Hitler’s Peace is a gripping alternative history thriller set in the Second World War, from Philip Kerr: the internationally acclaimed and bestselling author of the Bernie Gunther novels. Start reading the opening chapter below…
Friday, October I, 1943, Washington, D.C.
History was all around me. I could smell it in everything from the French Empire clock ticking on the elegant mantelpiece to the bright red wallpaper that gave the Red Room its name. I had experienced it the moment I entered the White House and was ushered into this antechamber to await the president’s secretary. The idea that Abraham Lincoln might have stood on the same Savonnerie carpet where I was standing now, staring up at an enormous chandelier, or that Teddy Roosevelt might have sat on one of the room’s red-and-gold upholstered chairs took hold of me like the eyes of the beautiful woman whose portrait hung above the white marble fireplace. I wondered why she reminded me of my own Diana, and formed the conclusion that it had something to do with the smile on her alabaster white face. She seemed to say, ‘You should have cleaned your shoes, Willard. Better still, you should have worn a different pair. Those look like you walked here from Monticello.’
Hardly daring to use the ornate-looking sofa for fear of sitting on Dolley Madison’s ghost, I sat on a dining chair by the doorway. Being at the White House contrasted sharply with the way I had been intending to spend the evening. I had arranged to take Diana to Loew’s movie theatre on Third and F streets, to see Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls. War, or indeed a movie about a war, could not have seemed more remote among the richly carved and finished woods of that elegant red mausoleum.
Another minute passed, then one of the room’s handsome doors opened to admit a tall, well-groomed woman of a certain age, who flashed me the kind of look that said she thought I might have left a mark on one of the chairs, and then invited me, tonelessly, to follow her.
She was more headmistress than woman, and wore a pencil skirt that made a rustling, sibilant sound, as if it might have bitten the hand that dared to approach its zipper.
Turning left out of the Red Room, we walked over the red carpet of the Cross Hall and then stepped into an elevator where a Negro usher wearing white gloves conducted us up to the second floor.
Leaving the elevator, the woman with the noisy skirt led me through the West Sitting Hall and along the Centre Hall, before halting in front of the president’s study door, where she knocked and then entered without waiting for an answer.
In contrast to the elegance I had just left, the president’s study was informal and, with its ziggurats of books, piles of yellowing papers tied with string, and cluttered desk, I thought it resembled the shabby little office I had once occupied at Princeton.
‘Mr President, this is Professor Mayer,’ she said. And then left, closing the doors behind her.
The president was sitting in a wheelchair, cocktail shaker in hand, facing a small table on which stood several liquor bottles.
He was listening to the Symphony Hour on WINX. ‘I’m just mixing a jug of martinis,’ he said. ‘I hope you’ll join me. I’m told that my martinis are too cold, but that’s the way I like them. I can’t abide warm alcohol. It seems to defeat the whole point of drinking in the first place.’
‘A martini would be very welcome, Mr President.’
‘Good, good. Come on in and sit down.’ Franklin D. Roosevelt nodded toward the sofa opposite the desk. He turned off the radio and poured the martinis. ‘Here.’ He held one up and I came around the table to collect it. ‘Take the jug as well, in case we need a refill.’
‘Yes, sir.’ I took the jug and returned to the sofa.
Roosevelt turned the wheelchair away from the liquor table and pushed himself toward me. The chair was a makeshift affair, not the kind you would see in a hospital or an old people’s home, but more like a wooden kitchen chair with the legs cut off, as if whoever built it had meant to conceal its true purpose from the American electorate, who might have baulked at voting for a cripple.
‘If you don’t mind me saying so, you seem young to be a professor.’
‘I’m thirty-five. Besides, I was only an associate professor when I left Princeton. That’s a little like saying you’re a company vice-president.’
I guess that’s not so young. Not these days. In the army they’d think you were an old man. They’re only boys, most of them. Sometimes it just breaks my heart to think how young our soldiers are.’ He raised his glass in a silent toast.
I returned it, then sipped the martini. It had way too much gin for my taste, and it was not too cold if you like drinking liquid hydrogen. Still, it wasn’t every day the president of the United States mixed you a cocktail, and so I drank it with a proper show of pleasure.
While we drank, I took note of the small things about Roosevelt’s appearance that only this kind of proximity could have revealed: the pince-nez that I had always mistaken for spectacles; the man’s
smallish ears – or maybe his head was just too big; the missing tooth on the lower jaw; the way the metal braces on his legs had been painted black to blend in with his trousers; the black shoes that looked poignantly unworn on their leather soles; the bow tie and the worn smoking jacket with leather patches on the elbows; and the gas mask that hung off the side of the wheelchair. I noticed a little black Scotch terrier lying in front of the fire and looking more like a small rug. The president watched me slowly sip the liquid hydrogen, and I saw a faint smile pull at the corners of his mouth.
‘So you’re a philosopher,’ he said. ‘I can’t say I know very much about philosophy.’
‘The traditional disputes of philosophers are, for the most part, as unwarranted as they are unfruitful.’ It sounded pompous, but then, that goes with the territory.
‘Philosophers sound a lot like politicians.’
‘Except that philosophers are accountable to no one. Just logic. If philosophers were obliged to appeal to an electorate, we’d all be out of a job, sir. We’re more interesting to ourselves than we are to other people.’
‘But not on this particular occasion,’ observed the president. ‘Else you wouldn’t be here now.’
‘There’s not much to tell, sir.’
‘But you’re a famous American philosopher, aren’t you?’
‘Being an American philosopher is a little like saying you play baseball for Canada.’
‘What about your family? Isn’t your mother one of the Cleveland von Dorffs?’
‘Yes, sir. My father, Hans Mayer, is a German Jew who was brought up and educated in the United States and joined the diplomatic corps after college. He met and married my mother in 1905. A year or two later she inherited a family fortune based on rubber tyres, which explains why I’ve always had such a smooth ride in life. I went to Groton. Then to Harvard where I studied philosophy, which was a great disappointment to my father, who’s inclined to believe that all philosophers are mad German syphilitics who think that God is dead. As a matter of fact, my whole family is inclined to the view that I’ve wasted my life.
‘After college I stayed on at Harvard. Got myself a Ph.D. and won the Sheldon Travelling Fellowship. So I went to Vienna, by way of Cambridge, and published a very dull book. I stayed on in Vienna and after a while took up a lectureship at the University of Berlin.
After Munich I returned to Harvard and published another very dull book.’
‘I read your book, Professor. One of them, anyway. On Being Empirical. I don’t pretend to understand all of it, but it seems to me that you put an awful lot of faith in science.’
‘I don’t know that I’d call it faith, but I believe that if a philosopher wants to make a contribution toward the growth of human knowledge, he must be more scientific in how that knowledge is grasped. My book argues that we should take less for granted on the basis of guesswork and supposition.’
Roosevelt turned toward his desk and collected a book that was lying next to a bronze ship’s steering clock. It was one of my own.
‘It’s when you use that method to suggest that morality is pretty much a dead cat that I begin to have a problem.’ He opened the book, found the sentences he had underlined, and read aloud:‘ “Aesthetics and morality are coterminous in that neither can be said to possess an objective validity, and it makes no more sense to assert that telling the truth is verifiably a good thing than it does to say that a painting by Rembrandt is verifiably a good painting. Neither statement has any factual meaning.”
Roosevelt shook his head. ‘Quite apart from the dangers that are inherent in arguing such a position at a time when the Nazis are hell-bent on the destruction of all previously held notions of morality, it seems to me that you’re missing a trick. An ethical judgement is very often merely the factual classification of an action that verifiably tends to arouse people in a certain kind of way. In other words, the common objects of moral disapproval are actions or classes of actions that can be tested empirically as a matter of fact.’
I smiled back at the president, liking him for taking the trouble to read some of my book and for taking me on. I was about to answer him when he tossed my book aside and said: ‘But I didn’t ask you here to have a discussion about philosophy.’
Find out what the President has planned for Willard, and how he becomes a key figure in creating the peace that the USA and Hitler crave in this thrilling alternative history… Pre-order HITLER’S PEACE now.