Joan of Arc and the Archangel Michael. Eugene Thirion, 1876. Chapter Eight
Stefanie stayed in bed for two days after the portrait-sitting, drifting in and out of sleep and muddy fever-dreams. In between naps she leafed through magazines, the Neue Freie Presse, Korvath’s Life of Luther, and the inspirational memoirs of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila; and, when idle, she gazed through her bedroom window at the Stadtpark, now mist-dripping and bare. Once or twice she fancied she saw someone looking up at her, but it was too dark to say for sure. Was it Adolf? Helmuth? The Archangel Michael? Satan himself? There were moments when she felt almost flippant, defiant, devil-may-care (as it were); at other moments the sheer horror of it burst upon her, the horror primarily of having no further doubt, of knowing the Truth that had eluded so many for so long, that both God and devil are real, immanent, and insatiable. With this realization her world, once infinite, once the glorious atelier of art and science, a School of Athens of the mind, became nothing more than a Grand Guignol puppet-show for the cosmic japes of Good and Evil. At the same time, she perversely exulted in the newness of her discovery, the candor of her soul, all ambiguity gone. She, Stefanie von Rothenberg, was either a lunatic or a mystic! There was no other option, no talk of premenstrual hallucinating, brain fever, juvenile fantasizing.
Well! She knew she wasn’t a lunatic; ergo, she was a mystic. She had visions, second sight, and the gift. It was the way it was, and the world would simply have to accommodate itself to this fact. She quoted Luther at Wittenberg:
“Ich kann nicht anders.”
Truly, she could do no other. It had been thrust upon her. She, too, of course, would have to learn to take seriously what hitherto had been, to her, the domain of muttering peasant girls, or mad monks, or wild-eyed clairvoyants. She was prepared to accept that she had had a vision, no, two visions, of the devil, both, oddly, in the presence of Adolf (but she could hardly blame him, poor half-touched scarecrow of a man), and with the force of character with which she had resolved, against paternal urging, to become a theology student, she resolved to learn what she could from her visions, and people could say what they liked...
She drifted past the ceiling as she dozed and dreamed, and the landscape spread out below her was that of Life, not Austria. Her only destination, her only thought, was God, the luminous numinosity at the end of the sky. Far, far below, in the shadows of a crevice cleaving the patchwork fields, torrents rushed and darkness ruled, and from that dark place there surged the spectral figure of the fiend. Why did she see him? Why did she see only him? What did she possess that others did not? Whatever it might be, it hadn’t begun with her; there’d been no saints among the Von Rothenbergs, but they were regular churchgoers (except Uncle Anton, who had a mistress in Klagenfurt), and some claimed visions. Stefanie’s grandmother Anna Maria had steadfastly maintained that St. David lived at the bottom of her garden in Bad Ischl, behind a linden tree. But Grossmutti Anna-Maria’s temperament, hard-working and down-to-earth, was the very opposite of a high-strung seer’s, and Stefanie flattered herself that she was the same. Granted, she was studying theology, and God and the Devil were perforce much on her mind. But the first time she’d had the vision she was still a student at the Linzer Realschule, and she had thought of herself, when shethought of herself at all objectively, as a Catholic humanist, fearful of God, respectful of the Pope and critical of Man; but being fearful of God would no longer be enough. She’d been shanghaied on board His mighty vessel and sent up to the crow’s nest and loudly told, “Sing out if you see Satan!”
Finally, she felt as if her knowledge of the world had deepened immeasurably. She felt older, wiser, and chastened, yet proud. Even her reflection in the mirror, while still proffering the smooth-skinned face of a young beauty, nevertheless dwelled in the shadow of a half-shadow. Her eyes were sadder, as befit one who had seen what she had seen. Or so she fancied, romantically. (She knew that she knew more, but she knew not how to learn what she knew.) After five days she arose and rejoined the everyday world. Smoking a cigarette with her uncle in the solarium, she described a wide ellipsis around the nature of her problem, while hinting at a matter of great spiritual and/or psychological concern.
“Perhaps Dr. Freud can help,” said the Baron. “I was playing cards with him last week. I’d met him once or twice before, you know. Last time he was talking about the new house he’s planning to build in Carinthia. Nice chap, if a bit moody. Ahüüüm.”
“Oh, him. Himmel donner wetter. The Rat Man man? No, I don’t think he’s the one I need, Uncle.”
In any case, Dr. Freud was far too eminent, and too busy quarreling with his peers and former disciples, to accept new patients; although he did suggest, on hearing from the Baron at their next card game of Stefanie’s case, that she might benefit from a close study of transference, as defined by himself: i.e., Read My Book (On Psychoanalysis), which she did, only to return it to the library after twenty pages. Such fruitless casting about! Such dogged gnawing on the obvious! Such mundanity, such indifference to the Poetic! Most of all, such obsession with sex! Now, sex had a place in Stefanie’s life, of course, abstract as yet but neither vilified and suspect, as with churchly folk, nor itself worshipped as a deity, as with Dr. Freud; in truth, although she had never practiced it, she fully intended to, at the right moment, with the right man, but in the meantime she saw no need to give it more than its due. Sexuality might not always be with her, but spirituality would.
“Spirituality,” she said. “What is it, Helmuth?”
“Isn’t that partly why we’re studying this rubbish, Steffi?” said Helmuth Meinl. “To find answers to questions like that?”
“No. That’s not why I’m doing it. And it’s not all rubbish.”
They were sitting on a bench on the Schottenring, awaiting a trolley car. It was noon on the 28th day of June in the year 1914. The weather was wet and mild, with clammy gusts spitting rain and scooping up detritus from the gutters. Helmuth, now engaged to a débutante from the Innere Stadt, had taken on the emotional distance of a cousin or guardian.
“I did it,” he said, oblivious to Stefanie’s non sequitur, “because my family have been in religion for the past four generations. My father knows I’ll never be a rabbi, but he hopes I might become at the very least a scholar, with many published books. Of course, they discourage too much study of the Jewish texts here at the University. There was even some fool hawking copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion last week, I don’t know if you noticed. Ach, Steffi, I don’t know. Sometimes it’s so boring.”
“You see, I don’t find it boring,” said Stefanie. “But of course we Catholics have a different outlook. That was one reason my father opposed me. Catholics aren’t expected to know anything about religion, just practice it. Especially women.”
“Ah, I know.”
“And I was dragged to church too often not to become a little curious about how all this got started, ja?”
She said nothing of mysticism. It was her heart’s own secret, like a clandestine love affair. Resolute now, she accepted her gift; still, she quaked in her shoes at times when, peripherally, she contemplated its meaning. There would come a time, perhaps, when she would be able to speak of it; but now it would sound bizarre, even outlandish, to inform anyone of the advent of her, Stefanie’s, eye on the beyond...oddly, Adolf, were she ever to tell him about it, would listen, for once, with keen interest, she was sure: Something alien within him would respond to the mystery in her soul, and this was, in the end (she felt), their only, but unbreakable, bond.
But Adolf was gone. She’d heard nothing from him since the day of the portrait, and a visit to the Heim für Männer with a few kroner in hand and a portrait commission from Aunt Liesl had proved fruitless. Neumann and Cohen, the old Jews at the front desk, told her they had no idea where “dat crazy Hiddler guy” had gone.
“He just walked out. Pouf!” said old Neumann. “Dat crazy guy. Dummes kerl. Ha, Cohen?”
When the trolley car came, Stefanie said good-bye to Helmuth and rode home, not to the Palais Ottoheinz, for she was no longer her relatives’ ward; at age twenty-four she was on her own, a woman of the world (and beyond, she might add, whimsically), with her parents’ blessing and a like benediction from Aunt Liesl and Uncle Ernst, and the use of certain of the latter’s connections to secure a three-room flat on the second floor of a “vor-März”-era building on the Mariahilferstrasse, a building as comfortable, solid and enduring as the rule of the Habsburgs.
She had an apartment on the third floor. It was high-ceilinged, with tall windows and a large kitchen and French doors opening into the parlor, in which were heavy armchairs and a vast sofa and dark tapestries on the wall. It was a bit like a museum, but it suited her. There she entertained little, and studied much, and read widely in the world of Man and God. She was ready for life, and Life’s signposts were clear: In May she would graduate. By August she would herself be employed; she had been offered a teaching position (German, French, a little Latin, less Greek) in a private girls’ school in Auerstadt, in the Vienna Woods. It would be a haven for her, a place to write and reflect. She had begun filling a journal with attempts at the metaphysical self-analysis expected in an intellectual’s daybook: observations about Man and Woman and their relationship to God, with verbal dexterity in reserve for the next vision, should it ever come (and she prayed—how she prayed!—that it never would)...it was to her journal that she turned her attention on that June afternoon in 1914, copying out Hildegard of Bingen’s description of her visions:
“The visions which I saw I beheld neither in sleep, nor in dreams, nor in madness, nor with my carnal eyes, nor with the ears of the flesh, nor in hidden places; but wakeful, alert, and with the eyes of the spirit and the inward ears, I perceive them in open view and according to the will of God.”
Thus Hildegard, “feather on the breath of God.” Stefanie wrote: “In my case, the eyes of the body saw what the eyes of the spirit saw as well. It was real. It smelled, for goodness’ sake.” She crossed out this last sentence and substituted, pompously, “Have I not, after all, apprehended it with more than eyes and ears?” Frowning, she scored that out, too, and wrote in “And it stank of putrefaction.” This got her to reflecting on the fact that mention of the olfactory sense in any of the usual mystical literature was rare, indeed almost nonexistent, with the exception of Blessed Bernadette’s scent of roses and St. Teresa’s whiff of attar...but these were sweet, and good, and were of the Blessed Mother, not sulphurous and metallic and redolent of Hell.
But visions of the fiend were not all that common, either.Stefanie found herself wishing that, as long as her visions were fated to continue, she might at least see the Holy Mother, or an angel, and thus join the ranks of the traditional, the elect, the old guard, the blessed.
She put down her pen, suddenly aware of distant noise, her attention distracted by a growing commotion outside. The even pitch of traffic sounds had been jarred into dissonance. A concentrated shouting rose from the busy street below, the knotted clamor of an accident or other intrusive event. Stefanie went to the window and looked down on the Mariahilferstrasse. Traffic was moving, but slowly, and a trolley car sat immobile in the middle of the roadway. Some of its passengers were dismounting gingerly, as if dazed, but not, apparently, injured; there was no blood, at least, and everyone was upright. On the pavement small groups were breaking apart and coming together again like plant cells under a magnifying glass, moving here and there with no apparent purpose until, as Stefanie watched, one tight nucleus of a dozen or so raincoated men made in a body for the neighboring offices of the Neue Freie Presse. Shouts rose, faintly. Stefanie opened a window. She heard yells and cries, but none of the laughter that might be expected from crowds celebrating the traditional Viennese feast day of Peter and Paul. Her neighbor, Frau Schmidt, an aging ex-actress from the Burgtheater of yore, was leaning out her window next door.
“What is it, Fraulein von Rothenberg?”
“I don’t know, Frau Schmidt. Perhaps an eminent personage has died.” Had Franz Josef applied once again at death’s door and finally been admitted? No; the alarums in the street had all the earmarks of something more violent, unexpected, and crowd-creating. There was continued shouting, but no aggression or arguing, therefore no opinions in opposition as there would be after, say, an election, or a sports event. A few men were leaning against the wall of the building opposite, clearly stunned by some great herd-emotion. A unit of mounted policemen was cantering three abreast down the broad avenue with no other apparent purpose than to convey the reassurance of armed authority.
“Franz Ferdinand!” bawled a youth directly below, seeing the inquisitive faces at the windows. He mimed a gun, held it to his head. “Dead!”
“A suicide? Like Rudolf?” screamed Frau Schmidt, leaning so far out of her window that the strong hands of (presumably) Herr Schmidt intervened from behind to grab her around the midriff.“Oh my God! And the Duchess Sophie? Fraulein von Rothenberg, do you know?”
“No, Frau Schmidt, but I will find out.”
Impatient at the distraction, but impatient also to learn the truth, Stefanie ran downstairs and crossed the street to the offices of the Neue Freie Presse, a short journey that was nevertheless long enough for her to piece together from overheard scraps of conversation the dreadful news that the Archduke and his Duchess were dead—murdered—assassinated—somewhere in the Balkans, either Croatia or Montenegro, or was it Herzegovina...?
“What’s the latest?” she inquired of a rough-looking man smoking a cigarette outside the newspaper offices. The man shrugged and took a deep pull on his cigarette.
“FF got shot, didn’t he?” he said in a Hungarian accent, and pointed to a freshly posted notice on the newspaper’s public bulletin board.
“Although we join the entire nation in deepest mourning, as a result of the fatal attack by Serbian nationalists on Their Imperial Highnesses Franz Ferdinand and Sophie in Sarajevo this office will remain open indefinitely for official dispatches ONLY. All other business is suspended. Accredited representatives please contact Herr Direktor Kommerz-Rath Dr. Heiliger for any further information, Telephone (Schönbrunn Exchange) 122-8.”
It was a violent re-awakening of the hard world of human reality to which Stefanie, adrift in mysticism and speculation, had given so little thought for so long.
“Please tell me what it means, Fraulein von Rothenberg,” begged Frau Schmidt, when Stefanie had returned with the news.
“It means that Charles will be the next Emperor, Frau Schmidt,” said Stefanie. “Or maybe we’ll get a republic when the old Emperor dies. I really don’t know.” And of course she knew not what it meant (indeed, beneath her quite genuine shock she was still, foolishly, irritated at having been torn away from her journal, in which she now wrote, “June 28, The Archduke is dead. Sophie too.”), but it carried away beyond the horizon of the irretrievable past a shimmering glimpse of the Archduke and his lady on a fine summer morning in Linz in 1907; and onto the blank wall of the future it cast the ominous shadow of Momentous Change. But Hildegard wrote of God and His falling stars. Munich, Odeonsplatz, 1914 In Munich, amid excited crowds on that first August day in 1914, with the sun’s rays slanting across the storefronts and in the air the drunken breath of war, Adolf Hitler found himself thinking about—of all things, on a day like that--her again. On his way to a rally in the Odeonsplatz honoring the advent of the long-awaited conflict (quick and easy, over by Christmas, Gott strafe Frankreich) he’d passed a photographer’s emporium on a sidestreet and the photograph of a young woman—adjoining a black-shrouded portrait of the late Austrian Archduke labeled “Our Cousin”—had caught his eye.
“Gott,” he exclaimed. “Steffi,” using the fond byname he’d never used to her face. His sweet girl from Linz. Das Süsse Linzer Madl! It was a near-perfect likeness, or so he thought at first, revising his opinion somewhat as he leaned closer and squinted at the photograph—of a younger girl than Stefanie, he could see that now, blonde, younger and with altogether less character in the face, a photographer’s model, or local débutante; still, the emotions the false likeness aroused were dense and entirely unexpected, because stifled for so long. A furious longing filled his heart, a sensation familiar only as yearning for his dear dead mother, or as ardent early-morning fantasies of Germanic nationalism. Was he in love? If so, better at a distance, he decided, perversely.
He looked at the black-bordered picture of the dead Archduke, for whom he felt no pity (an increasingly alien emotion)—indeed, the anticipation of what was already rumored (mobilizations, ambassadors recalled, Austrian troops shelling Belgrade) tingled in his veins like champagne—yet, nostalgically, he recalled that day when he and Stefanie and the Archducal couple had, in Linz, come together, under the guidance of Fate.
But Franz Ferdinand had been not only a Habsburg but a rumored pacifist, a liberal, someone with decided parliamentarian leanings, a dreamer of French and British dreams, a lover of constitutions and The Vote. Good riddance, then, doubly so. Good riddance to the whole pox-ridden ignorant lot, if the rumors of war were borne out by events...and they had to be, he felt it, it was as plain as the sun in the sky, even that fatuous clown the Kaiser had let slip a comment the other day, something about “inevitable corrections in the balance of power.” That was clear enough. And now Austria was invading Serbia.
Hitler went on his way with a backward glance at the nameplate next to the shop door: Hoffmann, Photographer, Sessions By Appointment, and promptly he made mental plans for a self-portfolio of photographs, himself captured on many reels, or plates: exaltation, deep thought, provocation, nobility, inspiration, dynamism. And yet, photography was an inferior art, a pale imitation of what could be done with brush and palette; oh, you could count on achieving an effect, all right, usually instantly, no thought required, much like play-acting, or the operetta, or ballet, those Viennese distractions, pastimes for the lower classes, inferior arts, all of them, and not surprisingly the pretty exclusive domain of Jews and Moravians and Slavs and other misbegotten groups (this was Adolf trying out his newly-minted contempt for entire races rather than individuals, an experiment that made him feel bold, fresh and reinvigorated, as if a great broom had made a cleansing swoop through the cobwebby obfuscations and parliamentary rationalizations of the mind)...speaking of Jews, one was waiting for him now, that rich Steinberger fellow who’d promised him a commission, the synagogue-creeping, carpet-crawling Yid (but his money was as good as anybody else’s, never forget that, said Adolf to himself). The Munich Adolf, like the Vienna one, was a hand-to-mouth freelance artist, a purveyor of kitsch on request, a mad but sober Bohemian, a slow-simmering ideologue. In Munich, however, there was no Heim für Männer, no Yiddischer Cerberus at the front door. Young Herr Hitler was lodging with a family, the Popps, in North Schwabing, good German folk, proud and pure and far blonder than Adolf. Thank God (in Whom Adolf believed only as in a kind of celestial aide-de-camp arranging his, Adolf’s, future appointments with Destiny) he’d moved out of Vienna, that Babylon of the races, to Germany, land of his heart, land of his blood, land of Hermann’s Teutoburg, altar of his destiny...
But the Jew and his shekels would have to wait. There was that rally at three o’clock in the Odeonsplatz. Momentous events were occurring, the fate of nations hung in the balance, the upper air was vibrating like a taut violin string under the bow of Fate, mighty armies were gathering, the world was teetering on the brink, nothing would ever be the same again.
For the first time in his life Adolf Hitler exulted in the simple fact of being alive.
Little Adolf’s Big War And then, of course, twenty million died. Cousin Fritzl lost an arm on the Isonzo River and was invalided home to Munich to preside over the birth of twin sons. Lance Lieutenant Helmuth Meinl served gallantly on the Eastern Front and was wounded in Galicia. Aunt Liesl, bored with Uncle Ernst and home life generally, volunteered as a nurse and cared for the wounded in a Red Cross field hospital near Gorizia. In the West, along the Ypres-Passchendaele line, in the 16th Bavarian Infantry Regiment, Corporal Adolf Hitler, company dispatch runner, found himself honored with the Iron Cross Second Class for bravery, in December, 1914. He was indeed brave, and comradely, courteous, and fair, with only occasional outbursts of nastiness, but no more, surely, than any other poor tormented put-upon frontline piece of cannon fodder; as his mates said, Adolf’s a bit bonkers but that’s perfectly all right, under the circumstances; it’s the ones who never say anything we really distrust. Yes, Jews and Gentiles alike praised Corporal Hitler’s soldierly skills and temperance, and they enjoyed his charming watercolor landscapes of the trenches (with, discreetly, themselves in the background, striking soldierly poses). Adolf accepted their praise but kept to himself. Only once, on a windy, wet March evening in early 1915, did he join his comrades on a manly jaunt, on that occasion (arms linked, even) to a snug and steamy brasserie in the Belgian border town of Vélochoux. After three mugs of vin chaud containing far more alcohol than he had been led to believe, Adolf allowed himself to be persuaded into a House of Tolerance on the Meuse canal.
“You’re a cute little corporal,” said the Belgian girl, no girl: a war widow of 27 dressed in girlish garb, fetchingly Germanic with blonde curls and a dirndl, soon removed. “Do you always wear your cap to bed?”
“Bed?” said Adolf. “Oh, no, no. At the front we sleep in bunks, or on stretchers, if no one’s using them.”
“You have beautiful eyes.”
Only the Teutonic spirit of dominance of lesser peoples, and a certain wry Victorian fancy of round thighs framed in garter belts, impelled him onward, and the result was eminently forgettable; indeed, Lison (the whore) had set about forgetting the cute little corporal by the time he departed, bowing, all Austrian airs and graces.
“Yes, yes, good bye. Please leave the door unlatched. Now I need forty more francs for milk and eggs,” she muttered. “Eggs I can get, but where I am going to find milk?”
Apart from that incident (unprogenitive, although a near miss in sperm-count terms), and a few political outbursts, Adolf kept to himself for the duration of the war—and how he loved that dear old war! At last, he belonged! How he loved the feeling of being a foot soldier in one of clean, heroic Hermann the Giant German’s apocalyptic struggles with Pantagruel the unshaven wine-bibbing Frenchie lout who was congenitally incapable of appreciating true Germanic genius. And Adolf emerged from the carnage that killed, appalled or maddened so many with a second, finer decoration: the Iron Cross, First Class. (That this entailed no elevation in rank reflected reluctance on his superiors’ part attributable to their Austrian corporal’s indefinable, sometimes almost spectral, weirdness.) Yes, Adolf Hitler was happy.Surrounded by death, he had truly found a higher calling that sustained him on his daily run from command HQ to the front lines through enemy artillery fire and a parade of horrors that would give nightmares to a lesser man. These horrors would invariably include, amid whiffs of putrescence and sulphur, lice swarming like small knotted torrents over mattresses and shoes alike; the sagging, rat-chewed flesh of corpses; spilled intestines (a hazard to slip on, especially for a dispatch runner like Adolf); shin-deep, piss-scented bilge, freezing cold up to knee-level; friable cairns and knolls of shit eroding seamlessly into mud; the occasional dead outstretched hand signaling nothing, protruding from the mud walls of a trench; the wide-open killing zones through which he had to run, message pinned to his breast, ducking and weaving and zigzagging through the hot breath and zip-zip of bullets and clump-clump of shells landing in the mud and the heavy burp-burp of the lethal French 75s; on spring days a mild sun beaming indifferently through the drifting miasmas and gun smoke; the muddy mess of sloughed-off uniforms, infantry belts, love letters, prophylactics, and other forgotten details of obliterated lives...yet to Adolf all this horror was poetry, of a kind. It struck a chord in the dense harmony of his soul; it was the poetry of manhood, of proud Siegfried, of Germany triumphant.
Adolf Hitler on the Odeonsplatz, Munich, August 2, 1914.