What would have happened if World War II had ended in 1941? How would it have altered the course of history? And, more pertinently, how would it have affected us in India?
The question is not as arbitrary as it seems. Night Flight to Dungavel is a scholarly investigation into the top-secret visit of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s second-in-command, to Britain in 1941. The British authorities have guarded its secrets tightly, and destroyed many of the relevant documents. But historian Peter Padfield has now accessed hitherto unavailable papers and spoken to various survivors of the drama. What emerges is a thought-provoking story.
According to Padfield, there was a powerful political faction in Britain which believed that it could never win a war against Germany, and that Churchill was a foolish warmonger. It, moreover, considered Communist Russia to be a greater menace anyway. The German leadership, meanwhile, couldn’t understand why Churchill chose to pursue an unnecessary war against them, and wanted to make peace with Britain urgently before attacking Russia. Hess was an emissary in a complicated plot, orchestrated by both countries’ heads of intelligence, whereby a peace deal was to be brokered. But the plot went badly awry; Hess was arrested; Hitler denounced him as a lunatic; and the war continued with increased ferocity. Night Flight to Dungavel is interesting, but what is even more so is the ideas it suggests, but does not itself address: in other words, what would have happened if World War II had ended in 1941?
Our world would have looked so very different. To speculate, for starters, Germany would have surely defeated Russia, and Communism would have been extinguished (which means China would not have turned Communist in 1949). The Holocaust would not have happened; the shape of the Middle East would have been very different. But what would such a counterfactual have meant for India?
One thing is for sure: a Britain that had not been bled dry by six years of war would have never granted independence in 1947; it would have been delayed by at least another ten years. But India’s political leadership would have changed significantly by then. Jinnah would have died in 1948, and without his leadership the Muslim League, and its demand for Pakistan, would have died a natural death too. Moreover, by 1957, Nehru would have been nearly 70; Subhas Chandra Bose—alive and an energetic 60 years old—would have been much better positioned to be India’s first PM. And, as we know, he’d have had a very different vision for India’s future.
On the other hand, in a world where Britain still retained its global might (and with Fascism in the ascendant), it might have made a much more determined effort to hold on to its empire. What then? Without the non-violent influence of Gandhi (who’d probably have died a peaceful death), and an aggressive Bose at the helm, would India have been drawn into another bloody 1857? And with what results? Moreover, what would be the geopolitics of a Fascist-dominated world? Would there be an inevitable Cold War between the US, upholding its democratic values, and Europe fighting for some hybrid form of Fascism? Or would the US, too, slowly succumb? Night Flight to Dungavel opens up a whole host of fascinating questions.