Rudolf Hess was Deputy Fuhrer of the Third Reich. This did not make him the designated successor to Adolf Hitler should any misfortune befall him that was always going to be Hermann Goering, but he was without question third in line.
But he was also a distant other worldly character, a dreamer, unpopular with his colleagues and considered emotionally unstable. Not that this would have been a barrier to supreme power.
Yet he was totally unqualified for the job and held in such low-esteem that he was only treated respectfully by the other leading Nazi’s because of the closeness of his relationship to Adolf Hitler.
He was, it was said, totally detached from reality and utterly incapable of taking responsibility or of wielding power and as a result he was to take no active part in the war.
Yet he was to serve 47 years in prison, more than twice as many as any other leading Nazi. Why?
Rudolf Walter Richard Hess was born in Alexandria Egypt on 26 April 1894 and didn’t visit Germany for the first time until he was already twelve years old.
His father, Fritz Hess, was a Bavarian who ran a successful import/export business and the young Rudolf was raised in some luxury on the Egyptian coast.
His father had wanted his eldest son to follow in his footsteps but Rudolf had already expressed an interest in astronomy but nevertheless in 1912, he joined the Hamburg Trading Company Feldt Stein to learn the business, but his heart was never in it.
So when war broke out in July 1914 he greeted it enthusiastically as a means to escape the humdrum of everyday life and in August he enlisted in the 1st Bavarian Infantry Regiment.
He was to emerge with a distinguished war record and was twice wounded, once seriously when a bullet punctured his lung barely missing his spine.
Deemed unfit for the trenches he transferred to the fledgling Luftwaffe and trained as a pilot but never got to fly a combat mission.
Following the end of the war, Hess, like many other returning soldiers found it difficult to come to terms with Germany’s defeat and thrashed around for someone to blame.
For him it was Communist defeatists at home, and in 1919 he joined the right-wing Freikorps Militia and helped to crush the Communist inspired Spartakist Revolt in Berlin.
Soon after, he enrolled at the University of Munich where he came under the influence of Karl Haushofer, the German philosopher and Imperialist who taught that the State was a biological organism which grows and contracts and therefore is in a constant struggle for living space which the more powerful must take from the weak and this theory was to form the basis of the Nazi doctrine of Lebensraum.
Hess was to fall entirely under the sway of Haushofer and began to seek for himself the man who would again make Germany great. Or as he put it:
“He, who when necessity commands it, does not shrink from bloodshed”.
In July 1920 he heard Adolf Hitler speak at a small Beer Hall in Munich.
He had found his man and the following day he joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party becoming, though his party card said otherwise, its sixteenth member.
In the meantime, he had also joined the Thule Society, a secret organisation that had been founded by Walter Eckart Nauhaus, an ex-soldier and art student, to study the origins of the Germanic Race.
In 1918 Nauhaus had been contacted by Rudolf von Sebbotendorff, the occultist, who wanted to form an organisation through which to peddle his own spurious ideas and together they created the myth of a German Master Race that had emanated from the lost continent of Atlantis.
The name Thule derived from a land they believed had existed in northern Scandinavia and where the survivors of Atlantis had settled.
It has been suggested that the ideas of the Thule Society wielded great influence within the Nazi Party and certainly a number of leading Nazi’s were members including its founder Anton Drexler, Alfred Rosenberg, Hans Frank, and Dietrich Eckhart; but Hitler is never known to have attended one of its meetings and displayed little interest in its often fanciful musings.
Even so, Nauhaus, who had tutored Hitler in the art of public speaking is reported to have said just prior to his death in 1923:
“Follow Hitler! He will dance, but it is I who, have called the tune! I have initiated him into the secret doctrine, opened his centres of vision and given him the means to communicate with the Powers. Do not mourn for me for I have influenced history more than any other German”.
For all its philosophical mumbo-jumbo and high-blown rhetoric the Thule Society was little more than an elite group of bigots and anti-Semites, and it was their petty prejudices, crackpot schemes, and warped view of history that now filled the head of the young Rudolf Hess.
Rudolf Hess’s life now had a purpose, and he became utterly devoted to the person of Adolf Hitler. He participated in Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in November 1923 for which he was sentenced to seven months confinement in Landsberg Prison.
During his incarceration he served as Hitler’s personal secretary transcribing and editing Mein Kampf. For his loyalty he was rewarded with the title of Deputy Fuhrer.
It was mainly a symbolic role without any real power, but then Hess was not an ambitious man and did not seek power for its own sake.
He merely wished to serve the Fuhrer.
The truth is he was an essentially unworldly man, a prig, and something of a crank. He had a deep interest in astrology and Aryan mysticism. He was a vegetarian, a practitioner of homeopathic medicine, and a strong advocate of animal welfare who liked nothing more than to tend to his organic garden.
In a political arena that was a ferment of ruthless power broking and naked ambition he very quickly found himself increasingly marginalised and alienated from the real centres of political power.
Josef Goebbels described him as:
“The most decent, quiet, friendly, clever and reserved man, a kind fellow”.
He was viewed by many as the conscience of the party. But we shouldn’t be fooled by such a vision of the man. He was a Nazi through and through, an anti-Semite, and a violent man who was the first into the fray of any fist fight and his main role during the 1930’s was to introduce Adolf Hitler at Party Rallies with a fervent wild-eyed millenarianism.
By the time war broke out in September 1939 Hess became an increasingly irrelevant figure. He took no part in the organisation, planning, or operation of the war, and was never asked to do so.
His colleagues were more than happy to leave him to potter around in his garden and indulge his fantasies about the Germanic master-race.
But it was also well-known that he was deeply disturbed by the fact that Germany was at war with Great Britain.
Even so, what happened next took everyone by surprise, or so it seemed.
On 10 May 1941 Hess stole a Messerschmitt 110 from Augsburg Airfield and flew to Scotland. He was making for the Estate of the Duke of Hamilton whom he believed, as did many others, to be a Nazi sympathiser.
He wanted to negotiate a peace settlement between Germany and Great Britain and he thought that if only he could have an audience with Winston Churchill, or possibly even the King, he could talk them around to his way of thinking.
His plane which had to have extra fuel tanks attached so it could make the range began to stall and spin out of control and Hess was forced to bail out but as he did so his parachute became tangled up with the wing of the plane and it was some time before he managed to struggle free.
As a result he landed someway short of his intended destination at Floors Farm near Eaglesham. He had also broken his ankle in the process and was discovered struggling to walk and in great pain by a local farmer to whom he explained that he was Alfred Horn who had come to visit his old friend the Duke of Hamilton. The farmer, unimpressed, marched him into captivity at the point of a pitchfork.
Just how much of a surprise Hess’s flight to Scotland was among the upper-echelons of the Nazi leadership remains open to question.
Hitler expressed his fury for all to see and Goering had ordered planes be scrambled to intercept Hess, but it was all in truth rather half-hearted.
Hess was stripped of all his titles and his family and staff arrested, though they were later released, and Hess’s wife was quietly granted a pension.
The capture of Hess was an embarrassment for the Nazi’s but no more than that for Hitler knew that he had no secrets to tell.
It is also doubtful that Hess would have embarked on his mission of peace unless he believed that he had the authority to negotiate a settlement, and it is known that in the days leading up to the flight he had a series of private meetings with Hitler.
Perhaps this was the reason, rather than his treason, that Hitler ordered should he ever return to Germany he should be shot on sight.
Likewise, Winston Churchill seemed surprisingly unmoved by the turn of events.
Informed that the Deputy Fuhrer of the Third Reich had been captured after parachuting into Scotland he seemed barely interested and refused to cancel his planned visit to the cinema to watch the latest Marx Brothers movie.
At his initial interrogation Hess revealed his real identity and asked:
“Are you friends of the Duke of Hamilton? I have an important message for him”.
He went onto say that if only Britain would permit Germany a free hand in Europe and support her in her inevitable conflict with the Soviet Union then Germany would allow Britain to retain its Empire and indeed extend it further with German support.
But no one could be sure that he was speaking for anyone but himself.
There was also little evidence that he had ever previously met the Duke of Hamilton.
He had been a member of a Parliamentary Group that had been invited to observe the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games and had attended a number of Nazi Party functions and was to become friends with both Hermann Goering and the German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop but he denied knowing Hess.
Somewhere however it appears that Hess had heard that he was sympathetic to their cause.
He also regularly referenced Prince George, Duke of Kent, the son of King George V and the fifth in line to the throne.
The Duke of Kent was a notorious bisexual philanderer who was considered a bit of a loose cannon and was rumoured not only to have had Nazi sympathies but to have been the lover of Noel Coward.
He was killed when the Sunderland Flying Boat he was a passenger on crashed into a hillside near Dunbeath in Caithness in August 1942, just three months after the capture of Hess.
A little later intimate letters that he had written to Coward were stolen from the playwright’s home.
Even if he was unable to provide the British with intelligence surprisingly little was made of the propaganda value of Hess’s capture.
Instead he was quietly spirited away and detained in a military hospital near Abergavenny in Wales where he would be permitted to go for walks around the town and drink in the local pubs.
He became both a familiar and popular figure though people did wonder who this somewhat strange but always friendly foreigner was who was escorted wherever he went.
So why did this mentally unstable, semi-detached man who played no part in the worst atrocities of World War Two end up in confinement for the next 47 years?
During the Nuremburg Trial his behaviour was eccentric to say the least.
He would constantly fiddle with his headphones, talk to himself, and often fall asleep during the proceedings. Goering, who was sat next to him, requested to be moved away from this madman.
Hess would later claim that he was just pulling the wool over the eyes of the attendant psychiatrists. Whether he was playing a clever game or not it made little difference to the outcome of his trial and he was sentenced to life imprisonment, and in his case life would mean life.
There were many attempts over the next five decades to have Hess released from his incarceration in Spandau Prison but on each occasion such requests were blocked by either the British or Soviet Governments.
In the meantime, various Nazi’s who had played active and pivotal roles in the Nazi Regime were released before him:
Albert Speer who had been Minister for Munitions and had used slave labour:
Karl Doenitz who had been Admiral of the U.Boat Fleet and the last leader of the Third Reich
Baldur von Schirach who as leader of the Hitler Youth and had corrupted young minds to fight and die for a murderous regime.
All were released, but not Rudolf Hess.
In February 1987 the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev announced that he would be willing to permit the release of Hess. The date set for this was 26 April the day of his 94th birthday.
Upon being told of the announcement Hess remarked:
“The English will kill me before then”.
Margaret Thatcher’s Government did indeed try to stop the release to which Gorbachev responded by threatening to simply withdraw the guards and allow Hess to walk free.
Even so, the release was delayed.
On 17 August, Rudolf Hess was found dead. He had apparently hanged himself in a garden shed with an electrical cord.
Many have since cast doubt as to whether a 94 year old man with arthritis in his hands and who was unable to tie his own shoe laces could have done so without help.
Doubts persist to this day over the details of Hess’s death.
His family insisted on having a second independent autopsy and the doctors who carried it out failed to find any trace of the scarring from the wounds he had received in the First World War, or of subsequent operations since.
This confirmed his son Wolf Rudiger Hess in his belief that the man held at Spandau Prison was not his father.
The response to his defection in 1941 had been strangely muted and has since led to rumours that peace negotiations between Germany and leading figures within the British Establishment with links to the Royal Family were already underway, and that Hess had been sent to seal the deal.
Disloyalty amongst some sections of the British ruling elite was well known at the time. Indeed, when a Labour member of Churchill’s Cabinet suggested that these collaborators should be arrested he replied that this could not be done because there were simply too many of them.
It has since been revealed that the plane that crashed into the hillside near Dunbeath killing the Duke of Kent had an extra passenger who did not appear on the planes roster and has never been accounted for.
Rumours have persisted since that this passenger had been Hess and that the plane had been sabotaged.
Did Rudof Hess, or someone who looked like him, pay the price for the need to shield collaborators amongst the British political elite from the glare of public ridicule?
Was this the reason a sad, half-crazed old man whom it was acknowledged had never participated in the worst excesses of the Nazi Regime had to spend the rest of his life in prison?
** Leave a comment below. Or to discuss this Article and any related issues please use our Forum. **