By Thomas Dunskus
Rudolf Hess in Spandau Prison, Berlin 1974
More than half a century ago, in May of 1941, during a conflict that soon widened into the Second World War, at a time when most people now alive were not yet born, a man flew unescorted from Augsburg in Germany to the Scottish highlands in an unarmed Messerschmitt 110 twin-engine plane which he piloted himself. The plane had been specially prepared for this mission by the installation of drop-tanks under the wings and various other modifications. He expected to be received at his destination by a number of very high-ranking British politicians prepared, he thought, to discuss a possible peace deal between Great Britain and Germany. When he discovered that no landing preparations had been made for him, he bailed out of his aircraft and was soon taken prisoner.
The man’s name was Rudolf Hess; he was Hitler’s deputy in the party and next in line, after Göring, for the chancellorship in the German government. From the moment he landed on Scottish soil until his death by strangulation in Spandau prison 46 years later he would never be a free man again. When his mission failed, he was declared insane by the German side whereas Britain was never able to make up her mind as to whether he was a prisoner of war or simply a mentally sick man who should have been returned to his home country under the terms of the Geneva Convention.
At the time of his daring flight, the National Socialists had instituted a number of anti-Jewish laws, they had instigated or at least tolerated a pogrom, and were following an expansionist and aggressive policy, but with some hindsight, one wonders why this man had to be shut up for the rest of his life by the Allied Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, whereas other figures among Hitler’s close associates who had, in later years, played a much more active role were released from jail after a number of years that appear reasonable under normal legal aspects. For the last twenty-five years of his life he was the only prisoner at Spandau, guarded by a detachment of the four Allies in rotation. His family was allowed monthly visits, but the conversations were supervised and strictly limited to personal matters. Various unsuccessful efforts were made to have him released on humanitarian grounds but all failed. His death is shrouded in mystery, the official version is that he hanged himself by means of an electric cord, but an autopsy revealed that the cause of death may well have been strangulation.
In the years after WW2, he became the subject of an occasional book, but ever since his death there has been a profusion of titles dealing with the man, his flight, his mission, and his end. It is as if his spirit refused to be laid to rest and continued to haunt his captors, for the majority of authors are British – Peter Padfield, Peter Allen, Hugh Thomas, Martin Allen, and Lynn Picknett et al., to name only a few.
Leaving aside some possibly far-fetched theories, the most recent accounts set forth a number of points such as
- Hess was one of the sanest, most internationally experienced, best informed, and least dogmatic men in the government of the Third Reich.
- His influence on party politics was guided by high moral standards.
- Despite official denials, he flew to Britain with Hitler’s full knowledge and support.
- There was a substantial British peace party in 1941, which included most of the aristocracy – and the Royal Family.
- His fate was closely linked with that of the Duke of Kent, brother of the British King.
- Winston Churchill guilefully used Hess and the peace party to encourage Hitler to wage war against the Soviet Union.
Obviously, the various authors concentrate on different aspects of this topic and have somewhat divergent opinions on the importance of the points at issue. Martin Allen’s most recent book The Hitler-Hess Deception is strong when it comes to the events, which preceded Hess’ flight. In a way, it is a sequel to his book Hidden Agenda, which deals with German efforts to court the Duke of Windsor and with the deal that may have been struck between the Duke and Hitler in early 1940; some of the personalities involved appear, in fact, in both works.
The main issue that Martin Allen as well as some of the other authors expound is that Hess’ flight was not at all a flight undertaken by a madman at the spur of the moment, rather, it was the culmination of a series of flights by Hess to meet the British “Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary on Special Mission in Spain,” Sir Samuel Hoare. For Allen, this was a sting operation set up by Churchill’s SOE organization with the aim of having Hitler wage war against the Soviet Union and thus relieving the pressure on Britain. Allen does not go very deeply into the question whether a peace party, possibly under the leadership of the Duke of Hamilton, actually did exist in Britain. For him the important point is that, regardless of whether it did or not, the Germans were led to believe in its existence and its ability to topple Churchill and were thus encouraged to attack the Soviet Union.
Once Hitler had been launched against Stalin, Hess became expendable, but as he knew about the initial overtures from Britain, he could not be set free, nor could any telling traces of the operation be allowed to remain. This was accomplished, in Allen’s view, by an immediate seizure of all pertinent documents still available in occupied Germany, and possibly even by the elimination of important witnesses such as Prof. Karl Haushofer who, with his son Albrecht, had played a major role on the German side in the negotiations with the “peace party.”
The book Double Standards, written by Lynn Picknett et al., presents us with a more detailed analysis of the political situation in war-time Britain; it strongly affirms the existence of a peace party, with, at its head, the Duke of Hamilton, the leading Scottish peer and, like Hess, an accomplished aviator. These authors leave open the question of whether this party was knowingly playing into the hands of Churchill, whether it was pressured into cooperation by the War Cabinet that had begun to intern political opponents, or whether its own peace moves were simply being used by the Prime Minister as bait for the Germans. The authors strongly underscore the involvement of British nobility, including the Royal Family, in the moves to end the war with Germany.
Double Standards deals in great detail with the various places where Hess was detained and with the circumstances of his transfers and conditions of detention. The book describes an attempt involving the Duke of Kent and aimed at spiriting Hess by plane out of the country, perhaps to Sweden, in the course of which all on board, except one man, met their death. This kind of theory ties in with the ideas of other authors who claim that Hess died or was killed at some time during the war and was replaced by a Doppelgänger who was suitably conditioned for this unsavory role. As mentioned above, however, this line of thought does not really sound convincing, even if the circumstances of the Duke of Kent’s plane crash have, indeed, remained mysterious to this day.
The general consensus of most authors is that, in one way or another, the Churchill government managed to encourage the Germans to attack the USSR, then waited which turn matters would take and eventually joined forces with the Soviet Union once the German army had not succeeded in overthrowing their enemy in a first onslaught. The question is raised here and there in these books as to what extent London informed Moscow of the impending attack. While there is no documentary evidence, the presence of the ‘Cambridge Five’ at crucial positions in the British administration renders it highly likely that Stalin was indeed made aware of what was going on between Berlin and London, even if he may not have been fed information via official channels. The Soviet preparations for a war against Germany (and possibly the rest of Europe) have recently been discussed in a number of publications that converge on the conclusion that the deployment of Soviet forces in the western part of the country was such that the USSR, later in 1941, would have struck out on its own had the Germans not made their pre-emptive move.
The question, which is looming large behind the many pages devoted to this subject, is why Churchill was so adamant in his negative attitude towards Germany, whether he was aware of the possibly horrible consequences of his decisions, and to what extent he condoned the scenario that he was conjuring up. Double Standards speculates that Hess may have gone so far as to propose to Britain a change in the German government with Hess becoming Chancellor and Hitler being moved to the more ceremonial post of President of the Reich. This is not unconvincing for, if Germany at Munich still thought that Britain would not become active on the continent, the situation was different in 1940/41 and may well have prompted the Reich government to become more flexible.
What is frightening about the British sting operation is the apparent lack of scruples, with which the Churchill government went about setting two dictatorships up against each other. The outcome of this duel was not at all certain; what was certain, though, was that the independence of the countries of eastern Europe was doomed. This consideration also invalidates the argument that Britain could not possibly made peace with the Reich, because London had, after all, gone to war to preserve the integrity of Poland. These are questions of political morality, and in a way it would seem that the increasing preoccupation of British authors with this turning point of WWII reflects the unease they are feeling with respect to major and in the end catastrophic decisions taken in their name and over their heads by less than a handful of people in Whitehall.
A clue to the question as to why Churchill acted in this way can perhaps be found in the documents reproduced in the German edition of Martin Allen’s book (Churchills Friedensfalle), which were only quoted in the English original. In September of 1940, Sir Robert Vansittart, Chief Diplomatic Adviser to the Foreign Office, wrote a letter to Lord Halifax, Secretary of State, on the subject of peace overtures made to Mr. Mallet, the British ambassador in Sweden, by Dr. Weissauer, Hitler’s personal lawyer:
“I hope that you will instruct Mr. Mallet that he is on no account to meet Dr. Weissauer. The future of civilisation is at stake. It is a question of we or they now, and either the German Reich or this country has got to go under, and not only under, but right under. I believe it will be the German Reich. This is a very different thing from saying that Germany has got to go under; but the German Reich and the Reich idea have been the curse of the world for 75 years, and if we do not stop it this time, we never shall, and they will stop us. The enemy is the German Reich and not merely Nazism, and those who have not yet learned this lesson have learned nothing whatever, and would let us in for a sixth war even if we survive the fifth. […] All possibility of compromise has now gone by, and it has got to be a fight to a finish, and to a real finish. […]” (emphases in the original.)
This letter is a most instructive illustration of the state of mind of the small group of people who governed Britain in the 1940s. It shows that the fight against Hitler was incidental; it was only part of a larger battle aimed at eliminating Germany as a political power in order to preserve the British Empire. Vansittart’s references to the “fifth war” – which Halifax undoubtedly understood – beg the question of the other four. Obviously, WWI was one of them, but the three others that Britain had supposedly fought against the Reich since the 1860s are somewhat mysterious, as there never were, during that time, any declared hostilities between the two countries. One can only surmise that for Vansittart the wars Prussia fought against other countries in 1864, 1866, and 1870 or such conflicts as the Boer War, the Agadir crisis, or the Baghdad railway project were, in essence, wars, in which Britain herself confronted the German Reich. Such considerations shed interesting sidelights on British activities behind the scenes of European politics throughout the 19th century.
Thus, in a vain effort to stem the tide of history and save the Empire, Churchill and the men around him lost not only what they were trying to preserve but managed to ruin a good part of Europe at the same time. The authors of Double Standards devote several pages to a discussion of the tragedies on all sides that could have been avoided if Hess’ mission had been a success. With a marvelously tongue-in-cheek attitude they also consider, side by side, the kind of Europe that, in 1941, would have resulted from a reasonable peace with Germany, and the political structure we see emerging today in the same geographical area: they find little to choose between the two.
While Martin Allen clearly casts Hess in a sympathetic light, the three authors of Double Standards go a step further. Like so many captains, they bear him to center stage and seem to say that, had he been put on, he would have proved most noble. With this regard it matters but little whether his final resting place is at Wunsiedel, next to his parents, or in Scottish soil, next to the poor fellows who may have crashed with him on Eagles Rock.
The final book on this subject still remains to be written, but certain and possibly crucial documents will not be released until 2017, and others have been transferred from official archives to the archives of the Royal Family, which are not subject to normal holding regulations. However, the existing literature contains information waiting to be exploited further, we can thus hope for more light to be shed on these events, which have so decisively shaped the world in which we live today.