In September, 1913, at the age of eighteen, I left home to study art in Vienna.
Ah, Vienna! Looking back now, decades later, it’s almost impossible to describe just how joyous a city it was in those days and I thrilled to be a part of it though my very meagre budget made it difficult to enjoy much of the delights on offer.
I had enrolled at Akademie Schulz and, initially, I was intimidated, believing that my work inferior to my fellow classmates but, during intervals, I was able to sneak glances at their works and discovered that, in fact, my ability was every bit as good, with the exception of one individual’s work.
He was a rather withdrawn chap who came each day, worked intensely, and never spoke. Even I, the shyest person imaginable, at least said hello and goodbye. This chap’s work was, like his character, intense but, most importantly, it was magnificent and I was intrigued enough to introduce myself.
“Guten morgen, John. Ich bin Engländerin”.
Reluctantly, he accepted my proffered hand.
“Addy. Osterreichisch. Willkommen”.
From that moment, the shyness barrier having been breached, we began to meet outside of school and learnt that we had much in common: our budgetary restrictions, oafish fathers and, of course, our shared love of art which cemented our friendship. Addy showed me, how to survive on thin air by riding on the tailgate of a tram-thus saving the fare, scavenging the markets for disposed food and, fishing in the Wien River in the Stadtpark, foolishly stocked with trout by the municipal council. Budgetary restrictions became a thing of the past.
At term's end, I returned home to England and Addy saw me off at the Wien Hauptbahnhof. As we waved goodbye, I threw him the Christmas present that I had planned as a surprise. I watched from my window, as he tore open the packaging and sighted the brushes and watercolour paints and the twenty krone. I could swear that he had tears in his eyes and never had I felt such a wrench at leaving somebody.
Upon my return to a Vienna, thick with snow, I was distressed to find that Addy was unwell and unable to afford to heat his room. He had used the twenty krone to pay for his next term’s school fees, once again, choosing art over everything else. I helped him recover, providing fuel and food and. as Addy began regaining his health, I assured him that the future would be bright.
Towards the Summer break, Schulz, our tutor, suggested to me that I call upon a Herr Reinhold Hanisch who, he thought, might be able to assist in the sale of some of my paintings. I was astonished. Surely, I objected, it is not mine that might be worthy of interest but Addy’s but Schultz dismissed my friend’s work with two words:
Could he be right? Was Addy’s work too intense? I decided to look up Herr Ranisch and seek his opinion on Addy’s skill as an artist so, taking one of Addy’s paintings, I visited the small Galerie Hanisch. After a cursory look, Hanisch informed me that he believed he could sell as many paintings as I could provide him with deducting a fee for his efforts. Naturally, I was delighted to hear this and readily agreed.
When I informed my friend of this remarkable change of fortune, he broke down in tears.
“ Why are you so good to me? You are always looking out for me. How can I ever thank you, John?”
“That’s what friends do, Addy. They look out for each other. I told you your future would be bright”.
“Thanks to you, John. The best friend a man could ever hope to have”.
I was in two minds about returning home for Easter but the combination of the improvement in fortunes for Addy and a letter from my father, the first he had ever written me in my life, informing me that my mother was seriously ill, gave me no real choice and, so, once more, my little Austrian friend bade me goodbye at the station. This time, instead of shaking hands as before, we hugged, each of us a tear in our eye. Little did we know that it would be almost five years before we would meet again.
Mother died, sadly and, shortly after the funeral, came news that the Archduke Ferdinand had been assassinated. I knew, of course, that this meant the end of my artistic life in Austria for war seemed inevitable. I wrote, immediately, to Addy and his reply advised that he had tried to enlist with the Austrian army and had been rejected. It was now his intention to cross into Germany and enlist there. He assured me that, no matter what, though our two countries would soon be at war, nothing could break our friendship.
A month later, war was declared; the one they called the Great War, that would claim more than twenty million lives.
I enlisted immediately and was assigned to the army cartography department. My skills were put to great use as, for the first time, mapping allowed pinpoint accuracy for shells to be fired on unsighted targets and range could be calculated without the need for several establishing shots.
As for Addy, I learnt, years later, that my friend had succeeded in enlisting in the Bavarian Army and had served on the Western Front winning an Iron Cross, 2nd Class for bravery at Ypres, had, in1916, been wounded by shrapnel and, once recovered and promoted to Corporal, had taken part in the awful, bloody battles at Arras and Paschendaele; his bravery earning him the Iron Cross, 1st Class.
Once the fighting ceased, it was another year before travel between the European countries resumed normality. I was unsure how to reach Addy, having no idea where he might be stationed, so it was with great joy that I received a letter one day. In the missive, my friend brought me fully up to date re his war years and advised that he was now living in Bavaria.
In this manner we communicated for several months. In his letters, Addy conveyed a real sense of how Germany and its people were suffering greatly as the result of the war and the after effects following the Treaty of Versailles. There was much work that needed to be done and he was fully committed to involving himself in restoring the country to its former glory. Art as a career was, for him, a thing of the past.
We continued communicating and I always looked forward greatly to his letters. I did what I could, sending him items such as tins of assorted biscuits, chocolate, socks, writing materials and such like, knowing that there was a shortage of everything like this in Germany. Always, my friend expressed his gratitude and we remained great friends.
Years passed. After being de-mobbed, I had been offered a position by MI6 doing much the same work. Several years into the post war years, I made the mistake of talking about my friendship with Addy to one of my colleagues and, a day later, I was hauled up in front of my immediate superior.
“John, I understand that you are very friendly with a gentleman in Germany by the name of Adolphus Hitler. What can you tell me about this man?’
“He’s my best friend, sir. I met him many years ago when we both attended art school in Vienna. We maintain a regular correspondence”.
My boss looked at me carefully, assessing whether to believe me or not.
“You do know, of course, that this chap is very involved politically in Germany?”
“Well, not really, sir, no. I mean we don’t talk about our work. Our letters are more about the interests we have in common. I am getting married next July and I was going to ask him to be my best man, actually”.
“Well that’s not going to happen, I’m afraid”.
“Why ever not, sir?”
“Your friend led an attempted coup d’etat in Munich. It failed and he was arrested and has been sentenced to five years in prison”.
“Good God! I had no idea, I assure you”.
“I believe you, John, but, from now on, you must think twice about communicating with this man. He is heading a violent, political mob called the National Socialist Party and is a threat to the peaceful party that currently leads Germany. Do I make myself clear?”
I was shocked. Addy? An attempted coup? It seemed so ridiculous yet, if my boss said it was so, then, of course, it had to be true but, to think of Addy storming a building, standing on a chair and firing a shot into the ceiling, was madness. However, I did as I had been told and did not write to Addy again. Then, one day, about a year after he had been arrested, I received a letter from my friend in which he explained that he blamed the Weimar Republic for the desperate state that Germany found itself in and his attempted putsch had been an effort to cause a revolution. Even though this was a different Addy speaking, I could still detect the old Addy in the way he spoke, in particular, his words of fond friendship towards myself. He told me that he had only served nine months of his sentence and was now back at his former address. Against my better judgement, I wrote back. If I lost my job, so be it. This friendship meant more to me.
The years slowly passed and our correspondence continued and our friendship never diminished. Now a happily married man, it felt strange to read, occasionally, in the English papers, about my old companions’s rise amongst German politics. Yet, in our letters, never did we speak of this.
To my great surprise, I was asked to attend a meeting at Vauxhall Bridge Road, the HQ of the Secret Service International and, as I was ushered into a boardroom, I had a deep foreboding.
“Thank you for coming, John. Please take a seat. Allow me to introduce to you, Sir. Algernon Peregrine, Chief of International Intelligence. I won’t beat about the bush -we have something to discuss with you of the utmost importance to national security. Sir. Algernon?”
“Yes, thank you, Smithers. John, it is our understanding that you are very good friends with one, Adolf Hitler, and have formed a lasting friendship. Is that fair to say?”
I knew, once I had been ordered to attend, that this had to be about Addy. I nodded.
Malcolm Smithers, my boss, then surprised me.
“We know, of course, that despite being warned not to, you have maintained a correspondence with Herr Hitler”.
‘You’ve been watching me?”
“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic. It’s what we do. Of course I knew that you would continue to communicate. You are only human, after all. But I had to ensure that nothing of any importance was being divulged...”
“And was it?”
“No. I’m pleased to say that you have behaved in an exemplary manner and your private missives have been above suspicion. However, that is not why I have summoned you here today. Sir Algernon, please continue with what you were about to say”.
“You have been asked here today because we have a matter of the utmost secrecy to discuss with you regarding Adolf Hitler and I need your word as a gentleman that you will observe confidentiality”.
“I give you my promise that anything discussed will remain top secret. I would never do anything to endanger my country”.
Sir Algernon continued, relating facts that shook me to my core.
“Your friend is the biggest threat to this nation. He heads a political party that is vying for power- the National Socialists -or, as we refer to them, the Nazis. It is only a matter of time before he achieves his aims, commences re-armament of Germany and poses a threat to the rest of Europe. Our information is indisputable and it is our intention to chop Herr Hitler off at the knees -before his evil schemes achieve fruition. You, as his his closest confidante, stand the best chance of getting close enough to administer a lethal dose of poison. We want you to make contact, advise your friend that you are planning to revisit your old haunts in Vienna. Don’t suggest crossing the border to meet with Hitler. Let him be the one who suggests that in his reply. At some stage, he will excuse himself to visit the toilet; this we know from careful observation. At that time, you will pour the poison that we will provide onto his food.. It is slow working. You will be well away before any effects begin to show. We shall be observing everything. I can’t tell you where we will be watching from in case you indirectly reveal the location but, at the slightest sign of you being at risk, help will be at hand. Are you prepared to do this for the sake of your country?’
I was being asked to kill somebody. I was stunned. Was it possible that the shy, reserved artist I had known and who I pictured still whenever I thought of him, had morphed into this evil harbinger of doom? It didn’t seem feasible.
As if reading my doubts, a file was pushed towards me. It contained a number of documents: diplomatic communiques, agents’ reports, telegrams -all clearly confirming that Addy was, indeed, intent on a long term plan to start another war.
“Thank you. I understand, now, the seriousness of the situation. I will, of course, do whatever is deemed necessary”.
Everything, from that point on, went accordingly. Addy, informed of my intention to re-visit Vienna, proffered an invitation to visit him in Munich and we arranged to meet on September 22nd, 1932 at his favourite restaurant, Osteria Bavaria, in Munich. I had been provided with the poison, no more than a tear drop but, I was assured, more than enough to do the job, contained in a hollowed out tie clip that I was to wear to the meeting. I was sickened at the thought of what I had pledged to do. What if Addy was not really the villain they made him out to be?
I took a seat at a table at the rear of the premises, on a level above the rest of the restaurant and which Addy had advised was his favourite spot.
Punctually, a large open Mercedes pulled up outside the restaurant and out stepped Addy; a very different Addy to the one I had last seen all those years ago. This version strode confidently into the restaurant and, spotting me at the back, broke into a huge grin and, there, at last, I glimpsed my old friend beneath the smart, grey suit, the strange moustache and the foppish haircut. As I stood to greet him, I could not contain my own emotions and I, too, broke into a wide smile. We embraced and, in an instant, we were transported back in time to our old Viennese comradeship. We reminisced, spoke of art, music, architecture, our speech free-flowing as ever. Together we ordered strudel.
“Ah, still the sweet tooth, my John”.
“You, too”, I rejoined.
Tell me, John, do you remember our fishing trips?”
I laughed at the memory.
“So, John, you cannot stay one more night in Munich?”
“I had planned to but I received word that my wife is not well. Nothing serious but...”
“Still the good samaritan, I see. Never mind. You must come back again, soon, so that I can show you everything”.
“I would love that, Addy”.
And I really meant it.
Our order arrived and MI6’s information proved accurate as Addy excused himself and left the table. The time had come finally -so soon. My hand trembled as, looking all around me, I removed the tie clip and watched as the tiny drop fall onto the pastry. If MI6 really was observing from afar, they would have clearly seen my action.
Addy returned to the table and commenced eating his strudel. I was transfixed.
“Come on, John. Eat up. It is absolutely delicious”.
I did as I was told and, soon, we were conversing freely once again. It really was as if we were back in Vienna. I was certain that this man was not scheming to take control of Germany.
“I say, Addy, would you ever think of visiting England?’
“I am an Anglophile at heart, John. But from a distance only. I have much work to do here in Germany”.
From that moment, as if a switch had been flicked, our conversation became steadily more serious as Addy lectured me on the wrongs done to Germany by England and France. As he spoke, that old intensity emerged - transposed from the canvas to the political arena. As his eyes blazed, I sensed the fanaticism that gripped him and, as if the scales had fallen from my eyes, I forgot about those times in Vienna for here, before me, was a real zealot and I finally believed what I had been told; this man was a true danger to the peace of the world.
After we had said our goodbyes, I walked, confusedly, away, struggling to come to terms with everything that had transpired, my uncertainty, the incredible transformation of Addy that had taken place in front of my very eyes. Suddenly, I felt ill for, in my misguidedness, my refusal to believe that Addy was really evil, before I had left my hotel, I had disposed of the poison and replaced it with... tap water.