THE coffee, hot rolls and honey at Basel railway station restaurant at six in the morning are as good a stimulus to conversation as any I know—better, because more clarifying, than the most garrulous smoke-room nightcap. At six in the morning the things you say are apt to be worth saying, or else you do not say them; and at a public breakfast table the people you talk to are worth the effort, or you do not have to make it. And Basel, also, seems contrived by nature and the Swiss State Railways for the special purpose of enabling chance travelers to meet, talk long enough, and separate. The great transcontinental trains arrive about half past five, there is a brief skirmish with the customs officials, and by six the smell of coffee and rolls soothes even the most cantankerous early riser.
There were two others at my table—a man and a woman—strangers to each other as well as to me. I never knew their names, but we soon discovered a common affection for Austria, and that led naturally to talk of recent events. The man was either English or American and had been Viennese correspondent for a newspaper until his views had made it more comfortable to leave. He was very bitter about the whole business. The woman was middle-aged, with a clever face and somehow an air of talking to men from their own side of the fence that was at first disconcerting and then oddly persuasive. She spoke excellent English with a slight accent, was less bitter, but more calmly cynical than the journalist.
"Human nature is pretty much the same everywhere," she was saying. "Now that the battle's won and the shouting's ended there's a sort of hush all over Vienna, but if you put your ear to the ground you can hear a scratching noise—it's caused by a million totalitarians doing the most individualistic thing in the world: intriguing and plotting and palm-greasing for the best jobs. Every man who ever wore a swastika badge when the police weren't looking, or who says he ever did, expects his reward in the shape of a nice cozy government job with an office, a secretary, and a bulging brief-case. And there just aren't enough of such jobs to go round. Turning swords into plowshares is hard enough, but it's saner, economically, than turning swords into typewriters...
"And believe me, in this scramble for desks the Austrian Nazis don't love the German Nazis any more than the boss's nephew. Jobs... jobs... jobs... that's what they're all after. A hundred thousand unemployed Viennese students and university graduates worked for Hitler because they believed he could give them a chance of being what they were trained to be—doctors, teachers, civil servants, and so on. Decent boys, most of them..."
"You wouldn't call them decent if you'd seen them behave as I have," said the journalist.
"I mean decent individually," she answered. "As a mob, of course, just pitiless. But then, so are most mobs."
I remarked, with the idea of easing the argument, that I hadn't been in Austria for several years and that the only Austrian Nazi I remembered was a young fellow named Kurt Bruckner, whom I had met at a Salzburg dinner party during the festival. "My hostess assured me he was a very dangerous agitator and wanted by the police. Personally I found him charming and intelligent."
Both my companions had looked up sharply at the mention of Bruckner's name. The woman said quietly: "Yes, I knew Bruckner, too." Then the man said: "So did I," and added in a grim voice, chiefly for my benefit: "Brains and brass knuckles aren't as far apart as you might think. He used them both." To the woman he then added emphatically: "And don't tell me he was decent as an individual. I probably know more about him than either of you."
"What do you know about him?" asked the woman.
"He was in jail awaiting trial when Hitler's men marched in."
"Yes, I knew that much..."
He continued, leaning over the table and speaking more eagerly: "But I'll bet you didn't know what the charge was? We journalists get to know these things... It wasn't a political offense at all. Just the sordid, brutal murder of a woman—the sort of thing that makes Sunday headlines in our low-minded democratic countries. You see... it's not so easy to remain a decent individual when you form part of a mob that behaves like a beast. I should say that mass cruelty leads to personal degeneracy quicker than almost anything... even if you do have brains. Bruckner was married and had a son. His wife, I'm told, didn't have the slightest suspicion of anything queer. Yet there he was, living a double life all the time. The neighbors of the woman knew him by sight—they said he had come there frequently. It was a cheap room in a poor district.
"One night they heard shots and he was caught with the gun in his hand and the woman dying at his feet. He was trying to shoot himself too, but the gun had jammed... In jail when they questioned him he didn't conceal his identity, didn't deny anything, didn't offer the slightest excuse or explanation... The lawyer who was to defend him hadn't the ghost of an idea where to begin. Even his Nazi pals were a bit disgusted. They didn't object to a little private murder, but they did feel he might have chosen a political opponent, not some poor devil off the streets. And old enough to be his mother, too, from what I heard."
"Who told you that?" asked the woman.
"I knew some of the police. They let him out of jail when the Germans took over, but that was only to avoid a scandal. They had to take him to a worse place. That is, if you consider a padded cell in a private asylum at Wiener Neustadt worse than a Nazi jail. It's a matter of taste."
She nodded. "Yes, that's right—Wiener Neustadt." She looked as if she were confirming something in her mind; then she went on: "You mentioned just now the lawyer who was to have defended him. I happen to be that lawyer... I talked a lot with Bruckner, both in prison and—and afterward. Would you be interested in knowing the truth... as I discovered it?"
"The truth," replied the journalist harshly, "is rarely what a lawyer discovers—especially a woman lawyer—in a case like this."
"Maybe..." She was unperturbed. "And I admit that most of what I tell you would have been in my speech in court." She looked to me for encouragement and, receiving it, continued: "It's the speech I never made—the speech that might have brought me the reputation I never made, and that I know I shall never make now. All Europe is full of those personal might-have-beens. It's a strange irony—my last job was to defend one of them, and yet as soon as they came into power I had to escape. But there would have been nothing to stay for, anyway. They don't believe in women having a profession. Women should stay at home and look after the children. Well, I was looking after one of the children—in my way. You couldn't call Bruckner much more than a child. He was nineteen."
"That is only a good defense, madame, if you have no other. I speak from long experience of judges, lawyers, and juries."
She smiled. "May I make you my audience? Judge and jury, too, if you like, but an audience, anyhow..." She paused and went on: "Kurt Bruckner's mother was an Austrian married to a staff captain in the German army. He was drafted to the Ukraine after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and, being influential, he had his wife out there with him. They lived together in Kiev and she was with him when he died—killed by an assassin. That was before the boy was born—also in Kiev. By the terms of the November Armistice the Germans had to clear out of the Ukraine immediately, and in the prevailing chaos of revolution and defeat there was no one to insure that a German officer's widow, who shouldn't according to regulations have been there at all, was properly returned to her relatives in Vienna. Thus it was that she and her child were engulfed in the first fiasco of the treaty makers, for after the German withdrawal the country plunged into a hell of Red and White faction fighting, cold-blooded slaughter, wholesale robbery, starvation and pestilence.
"In this environment Kurt endured his first years of infancy and boyhood. The number of times he nearly perished was less remarkable than the ultimate fact that he survived. He probably wouldn't have done so but for his mother's beauty, which had enslaved a local hospital doctor who had better access to foods and medicines than the rest of the population.
"This man was a rather fine type of intellectual revolutionary whose ideals hadn't yet been stifled by the need to be politically circumspect. He not only loved and served humanity in the bulk (and what a bulk he found during his day-and-night work at the hospital!), but he loved and cherished Kurt as his own son. He even found time to teach him the rudiments of culture in an age that seemed to have no more use for such things. When Kurt was nine, however, a chance came that both his mother and her husband thought too good to miss—that of sending him out of Russia to an old Austrian aunt, to be brought up by her in better surroundings.
"It cost the doctor all the influence he could muster to arrange this; eventually also, it cost him his life, for the boy's emigration was not liked by the authorities, who promptly showed their displeasure by transferring the doctor to a fever settlement in the Crimea where he was literally worked to death in the course of a few years.
"Meanwhile Kurt, at school at Zell am See, was sampling and enjoying an altogether different life. Austria in 1927, you know, wasn't such a bad place. All over Europe the clouds were moving and one could actually hope that they were moving away. It was the Europe of Stresemann and Briand and Ramsay Macdonald, a brief interregnum of optimism during which a few flowers took root amidst the weeds... before the weeds sprang up and choked them...
"Kurt, who had found the separation from his parents hard to bear at first, soon filled in the emotional gaps in his life—he had inherited his mother's good looks and capacity for friendship. Every week he wrote to Russia, describing his progress at school; and his mother, not wishing to spoil such obvious happiness, did not tell him of her husband's death, nor of the fact that she was picking up a miserable living as a nurse. Her private dream was that Kurt should study hard for one of the professions and send for her to join him as soon as he was well established and prosperous. Part of this dream seemed fulfilled when, at the earliest possible age, the boy entered the University of Vienna.
It was during his first year there that Hitler achieved power in Germany, convulsing Europe and inciting every German-speaking population to sip the wine that had already burst one bottle. Not that there was much conscious desire in Austria to exchange democracy for absolutism; it was rather the growing pressure of everyday things—of bad trade, rising food prices, spreading unemployment, the whole national malaise brought about—once again—by the mistakes of the treaty makers.
"While Kurt was studying at the university, fitting himself for some post that would demand the abilities he had to offer, such posts throughout Austria practically ceased to exist. The country teemed with youths of talent and education scrambling for a few schillings as interpreters and tourist guides—reluctant parasites on foreign visitors who thought how charming they were and how much like Francis Lederer in Autumn Crocus.
"Kurt was not the type that would become one of them, even under duress. After his aunt died and he was thrown on his own resources, it was perhaps not altogether his fault that he failed to find work as an architect in a country where nothing new was being built. Nor. perhaps, was it altogether his fault that then, facing unemployment, his ardors turned to something else for which he had discovered an aptitude—the influencing and leadership of young men like himself. Was it even his fault that there was only one direction in which those powers of leadership were welcomed—the underground trail between Austria and Germany?"
The journalist smiled grimly. "I should say, madame, you would have made an even better politician than a lawyer. So far you have given us far more politics than evidence."
"Don't you see that politics is evidence in a case like this?"
"The brutal murder of a woman. I have to keep on reminding myself of that, while you give me the biography of your hero."
She turned to me with a pleading gesture. "Please, please don't misunderstand me, gentlemen. I detest the Nazi philosophy just as much as you do, but I cannot detest millions of young men just because they put on shirts of a particular color. I can't believe that that makes them all criminals and degenerates. Right and wrong are not so easy as all that. Create certain stresses, in history as in mechanics, and it becomes inevitable that relief will be found in certain directions. The political union of Austria and Germany, the Anschluss, was one of those directions. In itself it was something that many quite liberal-minded English and Americans had long favored. The tragedy of Europe is that the powers that were strong enough to refuse the Anschluss when it was temperately asked for were weak enough to accept it when it was brutally enforced..."
"I agree with you there."
"But let's keep off politics as long as we can... if we can. I'm telling you about Kurt—at the university. He did well—brilliantly—in all his examinations. He was a good speaker, a good organizer. There were people in Germany who were on the lookout for young Austrians of that type. When they discovered Bruckner they invited him to finish his studies in Berlin. He went there, and was welcomed. You can guess, too, that his studies included a liberal dosage of propaganda. Very wrong, no doubt... but why didn't somebody invite him to London or Paris to convince him of the manifold virtues of democracy?
"You see what I mean?... Of course they would have thought him far too young to bother about. Nice kind elderly gentlemen would have patted him on the back and complimented him on his excellent French and English and expected him to be grateful if they tipped him well for teaching their daughters to ski at Kitzbühel..."
"I object to the description if you mean me," interrupted the journalist, laughing. "I may be nice and kind, but I'm not elderly, even if I have a daughter whom I bought skiing lessons for at Kitzbühel. He was quite an agreeable Austrian youth and I paid him well, but it didn't occur to me I ought to throw in a campaign speech about democracy."
"Maybe you should have," she retorted. "Maybe we all should have done more of that kind of thing. Maybe if Kurt... well, anyway, let me get back to the facts.
"For the first time in his life he found work to do and an atmosphere of enthusiasm in which he could do it. By the time he returned to Austria he was thoroughly indoctrinated, though still no more than a boy—for, believe me, the Nazi philosophy hardly requires a mature intelligence for its absorption. Like so many other passionate religions, it stresses the desire to believe more than the reasons for belief—and youth, as you know, is the age of desire rather than of reason.
"Kurt also brought with him to Austria a more practical blessing—a German wife with whom he was, I should imagine, ideally happy, though they were together only for short and infrequent intervals. As soon as the Austrian authorities began to nose him out as an agitator, he sent her back to Germany for safety's sake, and it was there she gave birth to his child.
"For some time also he had been out of communication with his mother in Russia. His letters to her had been unanswered, and it grieved him to speculate on what might be the reason for it. She, too, received no letters, and presently the strain of doubting and anxiety forced her to a wild decision—that somehow or other she must seek and find him, wherever he was in the world.
"That was in 1937. He hadn't seen her for a decade, and during that long interval neither she nor he had been living the kind of life that mothers and sons in New York or London can easily imagine. He, at the ripe age of nineteen, was already high up on a police blacklist, already as quick with a gun as with an argument, already a husband and father who dared not allow his wife and child to share the everyday dangers of his existence. Boys are apt to begin things early in Central Europe—and end things early, too... His mother, on her side of the iron frontier, was poor, lonely, and also suspect—because of the correspondence which, for some while, the powers above had been intercepting.
"It wasn't easy to escape from such a country, and how she managed it would doubtless make another story, if I knew it. All I know is that she got out and eventually reached Vienna.
"Just remember that over large areas in Europe nowadays the most suspicious question from a stranger is: 'I'm looking for so-and-so. Can you give me any idea where I can find him?' At last, by pertinacity and sheer good luck, she tracked him down to the cheap seats in an obscure suburban cinema where he sometimes went to hide, to sleep, to change a disguise—anything but to look at the screen. So that's how and where they first saw and recognized each other—their faces lit by the flickering image of two Hollywood comedians banging away with guns that apparently did no harm—so different from the guns in use throughout central and eastern Europe—so different also (though she did not guess it then) from the gun in Kurt's pocket.
"When they went outside into the neon-lighted streets it hardly surprised her that he looked sharply to left and to right while at the same time keeping his face averted from the glare. She had grown used to the technique in Russia—one almost took it for granted. Besides, she had reason to be careful herself, having entered the country by forbidden roads and without proper passport. Her Austrian nationality had lapsed—she was a Russian—or a German—God knew what she was, but He probably didn't care. She didn't care, either, now that she had found her son.
"So there they were, the two of them, reunited, rejoicing, yet not quite released from anxiety. She, of course, looked her years, which were forty; her hair was already quite gray and there were aging lines on her face. But she was still a beautiful woman. They went to a quiet café and talked—I don't know what about—probably not politics. In any case I do not know what political views she held, though I suspect that, like many women, she did not look at humanity through political spectacles at all. Her second husband had bequeathed her a good deal of his own secretly liberal spirit, added to which her work as a nurse had given her such experience of unavoidable ills that she could only marvel at the persistence of man in contriving additional ones of his own...
"So they talked—let us say of family affection and their joy at being together again; and she told him of her husband's death, and he in turn would give her news of his young wife and child. But of course, he gave her no hint of his own situation, that he was wanted by the police, that he was one of the leaders of a banned organization, and that her arrival just there and then in his life brought complications as well as consolations.
"That evening, under an assumed name, he rented an apartment for her in an unfashionable quarter—a couple of small rooms, but less sordid than the single one she had been able to afford for herself; and they began together what she doubtless expected to be the normal domestic life of mother and son when the son's family is absent abroad and he must work on his own.
"But soon, however carefully he might conceal things from her, she began to have suspicions—tiny ones at first.
"Then a moment came when all at once she sensed the dark, underworking forces in that gay, sad capital, forces that jerked sharply to the surface from time to time... leaving some woman weeping over a dead man in the gutter, or a street door daubed with freshly painted insults, or a shower of leaflets hurled from a fast-moving car... when she guessed that Kurt's life was somehow touched by those forces, that the real reason for false names was to hide his identity even more than hers, that it was his suspicion of opened letters that prevented him from telling his wife of her arrival, that the bulge in his pockets was not a case of compasses, that the look in his eyes as he left her apartment was that of an animal warily on the watch.
"When the meaning of it dawned on her she was horrified. Was it for this her husband and she had made such sacrifices? Her first instinct was to implore the boy to give up all connection with a cause so dangerous to his safety as well as stained with violence, and forthwith there came into her head another wild plan... that they would, somehow or other, leave Europe and begin a new life in Brazil or Canada or Rhodesia or some such place.
"All this she might have argued about before him had she been given the chance. But instead of his tread on the stairs to her room that night there came the scamper of a child with a scribbled note, a note informing her that he had had to leave the city immediately.
"The truth was, the police were again too hot on his tracks, and his only resource had been to find some new hiding place in the country. He dared not let her know where he was, though he arranged that a little money should be sent her regularly. He had no idea that she yet suspected his real activities.
"Meanwhile, from this new hideout, his work of undermining and overshadowing went on. Things were shaping at last as he had long hoped and dreamed; the cause was advancing everywhere throughout the country; already it was a question of when, no longer of whether, the Nazis would overthrow the government. He hoped—like thousands of others—that such a triumph would mean a job for him—a job in which he could use his gifts constructively and openly instead of destructively and secretly. But the strain of dodging the police for years had left him with racked nerves, and suddenly—in the emotional reaction of feeling within his grasp the prize for which he had so long been working—he began to wonder if he could ever settle down again... just an architect in an office... was it possible? And yet he wanted rest—yet something more than rest—the return of something that life had taken away from him and might, he feared, withhold altogether...
"In this strange, tense and curiously uncertain mood he arrived one evening at Vienna's East Station and walked to his mother's apartment. He knew there was a big risk in entering the city, but he wanted to see her, to be with her on the spot, when the cause triumphed... as he knew it must—soon—very soon... Even as he entered the street he ran into evidence—just one of the countless local affrays that flared up and out during those last days... a group of Nazi youths were being dispersed by over-tried and desperate police.
"Kurt, in the melee, took a baton blow on the head that left him unconscious for several moments; when he recovered he saw that the police had retreated, leaving the youths to take revenge on street dwellers whom they thought to have been against them. Shops were already burning, their contents looted and occupants dragged out. Kurt patched up his injured head—he did not want his mother to be alarmed. When, however, he climbed the stairs to her room and opened the door to greet her, he found her staring out of the window with eyes already glazed and panic-stricken. She swung round on him without welcome, without even surprise—so much had every natural emotion been swamped by sheer horror.
"'They're killing a man down there!' she cried, in a hoarse whisper. 'That old Jew who has the shop at the corner. Do you know that?... A man who never harmed anyone in his life... they're killing him.'
"His brain, numbed by the blow on his head, sought for something to say, but he could only stammer a few words, vague, meaningless words, while his hands began tremblingly to light a cigarette. The room was swirling in front of his eyes—all he wanted was to rest, and where else in the world should he find rest... comfort... at such a time?...
"All she said, as she watched the smoke curling from his lips, was just a whisper: 'You coward!'
"That made him laugh wildly, and laughing hurt his head more than ever. 'Coward... eh? That's a good joke... What d'you think I'm afraid of? D'you know that all the time you've been here there's been a price on my head—dead or alive? D'you know that for months I've never turned a corner without wondering if I'd meet a bullet?... And you call me... a coward!'
"He was laughing and crying hysterically. She answered: 'Yes. I know most of what you've told me. I've known for some time... But... Kurt... there's only one thing I can think of now—that we should get away—you and I—away from all this murderous insanity—there's still time—we could cross to Switzerland—'
"'Switzerland?' He shouted with laughter. 'You think I want to be in Switzerland now—just when all I've fought for is going to happen? D'you know that within a week... within a few days... Perhaps...'
"He felt himself beginning to stagger—that police baton had struck hard—it didn't show much, but maybe the damage was inside—it somehow felt like it. He went on: 'But please don't argue with me. Mother... I'm tired... I want to rest.'
"'Kurt... I want to rest, too... in my mind. Will you come away with me... out of the country... now...?'
"'Yes—yes—yes. Now leave me alone... my head... I want to sleep...'
"Outside from the street came shrill screams of agony and answering shouts from the mob. She stared at him with whitening lips as she said quietly: 'Since you refuse... Then...'
"He shouted madly: 'Then what? What will you do? What can you do? Tell the police I'm here? All right, tell them—send for them. They'll give you a life pension for that. But don't forget to ask them—before they take me away—ask them if I'm a coward. They've been my enemies—they know!'
"She answered, still with deadly quietness: 'I have nothing either to tell or to ask your enemies. To them you've been brave enough, maybe... But what about your friends? Suppose I were to tell them all I know?... It's them you'd be afraid of... Kurt... if I did...'
"He could only clasp his hands to his head and wonder what on earth she was talking about. 'What do you mean? What can you tell them?... I don't understand...'"
The woman paused before continuing:
"That's as far as I got in preparing my defense of Kurt Bruckner. When the German troops crossed the frontier I considered it more prudent to get out of the country myself than to try to save the lad. And my prudence was justified both ways. I did well to get out in time, and Bruckner is also safe... except from eternal punishment, if there is such a thing... and if you think he really deserves it."
"So he's dead," said the journalist. "How did that happen?"
"I don't know."
But she added, as if it might be a help: "It was at Wiener Neustadt, as you said... in a private asylum patronized only by the most exclusive Nazi circles."
After a pause he said, contemplatively: "You omitted to fill in some of the details. We journalists, you know, are apt to be particular about things like that... For instance, what was it his mother was threatening to tell?"
She answered, pouring more coffee: "I thought you might have guessed. The boy was half Jew. His father hadn't been the German at all, but the Russian doctor whom his mother had afterward married. Such things can happen, you know, where wars and women are concerned... but of course the disclosure would have been the end of a perfectly good Nazi career. She had proofs, so she told him—dates and documents.
"They went on arguing about it—which was a mistake—she didn't know the state his nerves were in, and he didn't know the state she was in, either. Every scream of the tortured man in the street below fortified her... made her as ruthless in her way as he had been in his. He faced the total shattering of his dreams at the very moment of its fulfillment... or rather, he couldn't face it... he could only reach for his gun..."
She added: "Funny thing you should have said she was old enough to be his mother... Just a phrase, I know, but funny you should have used it."
We sat for a little while in silence; then I said: "Surely his wife, at any rate, ought to be told the truth...?"
She turned on me then with more vehemence than she had yet shown throughout her entire recital. "What? And find out her child is twenty-five per cent Jewish?... Not in Hitler's Grosses Reich, my dear sir... Better acknowledge a Marquis de Sade in the family, or a Crippen, or a Casanova, or all combined... So much more respectable."