The title is a misnomer: Zwar never actually talked to Rudolf Hess, the former Deputy Leader of the Nazis and Hitler’s chosen successor. His only contact was through intermediaries, whose verbal reports as written down by the author make up much of the book. As history, then, the book exists as mere hearsay. However, by this remote means Zwar managed to obtain an interview of sorts with one of the two most interesting Nazi leaders. (Joseph Goebbels was the other.) It’s therefore of some interest, but not as an historical record.
After his flight to Scotland in May 1941, apparently on a mission of peace, Hess was incarcerated in Britain until the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal in 1946. Found guilty on two counts of war crimes, Hess was sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent the rest of his life in Spandau prison, in the suburbs of Berlin. Because of the intransigence of the Soviet authorities (one of the four Occupying Powers) Hess was never offered parole or any reduction in sentence. He died in mysterious circumstances in 1987, at the age of 93. He was therefore a prisoner for 46 years, half his lifetime, mostly in solitary confinement.
In the modern age the main interest in Hess is based partly on the circumstances of his incarceration, which was cruel and inhumane, but also on the many strange and sometimes inexplicable details of his flight in 1941, the motives for the flight and the reaction to it of the Churchill government. The official version of events is plausible only so long as you don’t seek confirmation of details, and much of its veracity is undermined by the fact that Churchill put a seal on the release of official papers until 2017). Why was this apparently straightforward (if misguided) event treated with such secrecy? It remains a fascinating subject for discussion, none better than in an investigative book called Double Standards, by Lynn Picknett, Clive Prince and Stephen Prior (Little, Brown, 2001).
Nothing in Zwar’s book answers or challenges the many enigmas set out in Double Standards, and in a dull kind of way probably confirms much of the official version. The matters that fascinate researchers into Hess’s adventure were largely forgotten by Hess, and over the years he gave a string of vague, rambling or contradictory explanations. For most of his 46 years in captivity he was either mad or amnesiac, or feigning both, and in any case he was never possessed of the brightest brain among Hitler’s henchmen. What Hess said indirectly to Zwar is much the same as he said on the few other occasions he was questioned. None of the mysteries is settled here, and there is a sense that events soon overtook him. The crucial action of World War 2 – the German invasion of the Soviet Union – came six weeks after Hess arrived in Scotland, before interrogations of him had barely begun. The American entry into the war came seven months later. He was irrelevant to history almost at once. However, a cloud of intrigue still hangs over him. If anything, Desmond Zwar thickens parts of the cloud, but they are the least interesting parts. In all, a book for Hess completists like me, but not otherwise recommended.