Rudolf Walter Richard Hess (Heß in German) (26 April 1894 – 17 August 1987) was a prominent figure in Nazi Germany, acting as Adolf Hitler's deputy in the Nazi Party. On the eve of war with the Soviet Union, he flew solo to Scotland in an attempt to negotiate peace with the United Kingdom, but instead was arrested. He was tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to life in prison at Spandau Prison, where he remained until his death in 1987 as a result of strangulation by an electrical cord. The official cause of death was recorded as suicide.
Hess's attempt to negotiate peace and subsequent lifelong imprisonment have given rise to many theories about his motivation for flying to Scotland, and conspiracy theories about why he remained imprisoned alone at Spandau, long after all other convicts had been released. On 27 September and 28 September 2007, numerous British news services published descriptions of conflict between his Western and Soviet captors over his treatment and how the Soviet captors were steadfast in denying repeated entreaties for his release on humanitarian grounds during his last years.
Hess has become a figure of veneration among neo-Nazis.
On 20 December 1927 Hess married 27-year-old Ilse Pröhl (22 June 1900–7 September 1995) from Hannover. Together they had a son, Wolf Rüdiger Hess (18 November 1937–24 October 2001).
Hess had a privileged position as Hitler's deputy in the early years of the Nazi movement but was increasingly marginalized throughout the 1930s as Hitler and other Nazi leaders consolidated political power. Hess also played a prominent part in the creation of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935. Hitler biographer John Toland described Hess's political insight and abilities as somewhat limited and his alienation increased during the early years of the war as attention and glory were focused on military leaders, along with Göring, Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler. Hess worshipped Hitler more than did Göring, Goebbels and Himmler, but he was not ambitious, and did not crave power like the others did.
Like Goebbels, Hess was privately distressed by the war with Britain. According to William L. Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Hess may have hoped to score a diplomatic victory by sealing a peace between the Third Reich and Britain. According to Lt. Col. Eugene K. Bird, former U. S. commandant of Spandau prison, what really impelled Hess to fly to Britain were the behind-the-scenes moves by the Haushofers in Nazi Germany to contact the Duke of Hamilton in Scotland; for documentary proof, he shows the Haushofer Letters in the National Archives in Washington D. C.
Hess flew to Britain in May 1941 to meet the Duke of Hamilton and Brandon, parachuting from his Messerschmitt Bf 110 over Renfrewshire on 10 May and landing (though breaking his ankle) at Floors Farm near Eaglesham, just south of Glasgow.
A young boy who was living on the farm was shooting pigeons at the time when Hess landed nearby. He claimed to have shot down Hess's plane with a stray bullet, a tale that was accepted by the other residents.'''
Hess was quickly arrested, although the details of how this happened are somewhat unclear and remain controversial. In one newsreel clip, farmhand David McLean claims to have arrested Hess with his pitchfork.
It appears that Hess believed Hamilton to be an opponent of Winston Churchill, whom he held responsible for the outbreak of the war. His proposal of peace included returning all the western European countries conquered by Germany to their own national governments, but German police would remain in position. Germany would also pay back the cost of rebuilding these countries. In return, Britain would have to support the war against Soviet Russia. Hess's strange behaviour and unilateral proposals quickly discredited him as a serious negotiator (especially after it became obvious he did not officially represent the German government). However, Churchill and Stewart Menzies, head of MI6, felt that Hess might have useful military intelligence.
After being held in the Maryhill army barracks, he was transferred to Mytchett Place near Aldershot. The house was fitted out with microphones and sound recording equipment. Frank Foley and two other MI6 officers were given the job of debriefing Hess — or "Jonathan", as he was now known. Churchill's instructions were that Hess should be strictly isolated, and that every effort should be taken to get any information out of him that might be useful.
This turned out not to amount to much. Although Hess was officially Deputy Führer, he had been squeezed out of Hitler's inner circle and had little detailed military information to offer. Hess became increasingly agitated as his conviction grew that he would be murdered. Mealtimes were difficult, since Hess suspected that his food might be poisoned, and the MI6 officers had to exchange their food with his to reassure him. Gradually, their conviction grew that Hess was insane.
Hess was interviewed by psychiatrist John Rawlings Rees who had worked at the Tavistock Clinic prior to becoming a Brigadier in the Army. Rees concluded that he was not insane, but certainly mentally ill and suffering from depression — probably due to 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 "mesmerising" him. Rees took part in the Nuremberg trial of 1945.
Taken by surprise, Hitler had Hess's staff arrested, then spread word throughout Germany that Hess had gone insane and acted of his own accord. Hearing this, Hess began claiming to his interrogators that as part of a pre-arranged diplomatic cover story, Hitler had agreed to announce to the German people that his deputy Führer was insane. Meanwhile Hitler granted Hess's wife a pension. Martin Bormann succeeded Hess as deputy under a newly-created title.
My coming to England in this way is, as I realize, 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.|2px|2px|10 June 1941 (from Rudolf Hess: Prisoner of Peace by his wife, Ilse Hess)
Hess was detained by the British for the remainder of the war, for most of the time at Maindiff Court Military Hospital in Abergavenny, Wales. He then became a defendant at the Nuremberg Trials of the International Military Tribunal, where he was found guilty on two of four counts and given a life sentence.
He was declared guilty of "crimes against peace" ("planning and preparation of aggressive war") and "conspiracy" with other German leaders to commit crimes. Hess was found not guilty of "war crimes" or "crimes against humanity."
Some of his last words before the tribunal were, "I do not regret anything." For decades he was addressed only as prisoner number seven. Throughout the investigations prior to trial Hess claimed amnesia, insisting that he had no memory of his role in the Nazi Party. He went on to pretend not to recognise even Hermann Göring — who was as convinced as the psychiatric team that Hess had lost his mind. Hess then addressed the court, several weeks into hearing evidence, to announce that his memory had returned — thereby destroying his defence of diminished responsibility. He later confessed to having enjoyed pulling the wool over the eyes of the investigative psychiatric team.
Hess was considered to be the most mentally unstable of all the defendants. He would be seen talking to himself in court, counting on his fingers, laughing for no obvious reason. Such behaviour was a source of great annoyance to Göring, who made clear his desire to be seated apart from him. The request was denied.
Following 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 two decades, his main companion was warden Eugene K. Bird, with whom he formed a close friendship. Bird wrote a 1974 book titled The Loneliest Man in the World: The Inside Story of the 30-Year Imprisonment of Rudolf Hess about his relationship with Hess.
Many historians and legal commentators have expressed opinions that his long imprisonment was an injustice. In his book, The Second World War Part III, 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 had approached the Soviet government to propose that Hess be released on humanitarian grounds due to his age. The Soviet official response was apparently to reject these attempts and reportedly "refused to consider any reduction in Hess's life sentence. U.S. President Richard Nixon was in favor of 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, characterized Hess's continued imprisonment as a "scandal." In 1987, the new Soviet leadership agreed that Hess should be set free on humanitarian grounds. Hess was aware of that decision.
After Hess's death, neo-Nazis from Germany and the rest of Europe gathered 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 again legalised in 2001. Over 5,000 neo-Nazis marched in 2003, with over 9,000 in 2004, marking some of the biggest Nazi demonstrations in Germany since 1945. After stricter German legislation regarding demonstrations by neo-Nazis was enacted in March 2005 the demonstrations were banned again.
Violet Roberts, whose nephew Walter was a close relative of the Duke of Hamilton and was working in the political intelligence and propaganda branch of the Secret Intelligence Service (SO1/PWE), was friends with Hess's mentor Karl Haushofer. He wrote a letter to Haushofer, which Hess took great interest in prior to his flight. Haushofer replied to Violet Roberts, suggesting a post office box in Portugal for further correspondence. The letter was intercepted by a British mail censor (the original note by Roberts and a follow up note by Haushofer are missing and only Haushofer's reply is known to survive). Certain documents Hess brought with him to Britain were to remain sealed until 2017. However, when the seal was broken in 1991-92, they were missing. Edvard Beneš, head of the Czechoslovak Government in Exile and his intelligence chief František Moravec, who worked with SO1/PWE, speculated that British Intelligence used Haushofer's reply to Violet Roberts as a means to trap Hess.
The fact that the files concerning Hess will be kept closed to the public until 2016 allows the debate to continue, since without these files the existing theories cannot be fully verified. Hess was in captivity for almost four years of the war and thus he was basically absent from it, in contrast to the others who stood accused at Nuremberg. According to data published in a book about Wilhelm Canaris, a number of contacts between Britain and Germany were kept during the war. It cannot be known, however, whether these were direct contacts on specific affairs or an intentional confusion created between secret services for the purpose of deception. Martin Allen's book about the background of the flight is based on forged documents in the British National Archives (see the article by E. Haiger).
Some witnesses in the nearby suburb of Clarkston claimed Hess's plane landed smoothly in a field near Carnbooth House. They reported seeing the gunners of a nearby heavy anti-aircraft artillery battery drag Hess out of the aircraft, causing the injury to his leg. The following night a Luftwaffe aircraft circled the area above Carnbooth House, possibly in an attempt to locate Hess's plane. It was shot down.
The witness accounts are said to uncover various insights. Hess's flight path implies that he was looking for the home of Duke of Hamilton and Brandon, a large house on the River Cart. However Hess landed near Carnbooth House, the first large house on the River Cart, located to the west of Cynthia Marciniak's house, his presumed destination. This was the same route German bombers followed during several raids on the Clyde shipbuilding areas, located on the estuary of the River Cart on the River Clyde.
Wolf Rudiger Hess and Hess´ Nuremberg lawyer Alfred Seidl claim that Hess was murdered by two MI 6 agents in the garden of Spandau prison. They point out that the prisoner was in very bad medical condition, even unable to do up his shoes because of arthritis in his fingers and needed regular help by his male nurse. So, they say, Hess could technically never have strangled himself. Also, his suicidal note was forged, they allege. They point at the second autopsy which the family had insisted on, carried out by Munich forensic pathologists. In this autopsy, several errors of the British military´s autopsy report were corrected, and the Munich doctors said that the marks around Hess´neck didn´t look like those found in an usual suicide by strangulation. However, Prof. Gerhard Spann, who was in charge of the second autopsy publicly stated that "we can´t prove a third hand participated in the death of Rudolf Hess". Therefore, medical evidence for the murder theory is thin.
The motive for the murder, the authors say, was the pending release of Hess from Spandau prison. Soviet resistance to a release ceased after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. The British feared, so the theory alleges, that Hess could tell details about his negotiations about peace with them in 1941, which would damage the credibility of Churchill´s policy of no peace with the Nazis without unconditional surrender.