The old lady sits in her favourite rocker. To her listener it seems unyieldingly hard, softened for her fragile frame only by the thinnest of cushions at her back. Her hair, silver grey, has lost neither its lustre nor its abundance, but is pulled back into the severest of buns. The smooth, shiny-thin skin of her face is flushed from the heat of the fire, embers glowing in the blackened hearth of this vast cheminée that so dominates the end wall of the salon.
Her voice, like her frame, is slight, and he finds himself realising that at seventy-five she is really only ten years older than he. Will the next ten years reduce him as it has her?
But still, there is a clarity in her voice, confident and unwavering as she begins the story she has heard many times, and no doubt repeated as often for hushed gatherings of silent confidantes. Thought-through, honed and polished to a professional patina.
He crosses his legs in his comfortable armchair and folds his hands in his lap, mirroring the storyteller, inclining his head very slightly to one side as she relates her tale.
His name was Paul Lange. A man who never took life too seriously. I suppose he would have been in his forties. Forty-two or forty-three, perhaps, and so must have been born just after the turn of the century. I am sure that he had never expected, in his wildest dreams, to find himself in a peasant cottage in the north of France in the early hours of June 25th, 1940, on the day the Armistice took effect. But there he was, listening to Adolf Hitler’s account of negotiations in the Compiègne Wagon. And only there, apparently, because of his friendship with Hitler’s favourite architect, Albert Speer.
A group of them, adoring artists and architects, gathered around the Führer as he expressed his pleasure at reversing the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, forced upon Germany after its defeat in the Great War. Hitler explained how he had taken the very railway carriage in which that treaty had been signed from a museum, and had it placed on the very same stretch of line in the Compiègne Forest, where he then forced the French to accept defeat and sign an armistice that would cut France in two.
Herr Hitler was very pleased with himself.
Lange was impressed. He had fought briefly in the last war, then lived through the years of degradation and spiralling inflation imposed on the German state by the victors. Dark, troubled years, swept aside now by victory over the French in just six short weeks. Honour restored. But it was after one in the morning, and Lange was desperate for a cigarette as were, he was sure, many of the others. No one would smoke in the presence of the Führer, a former smoker himself who had issued strict non-smoking instructions to uniformed police, SA and SS soldiers when seen in public, even when off duty. There was nothing worse, Lange thought, than a reformed smoker. Perhaps he would be able to slip out later for a quiet smoke in the garden.
But not yet. It was almost 1.35 a.m. Hitler ordered the windows thrown open and a rush of warm humid air filled the house. In the distance, above a chorus of frogs and insects, they heard the rumble of thunder. A summer storm somewhere beyond the next valley, lightning crackling in an ominous sky. And then they all heard it. Clear and true, resonating in the night air. The bugle call that heralded the end of the fighting. Drinks were filled, glasses raised, and some of the party slipped off for that cigarette that Lange so craved. But Hitler caught his arm, dark blue eyes shining with the dew of victory.
‘A moment, please, Paul. I may call you that?’
Lange was astonished that Hitler even knew his given name. ‘Of course, Mein Führer.’
Hitler steered him towards the drinks cabinet and refilled both their glasses. Scotch for Lange, sparkling water for him- self. ‘In a couple of days,’ he said, ‘I’m going to take a little tour of Paris. No gloating, no triumphal procession down the Champs Elysées. Just a tiny group of us. A very private tour. You know the city well, I’m told.’
Lange was both surprised and a little disquieted that the German leader had been discussing him with others. ‘Yes, I’ve been many times.’ He glanced up to see Speer watching them, listening intently. ‘No reputable art dealer could call himself a professional if he weren’t familiar with the galleries and sale rooms of the world’s capital of art.’
‘Good, good. So many places to go, so much to see, but so little time. The Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and of course Napoléon’s tomb at Les Invalides. Where would you recommend I begin?’
Lange drew a deep breath. This seemed like an onerous responsibility. ‘I would start with the Opéra, sir. It’s one of the most beautiful buildings to be found anywhere in the world.’ Hitler grinned, and Lange saw why this apparently insignificant little man had inspired such loyalty and following. A charisma finding extraordinary expression in a smile that seemed only for you, eyes that held you unwavering in their gaze. It made you feel special somehow. ‘Good man. That’s exactly the start I would have chosen myself. And, of course, we’ll finish with a visit to the Louvre. It’s been a lifelong ambition to become personally acquainted with the Mona Lisa. Whatever one might think of the Italians, da Vinci was undoubtedly one of the greatest artists in human history.’
Lange felt a knot of dread anticipation tighten in his stomach and he flicked a quick glance in Speer’s direction. He could see his own foreboding mirrored in the tightness around his friend’s mouth. Clearly no one had told the Führer.
It was three days later, on June 28th, that Hitler’s little entourage landed at the tiny airfield of Le Bourget, north-east of Paris, at 5.30 in the morning. Lange and the others had been provided with field-grey army uniforms to lend this disparate group of artists and architects and sculptors a military air.
Awaiting them on the tarmac were three black sedans, including Hitler’s specially built Mercedes-Benz Tourenwagen with its three rows of seats and fold-down roof. Hitler sat up front beside his driver, SS Officer Erich Kempka, while Lange sat on the jump seats with Speer and a sculptor called Breker. Hitler’s adjutants perched in the back.
Lange gazed in wonder at the bleak, deserted suburbs of this fallen city as the little procession drove through the drab early morning light. Soon, more familiar Parisian landmarks began to grow up around them and Lange found it oddly depressing to think of it having fallen under German control. It was such an irrepressibly French city. German utilitarianism could only take the shine off it, the joy out of its joie de vivre.
Kempka took them straight to the Palais Garnier in the Place de l’Opéra, in the ninth arrondissement, where a colonel of the German Occupation Authority awaited them at the entrance. Lange knew Charles Garnier’s great neo-baroque building well, and took delight in Hitler’s pleasure at the great stairway with its excessive ornamentation, the resplendent foyer, the ele- gantly gilded parterre. Before they left, Hitler caught Lange’s elbow and whispered, ‘Splendid choice, Paul.’
Afterward, they drove past the Madeleine, down the Champs Elysées and on to the Trocadero, before Hitler ordered a stop at the Eiffel Tower to have photographs taken. At Napoléon’s tomb he stood, head bowed, in solemn contemplation for sev- eral minutes. One dictator’s reverence for another.
Finally, they arrived at the Louvre, with its vast Place du Carrousel, and twin galleries linking the original palace with the Tuileries. Lange and Speer had not spoken since that night at the peasant cottage, and they shared now a silent tension as Hitler strode off across the Cour Napoléon demanding to know where he could see the Mona Lisa, or La Joconde as the French called her. The colonel from the Occupation Authority struggled to keep up with him, head tilted down to one side, speaking in hushed and rapid tones. Lange and the rest followed behind apprehensively.
Suddenly Hitler stopped, his eyes darkening with fury. ‘Why was I not told?’ he shouted. And he turned towards his little coterie of artists. ‘Who knew?’
‘Knew what, Mein Führer?’ Lange thought Speer’s disingenuousness was horribly transparent.
‘The bloody French have emptied the entire museum. Ten months ago! Shipped every last piece of art off to châteaux in the Loire. In the Free French Zone. La Joconde among them.’
Lange watched the spittle of Hitler’s anger gather at the corners of his mouth. He said, ‘I imagine, sir, that they moved the art out of Paris to protect it from possible bombing. Who could have guessed that we would defeat them in six weeks with barely a fight?’
But Hitler was not to be mollified. His anger seethed in a long, dangerous silence, before he turned and marched back through his band of artists, dividing them like the Red Sea, shadows cast long across the cobbles as the sun rose above the skyline. ‘This tour is over! We will not be back to this accursed city.’ The royal we, it seemed.
And he never did return.
The old lady is silent for a long time, then, before turning to her listener. ‘Could you put a couple of logs on the fire, please? I feel the temperature falling.’
‘Of course.’ Her listener eases himself out of his armchair to take three fresh logs from the basket and throw them on to the embers. Red sparks fly up against the black, tarred stone, and the new logs crackle and spit and issue smoke into the upper reaches of the chimney.
When he sits down again, she watches the logs until the first flames lick up around them, and, satisfied that they have caught, settles back to continue her story.
It was a week later, after their return to Germany, that Lange received an unexpected summons to a meeting with Hitler at the Führer’s mountain residence, the Berghof, in the Obersalzberg of the Bavarian Alps.
He made the journey by rail from Berlin, arriving in the early afternoon at Berchtesgaden, where Hitler’s Tourenwagen was waiting for him. If Erich Kempka remembered him, he gave no sign of it, taking Lange’s overnight bag to place it in the boot before setting off on the relatively short drive up into the pine-clad foothills of the Hoher Göll mountain that straddles the border between Bavaria and the Austrian state of Salzburg.
It was hot, the summer mountain air alive with flying things, and Lange removed his hat and jacket to roll up his shirtsleeves, and enjoy the soft wind in his face. The road was narrow, and Kempka had to employ all his driving skills to manoeuvre the big Tourenwagen around the bends in it as they climbed higher and higher. On his right, Lange saw the tree-covered slopes fall away to the valley below, tiny conurbations like clusters of toy houses following its contours towards a misted horizon. The land seemed to rise up all around them in both soft and jagged peaks.
Ever since receiving his invitation to the Berghof—a private messenger had arrived at his door with an envelope bearing a seal of the state, a handwritten note from the Führer within—Lange had experienced a gradual tightening of the muscles of his stomach. Increasing in severity now to a vice-like cramp. You wouldn’t have known it to look at him, but his mouth was desert-dry and his heart rate almost off the scale. He had no idea what Herr Hitler could possibly want with him, but he feared the worst. Especially after the debacle at the Louvre. Why had nobody warned the Führer in advance? No doubt the evacuation of the Louvre would have been well documented by German intelligence in advance of the invasion of Western Europe, but perhaps it was judged that Hitler had more pressing matters on his mind. The invasion of Poland, the declaration of war by Great Britain, the sabre-rattling of the Russians. Art seemed like such a low priority. And yet the Nazis placed so much store by it, trading in the international marketplace to augment their private collections, as if its civilising influence could somehow mitigate their inherent barbarity.
Finally, they turned off on to an even narrower private road and pulled in at a stone gatehouse beneath a shallow, tiled roof where a uniformed guard checked their papers. Hitler’s chalet perched proud on the rise above them, and Kempka only just made the hairpin before the final climb to the foot of the steps leading up to Hitler’s front door.
Lange slipped his jacket back on, donned his hat and ran quickly up the stone steps to a flagged terrace where Hitler stood waiting to greet him. Each raised his palm in the Nazi salute before Hitler extended his hand to shake Lange’s. ‘Glad you could make it, Paul. Welcome to my little retreat.’
Lange glanced up at the impressive building, with its terraces and balconies, and thought it anything but little. And acceptance of Hitler’s invitation to visit was not, he knew, a matter in which he’d had any choice. ‘It’s my pleasure, sir.’
Despite the temperature, Hitler was wearing a brown suit with a stiffly pressed white shirt and a blue tie. His complexion was ruddy, and his mood a great deal more convivial than when they had last met. ‘Come in, come in,’ he said, and led Lange into the cool of the house. The walls of the entrance hall were hung with paintings, some of which Lange recognised with surprise. Portraits of Hindenburg, and Frederick the Great, and Bismarck. A Canaletto reproduction. There were numerous family portraits. ‘My niece,’ Hitler said. And pointing to another, ‘My mother.’ This, a muddy painting illuminated only by a pale, sombre face and a white ruff. Either her hair was cut short, or pulled back from her face and tied behind her head. But Lange was struck by the family resemblance.
They moved then into the great hall. An enormous salon on two levels, with an elaborate wooden ceiling. Next to the fireplace hung a vast canvas of a naked reclining woman, a tiny cupid figure with a quiver of arrows about to release one at the recumbent beauty. Hitler waved a proud arm towards the painting. ‘Recognise it?’
‘Of course, sir.’ Lange wondered if this were some kind of test. ‘Venus and Amor by Paris Bordone. A wonderful piece of Venetian Renaissance painting.’
‘Bravo. You know your stuff, then.’
Lange inclined his head modestly, resisting the temptation to point out that the history of art had been his major at Frankfurt. ‘I have a personal preference for classical Greek and Roman art myself, Paul. It’s uncontaminated by the Jews, you see. Unlike the degenerate modern filth they are producing now. I find the impressionists distasteful in the extreme, and the so-called heroes of modern art, like that dreadful Spaniard, Picasso, are simply symbolic of the decline in Western society.’ Lange turned the brim of his hat slowly around in his hands, holding it at his chest, not quite trusting himself to speak.
Before the war, like many of his contemporaries, he had traded extensively in modern art. Now the sale of confiscated modern works on the international market was seen as a way of raising funds for the war effort.
‘Come.’ Hitler took his arm and led him out on to a wide stone terrace. From here it felt like you stood at the very top of the world, with extravagant views out across the Bavarian Alps. Only a scrappy handful of clouds gathered around some of the peaks, puffs of white in an otherwise unbroken blue. The further summits were lost in a heat haze that shimmered off into the distance.
Hitler perched on the wall, one leg raised, the other still planted on the terrace, and eyed Lange speculatively, for what felt like an uncomfortably long time. ‘Ever been to Austria?’
‘To Vienna, yes.’
‘I grew up in Linz. A beautiful city.’
Lange nodded, though he had never been.
‘The secret of success in this life, Paul, is to know your limitations, and play to your strengths. It has been a matter of eternal regret to me that I was not blessed with the talent as a painter that I would have wished for.’
Lange smiled in regretful empathy. ‘You and I both, sir.’ Hitler raised an eyebrow in surprise. ‘You painted?’ ‘Very badly.’
Hitler smiled in return. ‘Then perhaps I was a little better than you. But not good enough. Not for me, anyway. And so I devoted myself to politics and the service of my country.’
Lange nodded. ‘At which you have succeeded rather well.’ He had heard that Hitler enjoyed praise. But there was a fine line between complimentary and patronising. Hitler’s smile suggested that he knew just how successful he had been, and did not need to be told.
‘The love of art is never far from my thoughts. It’s in my soul, you see. The quintessential expression of the finest human qualities, of aesthetics and sensibility, the human experience, the very human condition. Everything that separates us from the animals.’ He turned then to gaze out across the alpine peaks. ‘I have a dream, Paul. A dream of creating the world’s most fabulous museum. An eighth wonder of the world, where people will make pilgrimage to pay homage to the very best art of which Man is capable.’ He dragged his eyes away from his distant dream and fixed them once again on Lange, as if to make the dream concrete. ‘I’m going to build it in Linz. It will be my lasting legacy. The heritage of Nazism in its purest form.’ He paused. ‘Does that excite you?’
‘Very much, sir.’
Hitler beamed. ‘Good.’ He slipped off the wall. ‘But what kind of host am I that hasn’t even offered you a drink? Give me a moment to fetch my hat and stick and we’ll walk down to the Mooslahnerkopf for some tea.’
It took them twenty minutes, following the winding path down through the trees, to reach the tea room. Hitler wore a soft brown hat and walked briskly, swinging his walking stick and speaking of how he had once considered the total destruction of Paris. Lange was appalled, but nodded with raised eyebrow to suggest only surprise. ‘Having seen it for myself, however, I didn’t feel as if I could carry it through,’ he said.
Lange risked a comment. ‘I would have been disappointed if you had.’
Hitler glanced at him sharply. ‘Would you?’
‘I have come to know Paris well over the years, sir. There is much to be admired in its history and its architecture.’
‘Indeed.’ Though the Führer seemed less than convinced.
The Mooslahnerkopf was Hitler’s favourite tea room. It was built into the hillside, nestling among the pines, an unimposing rectangular building attached to a conical tower punctuated by windows all around its circumference. But they didn’t enter immediately to drink tea together in its cool interior. Instead Hitler led them out on to a grassy, horseshoe-shaped prom- ontory where he waved Lange to a seat on a wooden bench that looked out over the view below. Lange laid his hat on the bench beside him and loosened his tie at the collar. The walk down through the heat of the afternoon had brought him out in a sweat. Hitler, by contrast, seemed perfectly cool. He leaned on the wooden rail that delineated the outer curve of the horseshoe and studied Lange thoughtfully. With his eagle’s nest on the hill above, his tea room a few paces away, and a view of breathtaking scope behind him, Hitler seemed like a man entirely in his element. Very nearly godlike. You could almost believe there was nothing he could not achieve.
‘You’re wondering why you’re here, aren’t you?’
Lange’s smile belied the turmoil behind it. ‘It had crossed my mind.’
‘I want the Mona Lisa,’ he said.
Lange felt his skin prickle with shock. He held his breath. ‘Not for myself, you understand. For the museum in Linz.
It should be its centrepiece. Its crowning glory. Where else should the greatest painting on earth reside?’
Lange took the question to be rhetorical and did not respond. ‘And I want you to procure it.’
Lange felt a trickle of sweat run down the back of his neck. ‘For the German state.’ Hitler’s gaze swung away again towards the magnificence of the view below. ‘We cannot be seen, of course, to have stolen it. There would be international outrage.’ And he turned cold blue eyes back on Lange. ‘The painting should simply disappear. In the confusion of war, that shouldn’t be too difficult. But it will require stealth, and know-how, and above all, patience. You will have to await your moment, Paul. Choose it carefully. It may take a year, two, who knows? But its disappearance must not be linked in any way to the Reich. Then, at some future date, it will’—he shrugged—‘turn up in some sales room somewhere in occupied territory, and we shall confiscate it to put on display at Linz for safekeeping.’
A long silence fell between them. It was clear to Lange that this was not a request, but it was not obvious to him how he should respond. Finally, he nodded his head slowly and said, ‘Of course, sir.’
‘Good.’ Hitler pushed himself away from the fence, his dream banished for the moment to make way for practicalities. ‘You will be drafted into the Wehrmacht on a temporary commission. The rank of Hauptmann should suffice. You will be attached to the Kunstshutz. I take it you know what that is?’ Lange nodded again. ‘That admirable organisation for preserving enemy art in order safely to return it at the end of hostilities,’ he said.
Hitler beamed, apparently impervious to Lange’s straight-faced sarcasm. ‘Very well defined, Paul. You will be a Kunstoffizier, drawing a salary and expenses from that organisation, as well as comfortable lodgings in Paris. And I will see that you are provided with a letter of authorisation from my office, which will procure for you anything you might need.’
The sun was already starting to sink in the sky, and their shadows lengthened across the grass.
‘You have no idea how disappointed I was not to make acquaintance with the Mona Lisa in Paris.’ The merest of pauses. ‘I am trusting that I will not be disappointed a second time.’
The implication of the consequences resulting from a second disappointment hung briefly in the warm air of the alpine early evening, before Hitler broke into a smile, tapped the retaining rail with his stick and said, ‘Let us take some tea.’
Lange stood up to follow his Führer, and knew that his life had just changed irrevocably.
From The Night Gate by Peter May. Used with the permission of the publisher, Mobius. Copyright © 2020 by Peter May.