Breaking Glass

The Night the World Didn’t Change

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...

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