Black Cat. Windowless room. Midnight. By Jan Needle
Everybody knows the Henry Ford bon mot. ‘History is bunk,’ the great man said. Or didn’t, probably. Search hard enough (not very hard, at that) and you’ll discover several different versions, all claimed by someone as the one and only truth. ‘History is junk.’ ‘History is bunkum.’ ‘History is the junk.’ ‘History is the bunk.’
Or try Hermann Goering’s chilling giveaway of the Nazi character. ‘When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver.’ Ooh, nasty – except that what he probably said – an adaptation of a quote by the poet and playwright Hanns Johst – was ‘When I hear the word Kultur [which has subtle connotations in German anyway] I reach for my Browning.’ Aha! A sophisticated joke, perhaps. Does he mean a semi-automatic pistol, a medium machine gun – or the revered English poet, whose own ambiguity, for me, is best revealed in My Last Duchess? You tell me.
When I wrote my first version of my Rudolf Hess book, which HarperCollins published, I gave it the sub-title ‘A novel about history.’ It deals with what no less an expert on truth and lies than Nikita Khruschev described as ‘the last great secret of the war;’ which thanks to the obsessive secrecy of successive governments, is destined to remain a secret – and an inexhaustible source of conspiracy theories – for the rest of time. The last repository of the DNA that would have solved the thing for good and all was deliberately destroyed when the corpse (a long time buried) was suddenly disinterred, burnt, and scattered in the the sea. Now that’s definitive!
I’m making no claims for the ‘facts’ of the Hess case. The fact is, I don’t know. But I was lucky enough to be given a vast archive on the story by my friend Andrew Rosthorn, an investigative journalist who writes for all the ‘heavy’ British papers, many foreign ones, and even (we all have to earn a crust) the Daily Mail. This archive contains much that has never been published, and much that is theoretically restricted. Some of its contents still make my eyes pop.
It seemed to me that the story was so complex, so full of possibilities, that it could only be a novel. From almost the moment the flier landed in Eaglesham, near Glasgow, he was in the hands of the secret services, who then – as now – are a wee bit, shall we say ‘secretive’? Clearly, if the government ever knew the ‘truth,’ they weren’t prepared to share it with anybody else. ‘Hess’ was a liability, or possibly an asset. Either way he was dynamite. The mists of obfuscation got ever denser. It’s highly likely that there’s no one left alive who knows what truly happened, or to whom.
It seems to me that the most plausible explanation for the weird flight, in May 1941, is that it was a peace bid. It took place on the first anniversary of Churchill seizing his longed-for prize – to be Prime Minister – at a time when the war was clearly about to turn from a fairly horrible disaster into a full-scale holocaust. Many Germans, going up as high as Goering, were in secret negotiations to avert disaster, and after the flight some aristocrats in Britain were interned, and the Royal family obscurely implicated. Those are some of the secret documents which can never see the light of day.
Churchill, it seems however, was convinced that he could win a war, and apparently determined we would fight one. As a manipulator of history, he proved himself to be without parallel. He remains our greatest hero, although he lost us our empire and our power in the world. Strangely, only the electorate seemed to understand it. They kicked him out. A landslide.
As Hannele, one of my characters, puts it in the novel: 'Churchill has read history. Churchill should know better. Mr Chamberlain has tried everything, and he has lost. But he knows what will happen if war comes. He remembers carnage, the blood and misery. Mr Churchill caused Gallipoli and would do it all again. He is a playboy, a gangster with a rich uncle. Between them, he and Hitler would lay everything to waste, and the uncle would have to save your side again. America.'
Hitler's first attempt at starting World War II was a failure. His orders had been issued, and the attack should have begun at 4.30 a.m. on August 26, 1939. Concentration camp prisoners dressed in German uniforms had been collected near the Polish border and were waiting, drugged, to be shot by their fellow German soldiers, real ones, and used as evidence of provocative atrocities that would justify invading Poland. Reinhard Heydrich had dreamed up this idea, and also the name for the unlucky decoys: Konserven, or, let's say, tinned meat. When the plan fell through, he put them back into the larder till the next time.
Case White, as the invasion was codenamed, was aborted by a signal issued at about 7.30 p.m. on August 25, because Mussolini and Ciano, when it came to it, summoned up the courage to tell Hitler the truth at last. Pact of Steel or not, they could not support him physically without large injections of armaments and raw materials: if he went into Poland, and France and Britain sprang to her defence as per their solemn treaty obligations, Italy would collapse. Forced by Mussolini's courage to be unusually clear-sighted in his turn, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the champagne salesman, advised his Führer to call it off. Hitler almost snapped.
The German people, too. On August 27 they awoke to find that food had gone on ration, as had petrol and many other necessities. In several towns rioting broke out, rioting for peace, and Nazis found themselves the victims of the kind of abuse and maltreatment they normally handed out to others. Party flags and posters were destroyed.
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However, the scramble to keep the peace went on. The Swedish connection, working mainly through Hermann Goering, still set up meeting after meeting, held session after session, made proposals by the score. Diplomats like Sir Nevile Henderson in Berlin – already dying of cancer – wore themselves grey and corpselike in the struggle, while in London every avenue was open. The news of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which broke mid-week, confused the issue, but on August 31the skeletal Lord Halifax, a hunting man, was telling his own entourage loudly that he 'smelled a beaten fox'.
It was Saturday before the balloon really went up, despite the fact that the invasion came at last on Friday morning. The news was first disseminated by DNB - the Deutsche Nachtrichten Büro – at 5.40 a.m., when the Führer's proclamation revealed to an incredulous world that the action had been forced on Germany by the insane campaign of terror waged against her by Poland. It emerged much later that the first casualties had been on Thursday night – Konserven dressed as Polish soldiers and shot. They had, these dastardly 'Poles', been caught committing terror acts, and killed by brave SS units in the ensuing battle. Their faces had been beaten off to make sure nobody could later link them to a concentration camp, or even their homes, in Germany. Tinned meat had been served, and served its purpose.
In London, though, life went on that Friday almost as if the invasion had not happened. True, evacuees milled and wept and choked the stations, mobilization added to the confusion, the Cabinet dithered; but all that was preordained. Food-rationing details were announced, sandbags appeared in Whitehall and the blackout officially started, and at six o'clock Parliament assembled. Balloons did go up, literally, as the first of the silver monsters climbed slowly into the sky to cripple or destroy the bombers, if they came.
On Saturday, the edges frayed. Carrington [one of my protagonists] spent most of the day in the House, in the company of Churchill's men and, briefly, Churchill himself. They followed the saga of France's panic and Mussolini's attempts to backslide from dribs and snippets, and hung around the bars and tea-rooms as Chamberlain's new statement was announced and postponed twice. By 7.45, the only men in the Chamber who seemed entirely sober were the Prime Minister and Halifax, his Foreign Secretary. They looked as if they needed alcohol, or perhaps a blood transfusion: they were cadaverous.
Chamberlain's speech was worse than his appearance. The House, prepared to sympathize, listened in growing anger as he doddered on. It sounded, to that excited, tired throng, as if no one had invaded anyone, no one had been bombed or slaughtered, no treaty obligations were being fudged.
When Chamberlain subsided, it was Arthur Greenwood, the Labour leader, who rose. 'Speaking for the Labour Party—'
'Speak for England!' someone roared, and the House erupted. When the noise died down, Greenwood continued.
'I am greatly disturbed,' he said. 'An act of aggression took place thirty-eight hours ago. The moment that act of aggression took place, one of the most important treaties of modern times automatically came into operation. I wonder how long we are prepared to vacillate at a time when Britain, and all that Britain stands for, and human civilization, are in peril?'
Poor Chamberlain tried to save himself, but his reply was yet more pathetic than his first attempt. The Tory Chief Whip, David Margesson, ended his agony by moving the adjournment, and the corridors were filled with yelling, scurrying, frantic men, taking up their cliques and groupings, pooling their opinions, consolidating. Phone lines buzzed between Rome and Paris, Paris and Warsaw, Berlin and London, London and Rome. The Poles reported Warsaw under bomb attack and wanted help, immediately, from whoever would honour their commitments. The French Cabinet, split and demoralized, wriggled and trimmed, while their Embassy in London was besieged by people and by telephone.
There was an emergency Cabinet meeting shortly after 11 p.m., and as it progressed the storm clouds that had been gathering all Saturday evening came to a head. Like characters in a Thomas Hardy novel, the Cabinet left Number Ten to wild lightning and torrential rain - nor were they unaware of the almost vulgar symbolism. An ultimatum had at last been agreed, which gave Hitler until eleven o'clock next morning to withdraw from Poland lock, stock and barrel. No one believed for a moment that he would, but it was backed unanimously. The largest thunderclap of the storm had followed the Prime Minister's words 'Right, gentlemen, this means war', and the subsequent flash of lightning, it was remembered later, had lit up the entire room, despite the blackout curtains. Without a miracle happening, Hitler had achieved his war, and Chamberlain had lost his peace.
That afternoon a U-boat sank SS Athenia, carrying eleven hundred passengers and three hundred crew from Liverpool to America. Of the three hundred Americans on board, anxious to get back across the Atlantic to safety, twenty-eight were among more than a hundred people drowned.
Erica, Edward Carrington’s friend and later wife, took a different view of what the war might mean. She did not believe in heroes.
'They're all barbarians,' she told him at one stage. 'Good God, Teddy, the US arms industry has been praying for this war for years. The British too, surely to God? Woodrow Wilson nearly tore his liver out trying to get a reasonable settlement at Versailles, a settlement that would last, and look what Europe did to him. A blind man with his head tied in a sack could see this one coming, couldn't he? The Germans aren't insane. They were screwed. Twenty million of them dispossessed, twenty million told they now lived in a foreign country and they could never be Germans again, for ever more. You would have fought, if you'd been them. If somebody had told you Wales was part of Poland. Come on, Teddy!'
He was beginning to feel uncomfortable. This was heresy, or at least beyond his comprehension. Erica could see the effect her words were having, but it only made her smile.
'I'm sorry,' she said. 'We see things differently over there, you understand. There's a pretty powerful body of opinion that thinks Germany and Britain will link up one day soon and turn on the States. You don't believe that? I'm telling you, it's true. You heard of William Bullitt? Sumner Welles? Nah, you're English. You have heard of America, I suppose? Have you heard of Nancy Astor? Cliveden? Of course you have. Well, Stateside lots of people think they lead a group of aristos and bankers and industrial giants who see Mr Hitler as the future. You know Joe Kennedy? US Ambassador here in London? A Boston-Irish gangster. He swills champagne with Lord and Lady Astor, so they say. He's one of the set.'
[Yes, that Joe Kennedy…]
'They can't believe it's true, though? You don't believe it? It's insane.'
'Why insane? A different perspective. Europe is Nemesis for America. The devouring myth. Americans sprang from her and she always calls them back. Europe's always dying and Americans can't leave her alone to die. They go back, they interfere, they try to save her from herself. And they get slaughtered in the process. Without thanks or understanding.'
Edward had a sudden, uncomfortable memory of Hannele. 'Your Rich Uncle,' she had called the States. But this woman apparently saw Americans as wandering children, unable to break with a bloodstained, hopeless parent.
'You won't need to help this time,' he said, lamely. 'Against France and Britain, Hitler hasn't got a chance. Poland might fight him to a standstill on her own. The Poles beat Russia in the 1920s.'
She crushed her cigarette out in an ashtray. The butt still smouldered.
'I wouldn't bet on it,' she answered.
My novel is a novel, but I could not have written it if I did not love history so much. I was taught at university by Ian Kershaw (now Sir Ian), another Oldham lad, who is one of the world’s most distinguished historians of World War II, who revealed to me, among other things, that William the Conqueror exploded, and old English monks got issued with a gallon of ale a day. See why I love it? He also taught me to look into the cracks, though. It’s amazing what you learn by looking in the cracks.
A last quote from the book, to show you what I mean. Rudolf Hess had a son, called Wolf. This bit is true. As far as history can tell us, that is…
'They are funny men these people, listen. Hess did not have a normal christening for Wolf, the Führer does not think them good enough for Nazis. Instead the leaders of every Gau in Germany sent a sample of the soil from their district to go underneath the cradle at the naming ceremony. Joseph Goebbels is Gauleiter of Berlin. He sent a piece of dogshit. A touching gesture, don't you think? He said it was the soil of his city. The Nazi sense of humour.'