Alexander couldn’t remember where he’d boarded the plane. It was warm and sunny at the airport—that he did recall—so it must have been Spain or Greece, or maybe Italy. He was flying to Cologne, but his final destination was Munich. A strike at seven German airports had forced him to take a detour, so he would arrive in Munich by train, traveling at night, with stops in Frankfurt and Nuremberg. Ever the journalist, he thought for a moment about whether he could include details of the train ride in the article he would be writing on the Munich Security Conference. Frankfurt was the birthplace of Goethe, was it not? And Nuremberg had the Nuremberg Laws. And the trials . . . there could be a decent metaphor there. A continent swallowed by chaos and anarchy.
Alexander saw anarchy everywhere, even in the orderly line of jaded passengers waiting to board the Lufthansa plane.
There was something he could not understand about Europeans. Hundreds of thousands had died in the war already, and no one had any idea how the carnage might end. But did Europe even have an army? Was it building one? Did it have a state? There was a rather disorganized collection of countries—a contrast with how organized daily life still seemed in those days—but nothing like what an American or a Chinese might call a state. And those 30 countries spent a lot of their time bickering among themselves.
A colleague had once told him something so clamorously full of meaning that only a Financial Times columnist could have come up with it. Europeans were not from Venus, he said—they were from space. They had left terra firma behind.
By the time the plane landed, Alexander had settled on a darker theory. Maybe the whole phenomenon of European fascism and Nazism had a simple explanation: since Europeans were against every form of state and authority, only brute force could be used to rule them.
If only brute force had been used to stop this high-precision strike targeting seven major airports, just when thousands of dignitaries and journalists were descending on Munich to debate the global order and perhaps put an end to the war. Alexander pulled out the list of those dignitaries from his pocket and scanned it again. The opening address would be given by a “Ukrainian official,” as the program put it, for obvious security reasons. That was certain to be Zelensky, but Alexander amused himself briefly at how the description would fit the undersecretary for fisheries just as well.
A different strike, this one by air-traffic controllers in France, meant that the plane had landed a few hours late. The next train to Munich wasn’t until 4:22. Alexander had four hours to kill and decided that he preferred to wait in the train station, next to the majestic Cologne Cathedral. Two intersecting strikes. Europeans had gotten rid of borders so that they could more easily screw with one another.
The first inkling that something odd was going on came on the train from the Cologne airport to the train station. A young woman sitting in the row in front of him was wearing a tiny hat, the kind Alexander had only seen pinned to the wigs of circus clowns. And then they reached the station, the train doors opened, and he realized that the Cologne Carnival had begun that evening. The platform and the tunnels teemed with revelers, and he had to move through a huge crowd of them, mostly teenagers. But they were not exactly revelers.
They were, for the most part, implausibly taciturn. For an American, the whole thing was hard to understand. No two costumes were alike. Several people had pirate wooden legs, pirate eye patches, or pirate hats, combined with other accessories to form the most chaotic ensembles. As he walked to the ticket window, Alexander spotted three Santa Clauses, probably drunk, sleeping on the floor, arms tightly wrapped around one another. Someone else was dressed up as a polar bear, though he looked nothing like a polar bear.
The strangest part was how the carnival and everyday life had fused. The homeless beggars who normally lived in the station looked more zombie-like than the artificially contrived zombies. And when a riot policeman ran past him, Alexander could not figure out if he was a real policeman or a reveler.
After four hours of wandering through this packed underworld, Alexander was exhausted. This was what Europe always did to him. The constant profanation of everything sacred, the petty mockery, the inversion of roles, the futile search for the eccentric. All these kids were constitutionally incapable of having fun, Alexander thought. If he tried to teach them how to enjoy themselves, they might cut his head off.
Thankfully, the train ride to Munich proceeded without a glitch or delay. The next few days would be so eventful for our foreign correspondent that it never occurred to him again to write about the strike, the carnival, or even the night train through the forests of German and European history. In Munich, Alexander grabbed a quick cappuccino at the California Bean on Dachauer Strasse and headed to the press center to get his badge. When he finally arrived at the Bayerischer Hof, the regal hotel where the conference was taking place, the crowd was already heading to the main auditorium. Zelensky was speaking via a video connection. The next speaker was the German chancellor, who started with a little flourish about how he wished that the Ukrainian president could be in Munich because that was where Ukraine belonged: “At the center of Europe.” One day the war would end, and then Zelensky could return in person to the Munich conference.
European political leaders in those days, before the real crisis struck, exhibited a strange space sense, a Raumkonzept disconnected from the real world. Well, yes, Ukraine might belong at the center of Europe, but the fact that it had a border with Russia showed that it belonged where it was, and one had better deal with that reality.
“I was just with Christiane Amanpour in the bar,” a woman next to him said, but she was talking to someone else.
“And how was it?”
“Great. She is great. She is there.” The woman pointed to the bar, but Amanpour had disappeared.
The secret of the Munich Security Conference was the old and cramped Bayerischer Hof itself, which both equalized and distinguished. Alexander felt slightly depressed that, with the yellow band wrapped around his neck, everyone knew that he was a journalist, depriving him of the pleasures of genuine human contact. But he became conscious of those feelings only when a media liaison officer came to escort him to one of the private rooms reserved for scheduled interviews.
The room was unremarkably European: refined even in its lack of refinement. The walls were indigo blue. There were paintings of aristocratic men and women from a more elegant century, an antique wooden desk with inlays, and Medici vases mounted on two stucco marble columns. On one side, a table displayed a careful selection of cakes and fruit. Alexander sat in one of the large armchairs and waited for the European official he was supposed to interview.
“Supposed” is not the right word, he thought. Alexander was genuinely interested in what this man had to say. He was regarded as a man of vision, highly respected by both the heads of government sitting in the European Council and the European Commission, which explained why he had been put in charge of the two most sensitive files in Europe at that time: military procurement and the sanctions policy against Russia. A tenth wave of sanctions was scheduled to be announced within days.
Every good journalist knows that there are three types of interviews. Someone comes in with a bit of significant news that he wants to make public; or he works really hard at not making news. Between these two extremes, there are those who show up completely relaxed and seemingly without an agenda, and it is up to the journalist to drive the interview in exciting directions.
Alexander knew from the first question that the interview would be more or less useless. The official seemed to be quoting from his own public statements, the best way to avoid trouble. According to him, Europe had shown that it was united. The transatlantic alliance had never been stronger. Ukraine must not be allowed to lose, and it would not lose. Oscillating between boredom and annoyance, Alexander could not help himself. “Would you agree that Washington, and not Brussels or Paris or Berlin, has been leading the Western response?”
The official smiled. “I would insist that Ukraine is part of Europe and it has been leading. But look, Europe leads in its own way. We hide sometimes. And that means that our enemies cannot find us. This is off the record, by the way.”
The official got up from his chair, indicating that the interview was over. His aide, who so far had remained silent, offered to escort Alexander to the atrium, avoiding the need to call the media team.
Is something still off the record if it is said before the person goes off the record? Alexander shook his head. What did it matter? How could he use those sentences? They were weird—and weird is pointless.
Alexander turned to the aide. By then, they were going down the stairs to the ground level. “That thing about hiding. What did your boss mean by that?”
The aide laughed.
“Sorry, I don’t know your name. I should’ve started there.”
“Hans. Name is Hans. As to your question, well, I think I know the answer but am not sure I should be sharing it. Or why I should be sharing it. Are we off the record?”
“We are. But I have a feeling that this discussion will be too philosophical for my editors, anyway. No chance you’ll get into trouble, Hans.”
“Fair enough. Let’s go to the bar. But I have only ten minutes. Five, actually.”
Falk Volkhardt, who had inherited the Bayerischer Hof, had found its hall of mirrors almost untouched amid the rubble of World War II. Today, it was a stylish and hip bar, a stage elevated above the atrium with richly decorated ceilings and walls and large, gilded mirrors, along with neon lights in alternating colors, contrasting with the baroque setting. Alexander and Hans walked around the rectangular bar and sat on the sofas by the wall. Amanpour was back at her spot. Not far from her, an aged Sigmar Gabriel looked remarkably out of his element. He had been German foreign minister under Angela Merkel.
Alexander expected Hans to be reserved about his opinions; but on this, he turned out to be mistaken. His interlocutor was fully intent on leading the conversation and, it seemed, ending it as quickly as possible.
“I think this is the issue, Alex. Can I call you Alex? You think Europeans are wimps. No, no need to protest. It was obvious. My boss saw it, too, and he lost interest in the interview. But have you considered that what you see as weakness might be, let us say, deliberate strategy?”
“I just . . .” Alexander hesitated. “Not weakness, not as I see it. But lack of political vision, yes. This should be Europe’s moment. You should be developing what Macron calls strategic autonomy. And maybe even transform the European Union into a federal . . .”
“Why on earth would we do that? We spent a hundred years getting rid of the state in Europe. And we did it. There is no state left at the national level, and no state was built at the European level.”
“Not anarchy. Anarchism. There’s a difference, Alex.”
Alexander was momentarily speechless, so Hans continued, but he was now fidgeting, seeming eager to get up. “My boss and I, we do not see our mission as making Europe stronger. We like what we have here. A spontaneous order of feeling and mind. European values. So we focus not on destroying this . . . garden . . . but on making others as free as we are. That’s what distinguishes our continents, Alex, but for the time being, we work together.”
“I have to go, but please . . . it’s just that Munich is crazy. All these bilaterals. I hope you understand these five minutes—I could spare them only because . . . you are a serious guy. That’s what I mean.”
“Thanks. Can we keep in touch? I would like that.”
“Absolutely. What hotel are you staying in?”
“Not cheap. We are here at the Hof. And you’re still staying tonight?”
“I’m here till Sunday.”
“Have a good day, Alex.”
Alexander watched as Hans rushed back to the upper floors. The waiter had only just brought the two Negronis that they had ordered, and Alexander decided to have them both. The throng of people in the atrium had grown since the opening speeches. Alexander had a sudden flashback to the Cologne train station. He did not feel closer to a sense of order here. Everyone in the atrium wanted to hear the latest word from the most reliable source, something they could then repeat in the next conversation.
By the end, you might be able to produce an average opinion, but could anyone boast of real insight? Did anyone know where things were going? The trippy bar lights changed color every few minutes. Alexander did not believe in conspiracies, or at least he did not believe in conspiracies orchestrated by human beings. There were certain trends, and individuals contributed to them. Did these trends deserve to be called “conspiracies”? In a way, they were even deeper than human conspiracies. And that’s how he felt. Something was happening, and everyone was contributing to the outcome, but what that outcome might be remained, for now, a state secret.
Since his next interview had been postponed until Saturday morning, Alexander decided to leave. Every year, he took time to visit the Alte Pinakothek, conveniently located just ten minutes from the Hof. He had a predilection for the Old Masters, especially Flemish painting, which, for him, represented the summit of European culture. Flemish art always felt immediate yet expansive to him, connected with something larger that was now irrevocably lost. A Brueghel painting was part of the life it represented. You could easily see it hanging from the walls of one of the stately mansions it depicted. That was perhaps the last time an idea of order ruled over Europe.
By the time he returned to his hotel, Alexander had only a few hours to finish his first report. He had decided to write about whether Western democracies might move to a permanent war footing—from ad hoc wartime decisions to a wartime psychology and economy. He made a few phone calls and was in the middle of the last quick chat when his doorbell rang. A hotel staff member handed him a thick envelope. “This was just delivered at the reception.”
Alexander finished the call and opened the envelope. He realized immediately what the documents were about, even if many were not in English and would need translation. They seemed to contain some stunning revelations, but he had to finish his article before turning to them. The website could not wait, and his editor needed some rapid-fire punditry from Munich. He cobbled something together. They could polish it in New York.
When his editor called an hour later, Alexander had already been through most of the documents. It was clear that there was material for a bombshell story, assuming the authenticity of the documents could be verified. But this story would throw everything into enormous confusion, Alexander thought. It was almost impossible to believe. The stuff of a spy novel, surely. He felt himself falling into a formless abyss. The documents described in detail how the covert action to bomb the Nord Stream pipelines had been conducted. It was the most implausible of scenarios, one more of the many floating narratives, but one backed up by solid evidence. There were satellite data analyses, photos, transcripts of phone recordings. One name hovered above everything, but it wasn’t a name most of his readers would be familiar with. Alexander had been told by a Scandinavian official a few weeks before that the truth would never be known. “We cannot afford to know it,” he had told him. The official was wrong.
Illustration by Garry Brown