The decision was made, at last week’s meeting, to finally stop the presses. We were one of few Berlin papers with the foresight and gall to pack up shop just as the Reich Ministry of Propaganda had begun to boom its final rallying cry: for every man woman and child to take up arms against the advancing Soviet and Allied forces to defend the Reich. To the west, the British and Americans fought to be the first to pierce the Rhine and cross into Germany. The Americans won the day, but both victoriously swept aside our eastern defences, and with every hour bore deeper into the Fatherland.
On Monday we, the Berlin desk’s crop of senior journalists, sat for our final meeting with the editorial board. Twenty typed agendas, one for each man, were spaced out around a vast oval oak table. The room was intricate, in design and furnishing. It had remained relatively unchanged ever since The Berliner occupied the elegant nineteenth century, 4-floor corner-building in the 1910s. A grand chandelier hung low over the table’s centre uselessly, against the backdrop of roaring sunlight which filled the room through encircling, half-moon windows. It was an exquisite place, and we were quite relieved not to have yet been requisitioned by the government.
I caught sight, as we awaited the board’s arrival, of an emaciated, aproned woman hanging from the window of an opposite building, struggling to affix a large white linen to an improvised flagpole. After some effort, success. She withdrew back into her building and the sheet billowed about insecurely in the winter winds. My eyes fell to the paper on the table in front of me. I could see that our agenda had been cleaved in two, into areas of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ urgency. The allied advance, which had been my own journalistic remit for some weeks, was an area of secondary concern. The matter of critical urgency, and the apparent prompt of our meeting that day, was relayed in paper with an ominous ambiguity, not that we were at all unaware of what was being implied by ‘the Bolsheviks’.
A groan accompanied the twist of an old brass door handle which augured the arrival of my superiors, who became the most well-put-together men in the room among the tattered patched suits and unshaven faces of the journalists. Something, though, was different: many of the men were missing their National Socialist lapel pins. The board promptly took their seats with neither a word nor salute.
‘I realise’, said editor-in-chief Herr. Sauer, ‘that in calling this meeting I have disrupted your good work in bringing to the people the latest of what is, as you know, a most perilous time for the Fatherland’.
A 6’4 veteran of the Great War, Herr. Sauer cut an imposing figure among a room of lean, bespectacled 30-somethings. His chubby face was flushed-red and oiled in a layer of sweat that accumulated in a damp patch at the fringe of his dress-shirt’s collar. This, of course, was nothing out of the ordinary, but there was something troubling lurking in his eyes.
He continued, ‘These dark and faithful days have burdened me with two obligations. The first, is to convey to you the gravity of what we as a nation face: a simple task, one with which The Berliner has engaged since its founding days some three decades ago. Indeed, what I am about to impart has been brought to us by our very own boys out there in the east, who this afternoon desperately hurry home as I speak’. Herr. Sauer paused, taking a moment to dab his glossy forehead with a white handkerchief. ‘My second duty’, his voice quietened, ‘is to leave this grand place tonight, for the final time, in the knowledge that each of you is aware of what is soon to come’.
Karl Schulz, my opposite number at the home affairs desk, interjected with a thump of the table, something that would never have been tolerated under normal circumstances. ‘What are you saying, Sauer?’. Schulz spoke with a voice tinged by temper.
Herr. Sauer’s tone was unwavering. ‘Dear Schulz, do not become angry, you see it as well as I. The Berliner, Berlin, are finished’.
The room erupted into acrimonious muttering. Some sat in silence, without movement. Schulz stood at his seat and glared daggers at Herr. Sauer. I removed my glasses and rubbed the bridge of my nose between my thumb and index finger: of course, Sauer was right.
Over the course of an hour, Herr. Sauer and his advisors closed The Berliner and conveyed the coming downfall of the Reich at the hands of the Red Army, who had pillaged Warsaw and were now steamrolling through Poland towards the Fatherland. Muttering and dissent had long-since left the room. ‘It seems fate has it’, Sauer surmised, ‘that the Soviets are to be the first into Berlin’. He planted his palms far apart on the oak table, lowering his voice he pierced my eyes with his. ‘Now all of you, go home to your families, and prepare. Beyond the window, I could see that several other white linens had since been erected along the edifices of opposite buildings.