The Flight That Failed
HE IS NEARLY 70 now—a dark, brooding, badger-faced man living in near-total oblivion in the enormous stone pile that is Spandau prison. But in May 1941, when Rudolf Hess suddenly landed in a cow pasture in Scotland and asked to see the Duke of Hamilton, the Deputy Führer of the Third Reich was full of high hope.
At a time when German armies, already masters of Europe and most of North Africa, stood poised for a thrust into Russia, Hess brought an offer of peace. Hitler, he said, would guarantee the integrity of the British Empire if England would recognize Germany's dominance in Europe. Drawing for the first time on all the old and new information about Hess's strange, ill-fated mission, Journalist-Historian James Leaser (The Red Fort, The Plague and the Fire) has produced an absorbing footnote to history.
Painstakingly the author follows Hess through every stage of his secret preparation. As an ex-World War I pilot and the No. 3 man in Nazi Germany, Hess easily managed to finagle the use for "practice flights" of an experimental Messerschmidt 110 with extra gas tanks. Aides surreptitiously collected weather charts. Though Leaser's attempt to weld such details into a tale of step-by-step suspense is not entirely successful, his account has some touching vignettes of Hess—playing with his four-year-old son for the last time; standing uncertainly in the door of his wife's room on the day of the flight, unable to confide his secret, but wearing, as a covert gesture of affectionate farewell, a blue shirt that she had given him and that he hated. Ironically, one of the most dramatic chapters concerns not Hess but his faithful aide Major Karlheinz Pintsch. Assigned by Hess to break the news to Hitler, Pintsch journeyed apprehensively to Berchtesgaden, his romantic belief in the heroic flight dwindling as he neared the Führer's presence. Hitler invited him to lunch, had him arrested after the dessert.
Sane but Psychotic. Was Hess mad? Was his mission an insane gamble? Author Leaser thinks not. He does not gloss over any of Hess's strange behavior (Hess once had magnets fixed around his bed to draw harmful influences from his body). But like the panel of psychiatrists who found Hess "psychotic but sane'' before the Nürnberg trials (where Hess got a life sentence as a Nazi war criminal). Leasor sees Hess as an unbalanced man obsessed by a childish—and thoroughly Germanic —dream of performing one great convulsive act of patriotism.
His plan was reasonable enough. Hitler did want peace with England. Earlier efforts to draw Churchill into negotiations had failed. The Führer probably knew what Hess was up to, Leasor theorizes, and tacitly permitted it, carefully avoiding precise knowledge of the details to keep himself from implication if the mission failed. When it did fail, he followed the advice Hess left him in a parting letter and declared that Hess was the victim of "hallucinations." Moreover, in the spring of 1941, Leasor asserts, England was nearer to capitulation "than anyone now likes to admit." Winston Churchill was so afraid of the effect the peace offer might have on British morale that his representatives came to interview Hess disguised as psychiatrists, so that no word of continued government interest could possibly leak out.
Lebensraum with a View. Haunting Hess's mind was a compulsive fear and hatred of Communist Russia. For years Hess was under the spell of Professor Karl Haushofer, the geopolitical genius of Naziism who provided Hitler with his slogan of Lebensraum as a pretext for aggression. Hitler was parroting Haushofer when, in Mein Kampf, he wrote of the absolute need to avoid war on two fronts. But the success of the German armies intoxicated him, and he became more and more intent on attacking Russia. In the months before the flight, Haushofer kept telling the impressionable Hess that he and he alone could save the impetuous Hitler and Germany by bringing about a peace with England.
The idea of an Anglo-German alliance against Russia, which at the time was officially regarded in the West as a monstrous form of near madness, was taken with deadly seriousness by the Soviet Union. One of the fascinating sidelights of the book, in fact, is its documentation of the persistence of Russia's interest in the Hess mission, long after the Allies had brushed it aside. Stalin continually quizzed Churchill about Hess. In 1944, when the Russian armies captured Hess's luckless aide Major Pintsch, who had been released from Nazi prison in order to fight them, they systematically tortured him, breaking one finger a day for ten days, to find out what he knew.