Most sober historians have little respect for counterfactuals, those extrapolations of alternative worlds where matters developed differently from the world we know. Yet such alternatives are actually hard to avoid. How can you claim that Gettysburg was a significant battle unless you contemplate the other paths that American history might have taken if the South had won?
One of the most bizarre moments of the 20th century was the night of May 10, 1941, when Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess flew to Scotland, allegedly on an unauthorized mission to British antiwar leaders. Hess was captured and dismissed as a lunatic. He spent the rest of his life in prison, dying only in 1987. Many scholars believe that Hess fell for a trap baited by British intelligence, which led him to believe that British elites were ready and willing to talk to Hitler.
So far, this story is familiar enough, but in his new book Hess, Hitler and Churchill, historian Peter Padfield tells us something quite startling. Almost certainly, he suggests, Hess arrived with a full draft of a peace treaty to offer the British. This radical proposal would have involved Germany’s withdrawal from some of the countries she had occupied in the previous year—at a guess, Scandinavia, the Low Countries, if not France herself. Padfield is too restrained to suggest that this represented a formal offer approved by Hitler, but some writers do make this leap.
Also suggestive is the recollection of Hitler’s SS bodyguard Rochus Misch, who died in 2013. He reports Hitler receiving a document that Misch understood to be a peace-feeler from London. “He was talking to Hess, when somebody brought in a dispatch. The Führer read it and exclaimed: ‘I cannot go there and go down on my knees!’ Hess replied: ‘I can, my Führer.’” Was this a serious negotiation?
Such an interpretation makes excellent sense in the context of the time. British forces had been savaged in Greece and the Balkans; a pro-Axis regime threatened to establish itself in Iraq; and the Battle of the Atlantic was going dreadfully. And precisely on May 10-11, the Blitz’s “longest night,” German bombers delivered devastating attacks on British cities, forcing Churchill’s government to debate seriously whether the country could continue in the war. It looks as if Hitler was sending Churchill a very potent message.
And just at that horrendous moment—on that very day, in fact—one of Germany’s highest leaders arrived with a peace offer that in the circumstances was amazingly generous. The British could have withdrawn from the war, and seen the threat of invasion removed from their coasts. It was an offer no sane regime could have refused. Hitler would have achieved his highest diplomatic goal—neutralizing Britain—while turning his full wrath against the Soviet Bolsheviks. Hitler would have achieved the political master stroke of the century.
Of course, it did not happen. Even if Hitler had authorized the peace mission, Churchill’s government was certainly not prepared to contemplate a deal. Any British discussion of the proposals never went beyond elite circles within the Foreign Office and the intelligence services. Hess was cut loose, condemned as a rogue agent on an unauthorized madcap jaunt.
But just suppose that the negotiation was genuine, the treaty authentic, and that peace was achieved—that the Second Anglo-German war of 1939-41 drew to its close that very spring. What would the world have looked like in the 1960’s? Presumably, Germany would be settling an empire stretching deep into Eurasia, planting her colonies in the ruined settlements of murdered Slavs. A triumphant Reich would be surrounded by compliant allies—France, Britain, Italy—content to exploit their own overseas colonial empires of palm and pine, while avoiding any confrontation with German military might.
Just conceivably, the peace of 1941 could have saved many Jewish lives. Instead of the moral and legal morass of extermination, Germany might have been content to export her Jews en masse to international settlements in Palestine or Madagascar.
And the United States? By May 1941, Franklin Roosevelt’s foreign policy was absolutely focused on Germany, to the point of trying to provoke naval battles in the North Atlantic. In March, FDR had succeeded in passing the sweeping Lend-Lease legislation to assist Britain. And almost overnight, that policy would have collapsed, as Britain effectively joined the German world system. FDR’s administration would have imploded, and we can only speculate how his successors might have responded to the new realities.
Apart from Padfield’s work, these events are only explored in science fiction. But shouldn’t more mainline historians address this world that might have been, and what could in other circumstances have been the most important night of the century?