Rudolf Walter Richard Hess, also spelled Heß (26 April 1894 – 17 August 1987), was a prominent Nazi politician who was Adolf Hitler‘s deputy in the Nazi Party during the 1930s and early 1940s. On the eve of war with the Soviet Union, he flew solo to Scotland in an attempt to negotiate peace with the United Kingdom, where he was arrested and became a prisoner of war. Hess was tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to life imprisonment, which he served at Spandau Prison, Berlin, where he died in 1987. After World War II Winston Churchill wrote of Hess, “He was a medical and not a criminal case, and should be so regarded.”
On 27–28 September 2007, British news services published descriptions of disagreement between his Western and Soviet captors over his treatment and how the Soviet captors were steadfast in denying his release. In July 2011, the remains of Hess were exhumed from his grave in Bavaria and destroyed, after it became a site of pilgrimage for neo-Nazis.
World War I
Hess joined the Hamburg trading company Feldt, Stein & Co. as an apprentice in 1912. At the outbreak of World War I he enlisted in the 7th Bavarian Field Artillery Regiment, becoming an infantryman, and was awarded the Iron Cross, second class. He saw heavy action both on the Western Front (at Ypres and Verdun) and in the Carpathian Mountains. After being wounded on several occasions —including a chest wound severe enough to prevent his return to the front as an infantryman – he transferred to the Imperial Air Corps (after being rejected once). He underwent aeronautical training and was a pilot in an operational squadron, Jasta 35b (Bavarian), with the rank of lieutenant from 16 October 1918. He won no victories; the war ended on 11 November 1918.
In autumn of 1919, Hess left his job and enrolled in the University of Munich where he studied political science, history, geography, and geopolitics under Professor Karl Haushofer, whom he had first met in the summer of 1919 in a social setting. From their first meeting, Hess became a disciple of Haushofer: the two became close friends, and their families also become close, with Hess and Haushofer’s son Albrecht developing a strong friendship.
After World War I, the successful Hess family business collapsed. Hess went to Munich, and took a job at a textile importing firm. He joined the Freikorps. He also joined the Thule Society, a right-wing völkisch occult–mystical organization. After the end of the war, Bavaria witnessed frequent and often bloody conflict between right-wing groups and left-wing forces, some of which were Soviet-backed.
After hearing Adolf Hitler, a powerful orator, speak for the first time in May 1920 at a Munich rally, Hess became completely devoted to him, and spent much of his time and effort for the next several years organizing for Hitler at the local level in Bavaria. Hess joined the fledgling Nazi Party in 1920 as one of its first members. Hess introduced Haushofer to Hitler in the spring of 1921, following a rally at a beerhall. This was a critical and vital development in the Nazi rise to power. Haushofer and Hitler connected immediately on a personal level. Haushofer’s geopolitical theories found a strong convert in Hitler, who used this material to form the basis of his plans for the rebuilding of Germany; Hitler soon began using Haushofer’s material in his speeches, which drew ever-larger audiences and attention. Haushofer became a close adviser to Hitler, and assumed prominence in Germany with Hitler’s rise.
Hess commanded an SA battalion during the Hitler-led Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, which failed. Hess served seven and a half months in Landsberg Prison; Hitler was sentenced to five years in the same prison, but served just nine months. Acting as Hitler’s private secretary in prison, Hess transcribed and partially edited Hitler’s book Mein Kampf. While in prison, Hitler and Hess were frequently visited and tutored by Haushofer. Hess also introduced Hitler at early Nazi Party rallies.
Hess retained his interest in flying after the end of his active military career, and competed successfully in several races during the 1920s and 1930s latterly in a BFW M35b monoplane. He also flew the Messerschmitt Bf 108 and Messerschmitt Bf 110, which he learned to fly under the tutelage of the company chief test pilot Willi Stör.
Writing in Mein Kampf, Hitler said, ‘under the old regime there was Prince Eulenburg, under the new, there is Rudolf Hess’s. Anton Drexler (known for being Hitler’s mentor during his early days in politics) and his group resented Hess, considering him ‘too intellectual’.
Hess became the third-most-powerful man in Germany, behind Hitler and Hermann Göring. Soon after Hitler assumed dictatorial powers, beginning in early 1933, Hess was named “Deputy to the Führer”. Hess had a privileged position as Hitler’s deputy in the early years of the Nazi movement and in the early years of the Third Reich. For instance, he had the power to take “merciless action” against any defendant that he thought got off too lightly, especially for those found guilty of attacking the party, Hitler or the state. Hess also played a prominent part in the creation of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935. Hitler’s biographer John Toland described Hess’s political insight and abilities as somewhat limited.
Hess had extensive dealings with senior leaders of major European nations during the 1930s. His education, family man image, high office, and calm, forthright manner all served to make him a more respectful and respectable representative on behalf of the Nazis. Compared with other Nazi leaders, Hess had a good reputation among foreign leaders.
Within Germany, Hess was somewhat marginalised as the 1930s progressed, as foreign policy took greater prominence. His alienation increased during the early years of the war, as attention and glory were focused on military leaders and Göring, Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler. Those three Nazi leaders in particular had much higher profiles than Hess. Though Hess worshiped Hitler more than the others, he was not nakedly ambitious and did not crave power in the same manner that they did. However, while he was not as visible as Göring, Goebbels and Himmler, Hess held at least as much power as they did. He controlled who could get an audience with the Führer, as well as passing and vetoing proposed bills, and managing party activities. Hitler appointed Hess as “Minister Without Portfolio“.
Flight to Scotland
Like Goebbels, Hess was privately distressed by the war with the United Kingdom because he, influenced by his academic advisor and in line with earlier statements by Hitler, hoped that Britain would accept Germany as an ally. Hess may have hoped to score a diplomatic victory by sealing a peace between the Third Reich and Britain, using the contact his adviser Albrecht Haushofer had made in Nazi Germany, just before the war, with Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, 14th Duke of Hamilton.
On 10 May 1941 at about 18:00, Hess took off from Augsburg in a Messerschmitt Bf 110D (radio code VJ+OQ) that he had equipped with drop tanks to increase its range. Goering ordered the General of the Fighter Arm to stop him but squadron leaders were ordered to scramble only one or two fighters, since Hess’s particular aircraft could not be distinguished from others and he was soon out of their range over the North Sea.
Arrival over Scotland
Hess flew from Augsburg via Darmstadt and Bonn towards the IJsselmeer and then towards the Shetland Islands. At 22:08 Hess’s aircraft was first detected by radar from RAF Station Ouston, north of Newcastle upon Tyne, when he was 70 mi (110 km) off the coast, headed in a north-westerly direction towards the island of Lindisfarne. His flight was designated “Hostile Raid 42J”.
The Bf 110 dived to lose altitude after crossing the coast and was sighted by a Royal Observer Corps post near Chatton in Northumberland (12.5 mi (20.1 km) inland) at 22:25, flying at only 50 ft (15 m).
At 22:35 two 602 Squadron Spitfires were scrambled from Heathfield (Ayr). Within 90 seconds Flight Lieutenant Al Deere DFC was vectored towards the track of Raid 42. An RAF Defiant nightfighter was scrambled from RAF Prestwick at 22:35 on an unsuccessful interception course towards Kilmarnock. The Bf 110 flew well below radar sweeps and after 45 minutes in the air Flt Lt Deere was ordered back to Ayr. The Bf 110 flew low over Kilmarnock, climbed over the Firth of Clyde, then headed inland over the Fenwick Moor. Turnhouse Ops Room reported at 23:09 that the intruder had crashed south of Glasgow. Hess parachuted from his airplane, and landed near the village of Eaglesham, injuring his ankle on landing.
Hess landed near Floors Farm, Eaglesham, where he was discovered removing his parachute harness by local ploughman David McLean. Hess identified himself as “Hauptmann Alfred Horn”, and said that he had an important message for the Duke of Hamilton. McLean helped Hess to his home nearby then contacted the local Home Guard unit. Hess was then escorted under guard to the local Home Guard headquarters in Busby, East Renfrewshire, and from there to the Battalion HQ in Giffnock, where he arrived shortly after midnight. At Giffnock he was briefly questioned by Major Donald, the Assistant Group Officer of the Glasgow Royal Observer Corps. Hess gave a short description of his flight and repeated that he had “a secret and vital message” for the Duke of Hamilton and that he must see him immediately. The message was described as being “in the highest interest of the British Air Force”, but Hess declined to go into any detail.
Hess was handed over to the Army and taken to Maryhill Barracks, Glasgow, where he again requested that the Duke speak to him alone. Hamilton was informed of the prisoner and visited him, whereupon he revealed his true identity. Shortly afterwards, Hamilton summarised their conversation in a report to Winston Churchill, dictated at RAF Turnhouse. Hamilton stated his belief, based on press photographs and a description of Hess given by Albrecht Haushofer, that “this prisoner was indeed Hess himself”. Hamilton then flew to RAF Northolt, and on to Kidlington, near Oxford, whence he was taken by car to meet Churchill at Ditchley Park.
Hess’s flight, but not his destination or fate, was first announced by Munich Radio in Germany on the evening of Monday 12 May. Hess’s capture was reported at the time in the British and international media and McLean claimed to have arrested Hess with his pitchfork.
The wreckage of the aircraft was salvaged by 63 Maintenance Unit (MU) between 11 and 16 May 1941. The aeroplane was armed with machine guns in the nose but there was no ammunition on board. Part of the aeroplane is now in London’s Imperial War Museum.
Motives for trip
Records released by the UK’s National Archives confirm that Hess was on a peace mission. In early 1941 Germany tried to negotiate peace with Britain through diplomatic communications via Sweden. The Duke of Hamilton commenced libel action in 1941/42 and wanted Hess in court as a witness. However, some writers have speculated that the Duke of Hamilton might in fact have been implicated. Some National Archives files relating to Hess and concerning the nature and range of German peace feelers in early 1941 (C1687G, C1954, C2785G) were formerly closed until 2017, but were released in 2007, although these contain information largely in the public domain. Some files are still to be released, both from the arrest of Hess in 1941 and his death in Spandau.
Motives for trip
Hess was quoted by his wife as saying:
“My coming to England in this way is, as I realise, so unusual that nobody will easily understand it. I was confronted by a very hard decision. I do not think I could have arrived at my final choice unless I had continually kept before my eyes the vision of an endless line of children’s coffins with weeping mothers behind them, both English and German, and another line of coffins of mothers with mourning children.”
Hitler granted Hess’s wife a pension but stripped Hess of all of his party and state offices, and privately ordered him shot on sight if he ever returned to Germany. Martin Bormann succeeded Hess as deputy under a newly created title.
Hess’s flight raised suspicions with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that secret discussions were under way between Britain and Germany to attack the Soviet Union. Later, in a meeting with Stalin, Churchill addressed the topic and found Stalin still believed secret agreements were discussed with Hess. “When I make a statement of facts within my knowledge I expect it to be accepted,” Churchill responded to Stalin, again denying that the incident resulted in any communications with Nazi Germany. Files at The National Archives dated 1942 include Moscow Embassy correspondence concerning Hess; some pages are subject to non-disclosure under statute.
Trial and imprisonment
Prisoner of war
Churchill sent Hess initially to the Tower of London, making Hess the last in the long line of prominent people to be held in the 900-year-old fortress. Churchill gave orders that Hess be strictly isolated but treated with dignity. He remained in the Tower until 20 May 1941. After being held in the Maryhill army barracks, he was transferred to Mytchett Place, near Aldershot. He was kept under close guard. Frank Foley and two other MI6 officers were given the job of debriefing “Jonathan”, as Hess was now known. Churchill’s instructions were that Hess be strictly isolated, and that every effort be taken to get any information out of him that might be useful.
At the time of his capture, official London sources had claimed Hess was “sane and healthy” and had not brought any peace message. However, the Nazis claimed he had left behind a letter which “showed clearly traces of mental disorder which led to fears that Party Comrade Hess was a victim of hallucinations.” In an official report to President Franklin Roosevelt Churchill wrote: “Hess seems in good health and not excited, and no ordinary signs of insanity can be detected.”
On 15 October 1941, Hess made his first suicide attempt by throwing himself over the rail of the first floor balcony, but he only broke his leg.
Hess was interviewed by psychiatrist John Rawlings Rees, who had worked at the Tavistock Clinic before becoming a brigadier in the British Army. Rees concluded that Hess was not insane but certainly mentally ill and suffering from depression—probably because of the failure of his mission. Hess’s diaries from his imprisonment in Britain after 1941 make many references to visits from Rees, whom he did not like and accused of poisoning him and “mesmerizing” him. Rees took part in the Nuremberg Trials of 1945.
In captivity for almost four years of the war, Hess was absent from most of it, in contrast to the others who stood accused at Nuremberg. British government files released by The National Archives include a note concerning Hess’s war-crimes trial in which Judge Jackson considered whether Hess should be certified as insane. His case was considered by the Attorney-General.
Hess became a defendant at the Nuremberg Trials of the International Military Tribunal, on the insistence of the Soviet Union, despite his being in a state of almost complete forgetfulness. He was flown to Nuremberg in October 1945. Hess regained his memory for a short period and was declared fit to stand trial. Partial memory loss returned and he went back into amnesia. He spent his time in court reading, occasionally laughing. In the British view, Hess was of unsound mind. Some of his last words before the tribunal were “I regret nothing”.
In 1946, Hess was found guilty on two of four counts: crimes against peace (planning and preparation of aggressive war), and conspiracy with other German leaders to commit crimes. He was found not guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was given a life sentence.
After the release in 1966 of Baldur von Schirach and Albert Speer, Hess was the sole remaining inmate of Spandau Prison, partly at the insistence of the Soviets. Guards reportedly said he degenerated mentally and lost most of his memory. For the next eight years, his main companion was warden Eugene K. Bird, with whom he formed a close friendship. Bird wrote a 1974 book, The Loneliest Man in the World: The Inside Story of the 30-Year Imprisonment of Rudolf Hess, about his relationship with Hess. Frank Keller, a former guard at Spandau, said that “Hess would march by himself in the jail courtyard every day”.
In the third volume of his book The Second World War, Winston Churchill wrote:
Reflecting upon the whole of the story, I am glad not to be responsible for the way in which Hess has been and is being treated. Whatever may be the moral guilt of a German who stood near to Hitler, Hess had, in my view, atoned for this by his completely devoted and frantic deed of lunatic benevolence. He came to us of his own free will, and, though without authority, had something of the quality of an envoy. He was a medical and not a criminal case, and should be so regarded.
In the early 1970s, the U.S., British, and French governments approached the Soviet government to propose that Hess be released on humanitarian grounds because of his age. The Soviet official response apparently was to reject these attempts, and the Soviets reportedly “refused to consider any reduction in Hess’s life sentence.” U.S. President Richard Nixon favoured releasing Hess and stated that the U.S., Britain and France should continue to entreat the Soviet Union for his release.
In 1977, Britain’s chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, Sir Hartley Shawcross, characterised Hess’s continued imprisonment as a “scandal”. In 1987, the new Soviet leadership agreed that Hess should be set free on humanitarian grounds, though his death in the same year meant this decision was never put into effect.
Restrictions and isolation
The limits of communication in prison for Hess were strict. Family visits were kept to one half-hour session per month; he considered this degrading and refused such short visits until 1968. In the 1970s, he was visited by members of his family once a month. Later in the 1970s, on “humanitarian grounds”, visitation rights were extended to one hour per month. Hess was never allowed to discuss anything related to World War II and the Nazi regime.
All of Hess’s communication was subject to censorship. British government files released by the National Archives detail a disagreement between the Western powers and the Soviet Union about Hess’s rights, especially censorship. The Soviet governor argued that uncensored letters to Hess’s wife could be used to construct a propagandist essay.
British government files opened on 28 September 2007 by the National Archives from the period 6 May to 6 August 1974 contain a report of an altercation between Hess and a Soviet warder. The Western governors raise issues of Soviet policy towards Hess, such as the confiscation of Hess’s eyeglasses before lights out, the destruction of his notebooks, the increase in the strictness of censorship, and the blocking of visits from his lawyer.
Death and legacy
On 17 August 1987, Hess died while under Four-Power imprisonment at Spandau Prison in West Berlin, at the age of 93. He was found in a secure area of the prison with an electrical cord wrapped around his neck. His death was ruled a suicide by asphyxiation. He was buried at Wunsiedel in a family plot sold to his family by the Vetters of the Sechsämtertropfen bitter liquor company of Wunsiedel. Spandau Prison was demolished to prevent it from becoming a shrine.
Hess was the last surviving member of Hitler’s cabinet.
Neo-Nazi pilgrimages and disinterment
Neo-Nazis from Germany and Europe held gatherings in Wunsiedel for a memorial march and similar demonstrations took place every year around the anniversary of Hess’s death. These gatherings were banned from 1991 to 2000 and neo-Nazis tried to assemble in other cities, and countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark. Demonstrations in Wunsiedel were legalized in 2001. After stricter German legislation regarding demonstrations by neo-Nazis was enacted in March 2005, the demonstrations were banned again.
With the grave’s lease due to expire in October 2011, the Hess family applied for a 20-year extension, which was denied. “We decided not to extend the lease because of all the unrest and disturbances,” said parish council chairman Peter Seisser. After negotiations between the church’s chaplain and Hess’s granddaughter, the family agreed to remove his remains from the town. Hess’s grave was re-opened on the morning of 20 July 2011 and his remains exhumed, then cremated. Soon afterward his ashes were scattered at sea; the gravestone, which bore the epitaph “Ich hab’s gewagt” (“I dared”), was destroyed.
There have been conspiracy theories concerning his death, mainly from Wolf Rüdiger Hess.
Wolfgang Spann, who was in charge of the second autopsy, stated that “we can’t prove a third hand participated in the death of Rudolf Hess”. Conspiracy theorists have argued that by the time of his death, the 93-year old Hess was so frail that he could not lift his arms above his head, making it impossible for him to be able to hang himself.
The autopsy of Hess did not find any pre-existing medical conditions aside from age-related deterioration (most notable severe arthritis) and his major organs were relatively healthy.
In 2008 Abdallah Melaouhi, a Tunisian who acted as Hess’s medical caretaker in Spandau prison from 1984 to 1987, was dismissed from his position in his local German district parliament’s advisory board for integration after he wrote a book, I Looked into the Murderer’s Eyes. He had claimed in the book that his patient was murdered by MI6 (the British Secret Intelligence Service).
According to Hugh Thomas’ book The Murder of Rudolf Hess (1979), the prisoner tried at Nuremberg and incarcerated in Spandau as Hess was an imposter. Dutch author At Voorhorst contradicts Thomas’ allegations with his study in which he compares biometric features of the prisoner in Spandau prison and deputy of Hitler in the Second World War.