Swiss in October: The Basel Bank Robbers

Alex Capus: Almost Like Spring (Fast ein bisschen Frühling)

When I picked up this book (for £1-2 in a second-hand bookshop), I had no idea that it was based on a true story. I had read Capus before – a series of vignettes about his town and neighbours – and I knew he liked to blend fact and fiction, so I just thought it was a stylistic choice to have quotes from witnesses, flash-forwards to people who are not even aware that events took place where they now live or work etc. It is far less experimental than that: while based on thorough research, it also imagines some of the back story and motives of the characters caught up in the events. Capus reportedly spent 15 years writing this novel – he wanted it to be factually accurate but also funny, sad and film-like. He certainly manages to infuse this rather violent tale with much charm and sprightliness.

The author himself makes the comparison to Bonnie and Clyde, the notorious American bank robbers who operated at roughly the same time, in the 1930s. In this case, we have Kurt Sandweg und Waldemar Velte, born on nearly the same day in the depressingly grey industrial region of Wuppertal in Germany. Friends since childhood, joined at the hip despite their differences: Kurt is tall, gangly, friendly ‘like an Austrian’ and can talk the hind legs off a donkey, Waldemar is short and taciturn, serious ‘like a Finn.’ Or so Dorly Schupp describes them when she first catches sight of them.

Dorly is a shop assistant at the Globus department store in the centre of Basel and the two young men walk into her life on the 13th of December 1933, looking to buy a record. They have left Germany, disgusted by the rise of Hitler, and were looking to make their way to India or America. However, they are continually thwarted in their attempts to go further afield – the paperwork is impossible to obtain, America has its own millions of unemployed people – and so they end up in Basel, carrying a gramophone as a souvenir from their stopover in Paris.

Waldemar (and possibly Kurt as well) falls for Dorly and invite her to walk with them on the banks of river. Dorly may be young and pretty, but she is not a naive youngster, and she wants to make sure that nothing untoward happens, so she invites her friend Marie Stifter along. It is this Marie Stifter, who only joins them once or twice, who links the factual part of the story to the fictional one. She is the woman who later becomes the grandmother of the narrator, who is not quite Alex Capus but someone close enough. She is from a village in the Basler hinterland, where everything seems so warm and welcoming, and all the neighbours know each others’ business. Marie is ‘promised’ to the best bachelor in the village, Ernst Walder, the narrator’s grandfather, but their is not the real love story.

What the women do not know, of course, is that the young men are on the run, having held up a bank in Stuttgart and killed the manager. They seem pleasant enough and keep postponing their departure, buying more records and going out with Dorly. On the 5th of January they rob another bank in Basel in a stolen car and with stolen pistols. Once again, they leave with barely any cash but having shot the director and the cashier. The inept duo then try to leave the region, but fail to make it into Spain, fail to board a ship in Marseille. Waldemar writes lovelorn letters to Dorly, wondering if there is any place for the three of them to start over:

All this hassle with passports and visas and transit permits and timetables, this eternal money changing… it goes on forever and what’s the upshot? You realise that the world is one big fortress. A prison, an inescapable Alcatraz… If you really wanted to escape and not simply run from one cell into the next, you’d have to go further afield, much further – to the last blank spaces on the map. There are always some somewhere, but it’s a peculiarity of blank spaces that you can’t get to them. Otherwise they wouldn’t be blank.

So they come back into the lion’s mouth, return to Basel, meet Dorly again. They are wanted men, of course, although no one is sure of their identity yet. As the police operation noose tightens around them, they try to escape, shooting more people in the process. When Dorly finds out what her new friends are capable of, she gives them up to the police and it ends in a predictable bloodbath as they try to avoid capture.

The Wanted Notice, warning that they are dangerous and armed.

The final chapters are in many ways the most poignant. We get to see what the newspapers of the time thought of this, the most notorious bank robbers ever to grace Swiss soil. The left-wing papers call them Nazis, the right-wing ones call them nasty immigrants and anarchists, the Catholics think they are manifestations of evil. Only one young girl shows any compassion for the criminals:

We grew up in the same era as them and have had to experience the world as they did, a world that gives young people no space, no scope for making the most of their talents, and has only one thing to offer: unemployment… Isn’t it understandable that they should turn their energy against that society?

We also get to see the reactions of their families and friends when they hear about their criminal lives and their violent death. Most poignant of all, we hear that Dorly had a hard time following the event, considered either an accomplice or a traitor, and booed by both sides. Her trail goes cold after December 1942, when she was supposed to move to Geneva. She never showed up there, however.

Capus said that, after publishing the novel, he would sometimes have people coming up to him and telling him they knew some of the people involved or had worked at Globus at the time themselves etc. He is still waiting, he says, for an old lady to stand up in the audience at some point and say: ‘But I wasn’t working in the record section of the store!’ There are some reports that she changed her name and lived to a ripe old age, married and had children, but I’m not sure whether we can believe that. Besides, isn’t the wistful and mysterious ending rather more beautiful?

Funnily enough, after reading the book, I realised that I had read Caroline’s review (she lives in Basel so is even closer to the locations described there), but had forgotten the bit about the ‘true story’ part.