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On October 15, 1946, Fritz Thyssen visits Hermann Göring in his Nuremberg cell.
They’re not alone: an American service man brings Thyssen to Göring, then seats himself in a corner of the room and lights a cigarette. He seems bored. Earlier, he’d offered a cigarette to Thyssen, who politely declined, feeling odd when he noticed that he put on a British accent to hide his German tongue behind. He saw how the American pulled up one brow when the first sounds slithered towards him and felt instantly mistrusted. He wished he had spoken in his normal English voice with him now. Mistakes of the defeated.
Thyssen turns to Göring who sits on his bed but doesn’t look at him but plays with the buttons of a small brown radio. He’s also smoking. The small window is closed and the room fills up with fumes instantly. Thyssen feels as if he has to walk through fog to get to Göring, who now looks up.
“You’re much thinner,” says Thyssen. He wanted to begin with a compliment, fearing to find Göring behind a wall of defenses and grief. But when Göring looks sad and slumps even more in his uniform, Thyssen understands that he started out all wrong.
“I had a great body once,” says Göring. Thyssen has to suppress a chuckle. This doesn’t escape the man they used to call the «golden pheasant» and he says “I really mean that. I loved my body.” Thyssen lets this go and looks around for a place to sit. There’s a chair next to Göring’s bed, but it’s covered with books. There’s another chair in front of a desk. Thyssen glides towards it.
“You can’t sit there,” says Göring, “you’ll have to stand in my presence.”
Thyssen looks over his shoulder to the American whose eyes are closed while he smokes, holding the cigarette close to his mouth with two fingers as if he were feeding through it. Sometimes, Thyssen envies smokers and their easy way with oral gratification. The soldier wouldn’t help him get seated, this much was clear. Should he simply stand?
He quickly performs a calculation in his head: he always does this to calm himself down. Computing anchors him in something solid that nobody can take away from him and then he can respond with quiet power. In this moment he takes the amount of Reichsmark that he spent on Hitler in 1932, subtracts it from the assets that Göring officially took from him before putting him into a concentration camp and multiplies the result by the hyperinflation of this day back in the year 1923, which accumulates to an annual rate of 13,000%. Though the numbers are staggering, he takes immediate comfort from the fact that he controls them or rather, as he must remind himself, controlled them once, because right now he’s but a grain of sand in the slow, steady process dubbed denazification.
What’s happening in Göring’s head is more gruelling. He immediately recognises Thyssen, remembers him as a creative finance wizard, suppresses all memory of having put Thyssen into a camp, and develops an elaborate fantasy of potential freedom: what if Thyssen had heard how much weight Göring had lost and that he’d successfully kicked his morphine addiction. Göring knows that Americans are fond of dietary schemes: they don’t have a native kitchen, of course, nothing like the Germans, and are unhealthily focused on food. What if an American food company wanted to use Göring for a product marketing campaign of their produce? They could use photographs of him between ’33 and ’45 in all his martial glory, fat as a boar, always with a friendly, oily grin, a man on a mission, flying for the fatherland, and compare them with more recent photographs which show him more serious, gaunt, slimmed by Allied prison dishes: a man whom you’d want to have over for dinner, for sure. A before and after campaign that would draw on the sentiment towards the war in Europe. Picture one: Field Marshal Göring goring a suckling pig. Picture two: Herr Göring the gentleman converted and slender. However, this last picture lacks the lustre and tinsel that Göring has got used to. He’s put out by that and when Thyssen asks to sit down like a petitioner, he uses the power handed to him and forbids it. He remembers that Thyssen abhors smoking and lights another fag. Suddenly, it’s him and the American against the boss-man Thyssen.
Since days, Göring, who is supposed to be hanged on the next day, has wondered how much life time can be packed into a given number of hours—thirty-five to be exact until his death. He’s asked for a number of books that seem to cover this topic. Most of them seem to be by Frenchmen, like Proust, Bergson, Camus.
Thyssen doesn’t seem to be shaken by Göring’s command. He remains standing.
“I’ve come to say good-bye,” says Thyssen.
“But we’re not friends anymore, are we,” says Göring. Thyssen shakes his head, “more like foes, really,” he says.
“Follies,” says Göring, and Thyssen understands that he’s not just talking about their relationship, but about larger issues, “these were all follies of my youth. They can be excised like bad tissue, don’t you think? Don’t you think time creates tissue that enwraps us and when we want we can just take it off?”
“Like a uniform, you mean,” says Thyssen.
“Yes,” says Göring, but he’s already stopped believing in his own idea. Smart cookie, this Thyssen, who had never liked the uniform.
“I’ve brought something for you,” says Thyssen, who is only a messenger now. In the camp he had come to understand that he shouldn’t have tried to make history go faster or move in any particular direction. He should have waited for a message and passed it on, no more. He had been too impatient. But today he brings a message and that’s all.
“What is it,” says Göring, whose hands have wandered back to the small radio. Thyssen notices that it isn’t plugged in. Perhaps Göring is also waiting for a message. How does a man feel before his execution? Thyssen wouldn’t know. I haven’t had the privilege, he thinks.
“I’ve brought something for you,” says Thyssen, “from a friend.”
“Oh,” says Göring and drops his heavy hands into his lap. He bows his head and from above Thyssen can see how deep the bags are under his eye. Göring’s cheeks, once so filled with borrowed joy, are now folded against his skull bones like the leathery skin of a tired old bat.
“Who’s that,” Göring asks, “who’s my friend.”
“His name’s Robert Ballin,” says Thyssen, “I met him in Dachau.” Suddenly, Göring looks awake. Many events come back to him in a flash: in this moment, he is granted part of his secret wish to live a lifetime before his death, and he knows it.
“Thank you,” Göring says in a childlike voice, “thank you.” Göring doesn’t even know what it is that Thyssen will give him, but perhaps he senses its importance. Thyssen pulls out a box.
“Wait,” says the American. He drops his cigarette and stomps on it. He approaches Thyssen and asks for the box. He opens it and takes out one cigarette.
“That’s it?” he says. “That’s all,” says Thyssen in a thick German accent. The guard holds up the cigarette and sniffs it.
“Looks okay,” he says, and to Göring: “you want it?” Göring shakes his head, he’s still thinking about Ballin and how he met him, about getting shot at and rescued by a Jew of all people, but Thyssen raises his eyebrows and says: “Ballin really wanted you to smoke this cigarette and think of him.” He asks for the box back but the guard, suspicious, gives him only the cigarette. Thyssen takes it between thumb and forefinger of his right hand and gives it to Göring.
“You should smoke this one later when you’re alone,” Thyssen says slowly. Göring nods. Thyssen turns and says to the guard: “I’m alright to go now.” They leave.
Göring keeps the window closed. Listens to the wind run through the prison corridors like a crazy howling dog. Picks up the cigarette and looks at it. His whole life lies before him now. It’s all rolled up in this tube of tobacco. He puts the cigarette in his mouth and feels the resistance of the capsule embedded in the filter. “Ballin,” he thinks gratefully, then he bites down on the tip.