Hitler Deputy Rudolf Hess, 93, Dies in Berlin Prison
Rudolf Hess, once Adolf Hitler’s devoted aide and the last known surviving member of the Nazi leadership, died Monday in West Berlin’s Spandau Prison for war criminals, where he had spent 40 years in virtual solitary confinement. He was 93.
Hess’ death was officially announced by British diplomatic spokesman Anderson W. Purdon. The cause of death was not disclosed. But Hess, whom Hitler called a madman for his mysterious flight to Scotland in 1941 on a quixotic peace mission, suffered from lung, heart and stomach ailments.
He reportedly had tried to commit suicide on at least three occasions, and in later years he was nearly blind. He was the sole inmate of Spandau, in the British sector of West Berlin, for 20 years.
Throughout his imprisonment, he had been forbidden to read, listen to or watch any material of a political content.
With Hess’ death, the prison will be torn down to prevent it from becoming a shrine for Nazi sympathizers, according to an Allied statement. Six other top Nazis had served up to 20 years in Spandau.
The Allied statement said that Hess’ body will be cremated today in a private family ceremony near his son’s hometown near Munich, and his ashes will then be scattered.
Hess’ long years in prison had not shaken his devotion to the Nazi cause, despite the break with Hitler, and he had never publicly expressed sorrow or regret for the atrocities committed during the 12 years of Nazi rule that ended with Germany’s defeat in World War II.
Hess held many important positions in the Nazi hierarchy before and after Hitler assumed power in 1933. He was Hitler’s private secretary before 1933 and later became deputy fuehrer. When Hitler became increasingly involved in governmental and military matters, Hess took over the operational leadership of the Nazi Party with responsibility for all party affairs.
He remained Hitler’s closest confidant until his 1941 flight in a fighter plane to Britain. The failure of that mission left a mystery that has intrigued the world for decades.
His flight, his behavior as one of 21 principal defendants in the 1945-46 war crimes trials at Nuremberg and his life behind bars revealed Hess to be a complex person of violently shifting moods and passions. He became, in the words of a biographer, “the most mentally examined man in the world.”
At times, the tall, gaunt Nazi official, with the hollow cheeks and brooding eyes set under dark, bushy eyebrows, seemed to be a mature, rational, highly intelligent person. He spent hours poring over books on science and technology.
But he slipped in and out of amnesia and other mental disorders, and psychiatrists were never entirely sure whether they were genuine or faked. He admitted that he sometimes feigned mental illness when it suited his purpose.
While in British custody, before the Nuremberg trials, Hess said he was convinced that his captors were poisoning him. In Germany, he had dabbled in the occult, and he was once found to have placed a huge magnet under his bed. He said the magnet was to draw bad humors from his body.
Hess was a devoted husband and father, yet he refused for the first 28 years of his imprisonment to see his wife, Ilse, now 79, and only child, Wolf-Rudiger, 49, an architect.
He felt that his family should not witness the “indignity” of his imprisonment, especially under a prison rule that forbade inmates from embracing or even touching visitors.
He was, according to biographer Eugene Davidson, “a disturbed mystic, an idealist, a man with a considerable range of quirks. . . . When his mind was free to operate without delusions, he was intelligent and often remarkably shrewd in his judgments.”
Under normal conditions, Davidson wrote, Hess would have been judged insane and unfit to stand trial. The Nuremberg court ruled him sane enough to stand trial, but his behavior in court cast considerable doubt on the ruling.
Although he had expressed a wish to be tried, Hess took no part in his defense. The proceedings seemed to bore him, and he passed the time in the dock reading light novels and travel books.
Hess was found guilty of being a member of a conspiracy to plan and wage aggressive war--the only man in history to be convicted of such a charge. Because he was in British custody after his flight, Hess could not have played much of a part in Germany’s prosecution of the war. Thus he was acquitted of charges involving war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Still, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, a sentence that many historians considered too harsh.
The Western judges, according to Airey Neave, a British prosecutor at Nuremberg, “no doubt supposed that the life sentence . . . would one day be commuted.”
The Soviets wanted him executed but were overruled by the Western Allies. Hess suffered the unremitting hostility of the Soviet Union for what the Kremlin viewed as the real purpose of his flight to Britain--to forge an Anglo-German alliance to destroy Soviet communism.
The Kremlin’s enmity led it to spurn all humanitarian appeals for commutation of the sentence. Many of these appeals came from former Allied leaders, among them Britain’s Winston Churchill.
“Whatever may have been the moral guilt of a German who stood near to Hitler, Hess had in my view atoned for this by his completely devoted and fanatic deed of lunatic benevolence (in flying to Britain),” Churchill once said.
“He came to us of his own free will and . . . had something of the quality of an envoy. He was a medical and not a criminal case and should be so regarded.”
Such appeals were spurned by the Soviets, who had veto power under the four-power agreements covering administration of what became Hess’ home--the Spandau Prison, a red-brick, fortress-like complex that the Nazis had used as a collection station for people en route to Hitler’s concentration camps.
Except for brief periods in a British military hospital, Hess was alone in Spandau after Nazi Armaments Minister Albert Speer and Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach were released on Oct. 1, 1966, upon completing 20-year sentences imposed at Nuremberg. The other four major war criminals committed to Spandau were released after serving sentences ranging from 10 to 20 years.
While he was Spandau’s only prisoner, Hess was guarded by troops from Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union, in rotation. Each contingent consisted of an officer and 37 men. In addition, there were 22 prison employees, including cooks, custodians and waitresses. Hess’ imprisonment cost nearly $2,000 a day, and up to 10 people guarded him at any one time.
Walther Richard Rudolf Hess was born April 26, 1894, in Alexandria, Egypt, where his father, Fritz, was a merchant. Rudolf, one of four children, remained in Egypt until he was 12, then was sent to a boarding school near Bonn.
Although he wanted to study mathematics and science, Hess was sent at the age of 15 to a business school in Switzerland to prepare him to take over the family business. A year later he became an apprentice in a Hamburg commercial firm.
The outbreak of World War I ruined his father’s plans to send him to Oxford. Hess immediately joined the 1st Bavarian Regiment and saw considerable action on the Western Front. He was wounded in 1916 and again the following year.
After a long convalescence, he was commissioned a lieutenant and served for a time in the famed List Regiment, in which Hitler was a dispatch runner. The two did not meet during the war.
Later, Hess was transferred to the Imperial Flying Corps and went on active duty as a pilot in October, 1918. The Armistice came a month later, too soon for Hess to see action in the air.
To Hess and many others, the nation’s massive postwar difficulties were rooted in what they considered the humiliating and vindictive terms of the Versailles Treaty--the diktat, they called it--that Germany was forced to sign by the victorious Allies.
Radical groups flourished. Some of them became rabidly anti-Semitic in their search for scapegoats for Germany’s humiliation. Hess, still in uniform because he could not afford civilian clothes, drifted into such a group. At the same time, he enrolled in Munich University to study history, economics and geopolitics.
He apparently devoted little time to class work. Instead, he became a street-corner orator, a leader of demonstrations and attacks on rival political factions. In one bloody encounter, he was shot in the leg.
Hess joined the National Socialist (Nazi) Party when it was formed in June, 1920.
Meeting Hitler caused a dramatic change in Hess, not in his views but in the way he hoped to see them carried out. He suppressed his own ambitions and became a devoted follower of Hitler, whom he revered as a messiah who would lead Germans to greatness.
“There is one man,” he once declared, “who is always above criticism. That is the Fuehrer. This is because everyone knows and feels he is always right and always will be right.”
Hess opened the Nazi rallies that whipped up frenzied support for Hitler, and he shared a cell with Hitler in Bavaria’s Landsberg Prison after the abortive 1923 putsch against the Bavarian government. In Landsberg, he helped Hitler write “Mein Kampf,” the blueprint for Nazi takeover.
After Hitler became chancellor in 1933, Hess nourished his hatred of Jews by signing the decrees that legalized racial persecution.
Hitler’s blitzkrieg victories in the early stages of World War II reinforced Hess’ devotion, but there was one aspect of the war that deeply troubled him. This was the fact that two “Teutonic” nations--Britain and Germany--were fighting each other.
Hess felt that Britain and Germany should be allies, the guardians of a “superior” culture standing shoulder to shoulder against what Hess perceived as the two major evils afflicting the world--communism and Jewry.
After the fall of France in 1940, Hitler sought to negotiate with the British. He gave Hess permission to seek contacts with the British through intermediaries in neutral Portugal. The effort failed, but Hess continued to look for a way to contact the British.
John Toland, a biographer of Hitler, called Hess “a Parsifal who conjured up the dream of the flight to the enemy, this man of culture without judgment, this completely devoted servant who convinced himself that he was carrying out the true will of his master.”
Others said there was a self-serving element in the flight--an effort to boost Hess’ waning influence with Hitler, who had begun to freeze him out of party and government affairs.
Yet Hess’ devotion never faltered, and he concocted what Toland called the “woolly scheme” to fly to Britain. On May 10, 1941, after extensive secret preparations, Hess, a skilled pilot, took off in a new twin-engine fighter, the Messerschmidt 110, which he had fitted with extra fuel tanks and special radio equipment.
After dodging a British Spitfire over the North Sea, Hess hedgehopped into Scotland, then bailed out of his unarmed plane near the home of the Duke of Hamilton, an influential peer then serving with the Royal Air Force who had access to Churchill and the king.
Through Hamilton, whom he had met at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Hess hoped to open negotiations that would lead to peace.
With the defeat of France, Britain was the only country left in the fight against Hitler. London and other cities were being pounded almost daily by the Luftwaffe. Britain’s overseas lifelines were being mauled by Hitler’s U-boats, and the country was bracing for invasion across the English Channel. And there was a small, informal “peace party” of influential Britons anxious to come to terms.
But the mission failed. Instead of returning home in triumph as he had expected, Hess, then 47, began the long years of incarceration, first in Britain, later at Nuremberg and finally in Spandau.
In Germany, Hitler was reported to be furious at Hess’ apparent betrayal. Hess’ wife, a woman he had married at Hitler’s suggestion, was placed under house arrest for a time. His adjutant, Karlheinz Pintsch, was imprisoned and tortured.
Some saw the German reaction as part of the plan for the flight. According to this view, Hitler and Hess had agreed that if the mission failed, the failure would be covered up by a public denunciation of Hess. Hess said as much in a note he had left for Hitler.
“And if, my Fuehrer, this project . . . ends in failure . . . this can have no detrimental results either for you or for Germany; it will always be possible for you to deny all responsibility. Simply say I am crazy.”
Hitler did just that, engaging in one of his famous rages, many of which were coolly calculated for effect.
“Hess is first of all a deserter,” Hitler fumed when he learned of the flight at his mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden. “And if I ever catch him, he will pay for this as any ordinary traitor.”
Whether Hitler knew of the flight in advance remains a mystery. Hess did nothing to clear it up. Through the years he insisted that no one else knew. His denials, however, fit in with the view that Hess would assume sole responsibility for failure of the mission.
Some historians, Davidson and Toland among them, are convinced that Hess acted alone, that his flight was a grandstand gamble.
Others are convinced that it was undertaken with Hitler’s full knowledge and approval as a Machiavellian ploy to take Britain out of the war and give Hitler a free hand to invade the Soviet Union, a step he took on June 21, just 42 days after Hess landed in Scotland.
Some said there is little doubt that Hess, despite his denials, knew of Hitler’s plan to invade the Soviet Union. As deputy fuehrer and Hitler’s closest aide, they reasoned, he could hardly have avoided knowing about “Operation Barbarossa,” as the Germans called the invasion.
According to Lt. Col. Eugene K. Bird, who was the U.S. Army commandant at Spandau from 1964 to 1972, Hess was inconsistent on the subject. Bird, forced to retire for violating orders by collecting material for a book about Hess, wrote that Hess indicated clearly that he was aware of the invasion plans before he took off for Scotland--but later insisted that he knew nothing of the plans.
Generally, historians believe that Hess, depressed at the time and influenced by astrology, knew of Operation Barbarossa and that his flight was clearly aimed at persuading Britain to make peace with Germany and form an alliance against the Soviet Union.
But Hess continued to insist the flight was a mission for peace. “I will die in Spandau,” Hess told Von Schirach when Von Schirach was released from Spandau. “The Russians want it that way. They still don’t believe I was trying to bring peace when I flew to Britain.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.