fuhrer would expect you to both over-promise and over-deliver. The man had a messianic will and detested those without audacity. But as a general you are, by your nature, cautious.”
James looked around the room. “You have ten minutes or so. I suggest you team up. In the meantime, I’ll circulate.”
True to his word, James stepped amongst his audience. Murmurs of discussion started up. Christopher, after dragging the first document to one side of his tablet’s screen, opened a blank document on the other. He shared direct access with George and Alex, and indirect access with the rest of the class, and turned to face them.
“How to invade Russia?” asked Christopher aloud. Neither George nor Alex responded. Both were already lost, thinking.
Christopher tried to assess the information James had supplied them—force sizes for both sides, equipment inventories, logistical estimates and limits, reports on terrain, infrastructure and geographical features, speculative interpretations of the Fuhrer’s intent, and even a scan of a note from the Fuhrer himself regarding Operation Barbarossa.
Looking at it the information, Christopher felt that all he needed to feel more like a commander was some stars on his shoulder and a field tent in the midst of the eastern European forests.
Instead of deliberately engaging the minutiae of the material, Christopher descended into a state of regressed cognition. He let his consciousness melt, like tension fleeing muscle once immersed in a hot bath.
“Thoughts?” he heard Alex ask, minutes later, from a mile away.
After a moment, Christopher registered the question and began to speak, but without a coherent picture in mind. He trusted the winding stream of his thoughts to take whatever twists and turns necessary.
“Hitler wants victory, fast,” he said. “The example of the Blitzkrieg is high in his mind. So is the anti-example set by Napoleon. Winter is coming and it spells disaster. But he wants more than occupation. He wants—no, needs—the Caucasus, and the raw materials from the rest of the East, for the prosperity of the Reich.”
Christopher wasn’t looking at Alex, or George; he was scrolling through the source document without explicit purpose.
“This is Hitler’s real war,” he said. “Controlling Western Europe was a necessary step, but Hitler thinks that the Allied forces have wilted in the face of his will. He can finish the West if he owns the East. But he doesn’t, so speed is priority.”
Christopher’s voice was level and a part of his mind thought he must sound like a seer reciting a prophecy.
“Blitzkrieg like they deployed in France might work, but probably not. The Russians have an endless expanse behind them, no ally to turn to, and worst of all, they are comfortable in their own backyard. These are hard people, capable of returning to the plains and the forests, to the earth. They are not going to allow the Germans to seize control in any shape or form—they’ll burn every village, town, city and building to the ground rather than allow it to fall into German hands. They’ll freeze to death fleeing and resisting rather than allow the Nazis to claim a total victory.”
Christopher looked up, at Alex.
“There can’t be a conquering and a consolidation of victory. There can only be force, followed by even greater force. A display so ferocious that it stuns the Russians and allows the Germans to decimate the citizenry itself.”
“So…” said Alex, urging him to find a conclusion.
Christopher didn’t find one. He sensed the silhouette of Hitler’s intent, but he was unsure how best to bring it to light. Which to assail first? Natural resources, or the Russian’s will and capacity to resist? What mattered more: the Reich’s ability to keep fighting or the Russian determination to oppose?
George, who had been listening with intent, showed no such indecision.
“Move for the Caucasus,” he said. “Get the Russians to think we want their oil. They’ll defend it because they need it too—their tanks are just as useful as ours without gasoline. And when they mobilise in defence, strike for Moscow. Bait them with a slash at the Caucasus and then drive a stake into the heart of Mother Russia.”
Christopher and Alex said nothing.
“The partisans can die in their forests,” said George. “Encircle Moscow, hard and fast, before the winter comes and before Stalin escapes. Take the head and leave the body to decompose—with assistance from the Reich and its legions, of course. We don’t want to occupy the East. We want to bleed it and its people dry.”
Christopher regarded George. With ease, he’d assumed the role of a Reich general, weighing weakness and calculating strength.
George continued in the role.
“I reckon Stalin would have assumed that Hitler wants his head on a spike more than he wants Russia’s resources. Feinting for the oil throws some doubt on that. Not much, but perhaps enough to generate a few crucial moments of uncertainty.”
“Stalin doesn’t strike me as the uncertain type,” replied Christopher.
“Neither does Hitler,” countered George.
“Perhaps that was their problem?” said Christopher. “Hitler and Stalin were different beasts, but beasts all the same. They acted on instinct, on the smell of fear and desire, on the will to survive and the will to dominate. In everything, they had conviction. That’s fine when your course is correct and true, but it’s disastrous when you’re wrong.”
“I don’t know,” said George. “Velocity can be the difference between right and wrong. Reality can be knocked off course if struck by an object launched with enough force.”
Christopher nodded, half in agreement, and turned to solicit Alex’s opinion. Her fingers were racing across her tablet’s display and her face bore concern. The demeanour of control she’d displayed at the beginning of the exercise had crumbled. She’d shrunk in stature and was emitting waves of nervousness and fear.
“What’s up?” asked Christopher. In his peripheral vision, he saw George’s attention swing towards Alex, too.
She took a second to respond, and even then she did not face either of them.
“It’s my mum.”
Alex had never mentioned her family. She’d talked of her hometown. Of friends. Of her childhood, of her experiences and of what she imagined for herself and for others in the future. But never of her actual family.
It was, now he thought about it, an eerie and unnatural omission. Christopher loved his family and understood that his family’s presence and support was one of the central pillars of his life.
“Is she okay?” asked George.
The rock of a question George tossed into the lake of silence roused a monster. Alex turned to him, raking the claws of her gaze across George’s face, contemptuous of the question’s naivety.
Her eyes burned into his for a second more before she looked back down.
George recoiled like a child who’d reached to pet a puppy and met snarling, snapping jaws. Christopher wondered, what damage had just been done? Would the child forever fear dogs, or would he have the maturity to see this as an indication of the puppy’s distress and discomfort? A deeper look at George’s face and the answer became apparent: the mask of shock upon George’s face dissolved and was replaced by a new and haughty indifference.
Christopher ventured his own question, a part of him hoping it would be swatted away with the same careless brutality. That way, George might see that he wasn’t alone in his inability to penetrate the panic-stricken defences of a person in emotional turmoil.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
Alex seemed not to hear the question. She stood, just as James arrived at their table, having circled around from the back of the class. He looked confused.
“Feeling compassion for the Russians, Alex?” James traded the confusion for a sprightly grin. “Choosing exit over voice or action this time?”
Alex paused, looked into James’ eyes and turned her back on him. She looked at George for a second and then at Christopher.
“I have to go,” she said.
The three of them watched her leave, their eyes lingering on the door for a few seconds after it had swung shut.
“What was that about?” asked James, turning back to the boys.
George said nothing. Christopher answered instead.
“Oh,” said James.
A second later—a second during which Christopher saw numerous cogs turning in James’ mind—he shrugged his shoulders, turned away from Christopher and George and made his way to the front of the class.
“Time’s up,” said James.
He reached the head of the class, picked up his own tablet, drew attention to the similarities of the approaches the class had come up with, and began to speculate about the ultimate cause of Hitler’s downfall.
“Hitler had a remarkable ability to capitalise upon his animal instinct,” said James. “This was readily apparent in the operations concerning the annexed countries before the war, and during the Blitzkrieg.
“However, instinct is not always enough. Hitler’s inability to recognise this and, as a consequence, to trust in other’s experience undermined his efforts. The higher-ups in the armed forces, whilst not able to compete with the broad sweeps of Hitler’s vision, were adept at contingency planning. Unlike Hitler, they weren’t vulnerable to fits of chaotic rage when events did not go as planned. They could keep their head, stop a retreat becoming a rout.”
James began to pace.
“Instinct told Hitler to prevent the final sinking of the teeth at Dunkirk; he should have listened to his commanders on the ground and proceeded with the annihilation. Instinct told Hitler that Rommel’s pleas for supplies were superfluous; he should have let his staff feed the monster Rommel had birthed. Instinct told him that retreat could not be considered in the face of Russian resistance; he should have listened to his generals and interpreted their arguments for retreat as competence and not cowardice.”
James took a deep, audible breath.
“Had the Fuhrer wedded his unerring instinct to his general’s undoubted ability to organise complicated operations in complex environments, the world as we know wouldn’t exist. But then, the things that came together to fuel the Fuhrer’s rise also contained the seeds of his fall. That much is true for all of us, not just Herr Hitler.”
James reached a bridge in his lecture and Christopher, as well as making the crossing, descended into a stream of silent communication. One half of Christopher’s screen remained on the session’s source document, whilst in the other he typed a message to George: What shall we do about Alex?
There’s not much we CAN do, replied George.
Not true, wrote Christopher.
Christopher looked at George, seeing the scepticism writ upon his face. Christopher explained via message: We can find her and talk to her and make sure she’s okay. We could talk to James too.
About what? asked George.
Him singling her out, wrote Christopher. See if he’ll apologise?
No chance, replied George.
He might, countered Christopher.
He might not.
Worth a shot, suggested Christopher.
You care about her, don’t you? asked George.
Again, Christopher looked up at George, this time to gauge the intent behind the question. There was nothing like compassion there—to Christopher, the half-flushed cheeks, the insolent look and the lowered brows signalled jealousy, if not outright hostility. Christopher looked down and sent another message: Well, yeah. We’re friends. You should talk to her after the session.
You’re better at that than me, replied George. YOU talk to her. I’ll talk to James.
Christopher expected George to fight, not quit. Here was a chance for George to connect, to reach out to Alex. Yet he was throwing it away, likely on purpose, as part of his stubborn doctrine of indifference. Christopher made one more attempt.
Sure? he asked.
George’s reply was instantaneous: YES.
The private conversation lapsed and Christopher refocused his attention on the lecture at hand.
James had transitioned to talking about modern CEOs. He said that some relinquished control in a deliberate attempt to unleash chaos. Then, before the resulting maelstrom consumed them all, it was reined back in.
“The idea,” said James, “is to tick-tock between phases of diversification and prioritisation. To swing between exploration, explosion and exploitation. To sound out conceivable directions and opt for the most promising route with all available energy.”
In the few-second pause, Christopher scanned the most recent notes made by fellow students.
“Hitler,” continued James, “did something similar with people in his early days. He let his people off-lead, confident he could recall them at will. His aim was to lead them in the general direction he desired whilst allowing maximal freedom within his field of view. The result was a curious dynamism. A feeling of inevitable, unavoidable advance.
“But as Hitler’s power swelled—along with his belief in his own saviour-like qualities—the leash was tightened, and never relinquished. Where before he told others the result he expected and gave them freedom to decode and enact the most ingenious and effective route, later he decreed that he be the bottleneck for all decisions. That he be the lone god of means as well as ends. Consequence? The stunning rapidity of his earlier successes was forfeited and the oh-so-essential dynamism of the Reich began to fade.”
And so did the effects of James’ oratory upon Christopher. After a glance at the empty seat next to him, Christopher recalled Alex’s plight and departure.
After the exchange with George, Christopher had messaged her—Where are you? He’d had no response thus far. She hadn’t even read the message.
Would she be in the library? Or the boathouse? Could she have gone to see Mary? No. In moments of crisis, people sought refuge, a safe space: she’d be at the house, in her room. But if he did find her there, what state would she be in?
Would she be strong, holding up? Or would she be breaking, broken? Would she want help, or would she spurn it? Would his words and his tone prove decisive, or was the outcome of his attempt to comfort already fated?
At the prospect of finding out, a curious mix of sorrow and excitement coursed through Christopher’s body. His fingers and toes tingled and a flutter of disorientation shook his senses.
George hadn’t just quit; he’d stopped, ceased all effort. And because of that, Christopher now had the opportunity to advance. George had refused to offer a shoulder which meant that Christopher could offer his.
George had also asked about the extent of Christopher’s feelings for Alex. He’d brushed the question away with a brusque reply, but had he done so because that is how he felt? Or had he answered so flippantly because his real feelings for Alex were anything but flippant?
There was a shuffling of chairs and feet all around. James had concluded the lecture. George was already on his feet, facing Christopher.
“I’ll get James,” he said in a flat, apathetic tone. “You get Alex.”
Christopher rose, queried George silently for a moment and, gaining no meaningful response, replied. “On it.”
He walked away from George and crossed the room, determined. He wasn’t first out of the door but he was the first to cross the yard and reach the trail to the residences. Outside, Christopher noticed the absence of the preceding week’s warmth in the air. The chill that had replaced it contrasted with the anticipation he felt.
As he walked he shook his head, reminding himself that he was doing the duty of a friend. He wasn’t some errant knight charging in on horseback to aid a damsel in distress. He knew Alex would scoff at such notions.
Plus, he realised that Alex didn’t need the support he was rushing to offer. But who needed anything? Who needed their clothes, or their car? Who needed their house, or their room? Who needed their friends or family? No-one, really—need was such a poor arbiter of value.
Christopher threaded his way along the trail, nodding in greeting to Arty whom he met midway. As he wound his way to their house, Christopher decided that the virtue of an offer was not in its reception but in its making. Whether Alex welcomed his efforts or not, whether they helped or harmed, didn’t matter. What mattered was that he showed up.
He now saw the residence in front of him and there was no break in his gait. Christopher covered the distance, ascended the steps and pushed open the door. He entered the house and stopped. He heard nothing downstairs but he did hear movement and the faint echo of a voice upstairs.
Christopher climbed the stairs two at a time, went right and moved towards the end of the corridor. Towards Alex’s room. The voice had ceased, as had the movement. There was no sound now. He edged nearer to the half-open door, released the breath he had unknowingly been holding in, and knocked.
“Come in,” said Alex.
Christopher pushed the door open a fraction more and edged around it. His eyes travelled across the room. A large rucksack was slung on the back of a chair, its main compartment gaping, waiting to be filled. A suitcase had been pulled out from under the bed, moved into the middle of the floor and half-filled. Wardrobe doors and draws were open, revealing their contents.
Christopher saw all this and disregarded it, choosing to focus on Alex.
She was on her bed, sitting with her back against the wall. Her knees were raised and pulled towards her chest. One hand clasped the opposite wrist, completing the self-embrace, whilst the other hand hung limp, gripping her phone.
There was a world of sorrow and pain in the eyes that locked onto Christopher’s, as well as the threat of an army of tears yet to be unleashed by their commander.
“Hi,” said Christopher. Alex said nothing. He stepped closer.
Christopher exited the library and hurtled down the corridor, towards the lecture room. He reached the door just as Frankie, a fellow student, pushed it open. For once, Christopher wasn’t late.