The Secretary, Catherine Hokin’s fourth Second World War-inspired novel, is a dual-timeline story set in the Third Reich Berlin of the 1940s and the Stasi-controlled eastern side of the city in the 1980s. Our exclusive extract is the prologue, which introduces us to Magda, one of the two main protagonists, and the Tower House – the novel’s lynchpin.
24 December, 1941.
Why had he given her a drawing? Why had he given her a gift at all? And why was he even here? His diary placed him at the Eastern Front for at least another week.
Magda couldn’t concentrate, her head was filled with lists. She had been so careful: she had replaced every letter and document his absence had allowed her to sneak a glance at, even though she hadn’t expected him back. She was methodical, she was never careless; she never assumed she was safe. So why was her heart pounding?
A sudden cough – the low bark she knew as a signal – pulled her back into the room. Walther. Magda caught his eye, and the brief nod which meant switch on your smile, straighten your shoulders.
A second later, she realised that Elsa had been alerted too and had followed her father’s gaze, her face twisting when she saw where it had landed.Elsa was a hawk, eyes everywhere, especially when it came to Magda. Magda knew she needed to make a better friend of the girl, the problem was how.
‘Fräulein Aderbach, look at the camera and hold your frame steady!’
Magda snapped her attention back to the photographer and smiled her best smile. It wasn’t until he was done positioning and repositioning his subjects that she managed to take a proper look at the drawing itself. It was a pen and ink sketch of a house, with an address and her name picked out in a gold scroll in the top corner. She had no clue what it meant, or why the men to her left and right were holding similar drawings. Her boss – Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler – had distributed his gifts to her and the others without explanation.
Magda forced herself to concentrate as Himmler began talking again, living up to his reputation for being long-winded. The first part of his speech had dragged on for an hour, the second could easily last as long. The special ceremonies Himmler had concocted to honour his beloved SS ran to timetables only he knew, and followed rituals he said harked back to the knights and quests Germany’s heroic past was filled with. Magda didn’t know if tonight’s Yuletide celebration – Himmler had forbidden his ‘family’ from calling it Christmas – was historic or not, but it was certainly macabre.
Himmler’s villa on Hagenstraβe in Grunewald – a wealthy suburb of Berlin tucked into the edges of the thick forest from which it took its name – had always struck Magda as a far colder place than it looked from its elegant exterior. Tonight, it was particularly austere. Himmler had removed the name from the holiday season and all the trappings that went with it. There was no tree weighed down with baubles, no gingerbread scenting the house, no carols. Himmler had instructed his guests to enter the wood-panelled reception hall in silence. He had left them there in a darkness so complete, Magda could barely see her own hand. By the time his carefully stage-managed theatricals had started – on the stroke of a gong whose loud bellow resounded through her body – the tension in the room was sharp enough to taste.
As the gong faded, a candelabra had burst into life, its flames welcomed by a ripple of voices too low for Magda to make out what was said. When it rang out again, a second set of candles had flared. This time, the murmur had separated itself into words, although Magda quickly wished that it hadn’t.
Let his, and our, light shine. Let his, and our, light shine.
The chant had whispered on and on, creeping out of the shadows and into the room. And then the third set of tapers had burst into life, and Magda finally saw them. The men in their black SS uniforms appearing like wraiths, intoning the chorus their wives and children instantly echoed. Soon so many candles were ablaze, the room glowed a dull gold and some of the guests were discreetly loosening their collars. Magda, by contrast, was chilled to the bone. She had been edging away, when Himmler had invited ten of his most ‘valued and trusted servants’ to step forward and had included her name with the chosen.
Walther coughed again. Magda refocused. Himmler was still speaking, his voice stuck in the monotonous drone his lackies told him was melodic.
‘These houses whose portraits you hold are your new homes. Treasure them: they are symbols of what this country will soon be. Every one of them once belonged to a Jew. Every one of them is cleansed by their removal. These streets are no longer defiled; this beautiful corner of Berlin is returned to us. As Germany will be returned to us, city by city, field by field, as our light – the Führer’s light – shines on in our hearts, and in our hands.’
He stopped. There was the briefest pause and then applause rang out, led, as Magda knew it would be, by Walther.
Himmler bowed and stepped forward, his too-eager beam fixed on his ‘lucky faithful’.
I have to thank him. I have to praise him to the skies or he will take offence and be done with me.
Magda knew what she needed to do, but her brain was stuck on cleansed and defiled and, when she opened her mouth, it refused to co-operate.
‘I can’t accept this. I can’t possibly—’
‘Believe my good fortune.’
Walther was at her side, his hand pressing onto her shoulder. Magda knew it was there to calm her, although it felt as if he was holding her in place.
‘And, given that you were my secretary before the Reichsführer’s, I am adding my thanks to yours. This is an honour for us both, wouldn’t you agree, Magda dear?’
Somehow she found the right words. Himmler lapped up her delighted performance and swept on to bask in the next.
Magda couldn’t move.
‘He trusts you. This is proof. You did it, Magda, you are where we need you to be; you should be proud.’
Walther’s whispered words as he steered Himmler away had pinned her to the spot as surely as his hand.
Magda stared around the room as the guests mingled, their diamond earrings and silver shoulder-flashes gleaming. She knew that Walther was right – that she had done her job well and convinced Himmler she was loyal – but the result of that was unbearable. The discreetly made-up women fawning over their uniformed husbands disgusted her. The scent of victory they wore turned her stomach.
We have played our parts so perfectly, they believe we’re the same as them.
Tears she didn’t dare shed pricked at her eyelids.
What if no one ever believes we were not?
The Secretary by Catherine Hokin is published as an ebook on 24 May, 2021. It’s the fourth of her standalone Second World War novels with a Berlin setting, following The Fortunate Ones, What Only We Know and The Lost Mother.
Catherine has written a number of Historia features about the background to her books, including:
The ‘hidden’ Nazis of Argentina
Concentration camps and the politics of memory
German reunification: still dividing opinion 30 years on
The Minister for Illusion: Goebbels and the German film industry
An appearance of serenity: the French fashion industry in WWII
Villa Hell in Grunenwald, Berlin, inspiration for the Tower House: via janwillemsen on Flickr
The wedding of SS leader Richard Pruchtnow, 1937, German Federal Archives: via Wikimedia
Heinrich Himmler, 1942: via Wikimedia