Rudolf Hess – Part II

The Nazi who tried to end the war single-handedly

Hess in his cell during the Nuremberg Trials
(Photo: Library of Congress)

Few stories of World War II are surrounded by as much mystery and as many unanswered questions as the story of Rudolf Hess. A true Nazi believer since the first days of the party and Hitler's right-hand man, Hess took off on an airplane on May 10, 1941 and secretly flew to Britain to negotiate a peace between the United Kingdom and the Third Reich. The mission never had a chance of producing a result, and Hess spent the rest of his life in prison.

The first part of our article (Read our earlier article) covered Hess's rise to prominence in the Nazi Party, and the events of the day he flew to Scotland on an inexplicable one-man mission to negotiate a peace with the United Kingdom. In this article, we'll cover the rest of Hess's life and some of the speculation surrounding his mystery flight.

We have left off with Hess firmly in the custody of the British who had no intention of conducting any serious peace talks with him, not in the least because he didn't actually have any authority for such talks. But what was happening in Germany in the meantime?

Before Hess took off from Germany on May 10, 1941, he gave a letter to his adjutant, Karlheinz Pintsch (who also drove him to the airport) with instructions to take it to Hitler the next day. Pintsch faithfully drove to the Führer's mountain resort in Obersalzberg, near the Austrian border, and delivered the letter on the morning of May 11. How Hitler received the news in uncertain. Pintsch and several other people present later stated he was very calm, almost as if he had been expecting it and its contents. One account that differs, however, comes from Albert Speer, Hitler's chief architect and a member of his inner circle, who was in the next room waiting for an audience. According to Speer, the Führer gave "an inarticulate, almost animal out-cry" on reading Hess's message and bellowed for his personal secretary, Martin Bormann. In a later book, Speer wrote that Hitler was concerned how the other major Axis countries, Italy and Japan, might react to the events: would they believe that Hess's mission was authorized by Hitler, and that Hitler was trying to get Germany out of the war and leave his allies out to dry?

The gate house of the Berghof, Hitler’s resort where he received Hess’s letter
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

According to Hess's wife Ilse, the letter ended with "Should, mein Führer, my project end in failure…, you can always distance yourself from me—declare me mad.”  That's exactly what Hitler did. The first official Nazi communiqué about Hess's one-way flight stated that "a letter which he left behind unfortunately showed traces of mental disturbance which justifies the fear that Hess was the victim of hallucinations."

Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels quickly realized the danger of this approach: if Hess could rise to the rank of Deputy Führer without his mental disturbance being noticed, what other leading Nazis might turn out to be similarly liable to insanity? He quickly intervened, and Nazi propaganda performed an about-heel and describe Hess as an idealist who tried to convince responsible Englishmen about the futility of their struggle.

Joseph Goebbels, who, as propaganda minister, steered the course of Nazi propaganda about Hess’s flight
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Pintsch, who knew about Hess's planned flight and kept it a secret, was arrested along with several others of Hess's associates. He was drummed out of the Schutzstaffel (SS), interrogated by the Gestapo and jailed. He was released from prison in 1944, sent to fight on the Eastern Front and promoted to lieutenant. He was captured by the Red Army, betrayed by a comrade, and tortured by the NKVD (the predecessor of the KGB) to force a confession out of him regarding Hess. He was reportedly unable to use a knife and fork for the rest of his life after his interrogators broke his fingers.

Meanwhile, Hess himself remained in custody while the British were looking for a place to keep him. He had a brief stint in the Tower of London, which used to be a prison for prominent inmates in the 16th and 17th centuries, and eventually moved to a fortified mansion called Mytchett Place, designated as "Camp Z." He was guarded by 150 soldiers and three intelligence officers. He was allowed to write to his family from June onwards. He failed to secure further meetings with Hamilton, but he did get to see John Simon, 1st Viscount Simon, who was serving as Lord Chancellor and thus had a direct line to the king, in 1942. Unsurprisingly, the "peace talks" never got anywhere, but Simon noted that Hess's mental state was poor, an observation shared by psychiatrists who were ordered to study him. He wasn't insane in the medical sense, but his hypochondria and paranoia were gradually getting the better of him. He was concerned that the English were preventing him from sleeping to break him, and were also poisoning him – he always tried to swap his lunch with a guard's, and secreted away samples which he kept trying to get analyzed for poison.

Parcels of food Hess wanted to get analyzed for poison
(Photo: Smithsonian Magazine)

On a quirky sidenote, one psychiatrist, Dr. Henry Dicks, came to the conclusion that Hess's admiration of Britain, an attitude he owed to his childhood in British-ruled Egypt, was a clue to the Nazis' general motivations: "They have always envied us and aped us in their life forms, dress, correctness etc... They are at least, in part, ambivalently in love with us. We are that elusively superior race they so frantically want to be themselves."

Hess's mental stability was taking a slow turn for the worse. He started claiming that the Jews have psychic powers with which they can influence others, that Churchill and other British leaders were feeling an irrational hatred towards Germany due to these powers, and that the same Jewish mentalism was also affecting Hitler and forcing him to make bad decisions.

Mytchett Place, where Hess stayed for 13 months
(Photo: Pen & Sword Books)

Hess tried to commit suicide on the night of June 16, 1942, by jumping over the railings of a staircase, but he only fractured his thigh bone. He also started complaining of amnesia at around the same time. His mental deterioration prompted his captors to transfer him to a Welsh hospital where he could be guarded by fewer people. He was given small luxuries such as newspapers and books, and was allowed to go for walks and even drives in the countryside. By February 1945, he had grown despondent over Germany's inevitable defeat. He tried to stab himself dead with a kitchen knife but only made a small wound; he then refused to eat for a week and only started eating again when he was threatened with force-feeding.

Hess was taken back to Germany for the Nuremberg Trials of the major German war criminals. A shadow of a man, he was 143 lb (65 kg) when he arrived, but he was deemed physically and mentally fit to stand trial. The chief psychiatrist at Nuremberg, Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Kelley, diagnosed him with "a true psychoneurosis, primarily of the hysterical type, engrafted on a basic paranoid and schizoid personality, with amnesia, partly genuine and partly feigned."

Hess at the Nuremberg Trials
(Photo: Sipa)

When eventually allowed to address the tribunal, Hess claimed that he faked his amnesia, and remained wholly unrepentant. The court reached a verdict in the fall of 1946. Hess was found not guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but guilty of crimes against peace (by preparing and planning a war of aggression) and conspiracy with other German leaders to commit crimes. He avoided the hangman's noose, but was given life imprisonment, and was transported to Spandau Prison in Berlin along with six other Nazis who received prison sentences.

Deprived of his name, Hess became Number 7 for the rest of his life. Guarded by rotating shifts of British, French, American and Soviet troops, conditions were initially strict (one of the directors of Spandau prison was Ronald Speirs from the 101st Airborne Division – Read our earlier article). Inmates could have four sheets of paper per month for letters, they could not speak to each other without permission, they were expected to work and help with cleaning and gardening chores, and they were given one hour of outdoor walk each day but had to keep a distance of 10 yards (9 meters) between each other. Some of the rules were eventually relaxed, especially as all prisoners but Hess left, either because their time was up, or because they were released early.

Changing of the guard at Spandau Prison in the mid-1980s
(Photo: Mr. Einofksi, Bauamt Süd)

Hess forbade his family to visit him until 1969, when he had to be taken to a hospital for a perforated ulcer; he met his 32-year-old son Wolf and his 69-year-old wife Ilse there, for the first time since his departure in 1941. He consented to their regular visits after his stint in hospital.

Hess's last fellow inmates left in 1966: Albert Speer and Baldur von Schirach, who was the leader of the Hitler Youth and Reich Governor of Vienna. Spandau prison remained in operation to house a single prisoner. The topic of Hess's release came up regularly, mainly due to the appeals of his lawyer, and a campaign by his son. The proposal was always vetoed by the Soviets on the ground that when Hess made his flight, he already knew about the planned German invasion of the Soviet Union. It's also been speculated that what the Soviets really wanted was for Spandau prison to stay in operation, as it was located in West Berlin, and the international guard force gave them an excuse to maintain a presence there.

An old Hess taking a walk in the garden of Spandau Prison
(Photo: unknown photographer)

As Hess's mental and physical health deteriorated over the decades, he was allowed improvements in his surroundings. He was allowed to move around the cell block freely and choose his own activities, which included reading, gardening, films and television (in which he was particularly fond of German tennis player Steffi Graf's matches). It should be noted that Hess remained an unrepentant Nazi through his life, which probably played into the decision not to let him free.

Hess with a poster of the Moon in Spandau Prison
(Photo. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Rudolf Hess was found dead on August 17, 1987. His body was in a summer house that had been set up in the prison garden; he was hanging by the neck from an extension cord strung over a window latch. He had a note in his pocket thanking his family for all they had done. Despite claims to the contrary by his son and his lawyer, an investigation found that he committed suicide. He was briefly buried in an unknown location, then re-interred in the family plot in Northeast Bavaria. His grave, which bore the inscription "Ich hab's gewagt" ("I have dared"), became a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis. The grave was destroyed, and his ashes scattered at sea in 2011, after the lease on the grave expired. Based on a Four-Power agreement, his former prison was also destroyed shortly after his death. A shopping center called Britannia Centre Spandau was built on the premises of the prison. Based on the name of the prison's last inmate, the shopping center was often nicknamed Hessco’s after the British supermarket chain Tesco.

Rudolf Hess’s and his family’s grave before its destruction
(Photo: Marco Hoffmann)

So, why did Hess do what he did? We'll probably never know for sure. His actions were planned long in advance, and were probably not those of a genuine madman. Could he have been earnest, but awfully misguided in his understanding of the realities of the situation, his view tinted by his childhood admiration of Britain and by the Nazi's own propaganda? Possibly. There are, however, two theories that keep cropping up.

Hess in Spandau Prison
(Photo: Getty)

The idea that Hess was really acting on secret orders by Hitler is not new. As early as September 1945, the prominent British newspaper Sunday Dispatch reported that a French correspondent name André Guerber found documents in the Chancellery in Berlin that proved that Hitler sent Hess on his mission. The documents allegedly contained the verbatim records of a conversation between Hitler, Hess and Luftwafffe-chief Hermann Göring six days before Hess's flight. They also supposedly included a peace plan draft, which could not have ended up in the Chancellery if Hess had acted in secret. The problem is that neither André Guerber, nor the actual document have ever been found.

Hitler’s work/study office in the New Reich Chancellery, the building in which documents related to Hess’s flight had allegedly been found in 1945
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

It's also mentioned, both in declassified MI5 documents and in a letter written by the wife of the farmer whose field Hess landed in, that a certain important document was recovered from the landing site. We don't know what the document contained, but if it was a peace proposal draft, it would suggest that it originated from Hitler, since Hess would not have needed to write one up in advance had he really been acting on his own.

Furthermore, a German historian found a relevant document in a Russian archive in 2011. That document was a 28-page statement by Karlheinz Pintsch, Hess's adjutant. In this report, Pintsch wrote that Hitler knew about Hess's flight before it happened, and that they and the British had been, in fact, having secret peace talks. The report, however, should be taken with a pinch of salt: it was written in the time period when Pintsch was in Soviet captivity and under torture. He very well could have written the report just to appease his captors. This possibility is supported by the fact that the report uses language common in Soviet propaganda, and that Pintsch himself, talking to a reporter after his eventual release, denied Hitler's involvement.

A later picture of Karlheinz Pintsch, Hess’s adjutant
(Photo: unknown photographer)

An alternative claim is that Hess was the victim of a subtle British intelligence operation. It's been confirmed that MI6 leaked false stories of how demoralized the British people were, and that powerful figures were willing to topple Churchill and call for an end to the war. In a 1997 book, German historian Rainer F. Schmitt asserts that MI6 agents operating via neutral Switzerland specifically made contact with Hess's confidants. Walter Schellenberg, the German counter-intelligence officer charged with investigation Hess's flight revealed after the war that the head of Hess's personal intelligence office, one Kurt Jahnke, was a top Allied spy, a claim seemingly supported by declassified British intelligence communications. In late May 1941, three weeks after Hess's flight, the personal secretary of the Czechoslovak president-in-exile in London was allegedly shown a secret report based on which he recorded “It is clear that the Nazi No. 3 was enticed into an English trap” in his diary.

World War I-era photo of Kurt Albert Jahnke, German-American intelligence agent who was the head of Hess’s private intelligence agency while also serving as an Allied spy
(Photo: Sedrick Mayer)

We will likely never know the truth for sure, and we're left pondering a perhaps less interesting question: did Hess deserve to die in prison? He was certainly a Nazi zealot and was involved in the running of the Reich; and yet, some Nuremberg Trial defendants were arguably responsible for worse things and still got lighter sentences. Rather than trying to answer the question ourselves, we'll close with Winston Churchill's own thoughts about the matter, as he wrote it down in his 1950 book The Second World War: The grand alliance:

“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."

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