Rudolph Hess is interesting as a source of conspiracy theories (see previous post, Rudolph Hess, 1/7/13). Hitler may have known about his peace mission in 1941. He may have been murdered by Intelligence operatives in 1987. There may still be further revelations on Hess from the British government in 2017. But none of this is what is really significant and even shocking about the strange case of Rudolph Hess.
Here is what I find truly astounding about Hess. His Peace conspiracy of 1941 challenges the way that we must think about the nature of "war," "peace" and "history".
Hess was an ideological National socialist, but he was also something much rarer -- he was a German who had great respect for and understanding of the British Empire. He was born and grew up in Egypt a British colony.
|Wellington and Blucher's Handshake at Waterloo|
The Hess Inspiration?
|La Belle Alliance, Houses of Parliament, London|
Charles Darwin was the great British scientist of evolution by means of natural selection in his book The Origin of Species. The British philosopher Herbert Spencer later applied the "survival of the fittest" to his interpretation of human society. Many 20th century scientists (some, but not all German) advocated an evolution of the human species by means of political selection guided by 'scientific' principles -- Eugenics.
|Commander K. at Queen's House, Tower of London|
Hess spent four days here in 1941
It is, therefore, not too difficult to imagine a counter-factual history in which the Rudolph Hess Peace Conspiracy succeeded in its goals. The war in the West could have come to an end. Many British and American lives could have been saved -- D-day would have been unnecessary. London would never have been smashed by German revenge rockets. About 700,000 German civilians and 100,000 Allied airmen might not have perished in Allied air raids and Dresden might never have been destroyed.
|European Map, May 1941|
What, however, would have been the cost of brokered peace between Germany and Britain in 1941?
1) There would have been a Nazi-led ethnic cleansing of the entire European continent. European Jewry would have been wiped out. The Nazis would have also been free to continue their genocidal persecution of gays, gypsies and the disabled.
2) The Nazi occupation of territory in the Soviet Union (Ukraine, Baltic Republics, etc.) was demonstrably harsher even than Stalin's brutalization of the Kulaks, farmers, etc.). The initial relief of these people on being liberated from Stalin was turned to gall by mass murder, forced labor and a deliberate policy of starvation by the Nazis.
3) Axis Conquest of the Soviet Union would have placed more manpower, resources and technology in the hands of Hitler for use in future conflicts. The Soviet T-34 tank, for example, was perhaps the finest World War II tank built by any nation.
4) Peace between Germany and Britain would have allowed Hitler's Reich to make enormous technological progress in areas such as missile technology, jet aircraft, snorkel submarines and atomic weaponry.
5) Given Hitler's record of unparalleled mendacity with friend (the fate of Ernst Rohm) and foe alike, who can doubt that any 'peace' deal with Hitler would have been a mere truce, a postponement of inevitable war rather than its elimination?
6) National Socialism was, at bottom, a glorification of war and a cult of death. A 'peace' negotiated by Hess would have made a united Europe Hitler's arsenal for the ideology of 'endless war'.
7) All of Churchill's stirring rhetoric from 1940 about the struggle between democracy and barbarism would have been exposed as mere eyewash in the light of a deal with Hess.
|Commander Kelly with WSC and FDR, Bond Street London|
We Americans tend to look back on World War II through rose colored glasses. We missed out on the the first three years of the war. Our cities were not bombed. Our civilian populations were not forced into becoming refugees. Our casualties were relatively light. Our economy and industry grew both absolutely and relatively during the course of the war (see earlier post, Freedom's Forge, 8/10/12). America emerged from the war as a superpower without equal. Our veterans would return to victory parades and economic opportunity.
We may lose sight of the fact that the Second World War was the greatest man-made disaster in the history of the world. Great swathes of the world ended the war under the boot of Stalin's repressive Communist regime. Poland lost about 20% of its total population during the war and emerged with less political freedom at the war's conclusion than it had enjoyed at the war's beginning.
The aftermath of the war in Asia would be bittersweet as well. Japan, its armed forces humiliated and its cities burnt out and devastated by atomic weapons, would rise like a Phoenix from the ashes of the war. The Second World War would sow the seeds for the scourge of Maoism (see earlier post Mao Ze Dong, Major Badass, 9/10/12) that would claim the lives of millions.
The British Empire that Hess had admired would, as a direct consequence of the enormous cost of war, soon belong to history. Its "finest hour" would also be become its final hours
Sustaining the morale of the western populations during the war was extremely challenging due to the war's casualties and reversals of fortune. Propaganda was used extensively and the truth was rationed along with butter and meat. The war was the greatest test of political will ever faced by the West. The Hess peace conspiracy represented a bargain with the devil whose acceptance would have proven far worse even than the bittersweet victory that was achieved historically.
Commander Kelly's Conclusion
Popular culture tells us that 'war is bad' and and that 'peace is good'. The lesson from the Vietnam war was expressed in the question asked by the Edwin Starr's song War -- "What is it good for? Absolutely Nothing!"
The Strange Case of Rudolph Hess, however, reminds us that Allied determination to fight World War II through to final victory was infinitely preferable to the craven possibility of accepting Nazi 'peace-mongering' at face value. Peace bought at the price of compromising all humanitarian values is a mistake. While the British Empire did have had a racial component, it was also a humanitarian Empire led by 1) Christian missionaries who abolished slavery and the practice of Suttee and 2) by economic missionaries (capitalist entrepreneurs) who spread freedom, economic opportunity and self-determination wherever they traded; this Hess failed to grasp.
Given the war-weary state of our nation today after costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and given the complacency with which Americans of both parties accept the slaughter of 60,000 Syrians at the hands of another dictator, that is perhaps a lesson worth remembering.