The Flame Sputters
Empire of Manchuria
Sergeant Yuuki Nakano walked through the densely packed streets of Beiyang. The street was bustling with merchants shouting their wares, people yelling at one another to move, and the barking of dogs. Yet to Nakano, these were a mere annoyance rather than a hindrance. A parting formed before him among the sea of people. Such things happened often to Japanese servicemen in the Empire of Manchuria. He didn't mind, in fact he expected such treatment. Japan had saved these people from communism and democracy, reinstating imperial rule.
Officially Manchuria, which stretched from their pre-1929 borders down to the Yellow River, was an equal ally to the Japanese Empire, but the truth of the matter was that the Japanese often looked down on their ‘friends.’ Orders from Imperial General Headquarters were to treat them like equals but many Japanese soldiers found that difficult. The Chinese, after all, were inferior. Shorter in stature, deformed features and skin too dark to be healthy.
The Jewel of the East had fallen from grace, into decadence and fragility. The time of the Red Dragon had passed, the Rising Sun was now in ascendancy. A new era in Asia was beginning.
Nakano’s squad followed behind him. Mostly conscripts, they had not fought in the Second Zhili-Fengtian War or even the more recent battles fought against the Chinese Nationalists in their failed Northern Expedition. They put on a brave face so as not to dishonor their families, but Nakano could tell some were nervous, perhaps even scared. They were young, inexperienced, and surrounded by a population that flip-flopped from friendly thankfulness to simmering anger on a day-to-day basis.
Walking, the troops neared a stall where the succulent smell of cooking meat came from. A Chinese man hobbled over, bowing as he did so. He spoke in Mandarin, a language Nakano knew a scattering of words, but it was delivered in some Emperor-forsaken dialect that he couldn’t work out the words. The merchant seemed to understand, instead moving to the side to show a selection of cooked meats impaled on small sticks.
Nakano and his squad took what they wanted and turned to leave, the matter done, but the Chinese merchant was braver than he appeared. He said something to Nakano which he didn’t understand but he saw the man’s hand held out and open palmed. The merchant gestured to it.
Nakano laughed. The balls the Chinese peasant must have had to confront a squad of Japanese soldiers after a few pieces of meat. Feeling good-humored, he reached into his pocket to fish out some money. The Chinese merchant stared at him with money-hungry eyes.
Pulling out a wad of cash, Nakano peeled off a few of the newly issued Manchurian yuan and placed it in the man’s hand. The merchant gave a sour smile. He couldn’t refuse his country’s new currency, but Nakano could tell he would have much preferred Chinese tael. The Manchurian yuan was notorious for its lack of value but the Japanese sergeant had heard that with the recent trade agreement between Manchuria and the Home Islands that the yuan would start to gain purchasing power as the Manchurians grew their economy, especially in mining and farming, to match the needs of a resource-starved Japanese industry.
To Nakano, that was acceptable. Japan was to receive the resources it so desperately needed without having to commit itself to a never-ending occupation while Manchuria on the other hand received hard capital. A mutual relationship, beneficial to both sides.
They continued to walk through the crowded streets. Japanese soldiers were a frequent sight in Beiyang, though the reception was typically lukewarm. The Imperial Japanese Army had taken a vested interest in maintaining a sizable presence in Manchuria to defend it from Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists south of the Yellow River as well as Mao Zedong’s Communists in Shanxi.
He had heard that the Nationalists were fraying, the cliques that had supported Chiang’s ill-fated Northern Expedition were rumored to be plotting against the Nanjing government and the other cliques. Some followed Chiang out of loyalty, others out of ambition but many had been defeated and forced to serve him and thus were looking for a way to get retribution..
An open secret amongst the Kwantung Army garrisons in the Empire of Manchuria was that the Kempeitai and Manchurian intelligence services were helping inflame such tensions to the south. An enemy occupied with internal affairs was less likely to strike outwards which suited Japan’s needs quite well. The Republic of China and the recently declared Soviet Republic of China would be taken care of, in due time.
It was towards the end of their patrol where they heard shouts and the blaring of high-pitched whistles. The crowd parted, but this time it wasn't for Japanese soldiers, but rather Manchruian ones. They marched in formation, five-by-ten. Behind them marched more soldiers flanking a gilded litter. The curtains were parted and Nakano was able to see the figures inside. One was the Manchurian Emperor Kangde, Aisin-Gioro Puyi himself. Two others were in the litter. One was the emperor’s wife Wanrong, who looked visibly unhappy, staring out the litter at the crowds bowing before them. The other figure Nakano recognized immediately.
“Form up!” he barked at his squad, who quickly formed up, standing at attention, their bayoneted rifles catching the late afternoon sunlight.
Puyi saw them and smiled, waving at them but Nakano and his men weren’t coming to attention for him but rather his passenger.
Yasuhito, the Prince Chichibu, turned to see them, nodding in their direction before turning back to Puyi. Nakano’s chest swelled with pride. It was not everyday the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne acknowledged those so low in Japan’s strict social hierarchy. But Yasuhito was a soldier and he likely saw them not as peasant born commoners but rather fellow soldiers-in-arms. Nakano could see his squad out of the corner of his eye, and could see they were similarly proud and honored.
Behind the litter marched a platoon of the Japanese Imperial Guard, followed by another fifty Manchurians soldiers in lock-step. Once the litter and its accompanying protection had moved on, Nakano and his men continued on their patrol, eventually making it back to the camp on the outside of town. Machine gun nests, earthen bunkers and a three meter wooden fence with wrapping barb wire protected the large Kwantung Army camp, overseen by dozens of watchtowers with lights and machine guns on them. Inside were mortars and light artillery, a motor pool of trucks, cars and a handful of
Nakano and many of the other non-commissioned officers, the corporals and sergeants who actually ran the Army, got together and went back into Beiyang, for pleasure rather than official duties.
Eating at a restaurant attached to a brothel, they ate their fill, laughing loudly and frequently. If any of the Chinese patrons or Chinese prostitutes cared they did not say so. The madame of the establishment, a woman who must have been a beauty back during the Russo-Japanese War, bowed profusely to them, gifting them free dishes and a free bottle of cheaply-made baijiu.
They had been there an hour, feeling up the girls, choosing the ones that would entertain them, the door opened and a dozen men entered. All but two were Japanese sailors, the other two were obviously White Russians. Judging by their clothing they were in the small Tsarist Navy. Though officially neutral, ever since its inception the Second Tsardom of Russia under the reign of Kirill Vladimirovich Romanov had grown increasingly closer to Japan, becoming by default a puppet state to the Land of the Rising Sun. So it came as no surprise that Tsarist sailors would accompany those of the IJN. What was surprising was that the Navy had come to the part of Beiyang under the informal control of the IJA.
Nakano stood, as did several of his fellow Army NCOs. They reached into their waistbands, pockets and holsters, showing knives, brass knuckles and pistols. The Navy sailors stood in the doorway, hesitant, before one of them moved forward, striding up to the bar as if he owned the establishment.
“Barkeep, a bottle of your finest wine for the Emperor’s finest sailors!”
The bartender, aware of the bitter interservice rivalry, busied himself wiping down the counter.
“Are you deaf, shina? I’m talking to you.”
Nakano, buzzed with alcohol and annoyed that his pleasant evening was being disrupted, walked over to the sailor. Grabbing the man’s shoulder, he pulled him around and punched him. Nakano felt the man’s nose break under his fist.
The other sailors started forward but the Army NCOs had already pulled out their weapons, the handful of pistols aimed at them gave the sailors pause.
“You broke my nose, you bastard!” the kneeling Navy sailor squealed through clenched fists dripping with blood and snot.
“Be lucky that’s all I break,” Nakano hissed, hoisting the sailor up and roughly shoving him towards his compatriots. They grabbed him and quickly left, the two Tsarist Russians looking bewildered at how things developed. After the sailors left, the Army corporals cheered and raised toasts to the IJA and to the Emperor, with one even toasting Prime Minister Tanaka Griichi who had been a general and later minister for the Army.
Downing a shot of the cheap liquor, Nakano stumbled towards one of the prostitutes who looked at the Japanese soldiers nervously. He grabbed her wrist. She at first started to protest but a quick word from the madame in Mandarin, too quick for Nakano to understand, sated her and her resistance fell though she was notably unhappy. They walked to one of the bedrooms above the restaurant, a small dank room that smelled of sex and mildew, and there he shoved her to the bed, a thin cot of blankets and a pillow. Grabbing her roughly, he pulled off her clothing forcefully, starting with the skirt. The whore didn’t protest but nor did she help.
“You better help or I’ll bash your skull in,” he slurred in terrible Mandarin and despite his mishandling of the language she either understood or could see the murder in his eyes. The too-dark girl paled and quickly peeled the rest off, revealing small breasts that he cupped and squeezed hard. He unzipped his pants and began.
After finishing, Yuuki Nakano smiled and rolled off her, the whore stifling a sob which he ignored. His wife back home didn’t do this, and if he was to fight and risk dying in this Emperor-forsaken country he might as well enjoy the benefits his deployment gave him.
Republic of Austria
The bus stopped in Floridsdorf District. Konrad Leichtenberg got up from his seat, grabbing the small suitcase and satchel that had laid there in the seat beside him since arriving in Vienna. Paying the bus fare of ten groschen, Leichtenberg departed the vehicle and it sped away, black exhaust thrown up into the air.
Leichtenberg looked around the working-class district, pleased to see a lack of leftist propaganda posters and leaflets. Vienna was not known as Red Vienna for nothing. In a country ruled by the conservative Christian Socials and the quasi-fascist National Liberals, Austria’s capital city remained a bastion of the Social Democrats and the Communists. Many of the National Council seats portioned for Vienna were held by those two parties.
Florisdorf, being a labor and lower to middle-class district, would typically be a SDAPÖ or KPÖ stronghold but it seemed the Social Nationalist focus on urban laborers was paying dividends.
Leichtenberg pulled out a scrap of paper, an address scribbled on it. He followed the spartan directions that he had been given at Vienna’s central bus station, and made way to the large warehouse-turned-headquarters for the Austrian Social Nationalist People’s Party.
banners billowed from windows with a large poster of Adolf Hitler above the entrance way. Guards in dark blue patrolled the perimeter and a couple stood at the doorway. Even in faraway Japan, Leichtenberg had heard of the Sturmwache
, the Party’s Storm Guard.
Approaching, hands visible out to the side so they wouldn’t think he was reaching for a weapon, Leichtenberg walked slowly and non-threateningly.
“Hold it right there,” one of the guards said, walking down the steps, keeping his distance. “Who are you?”
“Konrad Leichtenberg,” he said calmly, “I’m expected.”
The other guard checked a list he had in his pocket. “He’s on here. Meeting with Olbrecht.”
The guard neared him and nodded. “I’m gonna pat you down.”
The SW man patted him down. “He’s good,” the guard said to the other. “Go on in, talk to the receptionist. Herr
Olbrecht is not here yet.”
Leichtenberg nodded as he walked up the steps, the door opened for him. Entering, a pretty blonde woman at the desk looked up. “Can I help you, sir?”
“Yes, I’m here for a meeting with Franz Olbrecht.”
The woman checked some notes. “Yes, I have you down for a meeting in an hour. Herr
Olbrecht is currently not here, he is in a parliamentary session with the National Council.”
Leichtenberg nodded. The receptionist gestured to a chair against the wall. Taking a seat, he noted the nearby pots of coffee and fruits. Glancing around, he was impressed by what he saw. Despite being the third largest political party in the country, the ÖSNVP put on airs as if they were the largest or the leading member of a government coalition. For the next three hours Leichtenberg sat in the reception lobby, watching messengers come in and out, the guard shifts changing, and the natural light coming in from the high ceiling windows fading to dark.
It was when he was on his tenth or so cup of coffee that Franz Olbrecht arrived. The former colonel and aristocrat came in looking haggard and annoyed. The receptionist at the desk rose and saluted with her arm outstretched, shouting “Heil Hitler!”
Olbrecht returned the gesture and saying before he noticed Leichtenberg.
“Konrad Leightenberg, I presume?”
“Good. Apologies for my lateness. A National Council session went long. There’s a lot of worry from some economists that the American Stock Market is running too hot and too fast, and we’re trying to decide what we would do if a crash were to happen. Talk, talk, talk, that’s all they do. God, I hate politicians, doubly-so since I became one." Sighing, Olbrecht gestured. "Follow me.”
Leichtenberg did so, hefting his luggage with him. Olbrecht saw this and smiled. “Leave it behind the desk, Helga will watch it.”
Leichtenberg obliged, following Olbrecht further into Party headquarters. Arriving at a corner office, past the bustling back-and-forth of Party clerks and officials, the two men sat down.
“Can I get you something to drink?” offered Olbrecht.
“No, thank you. I’ve had enough coffee to keep me awake for at least another day.” Both chuckled at that before Olbrecht leaned forward, face all serious.
“So, why are you here?”
The question was blunt so Leichtenberg decided answering it bluntly would work best.
“To try and get a job.” Leichtenberg shrugged. “The new Foreign Minister, Heinrich Mataja, is cleaning house over at the Foreign Ministry. He’s putting his own people in place, especially those with the stain of controversy surrounding them.”
Olbrecht frowned but nodded for him to continue.
“Dozens of embassies across the world are being purged of Grünberger affiliates. It seems Seipel was unhappy with Grünberger’s management and wishes to refocus the Foreign Ministry to be more in-sync with his own plans. As such, I’m unemployed and I doubt the current government would hire me back on. My… modification of reports to Vienna cost me my government job and pension. I knew it would catch up to me eventually. I’m only hoping it was worth it.”
Olbrecht nodded at that. “The Führer
has told me on multiple occasions that his success in Japan was due to your efforts. And he predicted your patriotic actions would come back at a cost to your professional career. As a result the Central Committee has set up a position for you, one we believe you would excel in: Personal Secretary to the Führer
. Now,” Olbrecht began, seeing Leichtenberg’s expression, “I know it isn’t glamorous and it is essentially what you did for Hitler back in Japan, but you would have daily interaction with the Führer
, help control the flow of information to him, and be a key member of the Party’s inner elite. Your salary would be three hundred schillings a week, plus an apartment nearby rated at a steep discount. The landlord is a Party member.”
It was a large reduction of what he made as an Embassy First Secretary but considering he didn’t have a job, any money was good money. “I appreciate the offer, but I wouldn’t want to take someone’s job. Having recently lost mine, I sharply remember the sting that can cause.”
“An honorable intention but you don’t need to worry about that. The Führer
’s current personal secretary is soon to give birth to her second child and will be on maternity leave.”
“But when she comes back-”
Hitler has stated her intention to be a hausfrau
for the foreseeable future, feeling that if she were a stay-at-home wife that it would appeal to other hausfraus
“Yes, she has been an integral factor in the smooth running of the headquarters’ staff and relaying communiques to Hitler for years. The Central Committee has a high degree of confidence that you will seamlessly step in and help us in the push towards victory in the next election.”
Leichtenberg nodded. “Two questions, if I may.” Olbrecht nodded. “Where is Hitler and when do I start?”
“He is currently on a speaking tour in Styria and Carinthia. He’ll be back in a week or so. But you can start tomorrow.”
“I’ll see you then.”
Republic of Austria
“As you can see, mein Führer
, Villach is a respectable city, one that remembers your efforts fondly from back during the Carinthian War.”
Hitler nodded as he walked beside the Party chief for the Villach Section Jans Stuecker. The Kapitelleiter
, like many in the ÖSNVP, was a Great War veteran, having fought on the Isonzo Front. He walked with a slight limp, a hallmark of an Italian sharpshooter in the war’s final months. He was tall, blond with bright blue eyes, broad shoulders and a committed Social Nationalist. Stuecker was the perfect Austro-German Aryan, a credit to his race.
Ever since Hitler had arrived in Villach, a city a little over a hundred and fifty kilometers from the Austro-Slovenian border, Jans Stuecker had been beside him, showing him the Party offices and some of the leading donors who were generous in their contribution to the Party’s coffers. Hitler shook hands, declared bold claims and muttered assured promises. Anything to get the money, anything to get the vote. It highlighted the weakness of democracy, a system he despised only marginally less than monarchies and Communism, but it was the only potential path to victory in Austria’s combative politics.
Hitler walked at a steady pace, hands behind his back. His greatcoat was dark blue, to symbolize that he was not only Führer
of the ÖSNVP but also the overall commander of the Sturmwache
, though he left much of the day-to-day operations to Oberführer Starhemberg. As he walked towards the raised platform in Villach’s town square to deliver a speech, his mind raced. When the next election came about, it would be the make-or-break moment for the Party. Social Nationalism would either surge to governance or simply fade away into irrelevance.
The crowd, only around a hundred or so this far as the speech did not begin for another half-hour, parted, gently nudged by the circle of SW guards. Jakob Kuhr was just a step behind Hitler, off to the side, watching for any sudden movement. Hitler could see his bodyguard’s hand resting near a holstered pistol. As he shook hands, offering false smiles and friendly pats on the shoulder, Hitler’s mind went back to a meeting he had with top Party leaders a week ago in Vienna.
Walter Pfrimer, the ranking Party official in Styria, had traveled with him throughout Styria to discuss a potential coup with Hitler but grew frustrated at Hitler's insistence on avoiding it, citing a lack of broad support. As before, Franz was against it, saying that a coup would invalidate their government, and that was if they succeeded. The chances were far more likely to be that they would either end up as corpses in a morgue or as men in jail.
Pfrimer, ever the impatient gung-ho fighter that he personified, argued that they would only need a thousand men, or even just five hundred Sturmwache
, to secure key buildings and infrastructure in a potential coup. The Austrian Bundesheer
had few men and even fewer were stationed in Vienna.
The Social Democrats and Communists were hesitant to have the military, which had many right-leaning members in its command hierarchy, to have so many troops positioned so close to the halls of power. So a coup was possible to carry out but would have been infeasible to maintain. If his Party took over the government in a violent overthrow, then the people would be untrustworthy and unsupportive of it and that was the dreaded secret of dictatorial rule. A dictator’s authority is only as powerful as the people allow it. If Hitler and the Social Nationalists took over and stripped people of their so-called liberty then they would rebel, boycott and all sorts of passive and active resistance that would make governance of the country impossible.
However, if the people were to voluntarily surrender their freedoms for security and national interest, then, well, it would be far easier to maintain control and legitimize whatever actions his government would carry out. If Austrian democracy was to evolve into a corporatist-fascist state, the ÖSNVP must first win in a democratic election. The irony was not lost on him.
For the next thirty minutes Hitler mingled with Villach’s Party elite, noting with some annoyance that only a few newspaper reporters had shown up. He would have a word with the Section’s propagandist…
A shout shattered the calm event.
A gaggle of men approached from an adjoining street, dressed in gray trousers and greatcoats, a couple of signs above their heads read ‘Freedom, Not Fascism!’
and ‘Social Democracy, not Sozinat thugs!’
Hitler smiled. The Republikanischer Schutzbund
, the Social Democrats’ answer to the Sturmwache
They held cudgels, bludgeons and knives, and judging by their expressions and continuing advance they were itching for a fight. Standing nearby the pair of police officers had their hands on their service revolvers and were backing away, wary of the fight about to break out knowing they would only be caught in the crossfire.
Kuhr and Stuecker looked at him. Hitler frowned, eyes flicking over the reporters who, to their credit, had moved behind the stage, journals and pencils out, scribbling away. If his men, armed with pistols, started the fight by opening gunfire then the headlines tomorrow would be ‘Social Nationalists, Trigger-Happy Murders?!’
They couldn’t risk bad press, not at this time.
Hitler moved to stand near the front, a wall of tall and broad-shouldered Sturmwache
protecting him from the Republikanischer Schutzbund
“Sir?” Kuhr muttered, hand reaching into his coat pocket for the Steyr-Hahn Hitler knew was there.
Before he could respond, someone shouted, quickly followed by a single sharp crack of gunfire. There was a brief hesitation, shocked that a street brawl had turned into a shootout so quickly. Then the men on both sides reached for their guns and that was when the shooting started. One of the Sturmwache
, the one standing directly in front of him, was hit and fell over.
The screaming was loud and piercing, more and more pistols and revolvers firing, several people on both sides falling down, dead or dying. Blood, hot and sticky, splattered on Hitler’s face from another guard getting killed. Falling down, the corpse of one of his bodyguards weighing him down, Hitler watched on as a Republikanischer Schutzbund
ran up to him, pistol raised. Everything seemed to slow, the sounds were deafened, the only sound he could hear was his own heartbeat. The man was only a meter away and aimed his pistol.
Hitler closed his eyes as a gun went off.