Of all the cities that you could choose to go mad in, Berlin would probably not be the best. Not that Michael had much choice. It just kind of happened. Sure, it could have been worse - he could have been in the middle of the desert, a superpub in Brighton or a Vegas tittybar. But Berlin, given it's somewhat haunted nature, does provide a rarified backdrop for a psychotic episode.
'The border between "the real" and "the unreal" is not fixed, but just marks the last place where rival gangs of shamans fought each other to a standstill'
- Robert Anton Wilson
Michael had wanted to visit Berlin since he'd been about ten years old. He wanted to see the Reichstag, to stand at the Brandenburg Gate, to see what was left of the wall, to stand at the site of the book burnings. He'd done all of this in his three days here so far, but today was the highlight - the big Nazi walking tour of Berlin. And he was having a ball. His old man was a Second World War buff and much of it had rubbed off on Michael. His adoptive father had lived through the war. A man who had seen Laurel and Hardy on stage.
When he was eleven, Michael had stolen a glance at a history book which his father kept on a shelf in the front room, just out of a child's reach. It contained vivid pictures of Berlin during the last days of the Third Reich. Shells. Mayhem. Air raid alarms. Shattered buildings. Dismembered bodies. Terrified teenagers in ill-fitting uniforms. Images that were seared into his mind. Old one-ball himself standing outside his shuddering Fuhrerbunker, the cold biting at his face as the last shreds of his empire fell apart around him. The Fuhrerbunker. The very name had given Michael the fear, making the small hairs on the back of his arm stand up. Where Hitler and Eva Braun had taken their lives. Where Goebbels and his wife had seen off their six children and then themselves. Where their bodies were burnt in a pit rather than let them fall into the hands of the advancing Red army. The Fuhrerbunker. It was the stuff of bad computer games, scenery-chewing movie dialogue and nagging, persistent nightmares.
Many times as a teenager his dreams had been filled with images of the water-logged corridors, the rotting furniture, the crumbling Nazi insignia, the echoes of clipped voices, the smell of decay and the dead, black silence broken only by a constant drip drip drip of fetid water on the frame of a rusted bed.
It was daft he knew, but Michael had long wanted to see the place for himself. Perhaps out of morbid curiosity, but perhaps also just to confirm, once and for all, that that bastard was dead. Now, 23 years after stealing a glance at a forbidden history book, he was here. Taking the big Nazi walking tour of Berlin with an American tour-guide called 'Mort'.
Mort had been a dentist in the US army, first stationed in Berlin during the sixties. He'd born witness to the wall divide the city, watched it come down, watched the city stand in horror as the SS torture chambers were excavated before the staring eyes of the masses, watched as the city erupted into a small civil war when the newly unified government tried to replace the eastern Berliner's 'Pork-pie hat' green man symbols on the traffic lights and had, he intoned with a wicked smirk, married two German women. The latter, the guide told them with a growing smile, had given him a greater qualification for understanding Berlin than anything else. No-one argued with him.
The tour had taken them around the whole city, showing them the fragmentary remains of Albert Speer's unrealised dream of 'Germania' - the super-city to be built on the site of Berlin. An imperial city to rival Rome, where 'the master race' would govern an empire that spanned the globe. Stumps remained. Starting at the corner of WilhelmstraÃŸe and MohrenstraÃŸe with the Albert Speer designed, Joseph Goebbels-run Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda (a soulless, neo-classical slab of granite which evoked shudders from the group) they moved on to Goering's Luftwaffe HQ (later the GDR government building where, in 1953, Russian tanks drove over people) and on to the location of Hitler's destroyed Reichchancellry. The tour was mostly a vision of things that were no longer there. In fact, the only piece of 'Germania' to really survive was Templhof airport - a now abandoned glimpse of an alternate Nazi future.
Whilst he enjoyed the tour and found Mort's stories gripping, Michael was anxious to see the Fuhrerbunker. Three hours into the tour his heart sank when he realised he had arrived at the location of the apartment complex in which he had been staying: a unremarkable block of flats from the 1970's off WilhelmstraÃŸe. This was close to where they had begun earlier that day. Slightly deflated and expecting Mort to wrap things up, he had almost tuned out when he suddenly heard him mention the word he had been waiting to hear all afternoon: fuhrerbunker.
'Where is it?' Michael blurted, all eyes glancing to him.
'You're standing on it' said Mort with a sudden smile.
'What?' said Michael, casting his eyes around him at the unremarkable car-park that he stood in. 'But, but, I'm staying in that apartment. That one right there' he said, raising a hand to point at a window some thirty feet behind Mort's right shoulder.
'Yep. This is the site of Hitler's Fuhrerbunker. Right here. It was destroyed during the sixties when the Russians threw some grenades down the shafts and sealed it up. Blew the place to pieces apparently' said Mort with a cheerful smile.
Michael's breath caught in his throat. 'But I've been sleeping here for three days...' he said weakly. Someone laughed. Michael didn't.
Mort carried on, explaining with expansive gestures where the entrance had been, holding up a laminated page showing a grainy image of Hitler and a young soldier standing at the entrance to the bunker, taken the day before he shot himself. Mort's voice began to drone in Michael's ears, taking on a dark, relentless beat. Cyanide. Murder. The shells getting closer. The madness. The screaming. Eva Braun dancing. The music. He could hear the music. What? How could he hear music? That was ridiculous. Boom. That was a shell. That was another. It was getting closer. I can't breathe, he thought. I can't breathe. Tingling in the skin. A heartbeat, getting louder. That shell was closer. Voices. He could hear voices. Over-lapping. Not in English. It was German. Another shell. A scream in the distance. The dull thud of anti-aircraft fire. The music. He could still hear that stupid fucking music. A click. Another click. Boom. The clicking and snapping of someone trying to light a zippo-lighter, their hands frozen in the night air. Click. Why do we have to burn this? asked a voice. A young man. Man - he sounded no more than sixteen. His face loomed out of the dark, the car-park retreating, evaporating like mist. He was a boy. Wearing a uniform. He spoke German, but Michael could hear him and understand everything he said. I don't know why, said another. Slightly older. Shivering. Click. Click. Snap. Boom. The concrete bunker walls loomed above them both. Why do we have to burn it? he asked again. It's so beautiful. It's a beautiful thing. A beautiful work of art. A black image slashed with light and moving figures swam across Michael's eyes. He recognised the painting without being able to name it or the artist. Why do we have to burn it, he asked again. Don't burn it said Michael. Please don't burn it. It's more important than you know, he told them. And they looked at him. Right at him. The fear on their faces trembled down their arms, where burning lighters shook in the breeze, flickering across the walls of the bunker. Don't burn it. Please. We won't, one replied. We won't burn it. But at a price, the other said. What, Michael asked. You're in, the young one said with a slight smile. Welcome to the game.
'Michael?' she said urgently, shaking his shoulders. 'Michael? Can you hear me?'
Slowly, Michael opened his eyes. There was a group of people standing above him, some smiling, some looking concerned.
'Did they burn - did they burn it?'
There was silence. 'I think you had a fall young man' said a kindly American voice. 'Take your time'.
Two people sat him up and another offered him a hot drink. He sipped at the thermos without saying anything, his breath rasping in the cold. He shook.
'What happened to me?' Michael asked.
'You fainted' said a woman with a British accent.
'The soldiers. Where did the soldiers go?'
'Oh pet,' she giggled, 'there haven't been any soldiers here for decades'.
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