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But if the cause be not good ....
on October 19, 2003
There are not many German books about Rudolf Hess. By contrast, the book list presented in Double Standards" gives us a dozen British or US titles dealing specifically with the man and many more in which Hess plays a part. Is this due only to the well-known British love of mystery stories, or are there other reasons for the seemingly constant preoccupation with this particular subject?
In 1939, Britain and France were major imperial powers, the USA were still digging their way out of a home-made depression, Germany was trying to reconsolidate herself at the expense of some of her neighbours, and the Soviet Union loomed in the background. A mere six years later, the erstwhile empires were gone or nearly so, Germany was devastated materially, politically, and spiritually, but the Soviet Union had advanced its sway some 500 miles to the west, and for all intents and purposes the USA occupied the rest of Europe.
This was not at all the situation Britain had envisioned when she declared war on Germany after the German invasion of Poland, but, if we are to believe the authors of this book, it corresponded very closely to a picture which Rudolf Hess, after his daring and tragically unsuccessful flight to Scotland, repeatedly outlined to his captors as a possibility to be avoided at all costs. Even if the details of the proposals Hess had taken along on his flight are still locked away or lost forever, this outline matches perfectly the German assessment of the political situation of the day. Churchill, by himself, without even consulting his cabinet, refused to accept such arguments and brushed aside whatever Hess had proposed.
The question which is looming large behind the 500 pages of this well-researched book (and also behind the many others written on this subject) is why Churchill was so adamant in his negative attitude, whether he was aware of the possibly horrible consequences of his position, and to what extent he condoned the scenario that he was conjuring up. These are questions of political morality and in a way it would seem that the incessant preoccupation of British authors with our subject 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.
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 marvellously tongue-in-cheek attitude they also consider, side by side, the kind of Europe that, in 1941, would have resulted from a reasonable peace, and the political structure we see emerging today in the same geographical area, finding little to choose between the two.
Such, then, is the backdrop against which the scenes of this tragedy are played out. Fate has it that once the two mighty monarchies confront each other across the perilous narrow ocean, there ensues an inexorable march to doom despite the courageous efforts of many noble souls on either side; there is a climax at which point the scales could have been tipped either way, there is the terrible act where the battle's lost and won, and there is the pitiful finale, with murders most foul and ghosts that will not go away.
In their description of Rudolf Hess, the four authors, like so many captains, bear him to centre stage and seem to say that, had he been put on, he would have proved most royal. 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.