Codename: Parsifal

 The True Story Behind the Story

My latest thriller, Codename Parsifal, arrived on bookshelves this month. My eleventh novel and my twelfth published book, Parsifal is the story of three commando teams—American, Nazi, and Russian—racing to find the legendary Spear of Destiny in the last days of WWII.

The Spear, which according to legend was used to stab Christ’s chest as he hung on the cross, is more than a historic relic. The myth surrounding the spear claims that whoever possesses it will control the destiny of the world. General George Patton wants it. SS leader Heinrich Himmler wants it. And Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin wants it.

Codename Parsifal, of course, is fiction, but the Spear of Destiny is not. It has been part of the Holy Roman Relics since Emperor Constantine, the first Christian ruler of Rome, carried it into battle. And in the waning days of WWII, there was a very real search for the spear—and that search was the inspiration for Codename Parsifal.

So, this is the “story behind the story.”

During the heyday of the Holy Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Relics—bejeweled swords, crowns, and other items used in the coronation of new emperors—resided in Nuremburg, in what is today Germany. In the 1800s, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte coveted the Spear of Destiny, and as his army marched toward Nuremburg, the relics were moved to Austria for “temporary” safekeeping. Unfortunately for Nuremburg, the Austrians decided to keep the Roman relics. They remained in a museum in Vienna for decades.

Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, who grew up in Austria, also coveted the Spear of Destiny. In March 1938, the Nazis marched into Austria unopposed, an event known as the Anschluss. Within hours, the SS packed up the relics and shipped them to Nuremburg, where they stayed on public display until American and British bombs began to pound the city. The relics were removed from public display and disappeared.

In February 1945, Lieutenant Walter Horn, a German-born American Army officer, was interrogating German prisoners of war when one POW, eager to gain favors, mentioned he knew where the missing Holy Roman Relics were hidden. The Nazi SS had hidden them in a secret underground bunker built beneath a bakery in an area of Nuremburg known as Blacksmith Alley. The POW knew this because his parents owned the bakery.

The information stunned Horn. As a professor of art history at UC Berkeley, Horn knew well the value and historical significance of the Holy Roman Relics. He dashed off a report to his higher ups, then went on with his mundane interrogation of German POWs.

Horn’s report landed on General Patton’s desk. Patton believed in reincarnation and that he had lived several past lives as a warrior extending back to the Roman Legions. He also had an interest in the Spear of Destiny, having written a poem in which he fancied himself as the legionnaire who stabbed Christ. Before Horn knew it, he was standing in front of the general receiving orders to recover the spear—oh, and the other relics, too.

There was one problem, and it was a big one. The Germans were still in control of Nuremburg and were fortifying it night and day. Recovering the relics would have to wait until the city’s capture.

Or maybe not.

The Battle of Nuremburg was one of the most vicious battles of the European war. The fighting was literally street-by-street, house-to-house, door-to-door. Still, as the battle raged, on Patton’s orders an infantry company was ordered to fight its way to Blacksmith Alley and capture and secure the bakery and its secret underground bunker. They succeeded, but at a high cost in blood and lives.

Horn arrived at the bunker after the battle and found that the vault holding the relics was still sealed. After some wrangling and dickering, Horn persuaded local city officials to open the vault. What he found stunned Horn. The Spear of Destiny was there, but many of the most valuable relics were missing. Where did they go and why? And why wasn’t the spear taken with them?

It would take Horn weeks of dogged investigation to finally discover there was a second secret underground bunker only a hundred yards away from the first. There he found the missing relics. But that didn’t end the story.

Patton, a notorious collector of war “souvenirs,” wanted to keep the relics as war booty. General Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower, Allied supreme commander, wanted them returned to the museum in Vienna. Only after receiving direct orders from Ike did Patton reluctantly release the relics for return to the museum.

Of course, the plot to Codename Parsifal is nothing like Horn’s adventure, though the young lieutenant does make a brief cameo toward the end. Instead, the book's plot and telling parallels the story of Camelot's Sir Percival (renamed Parsifal for Wagner's famous opera) and his search for the spear and the Holy Grail.

And what about the Spear of Destiny itself? Does it possess some kind of mystical power as legend suggests? Who knows? Unlike other books or movies featuring the spear, I purposely avoided bringing the paranormal into the plot. 

The fact is, the Spear of Destiny taken from the Vienna museum may not even be the “True Spear.” Another spear said to be the Spear of Destiny resides in the Cathedral Museum in Poland. And the Vatican claims the True Spear is held in secret in St. Peter's Basilica.

Which, if any, is the real Spear of Destiny? That may be a mystery never to be solved.