Friday, 6 December 2013

Hess, Hitler, Churchill: An assessment of Padfield's theory.

The Remains of Hess' Messerchmitt 110 that were recovered
in Scotland.

On May 10 1941 Rudolf Hess, Deputy Fuehrer and close friend of Adolf Hitler, flew a Messerschmitt 110 – the wreckage of which is on display at the Imperial War Museum in London - to Scotland in a desperate attempt to make peace with the British and grant Germany a free hand in Europe. The traditional view of this bizarre turn of events is that Hess took the flight without the foreknowledge of either Hitler or the British government. It is exactly this theory - taken for granted by highly-respected historians and laymen alike - that Peter Padfield attempts to dispel in his new book Hess, Hitler & Churchill. Padfield argues that not only was Hess expected by the Mi6, but that he was unwittingly duped into undertaking his mission by false intelligence; intelligence designed to give the impression that the pro-peace and anti-Churchill clique in the UK was far more influential than it actually was.

Hess remained adamant until his death that his mission was not undertaken on Hitler’s orders, and Padfield attributes this to Hess’ sense of honour and duty to his beloved Fuehrer. But Hermann Goering - the Reichsmarschall, head of the Luftwaffe and original successor to the Fuehrer - was not so loyal and, after the war, would have had an even stronger motive to emphasise his own involvement in the attempted peace offering. In his post-war interrogation, Goering claimed that if Hitler had really wanted to do a deal with the British, he could have used ‘reliable semi-diplomatic channels through neutral countries’, and that his ‘own connections with Britain were such that I could have arranged it within forty-eight hours’. These connections included Swedish businessman Birger Dahlerus, but, as Padfield points out, the UK Foreign ministry was, by September 1940, already informing Lord Halifax that it had ‘had enough of Dahlerus, Goerdeler, Weissauer and company’. It is unlikely that, so long after the war, Goering was still lying about these affairs in order to protect Hitler’s reputation. Indeed, Goering openly criticised Hitler on military grounds while in Allied captivity. Also, if as Padfield claims, Goering was truly involved in this peace plan, why on May 13, 1941, did he berate Professor Willi Messerschmitt (the designer of the plane Hess used) for allowing it to happen? 
And if the peace mission was undertaken with Hitler’s approval, why would Hess have needed to acquire a plane from Messerschmitt himself? If Hess had indeed acted with Hitler’s approval, he could have procured one easily from General Udet. This does not necessarily disprove any of Padfield’s claims, but it would seem a strange course of action for Hess to have taken.

Padfield describes a May 4 meeting (for which he admits the original documents in the report cannot be found) between Hitler and Hess, in which Hitler lays out his intentions towards Britain. The proposals described by Padfield bear striking resemblance to those found in a document that was supposedly recovered after Hess’ plane crash, although not found on his person. It may indeed have been the case that Hitler approved of Hess making a gesture of peace to the British, but Hitler’s chief aide Julius Schaub recalls that the Fuehrer, upon hearing of the landing, fretted that Hess would be given ‘some drug or other to make him stand before a microphone and broadcast whatever Churchill wants’. Equally dubious is Padfield’s certainty that after a brief meeting with Hess shortly before his departure, Alfred Rosenberg - the leader of Hitler’s Foreign Policy Office-  travelled to Hitler’s home in the Bavarian Alps to inform Hitler of Hess’s flight. As Padfield documents without comment, Rosenberg himself testified in his post-war interrogation that there had been nothing out of the ordinary about the meeting besides Hess’ unusual behaviour towards his son. 

Histories of the Third Reich often speak of Hitler’s outburst at the news of Hess’ flight, but Padfield argues that this display of hysterics was a mere put-on, orchestrated to save the Fuehrer from appearing weak in the crucial months before invading Russia. Padfield partly bases this assertion on the testimony of Hitler’s attendant Heinz Linge, given some 35 years after the fact. According to Linge’s recollection, when he received the news at 9.30am, Hitler, who was usually still in bed at midday, was already dressed and shaved. It seems a leap, however, to conclude therefore as Padfield does that Hitler was waiting to receive the news. Padfield favours this testimony over the original and conflicting one given by Linge immediately after the war. Although this early testimony was almost certainly given under pressure from the Soviets, this newer testimony given nearly four decades later also needs to be treated with a fair amount of caution. Padfield repeatedly insists that Hitler had to deny involvement in the peace offer in order to avoid appearing weak, a reasonable enough assumption. Yet Joseph Goebbels - who the author seems to believe was also involved - wrote in his diary entry for May 14: ‘It’s rightfully asked how such an idiot could be the second man after the Fuehrer’. And as Ian Kershaw’s history of public opinion regarding Hitler and the party makes clear, the Hess affair was a PR disaster, so it seems unlikely that Hitler and Goebbels would have knowingly embarked on such a catastrophe.

On the subject of the Holocaust, Padfield does not conclude, as many authors have done - including Pat Buchanan - that mass genocide could have been prevented if Britain had made peace with the Third Reich. Instead, Padfield agrees with Professor Peter Longerich’s conclusion that the so-called ‘Madagascar plan’ - a plan to relocate the Jewish population of Europe to the island, often touted by revisionists as a more humane solution to the ‘Jewish Question’ - was genocidal from the start. Hadfield claims that the post-war cover-up of the Hess incident stems from Allied embarrassment over inaction in the face of Hess’ tacit admission that the Jews had been ‘basically eliminated’. Even today, the inaction of the Allies in the face of overwhelming evidence of genocide remains shameful; one need only recall Adolf Eichmann’s 1944 offer to Joel Brand in 1944, guaranteeing the lives of one million Jews in exchange for ten thousand vehicles for the Eastern campaign. Brand, who spent the war trying to save Hungarian-Jews from deportation to Auschwitz, was arrested by the British on the grounds that delivering the trucks from Istanbul would amount to assisting the enemy.

Although Padfield’s theory is not entirely original - and while he leaves many questions unanswered - he draws on many new sources, and his book deserves to be taken seriously. Most intriguingly, Padfield has been in contact with an informant, who viewed and partially-typed into clear English the peace proposals mentioned above. Yet one cannot help but be frustrated at this source’s anonymity. As Padfield puts it, the informant has provided a key to understanding Hess’ mission ‘yet… is in a sense the weakest link in the story, for he cannot be named; hence his testimony can neither be probed nor proved’. Historians have long grappled with this dilemma, balancing a desire to present the truth with a need to honour the wishes of the dead who confide in good faith. I am reminded somewhat of Dr Caroline Sturdy Colls, who has carried out research into the mass gravesites at the former death camp Treblinka in Poland. It is against religious custom to exhume the bodies of the dead - but wouldn’t it be nice to finally shut those Holocaust deniers up?  For the time being however, we must respect Padfield’s decision to omit, in an otherwise lucid and penetrating book, the name of a key source.

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